THE SIX KEY INGREDIENTS TO WRITING A VIRAL STORY
My article, “NYC is Dead Forever: Here’s Why” was read by over 30,000,000 people.
I can add together the number of people who read it on the various platforms plus the results from all the shares and I actually come up with a much higher number. But I want to be conservative.
It was painful. I calculated that about 95% of readers liked it or were ok with my stance and enjoyed it. But about 5% violently hated it.
That’s about 1,500,000 people hated it. Hated me. For the first three weeks afterward about 10 tweets a second were trashing me. Today people trashed me, over two months later. Many of them friends, people I had known for decades, and even family.
The comedy club I am part owner of got vandalized. My kids were harassed. One person I work with was wearing a t-shirt with “The James Altucher Show” on it and he got pushed around.
And a really funny guy trashed me in the NY Times.
I got really depressed. To be honest, I cried quite a bit.
I had to remind myself constantly that these are the times where it’s most important to apply my “daily practice” of focusing on Physical Emotional Mental and Spiritual Health. I wrote about this practice in 2010. It saved me. These moments are why I started doing that practice many years ago.
Some friends reached out and asked me how I was doing. But some didn’t. Why didn’t they? That made me more depressed.
It became a good exercise in building a thick skin. At least that’s what I told myself. But I was upset every day and had to get back to my practice.
Was I sleeping well, eating well? Was I improving my relationships with wife, family, friends, community. Was I writing ten ideas a day? Was I surrendering to the things I could not control?
I tried very hard. Sometimes things slipped. But I tried my best.
I don’t regret writing the article. Maybe it will lead to solutions. Or maybe it will take some people out of denial.
After you hit “publish” it’s out of your hands. It’s in the world’s hands.
THE SIX INGREDIENTS:
In my NYC is dead article, I had:
What does it mean for it to be a good story?
Like any story:
- A) There’s characters who want their lives to be better.
- B) There’s an “inciting incident”.
- C) There’s good guys who help and bad guys who make things worse. (and sometimes they switch).
- D) The action gets more and more intense.
- E) The main character solves problems, gets setbacks, solves bigger problems, solves the biggest problem of all and then comes home to tell the story.
Every story in the world is like this. Map the above sentences to Star Wars or The Godfather and you’ll see what I mean.
I was born in NYC. I have spent my entire adult life in and around NYC.
I have loved NY and NYC has also crushed me. I’ve been broke there, I’ve been rich there, I’ve bounced back and fallen down and fallen in love and raised kids and got divorced.
Every block I walk in NYC I get flashbacks dating back 40 years of stories I’ve been a part of on that block.
It’s like NYC is one big movie theater for me and it all plays out for me wherever I look.
I wrote this in my article. I wrote I loved NYC and why.
And I wrote why I was disappointed in the things that were going wrong. And why I was disappointed that people seemed to be in denial. I don’t want it die. I want it to succeed.
This city had helped me LIVE so many times when I thought I was going to die. So I didn’t want NYC to die.
HUGE COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: 8 million people live in NYC. They own property there. They have families there, they have their jobs and careers and passions and friends there.
For many of them, there’s no place else to go. And for many, it was a big decision to move there.
That creates powerful cognitive dissonance for eight million people.
Every day now there are more “NYC is dead” articles. Why aren’t they viral? Many of them have stories. Many of them trigger cognitive dissonance.
But they miss the other ingredients. They don’t share facts because there aren’t new facts. They don’t say something new because my initial article said the new. They tell their stories.
But you can’t just tell a good story.
FACTS: I listed facts and sources about job loss, population loss, businesses closing, etc.
ANSWER OBJECTIONS: Is this like the 70s, like everyone says? Or 2001? Or 2008? No. And I explained why.
Will things bounce back with a vaccine? No, and I explained why.
SOMETHING NEW: I had two new things in my article that nobody had mentioned before.
1) I summarized ALL of the issues at that point. Nobody had done that but it’s not enough to provide a summary.
2) The truly new thing is that while everyone thought the office buildings will fill up again when a vaccine comes, I explain why this is not true.
That the tenfold increase in bandwidth since 2008 has now allowed people to work remotely and be even more productive for the first time in history.
And that fears of virus liability plus decreasing costs with remote plus increasing productivity plus the fact that at least half of workers like remote means remote is here to stay.
This was new.
This is the part that was quoted by Rush Limbaugh, Joe Rogan, Glenn Beck, MSNBC, Fox, CNN, and others.
FEAR: Was I afraid of what people would think?
Fear for the writer is important. Else, why are you writing it?
You’re writing something totally new and out of your comfort zone. If you aren’t afraid of what people will think then either it’s too obvious, or you’re not learning something new, or others are not learning.
Was I afraid?
Heck yeah. I almost didn’t publish the article. But not because I was afraid of what people would think of the opinion. I wanted people to react to the opinion. To wake up out of denial.
But out of thousands of articles over the decades, this is the first time I had written an article like this.
I was afraid people would be disappointed in me. Not for the opinion. But for my solution.
I had none.
Every article I’ve ever written has been hopeful. Maybe I present a problem but I basically say, “don’t worry — because of X, Y, and Z it will be fine in the end.”
I wrote that a few months ago about the pandemic.
Or an article like “Don’t Buy a Home” is a hopeful one because, basically, your life will be better if you don’t own a home.
I thought about it for a long time if I wanted to hit “publish”.
So many people had written to me from March through August telling me how my articles on the pandemic had really helped them understand all the misinformation out there. The articles had given them hope.
I wanted to give hope.
But I had none. I spoke to city officials, federal officials, economists, billionaires, even Presidential candidates. Nobody had solutions. “It will all be fine in the long run,” people would say. “Maybe 10 or 20 years.”
Everyone seemed to be in denial or simply had too much faith and not enough facts.
I wanted the city I loved to survive. I wanted to fight the denial and get people thinking. I had no solutions (I’ve since written articles with solutions but nobody will listen to them).
I was afraid that all the people who had thanked me for giving them hope about the pandemic, the lockdowns, the stock market, etc were going to be disappointed in me.
I was afraid to hit publish.
And then I did.