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Engaging Readers with Affective Presence

Authors are an increasingly data-driven bunch. As a community, particularly during National Novel Writing Month, we fixate on wordcounts. When accounting, we think about revenue. And when marketing, we focus on impressions and conversion rates. Why? It works. Professionalising your process can help you succeed. The problem is that readers can tell when an author has gone over the edge and, as a result, they disengage – both socially and with their dollars. How can you fix the issue, though? Remember this Maya Angelou quote:

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Indeed, the answer is to exert positive affective presence. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, affective presence is the act of making those around you feel a certain way whenever they’re in your presence. Affective presence in itself is a neutral concept; it can be positive or negative, depending on how you act and your strategic intention. A gangster, for example, might use negative affective presence to get what they want from a subordinate. A politician, on the other hand, might use the positive kind to garner support when canvassing. As an author, you can use positive affective presence in a similar way to summon a connection with your readers.

Now, while affective presence might only appear to be a useful skill for those who operate in person – say, as a football coach or office manager – it is possible to exert a positive effective presence online. Sure, practicing this skill won’t impact how you feel, but the phenomenon can influence your readers, even from a remote location. Even if you can’t feel the change you create, you will see it in your reader engagement levels and, ultimately, your business’ bottom line. So, are you interested in gaining this game-changing social advantage that many authors don’t possess? Read on to learn five ways you can engage readers using positive affective presence.

See People, Not Numbers

The first and most important exercise you can do is to develop self-awareness. That way, you can identify whether you’ve started to view readers too much like numbers and adjust your mindset. Make no mistake; self-awareness isn’t easy to nurture, but it is essential. Without it, you won’t approach any of your marketing efforts with the authenticity needed to impact readers’ emotions. Master it, however, and you’ll pay closer attention to readers when you encounter them. You’ll show an interest in them as individuals. In turn, they’ll feel a genuine connection and excitement whenever they see your social media posts or spot you at a real-world event.

Molly Bloom, who once ran the world’s most lucrative underground poker tournaments, recently spoke about affective presence on the Diary of a CEO podcast. During the conversation, she disclosed how she became intimately familiar with her game attendees, which gained her their loyalty. According to her, achieving this feat required her to memorise details from their lives, understand their drink preferences and be agreeable but honest enough not to insult their intelligence. The latter, according to a survey of over 800,000 people published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, is the most dominant contributor to inciting positive feelings.

Triage Priority Readers

Learning everything about her clients worked for Bloom because she only invited small crowds. No matter how much you try and remember every reader, though, you can’t follow Bloom’s lead. The average human brain can only establish around 150 meaningful relationships, which scientists often refer to  as Dunbar’s number. A BBC article suggests the brain breaks down social limits as follows: “The tightest circle has just five people – loved ones. That’s followed by successive layers of 15 (good friends), 50 (friends), 150 (meaningful contacts), 500 (acquaintances) and 1500 (people you can recognise).” Thus, there’s no point trying to memorise every reader.

Instead, consider adopting the 80/20 rule and the following process: if a reader contacts you once, be pleasant but don’t actively consider memorising details about them a priority as you might never encounter them again. If they appear a second time, however, take notice and take notes. Focusing on superfans means giving the 20% of people who deliver 80% of your word-of-mouth results special treatment. These are the sort of people who are likely to write reviews, share your content, recommend your books to their friends, create fan clubs and bring you business opportunities. As a result, it’s worth focusing your affective presence on these individuals.

Favour In-Person Chats

Conventional productivity wisdom suggests you should batch tasks to increase output. That means grouping similar tasks back-to-back to reduce the time that task-switching consumes, or working in a way that scales, like a manager delivering a message to lots of employees at once so they don’t have to repeat themselves. When trying to build emotional connections rather than simply relay information, however, scaling communication isn’t effective. As Better Helps’ psychology writers put it on their blog: “People are 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered when they feel heard.” And what’s the best way to help readers feel heard? Connect one on one.

Indeed, talking directly to one reader at a time is a sure-fire way to cement yourself among the few people with whom they feel connected. Is this activity scalable? No, but humans connect when they can see into each other’s eyes and read micro-expressions. No social media activity can fully replicate this phenomenon. The more intimate the meeting, the more connected they’re likely to feel. Hence, if you can, attend events in person to connect. Or, if that’s not possible, at least consider video-based social platforms like TikTok or YouTube. The more closely you replicate one-on-one conversations, the more likely your readers will be to support you.

Use Verbal Hacks

Remember Dunbar’s number? Studies around it suggest the average human is biologically limited to recognise only 1,500 people. Imagine you purposely forgot all your family, neighbours and childhood friends to cover 1,500 readers. Even then you’ll never be able to remember everyone if you plan to be a bestseller with millions of adoring fans. However, you can create the impression of remembering them all. On this front, verbal hacks can carry you a long way. Hollywood actors, for example, are taught to say “nice to see you” instead of “nice to meet you.” That way, they cover themselves just in case they don’t remember meeting someone in the past.

In a similar vein, according to a study reported in Scientific American, test subjects who identified as both “extroverted” and “disagreeable”tended to evoke negative feelings in fellow subjects. Thus, when you do meet readers, it’ll pay dividends if you are friendly but not too loud or opinionated, which tends to rub people the wrong way even when you mean well. Also, instead of agreeing negatively with “no, yes,” as many people do, how about saying “yes, and…”? This is another actor’s tactic, this time adopted from improv comedy. Doing so will promote the authenticity of any enthusiasm you share, helping you minimise misunderstanding.

Create a Community

The final tip for summoning reader engagement through affective presence is to harness herd mentality. Take Taylor Swift as an example. She’s done this perfectly. Is she objectively the world’s best guitarist? Unlikely. Does she have the biggest vocal range? No. Is she the best songwriter? That’s subjective. Is she the most popular, though? Right now, yes. And why? On top of her being a prolific creator of dependable pop songs, there’s the social proof. Charitable acts. Honourable business deal refusals. Standing up for little musicians. In 2023, every journalist, teacher, parent and teenager you meet is a Swiftie who will vouch for her character and integrity.

If Taylor makes a public mistake, her community helps paper over the cracks. They urge “haters” to give her the benefit of the doubt and maintain the impression that, while human, she remains an inspiration. Not only do they keep each other engaged, but they spread any message that furthers her influence on a global stage. Individually, they have little power, but together the Swifties have elevated this celebrity to such extremes that her name evokes emotions in perfect strangers. Create a community around you and this phenomenon snowballs until you too can exert a positive affective presence solely through social proof and reputation.

Follow these tactics and you’ll become more than just a name on a book cover for some readers. They will make you a real person readers like and want to see thrive – one they’ll pay more money to support and will review generously because they feel like they know you. Is it disingenuous to put on a show? Not at all. You don’t have to change your personality. All you have to do is be kind to everyone and present the best version of yourself. If that’s disingenuous then the only injustice you’ll commit is the crime of making a reader feel good. After many years, it’ll confirm to them that the doubters were wrong when they said, “You should never meet your heroes.”

Daniel Parsons

Daniel Parsons

Dan Parsons is the bestselling author of multiple series. His Creative Business books for authors and other entrepreneurs contains several international bestsellers. Meanwhile, his fantasy and horror series, published under Daniel Parsons, have topped charts around the world and been used to promote a major Hollywood movie. For more information on writing, networking, and building your creative business, check out all of Dan’s non-fiction books here.