7 Lessons From Tim Urban on Reaching 1 Million Views a Month

Sah Kilic

Inside the mind of a master storyteller

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=1xLAov_0XpYt6sF00Image via TED
“I picture the audience as a stadium full of me… I’m writing the exact post that I would be thrilled to get.” — The Master Storyteller

And that’s lesson one in the humble start of climbing to 1.5 million views a month, but the views this guy gets isn’t even half of it.

His blog posts reach as high as 70,000 words with the core audience finishing it. That’s a small book. A small book as a blog post. A small book that people from his 600,000+ strong email list tune into and finish regularly.

“[The] essays also capture a level of reader engagement that even the new-media giants would be envious of.” — Fast Company

You might be thinking: Who is this guy? Do I know him? What’s his secret?

His name is Tim, and if you’ve been around in the blog-o-sphere for a while, you probably know him, but even if you haven’t, you’d likely recognise him from the video below.

Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | Tim Urban

Tim Urban’s presentation on procrastination has 29 million views with over a million likes on YouTube, and naturally, it’s also hit every social media platform, but that’s not Tim’s bread and butter.

Tim runs a blog called Wait But Why where he’ll take a meaty topic like AI, cryptocurrency, politics, anything that’s traditionally complex, and he’ll sprinkle stardust on it.

The stardust somehow makes it digestible and entertaining on another plane. And if you’re a writer or content creator on the internet, the stardust part is the exciting part no doubt.

Lesson 1 in stardust creation was writing content for yourself, so let’s let Tim give us lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Be a Complexity Tour Guide

Tim’s not an expert on things. But he’s the perfect tour guide when it comes to taking you through a complex topic. How?

Tim will rank his knowledge on a topic from one to ten. One being completely ignorant and ten being expert-level knowledge.

Spoiler, he’s never at a ten.

“I start at a 2–3 on most stuff, I’m a layman”

He then works through the process of getting to a six. This might take him a day, three weeks, or three months, but he gets there.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3683kz_0XpYt6sF00Diminishing returns kick in at a 6, it’s the sweet spot.

And now that he’s in the sweet spot, he’s well informed. He’s not an expert but he knows what all the experts are saying. The journey is fresh in his mind and he asks himself, “How could I do this more efficiently? How could I do it in a fun way?”

It’s those two questions that form the basis for his writing. His objective from that point on is to bring the reader from a two to a six. And that’s the superpower.

The experts have been experts over a couple of decades, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner, and they write to inform. Tim, on the other hand, was there so recently that the map is fresh in his mind, and he writes to entertain and inform.

Takeaways

  1. Be curious about a topic
  2. Research the hell out of it to bring yourself to a six in knowledge
  3. Ask yourself how you can make the journey more efficiently
  4. Bring your readers on this journey

Lesson 3: Become a Professional

Let’s zoom out from writing that perfect article, and zoom out further from Wait But Why. How did Tim get to where he is now?

Let’s rewind the clock 15 years, about six to eight years from the first post on Wait But Why. Tim didn’t just start with his first article going viral, making millions, sunshine, rainbows, and blow, he blogged for six years as a hobby racking up 300 blog posts.

This hobby blog was personal; it was all about Tim and his world. Tim did it to procrastinate while he and his friend were running their SAT tutoring business, more on this later. But the effect of doing this was instrumental to the success of Wait But Why.

“300 blog posts will teach you the voice you like to write in.”

It’ll teach you more than that, also:

  • Your style
  • Your interests
  • Your strengths and weaknesses

That personal blog of Tim’s racked up a passionate following of 700 people, and this was before the super reach that platforms like Medium offer today. This exercise in skill development laid the foundation of what became Tim’s unique style and allowed him to become a professional at what he does.

Takeaways

  1. A strong foundation is everything
  2. Putting in the work to achieve that foundation is everything x 2
  3. Every bit of work you’re putting in today is teaching you how to make it in the future, the secret sauce is patience

Lesson 4: Write Digestible Content

There isn’t some big secret that Tim’s keeping from us here, this is very practical advice. Practical advice that Tim discovered with trial, error, and following his curiosity.

The last three blog posts on his personal blog included stick figure comics that he used to illustrate his points, it was massively popular. Tim had stumbled upon one new tool to add to his kit. He was able to add another layer of digestibility to give them an entertaining experience, all while educating them.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=0AtNJn_0XpYt6sF00My attempt at Tim Urban-ing it.

Digestibility was everything for Tim. Tim was breaking down complex topics all the time. Again, he wasn’t a professional, but all the actual professionals sucked at storytelling, regardless of the medium.

“If I see a block of text and I’m scrolling down, I’m kind of upset. It feels like homework… But if I scroll down and every few paragraphs there’s a chart, there’s a comic, I’m suddenly like, ‘Ok this is fun, I’m excited!’”

And going back to the first lesson of writing content you want to read; Tim did just that. He scattered his content with relevant charts and illustrations to take that written content and give it the support it needs to get to the next level. He kept the text light, filled it with analogies and metaphors, and prioritised readability, he made his work digestible.

And to this day, it remains digestible.

Takeaways

  1. Make your content easy and enjoyable to read
  2. Break up content with relevant visuals
  3. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice the formal feel of educating, for the light, informal, and silly stuff, learning should be fun

Lesson 5: Focus On Two Things For Marketing

“Content is King, but marketing is Queen and the Queen runs the household.” 
— Gary Vaynerchuk

Yes, it’s pure cheese, but anything cheesy has some value in it. The value of which Tim sees, and recommends others to focus on, but not willy nilly.

Tim’s put his energy into ensuring that his blog grows with two straightforward growth strategies.

  1. Making sure it’s super easy for someone to sign up to his email list
  2. Making sure it’s super easy for someone to share his content
If you only worried about those two things and then focused all the rest of your attention on doing the highest possible quality work, you’d be in good shape.

And don’t be afraid to get creative with it, if you can put a smile on the readers face, they’ll want to hear from you again.

https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3X2KpR_0XpYt6sF00Socials box screenshot from Wait But Why

The subscription box is the first thing you’ll see in the sidebar, no extra clicks involved. The social icons are hilarious and reflect Tim’s content production style, also one click. And they’re all displaying the numbers of followers which shows legitimacy and social capital.

These seem like small things, and they are, but they work.

Takeaways

  1. Focus on accessibility with your email sign-ups and socials.
  2. Don’t be afraid to add your flair.

Lesson 6: Be Careful With Your Values

Value is a broad term, right? As a writer or storyteller, in general, two essential dimensions count, your lifestyle, and your craft.

The Lifestyle

“Working as a writer on your own hours, it’s tempting to get into a romantic notion that you don’t play by society’s rules…”

Anyone who’s ever freelanced knows what Tim means. Most people are working set hours, they’re busy during the day, they’re maybe available in the evening during the week, and the weekends are Armageddon. When you have the freedom to set your hours, you become sporadic and drunk with power.

You go to bed without setting the alarm, you’re taking long breaks, you’re doing your laundry midway through working, all while presumably waving around your middle finger to society and yelling “WOOOO!”

But as you’re up past midnight and exhausted the next day, or you’re working on a Saturday, you slowly start to realise something.

“You’re in a perpetual state of ‘kind of working.’”

The worst state because it never end, so you need to lay out some ground rules.

  • Set some hours and stick to them
  • Get out of the PJs and get dressed
  • Get out of the house and go to a cafe, or set up a dedicated environment
  • Organise some time off

Your social life will thank you, and if it makes you feel any better, I felt like an annoying mother figure writing those points above.

The Craft

Tim’s against trying to win readers over. Adjusting your content to form a larger net for catching readers will leave you with a weak net and a lot of holes. Making your content genuine and authentic to your heart will leave you with a smaller net, but a stronger one.

“Obsess over figuring out the funnest, most exciting, most natural shape of yourself as a writer and start doing that.”

Think about how excited and convincing you are when you’re trying to get someone to watch your favourite show, bring that energy to what you write, and you’ll win every time.

Takeaways

  1. Having a writing schedule and environment is the winning strategy to write consistently
  2. Writing about what excites you is the winning strategy to write well

Lesson 7: Invest in Freedom

I wanted to end on this one. It has nothing to do with writing or storytelling, but it’s probably the most important takeaway from all of this.

I mentioned earlier that Tim blogged for six years before starting Wait But Why. I also said that he did that while he was procrastinating on running his SAT tutoring business with his friend.

There’s a story he mentioned in Tim Ferriss’s book, Tribe of Mentors. In the first year of running the business, Tim and his friend did well. They had the option of bumping up their salaries by $25,000 each, but they didn’t.

Instead, they both stayed on their salary knowing that they’re both 20-something, single, and have no mortgage, instead, they invested in a $50,000 employee.

Of course the next year they made more revenue and did the same thing. Rinse and repeat a few times, they hit 30, and their business had ~20 employees with fantastic income.

“We traded the fun of having fancy lifestyles in our 20s for being far more free people at the age of 30.”

At 31, he had the courage backed with the financials to put 100% into Wait But Why. If he hadn’t invested in himself, or his freedom, this may have never happened.

Takeaways

Sometimes, it’s not just about the story you put on paper. Sometimes it’s the decisions you make towards your personal story that makes all the difference.

Highlights and Points to Remember

  1. Write for yourself: If you love it, there’ll be other people who love it too.
  2. Be a complexity tour guide: Bring a reader from knowing nothing to knowing almost everything about a topic. Be curious, be thorough.
  3. Become a professional: You have to put in the work, day in day out. You’ll only get better by doing. Patience here is critical.
  4. Write digestible content: Keep it light and fun, if you can make important things fun, you’ve won. Short paragraphs and images are super.
  5. Make following you easy: Sharing your work should be one click or tap away; no one should struggle for a second to find your email list.
  6. Treat your craft as a job: Sporadic bouts of inspiration happen, but keeping a schedule will make you productive, and give you a social life.
  7. Invest in future you: An investment with a view of freedom is one of the best things you could invest in next to your education and sleep.

These are the lessons that I got from Tim Urban. Some of them old, some of them new, but all full of value. I hope you found them valuable too. Best of luck and I hope you get there.

Reference List

  1. Ferriss, T. (2017). Tribe of mentors: short life advice from the best in the world. London: Vermillion, An Imprint Of Ebury Publishing.
  2. ‌Wait But Why. (2019). Wait But Why. [online] Available at: https://waitbutwhy.com/ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2020].
  3. Urban, T. (2013). 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook — Wait But Why. [online] Wait But Why. Available at: https://waitbutwhy.com/2013/07/7-ways-to-be-insufferable-on-facebook.html [Accessed 2 Jul. 2020].
  4. timurban.blogspot.com. (n.d.). underneath the turban. [online] Available at: http://timurban.blogspot.com/ [Accessed 3 Jul. 2020].
  5. Schawbel, D. (n.d.). Tim Urban: How He Turned His Blog Into A Global Movement. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danschawbel/2017/01/17/tim-urban-how-he-turned-his-blog-into-a-global-movement/#22819b8d66f4 [Accessed 2 Jul. 2020].
  6. Grothaus, M. (2015). The Secrets Of Writing Smart, Long-form Articles That Go Absolutely Viral. [online] Fast Company. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3042312/the-secrets-of-writing-smart-longform-articles-that-go-absolutely-viral [Accessed 2Jul. 2020].
  7. ‌TED (2016). Inside the mind of a master procrastinator | Tim Urban. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU.
  8. Managing Procrastination, Predicting the Future, and Finding Happiness — Tim Urban, (2017). [Podcast] Spotify. 30 Nov. Available at: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6l1zasX44HTcHT02y8TIYj?si=M-Dg9qhoSCy5JJiVNp6eDQ [Accessed 2 Jul. 2020].

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If you want a tour guide to everything mindset and digital, I'm your guy. I cover self-improvement, travel, entrepreneurship, startups, marketing, technology, and media. Find more of my stuff at https://sah.substack.com/

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