How Martin Luther accidentally went viral
Today is Reformation Day.
495 years ago, Martin Luther hammered his 95 Theses onto the noticeboard/door of a church in Wittenberg, to announce his intention of publicly debating the doctrine of indulgences.
He was understandably irritated that certain members of the church were selling salvation for loved ones stuck in purgatory.
Within two weeks, the 95 Theses were known throughout Germany — having been translated from academic Latin into German, so common types like you and me could read them. Within a month they had spread throughout Europe.
Luther quickly realized that the issues he was writing on were of great interest to huge numbers of people outside academia. He astutely published his next pamphlet in German, sticking to language that was used throughout Germany so that people who spoke different regional dialects could still read it.
This pamphlet went even more viral than the 95 Theses. Without it, we might not even have Protestant churches (Anglicans, perhaps, notwithstanding).
All in all, in the first decade of the Reformation, nearly 2 million of Luther's pamphlets were printed. Printing runs were in batches of about 1,000, so if a pamphlet was reprinted dozens of times, it was kind of like it being "Liked" or retweeted by thousands of people.
Why were they so popular?
Firstly, they were written in the language Luther's vast audience actually used on a day-to-day basis.
Secondly, they contained interesting insights into ideas that were of salvific importance to his audience. (Medieval people were not as dim-witted as we modern types like to think.)
Thirdly, they were also laced with no small amount of entertainingly scathing invective, aimed at Luther's opponents and the Catholic Church. In one letter he wrote of the "brainless and illiterate beast in papist form" and its "whole filthy pack of asses."
The Catholic Church didn't like this very much, and responded with pamphlets of their own. But whereas Luther's pamphlets were "not so much sold and seized" by the people, the Catholic tracts, written in dense Latin rather than German, were "desired by no one and could not even be given away."
This is the power of writing in easy, entertaining language — a lesson, incidentally, that the Catholic Church, like any bureaucratic organization, hasn't done a good job of learning to this day.
It isn't enough to have good ideas.
You must also express them in language your audience uses — and in a way they find truly fun to read. Ideally, you want them to be so tickled or so stirred by your writing that they can run to the next room halfway through reading it, to share it with someone else.
Or post it on Facebook.
In November's Shirtsleeves Marketing Communiqué I will be covering a lot of advanced principles for achieving that kind of engagement and connection with your audience.
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