Beta-Reading Levels: from Newsletter to Interview with Michele Hansen

Michele Hansen, author of Deploy Empathy

Michele Hansen is the co-founder of Geocodio, co-host of the Software Social podcast, and author of Deploy Empathy, ​​a practical guide to interviewing customers.

And even though she’s the only name on the cover, Michele would probably also agree more to the title of co-author rather than author. Read on to discover why. 

But before we move on, you should know that tea is her caffeine delivery mechanism of choice because coffee makes her bounce off the walls.

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Newsletter readers as alpha readers

Michele knows a lot about interviewing customers and so she receives a lot of questions from fellow founders about conducting successful customer interviews. She often has to answer the same questions over and over again via emails and calls. 

That was a problem because she had no good place to send those people. So she started looking for a way to deliver good technical information that was also approachable enough for beginners. 

One of her first ideas was to write a book. But she was unsure. Instead, she decided to start with a newsletter. Maybe the content could turn into a book one day, and if not, she would be able to just send people to the newsletter archive.

She started with the newsletter around February. After putting her daughter to bed, she took her laptop to bed and started writing her newsletter. She just wrote about any topic that came to mind and didn’t think about any particular order.

The great thing about that was that there was no pressure. Opening up a blank document is intimidating but writing a newsletter is just like writing an email. She sends many emails per day so it was no big deal. It was just another email.

Writing emails also gave her a sense of accomplishment. She felt like she was getting something done every time she hit send. But at the same time, she was writing for herself and not to impress anyone.

“My worst writing is when I’m trying to impress someone or seem smart.”

She soon gathered momentum thanks to this sense of accomplishment and the early feedback. At some stage, she was even sending daily emails and her early fans couldn’t keep up anymore. They asked her to slow down. 

She didn’t slow down, however, but started scheduling her mails into the future and she started shifting her focus towards writing a book. 

Moving on to beta readers

Around the start of April, she started putting some newsletters together into a Google Doc. And then, she took a break from writing. Her newsletters were scheduled out for the next couple of weeks and she decided to do what she does best: interview people. 

For the next few weeks, she interviewed about 30 newsletter subscribers (but more about that later).

Around the end of April, she made a rough draft and put it on Rob Fitzpatrick‘s for beta-readers. The next couple of weeks were the most tiring ones. For six weeks, she did a major rewrite each week. Each time, there seemed to be many things that could be improved.

“Edits are not minor cuts they’re surgery”.

(visual by @SACHIN_RAMJE)

By the middle of June, she was happy with the structure and she hired a proofreader. This phase was over by the start of July and then she did all the admin, cover, ISBN etc. so the book could be published by the end of July.  

Writing shouldn’t be a lonely experience

In July 2020, Michele and her husband moved from Washington to Denmark. That meant she was physically disconnected from her community. Before, she was very involved in her neighbourhood and with volunteering. 

But having moved, she had to look out for communities. Moreover, she now had energy for other things too. 

So when asked if she would have written the book if they hadn’t moved, she said she didn’t know. The move did play an important part, however.

The time difference made it harder to jump on calls with people from the US and Canada, and so another way of transferring her knowledge was more urgent than ever. 

Another contributing factor was the mastermind group she was leading. Because of the time zone, she found herself with a group of highly supportive people from Europe and the Middle East. 

Even with all of this going on, Michele was still afraid the writing process would be a lonely journey. Everyone around her told her it was. And in the book she was reading at the time, The Box, the author also described writing his book as a lonely process.

Despite this, she decided to defy the odds. She wanted to write a book and she also wanted it to be a social process. Everything had to be on her terms and that’s also why she didn’t go with a traditional publisher.

And so she wrote the book surrounded by a large community. First, there were the newsletter readers, then the beta-reader. Finally, she got help from a number of friends with edits, technical reviews and the flow of the book.

Writing Deploy Empathy was not a solo effort by any means. 

Interviewing Successfully 

Customer interviews are essential to understand what people need and want from you. This is also true for books, and that’s why Michele interviewed about 30 people for it. 

Here’s how she gets the most out of each interview.

The first questions should show you care, so the interviewee feels at ease. Simultaneously, they prime someone to talk about a topic. Once you start talking, you don’t need to ask a whole lot of questions to get them to talk. But you need to let them do the talking.

It’s not just the questions you ask, it’s how you ask them and making them feel comfortable.”

And then, when she’s about halfway through the interview, she pretends to close it with words like, “ Thanks, I learned so much from you. Is there anything else you think I should know?” And then she leaves the silence hanging until they talk. 

Because this elevates the customer to the position of teacher, makes them comfortable, and because they have been primed to talk about a topic, she usually gets the most interesting parts of the interview.

She learned this from someone who worked for NPR’s Terry Gross and Robert Cialdini.

You’d be surprised how much information you can get with this question. Even about boring topics. What happens is that people aren’t usually asked to talk about their job or even their interests. So when you sit there and listen, they’ll happily give you the information you need. 

What Michele wanted to find out was how to make the book as practical as possible. She had no intentions to be a consultant and drive clients like April Dunford. So she needed this book to teach founders how to do it themselves. 

But this is also how they learned that this wasn’t just a book for founders and indie hackers. She found that many types of readers were interested, such as copywriters, technical writers, advisors and product leaders.

Moreover, doing customer interviews is very encouraging because people tend to be very positive when you ask for their input.

Michele Hansen’s Writing advice

Michele got some of the best writing advice from Joel Hooks. It goes something like this: Just write it for yourself, don’t edit it. Get it out there earlier than you think you should. Write what feels right to you.

That’s sort of what she did with the newsletter. And people were excited about it. They weren’t in an editorial role like they would have been if she were sharing chapters with a couple of friends. 

Moreover, the newsletter gave her a daily sense of accomplishment and feedback. New signups meant people were forwarding it so there were many dopamine hits. This, combined with writing from inspiration and interest, made it possible to finish the book in under six months. 

Her best advice is to not do it by yourself. Bring people in the process early. It’s scary but it’s so helpful. Write in public.

This makes marketing easier too. Her book even reached number one on Product Hunt because of public support from beta-readers. That would never have happened if she had written it by herself and not shown anything until the publish date. 

And if you think about it, even in the past books were somehow written in public, when authors like Dickens released books chapter by chapter.

Book: Deploy Empathy
Author: Michele Hansen
Twitter: @mjwhansen
Podcast: Software Social


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