I recently came across a quote from spoken word poet Phil Kaye’s Repetition. In it, he says:
My mother taught me this trick, If you repeat something over and over again, it loses it’s meaning...Our existence, she said, is the same way. You watch the sunset too often, and it just becomes 6pm. You make the same mistake over and over, you’ll stop calling it a mistake. If you just wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up one day you’ll forget why.
Repetition voids meaning. But what does this have to do with content marketing? If you, like I, practice inbound content marketing--or writing online of any kind really--you know that most of what’s out there is reworkings, re-anglings, or iterations on what’s already been written. While it can be very valuable to spin a concept to be more useful to your specific audience or brand, producing a stream of original content is even more valuable. I know from personal experience how rewarding it is when you’re struck by a random burst of inspiration, but these moments can oftentimes be few and far between. Now I really understand why Hemingway famously said “write drunk, edit sober,” but owing to laws of common decency, hitting up the in-office kegerator during the day is less acceptable these days. Fortunately, when you’re caught in an uninspired rut, the solution you need might be right under your nose.
Amazon is kind of like a drug dealer. I order one book and it keeps suggesting (read: forcing) me to buy more and more. But this has actually done me well, because simply reading a chapter or two every now and then--especially when I’m feeling uninspired--helps me come up with more ideas to write about. Since I spend the entirety of my work week in front of a computer, it’s important to me to step away and consume printed words every weekend. This might mean meeting a friend for reading and people watching over coffee, or it might be a three-hour block of sitting on my couch and reading until I feel like I’ve accomplished something. Just the way food is energy for your body and brain, other peoples’ writing is fodder for inspiration.
My favorite of late is Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. I constantly find myself trying to figure out how the topics in the book are related to my work, my beliefs, and my practices--it has been incredibly motivating and helpful. Kleon is clearly a believer in the “start before you’re ready” mentality and encourages readers to just create something. That something, whether it’s a stream-of-consciousness-style word collage or pages of mindless doodles, will help get your mind working and develop into something bigger. In a sense, he gives a vague guidebook for the living loop of creation, sharing, and connection. But if viewing Steal Like An Artist as practical hacks for inspiration, you could boil Kleon’s message down to this: Be curious. Simply absorb the world around you. There’s so much just waiting to be interpreted about such small things, so really diving in, reading new material, and understanding another person’s perspective lets me think about things that I might not normally register.
Whatever everyone else is writing about, you probably shouldn’t be. I completely understand the mob mentality that convinces some marketers to write about a hot topic, but what does this actually achieve? Unless you have something totally unique to say about the topic of the moment, stay away. Writing about what everyone else is writing about is not only unoriginal, but it just adds to the noisy web of uninspired content that already exists. We shouldn’t be writing because we think we should be, but because we have the particular conviction to form an opinion. If you want to stand out then do it.
Andrew Chen writes “you’ll have to differentiate on expertise and insight, rather than trying to tag along on whatever cool topic we’re talking about these days.” Think about what you have to offer as an individual within a specific role. What experiences do you carry that help you navigate your industry?
It’s been said before, and it will be said again. Whatever you say, do it in the form of a story.Telling a story is inherently a personal and original process. In my opinion, it’s the articles written by techies, entrepreneurs, and marketers who share their own opinions, insights, and experiences that resonate most with me. Roundups of the best products and tools are no doubt helpful, but they carry less weight and are less “real” than editorial articles. Using personal experience and examples (and by “personal” I mean anything related to one’s self and one’s career) shows your audience what exactly you have to offer; and by telling your personal story, you’re inherently differentiating. No one else has your exact same story.
It seems that in startup land, we’re all very wary of sharing our faults and only want to humblebrag about our successes. I get it: We don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable. But I think there’s something to be said about sharing the experiences that didn’t work particularly well. In an industry run on capital that’s available due to the successes of other businesses, doesn’t it make sense that we should want to help each other succeed? Of course we’re all each other’s competitors, but if we’re talking about small, everyday tasks (like PR best practices, or perfecting some technical skill), why not share our personal triumphs and tribulations? Where there’s a learning experience, there’s a story to be told.
Though written words do help me find inspiration, you don’t always have time to sit down and read a book or sift through a bunch of entrepreneur’s blogs. Fortunately we live in the digital age and there are so many media to choose from. If I’m feeling very focused but want some subliminal messaging, I’ll put on a YouTube playlist of TED Talks and let them play in the background. If it doesn’t distract you to hear voices while you’re trying to work, try it; a lot of TED Talks are about specific topics, luckily your highly evolved brain can abstract the concepts and apply them to your own practical situations.
Another medium that’s great for anyone with a commute: podcasts. NPR has an incredible directory of its programs, which is helpful because radio shows are on at random and/or inconvenient times. Now this is where I get really dorky--please don’t judge. Sometimes, when I’m feeling really down and uninspired--which can make me feel depressed, like I’m failing at my job--I’ll listen to commencement speeches and other motivational talks. (I cannot believe I just publicly admitted to that.) Since making its viral rounds a few months ago, one of my favorites is David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water speech from Kenyon College’s 2005 commencement ceremony, in which he states that true freedom is understanding how to think. What’s interesting about this speech is that Wallace tries actively escapes the “banal platitudes” of typical commencement addresses, but remarks that “in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.” It’s a complex sentence that needs to be broken down, which is exactly why I like listening to speeches like this. They get my brain going.
The point is, if you feel like you’re failing, you won’t write anything worth reading. It’s a vicious cycle, but it’s not one that we have to be trapped in. As they say, the world is our oyster, but I think we get sort of stuck in a revolving door of content because we become accustomed to continuously checking the same sites and sources. As content producers, relying on the same opinions, voices, and perspectives can be our biggest faults. Just like they say we are what we eat, and we are a combined image of the people we surround ourselves with; the content we choose to read will be reflected in our work. Refreshing our input can greatly affect the quality of our output.