(This post was originally written on Medium, with some original parts added here.)
“And maybe that’s worth it, in order to create for a living.”
This thought ended a post-work conversation on the constant need to explain and defend the creative process to others. Those in creative professions can likely relate to the quote, spoken by Tyler, a designer friend of mine.
Now, the fact that he’s a designer isn’t actually a requirement for our friendship. But given the subject of this post, it makes sense that you know he’s a designer. That’s the power of adjectives, you see: They’re subtle but powerful conveyers of meaning and clarity.
But as anyone with a boss knows all too well, some adjectives can just plain frustrate and annoy you. And few are more rampant in the business world today than the word which launched Tyler and my post-work discussion: “remarkable.” Particularly when it precedes the word “content.”
As in, “Jensen, we need a robust, synergistic strategy to create remarkable content and grow up-and-to-the-right quarter-over-quarter!”
(Facepalm.) Thank you, newspaper editor from Spider-Man.
But assume for a moment you had to listen.
Rather than many of our knee-jerk reactions to this request (which, I’m guessing, also involves a knee and a jerk), let’s assume we actually had to create remarkable content, whatever that means.
So, um … what does that mean?
For starters, remarkable can’t mean average.
We all get that. That statement alone isn’t very helpful. But what if you visualized what average looked like? Here’s a simple representation (h/t to Dharmesh Shah's Culture Code for the chart):
The average is in the middle. There are a TON of things that are average in the world—it’s the most common state, after all.
Something average is a commodity or, worse, easily avoided and pushed aside. An average idea won’t turn heads. An average song becomes background noise. An average meal is forgotten the next day. An average blog post doesn’t generate subscribers. You get the idea.
Average things get sucked towards the middle to live among the majority, and they often rationalize their existence as “best practices” or “most efficient” or “industry precedents.” Necessary in doses, perhaps, but it’s tough to differentiate and stand out.
We want remarkable. We want to be on the extremes.
Next, visualize the extremes. That’s the easy part—the two orange Xs:
The hard part is determining what, exactly, sits on those extremes. To do that, we need a quick detour from our exploration of “remarkable” to identify the other half of our fictitious boss’s request: content. Why do businesses create content as their marketing in the first place? If we can pinpoint that reason, we can more easily figure out how to be great at it.
What’s content all about?
Content is defined by choice.
The amount of choices facing each of us on a daily basis has EXPLODED, and we can navigate between those choices almost instantly. Tons of TV channels, millions of websites saturating every niche, and multiple screens and devices for us to use — we’re totally in control of where and how we spend our time.
Unlike ads, which interrupt us and try to control our decisions, content must be voluntarily chosen. Nobody is sitting at their computer yelling about how Medium forced them to read Jay’s lousy post in order to read their favorite writer. You chose this, and, seriously, THANK YOU for reading! :-)
So content taps into our emotions, nuances, and biases on a deeper level—it resonates with us—because we’ve proactively chosen to spend time with it.
In summary, if content is identified by choice, and we choose what resonates, then to be remarkable, your content must resonate more than the rest.
So what’s remarkable content? How can you really resonate?
Quite simply, content can be remarkable by helping an audience act or helping an audience think and/or feel.
The better you are at achieving either one for your audience, the further from the average you move in either direction and the more remarkable your content truly is.
If you want to get all highfalutin for a second: remarkable content achieves what I call cognitive resonance or emotional resonance.
Content focusing on cognitive resonance helps people act or execute better. It plays to the audience’s desire or need to solve problems and make decisions, such as:
• 7 Tips and Tricks for Twitter Marketing
• How to Work Fewer Hours
• Exploring the Best Weight-Loss Programs
If I read these, I know how to act.
Content focusing on emotional resonance helps people think or feel differently. It aims to elicit intellectual or emotional responses from an audience. This aligns people more closely with you or your business. So the parallel examples to the above three headlines might be:
• Why Everything Your Company Posts on Twitter Is Wrong
• Are Young Professionals Burning Out Faster than Ever?
• The Inspirational Story of a Man Who Lost 150 Pounds
If I read these, I don’t necessarily have a playbook to act, but I’m left thinking or feeling a certain way that either strengthened my preconceptions or nudged me towards something different and hopefully better.
"Be Better Than The GAP"
One of my wife's favorite movies is Crazy Stupid Love with Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, Emma Stone, and Julianne Moore. She loves the part where Gosling's character grabs Carrell and addresses his choice of wardrobe: "Be better than the GAP." (She loves the part where Gosling does anything at all, but she particularly loves this part.)
Anyways, Gosling urges Carrell to be better than average. Wearing GAP is settling for doing what everyone else is doing, making you average.
Too often, businesses and marketers create content based on what everyone else is doing -- blogging, infographics, podcasting, whatever. We want to know what's safe and proven and just do that. But the problem is, now we're all wearing GAP. Now we're all average. We water down our own work by trying to be too many things to too many people, and do so in the exact same ways as everyone else.
But above, we pinpointed the goals of content (resonance) and the ways we can be remarkable with it (achieving cognitive or emotional resonance). Knowing that, we can hopefully improve our approach and, yes, better explain our creative process to others and convey what's required to actually BE remarkable to others., like our bosses or non-creative teammates.
It may not be perfect, and you still need a deep understanding of your audience to know what’s helpful to them specifically, but starting out with a basic understanding of what “remarkable content” actually is in theory could help mitigate some frustration and help us prepare better.
The result would be a much smoother, more effective process of planning, producing, distributing, and analyzing our work.
Are you setting out to help somebody act? If so, your content might take one shape and aim for clarity and illustrative examples and an array of other things. Are you aiming for emotional resonance instead? Then perhaps your work more closely resembles art or uses much more storytelling and complexity in how it’s produced.
Either way, I hope this is a first step towards pushing this idea of remarkable towards a simple, codified explanation of "remarkable" content. All I care about is that we crack this code so we can go execute on that promise.
After all, there’s enough crappy content out there polluting the internet, and more is manufactured every day. So even though it’s more frustrating and perhaps scary to fight against the average, and even though it’s harder to strive for that ever-elusive idea of remarkable, to echo Tyler:
“Maybe that’s worth it, in order to create for a living.”
I definitely think so.
What do you think?