Steampunk Typewriter.

Winter of Our Non-Content

No reader wants good contentWe want good writing!

Reading the paperONCE UPON A time, our days began by reading the morning paper. content

Everyone had his or her own way of reading. I used to get the International Herald Tribune every morning when I lived in Paris. I read the headlines on page one and then I opened and flipped it to the back where I read the columnist of the day: Dave Barry on Tuesdays, Art Buchwald occasionally, and (my favorite) William Safire on Fridays. After that, I went to the arts section, and finally back to page one to see what the bad news was for the day.

The order of my reading habit was formed by a few different things. I had a need to know the Big Picture so I scanned the headlines first. I loved to read the columnists so they claimed my first focused attention. I wanted to do something on the weekend so the arts section informed me. And then, in the end, I went back to the beginning and read through the whole thing. The process usually took about two espressos and three Gauloises blondes. Time invested: 30-45 minutes.

In the prehistoric pre-Internet era, the daily paper was my chief source of information and reading entertainment. Television was also there, but I was a reader more than a watcher. And while this morning habit was deeply ingrained, on some days I threw down the IHT after about 10 minutes. On some days the headlines would be dull, a substitute columnist would appear, and nothing was going on that held my interest. On such a day, I usually would get to work early…

Jumping ahead to today, it’s the same thing, only different.

I still spend about half an hour on my news and reading, but I have countless choices for sources. Instead of my paper that was limited to about 38 pages (that’s a guess by the way), I now have everything that has been written on earth as of this morning. So my morning coffee sees me whizzing past Facebook and LinkedIn, making incursions in several news sites, setting up a bivouac alongside a few bloggers, and finally slipping around the corner and back to Facebook to see if anyone liked my new profile picture. It is a flurry of clicks and scrolls and shifting attention. On most days, I am lucky if I come away knowing anything more than I did before booting up.

And I miss William Safire.

Herein begins our discussion of “content.” Content is the stuff that either grabs my attention or does not. It is then either worthy of my time or it is not. It might be a photo or a video, a big headline or provocative title, or a short, Twitter-style, 140 characters of pith or drivel. When I compare it to the leisurely days of reading the IHT on a sunny balcony in Paris, I am confronted with a particular irony: I have so much information that I never get enough information.

The IHT, within its printed limits, had to be good quality writing. Why? Because I could choose to buy any of 26 other papers instead, and it was in their interest to keep me each day. Once I bought it or subscribed, I was stuck, and I read what I had in front of me. Online, however, with everything available, I am much more discriminating. I will not spend more than a nanosecond on something that has a whiff of boring or irrelevant to me. And if something looks good, I will skim it and move on to see what else is good. In plain speech, I just do not have time to read everything. No one could.

Moreover, the IHT had something that the Internet does not – an editor-in-chief. A newspaper was good or bad according to the skill of the editor in curating my reading choices. The web is just a free-for-all. I pick and choose on my own content (despite the efforts of algorithms and bots that try to steer me around). This is an absolute boon to writers – no matter what they write they can publish it – and a curse to the reader who may not have the time or inclination to form a reasoned information habit online. No practiced hand is there to separate the wheat from the chaff. I end up chewing on a lot of chaff.

Clean Copy

Good content is good writing.

Leaving aside the viral videos and cat photos, the best content on the web is the well-written article, long or short, informative or funny, truth or alt-truth. Grammar mavens like me will bounce away from sites that do not edit themselves well enough to make their content readable. What we read online must be so much better than what was printed on paper, and this is precisely because we can run away from it so much faster. Our competition is there, lurking on another tab, waiting to swoop in and steal our attention.

We also must define what is meant by “better.” Writing for the web is slightly different than for print. A copyrighter must be aware of keywords, cross-referencing, and imbuing each line with the temptation to read on. Whereas journalism majors will have learned about the “pyramid” style – writing the story in order of importance with the least relevant information being near the bottom so an editor could chop it off if needed – web writing must hold your interest from top to bottom. Even at the end of the article, there must be something that tempts you to click on and over to something nearby and keep on going.

Things websites have in common with Las Vegas:
They will never let you leave if they can help it.

One of the metrics that is used to measure the “success” of the website is the duration of the visit. If you are in and out in a flash, your visit is not regarded as valid. It’s a bounce. If you stay for one article, let’s say two to three minutes, you start being interesting. What keeps people on the website is compelling content, good writing, interesting stories, and a good dose of humor.

With all the competition and background noise buzzing online, your brand’s content is hugely important. If consumers bounce away from your home page because they were lulled to sleep by your droning content, you will have a hard time getting them back. They will consider your site a Sleep Zone and avoid it. This redounds, obviously, to the severe detriment of your brand.

content machineAnd we call it content, which makes it sound like a sack of potatoes or so much meat through the grinder. I am constantly asked to “provide content” for the brands I work with. But to me, this word demeans the process and the product. What a brand needs is a story. A gripping tale to get caught up in. There are many stories to be told – even including the story of why you want to leave your email address and join a mailing list. Every written word about your brand should aim at achieving an emotional connection with it. This is not a sack of potatoes – it is the aroma of home-cooking wafting in from a family kitchen. That familiar scent will lead you to follow it into the kitchen and begin to imagine the taste, to dream of the meal, and to whet your appetite until nothing else but Gratin Dauphinois will do.

And like all good stories, it must be clean and clear. It must not only be easy to understand but also alluring and seductive. It must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, just like Uncle Aristotle taught us. A story must satisfy the need for posing a conflict, facing it, and bringing it to a resolution. These are not prescriptive guidelines, of course, but they do describe the way we get involved in the stories we read. The best ones captivate us fully.

But Aristotle was also very alive to yet another aspect of storytelling. If it is great, if it is art, then it points away from itself to something much more fundamental: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

This is a message for brand storytellers everywhere. The more we talk about the brand in direct terms, the less people will be enchanted by it. Another ancient grammarian whom I admire, Servius, warns us that “ars poetica est non omnia dicere” or the art of poetry is NOT saying everything. What is not said is of greater importance sometimes than what is.


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