Are you "shoehorning" or taking a road less traveled?

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For many years my professional life was the equivalent of being a square peg being forced down the round hole. The truth is I did it willingly even when I knew deep down that I was in the wrong lane.

Today I call that shoehorning – doing everything possible to fit the mold or be found occupying the right space, no matter how crowded or uncomfortable that space might prove to be. It’s another way of trying to be all things to too many people. Many of us do this without giving it much thought because somewhere along the way we made the assumption that this is how it is; this is what we’re supposed to do.

This can feel counterintuitive for us as individuals, and it can be detrimental to organizations and brands.

Robert Frost’s famous poem The Road Not Taken is the antithesis of shoehorning. Although we know the closing three lines well, we don’t often heed the advice of poets. Instead, too many of us have bought into the belief that the well-worn path someone else blazed will somehow lead us toward similar success simply by staying the course. As a result, we avoid differentiating ourselves for fear that divergence leads to a dead end.

Taking calculated risks can help move us in a new direction. But what if that isn’t enough? When is it time to rethink and recalibrate your brand, your organization or even what you personally do around the those critical why and how questions? Here are few prompts to help:

 

What are you willing to own? When so much is already taken or spoken for, when so little looks different from one organization to the next, what are you willing to hang your hat on? What unique or radical aspects of your work are you willing to be defined by? You know the challenges as well as the glaring deficiencies in your industry. Are you willing to put your stake down where others are less comfortable or unwilling to commit? Taking ownership is bold if not a bit scary. Consciously choosing the other path instead of shoehorning into the same queue as everyone else creates needed separation.  

Who are you willing to invite in? Who do you trust to strategically question your motives? Who will have your back when challenges arise? Who will help you push things further than you imagined but also pump the brakes when necessary? It’s critical to assemble teams of people who think differently than you. Their nuanced points of view will challenge you, which is the litmus test you need before customers and clients bring their challenges.

What outcomes are you willing to accept? Nobody says “let me fail first then I’ll get it right.” But often we don’t know what getting it right truly looks like until confronted with things that are not quite right – which is still a distant cousin from wrong. Embrace course correction and iteration as necessity rather than nuisance — it will take the heightened fear of failure down a few pegs.

What are you willing to say? Articulating what makes you different can be hard. We all want to be liked right away, and because of that desire we can be wooed to say yes to circumstances that warrant a no. What we say matters. When you know what you’re willing to own, you need to have the confidence to write it down, share it, and articulate it — over and over. You and your team have to be aligned on what you’re communicating at every touch point. It’s the consistent message (followed by consistent action) that begins to make the difference.  

 

Few if any customers clamor for more options that resemble existing options. So, much like Frost’s familiar poem, consider leaning into a strategic approach to do things differently and avoid shoehorning yourself into well-worn spaces where everyone looks remarkably the same with comparable features.

This is what makes all the difference.

 

Fear is opportunity in disguise

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. I  t's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (  Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 

When the landscape is unfamiliar, fear can set in. It's also where opportunities to discover and grow kick in. (Illustration credit: Jon Klassen) 

 

Your work.

It’s probably something you're great at, some place where you shine bright.  

Which is to say – you do what you know and you do it well. 

With that kind of knowledge, chances are you tend to stay in your lane.

And you stay there in order to champion your expertise (that’s a much easier narrative).

The inverse of this is fear of the unknown.

Or, in a results-driven world, fear of failure.

But what if that so-called fear was just opportunity in disguise?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

What if you hinted at the idea that among all of the things you could possibly deliver, discovery just might be the most important?

Instead of loading your pitches for clients and customers with buzzwords of the best-in-class variety you showed a bit of vulnerability, perhaps even came clean by revealing that you didn’t have a trademarked approach to guarantee predictable results from rote formulas.

Instead of issuing the next RFP (or responding to it) with restrictions that actually stymie creative solutions, what if it went like something like this:

Here’s our challenge. We’re ill-equipped to solve it alone. Admittedly, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re asking for your insight and expertise based on a track record of solving similar challenges. Might we talk?

Confront what you’re really afraid of: is it being vulnerable? Being perceived somehow as less smart or running out-of-step with a crowded field of thought leaders? Are you content faking it until you make it – or, worse, get found out?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been there and done that.

And so you’re veering outside of your lane, taking some calculated risks, and embracing a journey filled with insights that provide an interesting and highly viable set of outcomes that are all but impossible to predetermine in a plan. (Because plans change and course correction is necessary. Which is why you’re more interested in roadmaps that provide multiple avenues -- and unexpected detours too -- that help you get to your destination.)

Perhaps you’re finding out fear isn’t that scary after all.

Maybe fear is just another four-letter word.

You're considering it as a prompt that really means ‘get ready, this is going to stretch you.’

And by embracing fear for what it is, perhaps you’re starting to realize that your comfort zone is really your complacency zone.

Complacency: shouldn’t that be your fear?

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

If there is anything else to be afraid of, perhaps it is being average.

Or not realizing your potential.

Or intentionally foregoing meaningful experiences and new relationships because they are unfamiliar.

Or blending in to the point that you’re indistinguishable from the crowd.

If fear is your opportunity to grow, then you must equally consider what it means to play it safe.

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today

Content is king. Long live content.

If you buy into this mantra, then you already know there is a daily scrum playing out across every conceivable media platform among content creators. They are pitted in a continuous battle for eyeballs, influencers and customers in hopes of grabbing those brass rings of conversation and conversion.

But here’s the rub: for too many content creators, creating exceptional content takes a backseat to creating an exceptional amount of content – even when we know that, in most cases, less is more. A few great posts will outshine a bunch of mediocre ones every time. But still we feel compelled to churn out thoughts and ideas because our content calendars and social strategies demand it. After all, we must feed the beast, right?

 

The biggest problem facing content creation today isn’t a lack of new content, the need for more boundary-pushing thinking, or getting content to audiences faster.

The biggest problem is the absence of good editing.

 

Without good editing you jeopardize your credibility and the brand you represent. Poorly conceived content often falls on deaf ears and a quickly fleeing audience. When that happens, the “Content is King” mantra can suddenly become “The King is Dead.”

You can avoid that outcome by embracing a few basic “truths” to ensure the content part of a content strategy works as it should.

  • Writers create better than they refine. Writers seek to articulate ideas through explanations, narratives, characters, examples and analogies – sometimes all in the same piece. Writers also can justify a dozen different ways to say the same thing. Truth be told, undisciplined writers can take a good story or message and make it confusing, exhausting and even complicated – and that’s not a strong value proposition for building an audience. But first, allow the creators create. Refinement is what follows. 
  • Writers need content editors. Content editors find the essence of the story and cut the extraneous stuff and fluff that doesn’t add value or paint a clearer picture. They uphold clarity and conciseness. Through their work they make writers better, which is why writers need to consider them as their most trusted allies. Perhaps you’ve noticed that more of your favorite or trusted sources for news are publishing content riddled with typographical errors. The rush to "break the news" has always been there. But with the steady decline of copy editors, writers and the brands they represent look sloppy in the process – and that works to erode confidence.
  • The self-sufficient writer/editor is a rare species. Writers can wear the content editing hat to a point, but eventually they become too close to the subject matter to be critical. This clouds objectivity and a willingness to be brutally honest about the content. Writers need objective content editors who embrace the red pen.
  • Self-editing is an oxymoron. The knee-jerk reaction is to get those comprehensive ideas out there in all of their informed glory – right now. In contrast, few individuals and organizations are willing to chew on those ideas, let them percolate, and hone their potential through rigorous editing. Because writers know what they intend to say, it leads to reading over how things actually appear during the self-editing process. Self-editing is no substitute for a second set of eyes.

 

Six considerations for your content creation process

As a content creator, you need a process to develop your best work. These six content creation considerations help us get better and they can do the same to improve any piece of content you create.  

  • Write. Then walk away. Get your ideas down and then walk away. Engage your mind on other work and return to it later so the ideas become fresh again. A refreshed eye will reveal what ideas are worth keeping and expanding upon, and those that just aren't clicking. If you’re working against a content calendar, don’t wait until the day of publishing to start writing. Give yourself some space to contemplate what you've developed.
  • Edit. Then edit again. Slash unnecessary descriptors. Remove extraneous metaphors. Limit your number of examples. Look at each sentence and ask – What must stay? What can go? If it’s helpful, set word count limits to help rein you in.
  • Ask for input and seek out a proofreader. These are two different exercises. With input you’re asking for a critical read about the content (content editing) from someone who is knowledgeable about your subject matter and can ask probing questions. In doing this, you’re helping the piece better resonate with your target audience. Finally, ask someone to proofread for grammar, punctuation, syntax, sentence construction, and so on. You don’t need to be an expert grammarian, you just need to have one on your team.
  • Focus on being better, not first. Looking to be the first to provide insight on a breaking news story? Good luck. There is a finite window for responsive content in relation to breaking news and a mad rush to be heard. As readers, we quickly reach a saturation point. So ask this instead: what perspectives aren’t being talking about? – and take that angle. You’re more likely to stand out in a sea of sameness that way.  
  • Not everything is meant for publication. The process of writing has a funny way of revealing interesting truths. Sometimes that truth is – this isn’t very good or I have nothing new to add to this conversation. Better to keep this work on the shelf than part of an online library that makes it difficult for your audience to find your best work. And who knows, after several good edits and a new angle at a later date, perhaps you can salvage elements of that effort.
  • Post and share with confidence. Realize nothing is perfect. There will be ideas and elements you wish you would’ve approached differently when you review your post months from now. But keep this in mind: when you’ve considered your steps to creating better content and remained true to your intent to be helpful and shed new light on a subject, allow yourself to be feel confident knowing that you’ve put forth your best thinking at the time. Your audience will benefit from that kind of effort.    

When pressed with the proposition of creating more content or creating better content, pause and take a look around at what’s being published in your field. Then decide what camp you want to be in and the type of audience you want to cultivate.

 

 

PROMOTE OR INSPIRE: which will you choose to do?

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

I had the opportunity to hear from Casey Neistat last Friday at a conference in Nashville. I was aware of Casey, but not fully dialed in to his body of work, his life story, and certainly not his telling of leaving an HBO series to focus on creating no-frills YouTube videos.

He was funny, engaging, and even a little brash but in a charming kind of way, and this video about bike lanes in New York City seemed to perfectly punctuate who I thought he was.

And then he chose to show us a vastly different video.

One that made me pause and ask:

What do we really want to convey to our audience?

Or maybe the better question to ask is:

What are we afraid to share with our audience?

In this age of story, products and services are becoming less interesting on face value. Yet the words on the wall – mission, vision, values – those things we say we stand for and that matter most, too often serve as business prerequisites rather than ideals to live out every day. It begs me to want to ask:

To the nonprofit, how are you serving your audience beyond the dollars of the coveted donor?

From the toothbrush maker to the business incubator, how are you really making lives better?

To the inspirational speaker who shares the remarkable experiences of others, will others point to your experiences as a source of inspiration?   

To the CEO and the chief marketer of AnyCompany USA, are you willing to break the rules? Will you give people a powerful reason to believe in you – not because the marketing is stellar and the plea suggests it’s worth the risk, but because you’ve continually taken the risks to prove you’re worth it?

To all of us who are confined by the built-in metrics of the tools we use, and fear to step out and do things that aren’t easily measured, isn't it time we swerve outside of the lane we’ve been traveling?

These are not criticisms of what we've done, but challenges to all of us about what we might consider doing differently. Each day we have the opportunity to promote our work. We also have the opportunity to inspire others through the work we do. The choice can be as subtle or dramatic as we see fit, but the choice is our ours.

Kudos to Casey for the having the audacity to lay out a vision that inspired before it promoted, and that cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. And kudos to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation for making the right decision. Film trailers are to be forgotten, but the way we impact and inspire others through our intentional actions... that's worth remembering and, every now and then, becomes the stuff of movies.        

POSTING & PUBLISHING: confronting the challenges we all face

As a content creator, I am aware that I am in constant violation of many of the rules that lead to success: what to post, when to post, how often to post, the right channels to post on, visual vs. text, and if the latter, knowing how long is too long and what is too short. 

Here's a confession: I struggle with this notion of posting and publishing.

It's not just about keeping up with the frequency demand and aligning with these purported best practices, but also the content merit of any post. Do I really have something that interesting, that urgent, or that profound to share with the world? I doubt I'm alone in my uncertainty. But one thing is certain: I don't bemoan anyone who is nailing the aforementioned rules and enjoying wild success. I'm just not on that page yet, and I question when or if I will.  

I'm also confronted with this reality: as a writer and a communicator, and as a strategist with marketing sensibilities, is it blasphemous to avoid (or recommend avoiding) publishing and posting on social? Wouldn't that be socially unacceptable in any 2016 marketing strategy? And, by the way, shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? 

Before answering those questions, consider these thoughts from an interesting interview with contemporary American writer George Saunders where he responds to a variety of societal hot-button issues, including his decision to refrain from on social media. Here's a relevant excerpt from that interview:  

"I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself. I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

"The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking."

Let's be honest: few of us are novelists or essayists. We're often writing copy about services and business solutions, not books. Some of us wouldn't dare claim our work as an art form. The approach Saunders takes is unique to him and by no means are hard and fast rules for, let's say, the OEM supplier or the not-for-profit organization. But Saunders hits on things that resonate with me as a strategist who leverages the power of words and ideas. In particular, this: 

"The more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible."  

Isn't this what developers of content, consultants and agencies should strive to deliver on behalf of clients? Shouldn't we be in constant pursuit of those clutter-cutting ideas, those anti-listicles that impart more than a checklist?

So back to the earlier questions:

  • Is it blasphemous to avoid publishing and posting on social? There's a place for all of us to utilize our voices for good on social. I embrace the power of compelling storytelling, so there's always opportunities to utilize these platforms we've been given. I would like to believe that when I publish and post, it's because I have something to say that might provide a different perspective or point of view. 

  • Shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? Indeed I could, but can't guarantee I will.  

Because, like Saunders, I find that the longer I linger with the story (e.g., the client's story, my own story), the more clarity and focus I get. The stronger the word choices become. This only happens when you and I invest the time and become deeply familiar with our subject matter, seek out points and counterpoints, and stew over the myriad of ways to say it -- whatever "it" may be.

Not everything benefits from hours of wrestling with what to say. The point isn't to navel-gaze, but to take the time to hone your thinking, know your voice and be true to it.  

Audiences rarely care that we miss a regularly scheduled Tuesday post or bi-weekly update. They care when they realize they miss the meaningful content we're providing, not the date or time it arrives. By easing our self-imposed time constraints, we afford more time to focus on creating better content.  

When we choose to publish and share our thoughts, we should slow down and take inventory. In doing so, we are banking on thoughtfulness and contemplative work over immediacy, of writing and refining versus the mere act of posting and sending, of eschewing the easy post for the one that requires more of us.

The end result isn't perfection or guaranteed success via likes and shares. It is the knowledge that the contribution is purposeful and hopefully unique. The belief that it matters and we will not regret the post at some point in the future. And the hope that perhaps we've found a way to say the interesting thing, the urgent thing and, if we're fortunate, the compelling thing. 

"Likes" and "shares" are nice. They're measurable and a quick barometer of interest. But analytics cannot measure the heart.

Perhaps the more heart we put into our work, the more likely our content will resonate with others -- which may or may not translate into a metric-measuring action. The question we must ask is: can we live within that reality and outside of the vanity metrics?

If so, cut yourself some slack. Take a bit more time if necessary. Be intentional. And if you feel so bold, embrace a positive definition of what it means to be socially unacceptable with your content strategy.