“Content”. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? This powerfully sterile noun has long since been adopted by a business universe that ought to know better. “Content”, after all, suggests something that is extruded from a pipe, lopped off in the needed quantity and hurriedly shunted into its prescribed space. “Content” is not writing. And despite the culture’s love affair with the term (even recently used to describe journalism [!] ), neither is “content” typically crafted to compel in the reader an emotional response, be it consumerist in nature or something more.
“Content” speaks to something provided in bulk, a bland and utilitarian commodity—beef, oil, lumber, flax seed, natural gas, polyester microbeads, copper, rap songs about bootie. Why do we call it “Content”? I mean…it is writing, isn’t it?
Okay. What is “Writing” then, Mr. Semantic-Pants?
[Please don’t call me Mr. Semantic-Pants].
In the olden days, when men still wore hats and tweeting was something done by birds at sunrise, businesses hired “writers” in order that their products be extolled in language that touched the subsurface instincts of the consumer. Yes, these “writers” “wrote”. Their output was called “writing”—a term burdened with perhaps more promising luggage than a word-count driven workday can bear anymore.
In the benighted days before creepy robotic spiders skittered all over the internet in search of optimized word clumps, the almighty Search Engine was known more colloquially as an Eyeball, and was much more discriminating than the algorithmic sonar used today. People looked for copy that seemed to speak to them, to single them out. Commercial writing at that time was a hand-painted message designed to stirringly convey an idea. “Stirringly?” Yeah, stirringly. Can you imagine?
Content is lightly colorized wallpaper. Writing is an invitation to the dance, where the “dance” is a colorful conversation on a topic that interests, and stands to benefit, both reader and writer.
Today, “stirring” the reader is more important than ever. Given the numbing blizzard of internet chaff your reader needs to walk through on a daily basis just to find your front door, your lil’ message will have to shine like a beacon just to be seen, let alone remembered. Imagine a lost traveler on foot in a gale at midnight, leaning for hours into the rain, staring ahead for some sign, any sign, of refuge. You seeing it?
Okay, now imagine the pinprick of light in the distance that signals shelter, warmth, and, just possibly, companionship. That life-promising glow in the distance is your message. This is what Actual Writing can offer the beleaguered internet traveler. Because whether you’re writing about API, ERP, CRAP, or a puddle of spilled ketchup, verbiage that immerses and enfolds the reader on some level is writing that offers shelter—”a clean, well-lighted place” as a literary language star once wrote.
The Emperor’s New Lexicon
Content flows into the CMS and helpfully occupies a space. Oh, and it says a little something, but that’s almost secondary. Much content is shameless space-filling expansion foam pretending to have weight and caloric payoff. Even the word “Content” is a sheepish confession, our harried commerce culture’s acknowledgement that there is time for naught but the daily extrusion of pumped word-matter to be delivered into its proper slot.
What’s worse, our inexorable downward spiral as a reading, discourse-enlivened culture increasingly confuses nitwit click bait and beige internet copy for news and information. “7 Reasons Your Boss Should Let You Wear Slippers to Work. Number Seven Will Flip Your Wig!” This is killing us, slowly. It is an Emperor’s New Lexicon situation. What do I mean by that?
Just as in the tale of the vain and naked emperor whose entourage was too cowed to do anything but pretend they saw his beautiful new clothes, we all consensually agree to treat “content”, even poorly cobbled-together junk, like it has weight and mass and meaning. This pretense is insidious and wounding. Our volume-driven content is sanding the edges off discourse itself. We are basically pumping Novocain into a constituency it is in our interest to enliven.
As our ‘content’ becomes as worn and shiny as an ancient pair of corduroy pants, the “messages” we’ve always pretended to be “crafting” will be less and less effective. Never mind the fact that we are also squandering endless opportunities to Authentically Engage our fellows. Yes, with a capital E.
Dark Matter, Writing, and Mom
Who hasn’t had the experience of clicking eagerly on an author or businessperson’s braying article link [or worse, offering your contact info as toll to precious gated content], only to find when you get in there that the content itself is an ineptly teased-up pile of empty meringue? Content is the dark matter of the internet; provably there, necessarily omnipresent—and often nearly invisible when you try to look directly at it. Why is this?
Because word count is the coin of the internet realm. Because message viability and marketing success are still measured in clicks and trackable “engagement” (lower case “e”). Precisely because content tends chiefly to be a volumizing commodity, its quality tends to run a distant second to its mere availability.
Content writers (and yeah, I’m one) are lauded for being able to “gin up” (to use a charming old expression) business writing so that it appears to be something more than blank verse with a deadline. Because the hiring pool is aswim with self-identifying and earnest People Who Write, too often you get content with distractingly Martian grammar, middle-school apostrophizing (“gets” does not require an apostrophe, for instance), and other crimes against Mother English; just when you need Mom at her most persuasive and endearing.
want need a Content Culture that once more sees value in Writing, one that understands that language is not just a tool. It’s a way of seeing, and of being seen.
“I Got You These Sparklers!”
In the right hands, written language is a fistful of sparklers, proffered to the reader like a Spring bouquet on a first date. Content is lightly colorized wallpaper. Writing is an invitation to the dance, where the “dance” is a colorful conversation on a topic that interests, and stands to benefit, both reader and writer. So, what should be a first step on this new journey to the center of the sun (so to speak)?
Write as if you’re writing to an individual, not to a professional designation or SIC Code-informed biological unit. As a for instance – we think we’re on the right track when we post an article about our software’s new Accounting module, and fill the piece (“1200 words, please”) with all the accounting argot we can lay hands on.
News flash: your reader is not primarily an accountant.
Your reader is a fellow human animal with hopes, fears, favorite sauces, and a predilection for deliciously awful monster movies. Her work is in Accounting, yeah. She comes home from the office, slides her briefcase into a corner of the entryway with the exaggerated flourish of a pro bowler, puts on some Candy Butchers or Blossom Dearie or Vulfpeck or Stars and becomes herself again. Write to HER.
Even if she loves being an accountant (and she very likely does), she is not thrilled to be constantly talking and reading about accounting. Duh? Your readers are a schooled, sometimes intensely schooled, professional class. Your accountant did not come into this world with accounting built into the rungs of her DNA. Accounting is what she does, not who she IS. She has a life. And this is where you come in.
That’s No Accountant, You Well-Meaning Fool
When writing your Accountant-directed Content (for lack of a more Shakespearean way to label it), if you just pour out competently written Accounting stuff, you’re taking your place in a long line of accountancy blabbermouths vying for her already accounting-barraged attentions.
And you’re missing an opportunity.
Signal through the writing that you grok her industry concerns and have come to the rescue, and demonstrate your wherewithal in the stuff you say. But say it like an interesting pal would say it. Despite all kinds of byzantine tech innovations in the marketing game in recent years, WORD OF MOUTH remains the kingpin of product or service marketing.
Bring that unassailable humanity to bear on your new relationship. Addressing your new acquaintance in the unbuttoned language of a confidant. The warm (and genuine) “humanspeak” will startle and please your reader, opening doors, lightening up the fraught “speaker/listener” relationship, and just incidentally giving you, the Writer, an opportunity to do what you do best—interpersonally touch someone with the gift of information. When your new friend responds, there will be an exchange of gifts.
Daily Life. Let it Inhabit Your Writing
Interpersonal mojo is the coin of this new realm. It’s a little realm called Daily Life. Heard of it? Business communication does not take place in a vacuum, outside of Daily Life; it runs right down the middle of this Daily Life thing. This isn’t literature, it’s much more vital than that. This is communication. We’ve come a long way on its riches.
So, yeah. There is an ill-advised firewall between “business writing” and writing that is actually designed to enthrall. Let’s make that firewall a bit more permeable. Let your writing, your “content”, swing a little. Your reader will fall right in. Isn’t that the idea? The business blogging world doesn’t have to remain flat. But that’s up to you.