A couple of decades ago it was the usual thing to declare oneself overwhelmed: by mass media, advertising, the demands of the professional world, the juggling circus-act of family life, the swirl and churn of politics.
You could barely hear yourself think straight. And those were the good old days.
Then the smartphone tipped us into the realm of continual static. There’s no denying that the decade since the rise of the pocket computer and the ubiquity of social media have altered the landscape of what goes on between our ears.
It’s not only that we’re inundated with messages, but as the messages have become too many to count, they’ve also splintered and fragmented. They come at us customized, crafted to fit our predilections and prejudices, machine-shopped and focused directly at us—all the while operating on old assumptions of marketing and advertising, both of which were founded on principles of manipulation and diversion.
Which is why they don’t work anymore. A funny thing happened between then and now: We’ve trained our minds to be more discerning. It’s really a matter of self-defense, or self-preservation—the cacophony around us has become static. The advertising message doesn’t penetrate. We’re inundated in online ads targeted to our Google searches and demographic profiling, most of which we ignore.
We hear marketing slogans and recognize them as inauthentic, pre-tested attempts to captivate our attention in ways that used to work when their creators first got into their business. The goal is the same—to connect, to influence, to transmit. But we’ve managed to create an invisible fog around each of us that is terribly difficult to pierce.
It’s probably the supreme irony of this digital-drenched moment that the best way to reach people today is with one of the most primal tools in our arsenal: authenticity through story. A true voice, speaking plainly, framing reality through narrative’s power—that’s the chord that breaks through the static, the laser light that gleams through the thickest mist.
The ways of delivering these stories—long, short, and in-between—are a mix of old and new. Print isn’t going anywhere, but what that means is being determined every day. Social media and digital delivery are as powerful as advertised (humor intended), but in those realms we’ve all ingested a century’s worth of clickbait that doesn’t work as well as it did a few short years ago and soon will lose the power to influence (because it never had value, or truth).
The voice that speaks clearly, with intent, with truth, and with value: That’s what’s being heard today. And once you hear it, you know you want to listen—because you’ve been aching for it for years.
By Quinton Skinner
Quinton is a writer, editor, novelist, storyteller, and communications consultant
I have to confess to having a complicated relationship with the whole notion of content.
Content: something that fills up something else, like so many foam peanuts in a cardboard box.
Content is hot. Everyone wants a content strategy, a content marketing plan, or a snazzy platform for their content. In each of these terms, the focus is on the wrong thing--strategy, marketing, and platforms. That’s where the value is placed. The content of the “content” is almost beside the point. It’s foam peanuts. The important thing is that we have a strategy for where and how we sprinkle them. We want to make sure the user has a cool experience with the box in which we package them.
There are real and useful considerations in the realm of platforms, boxes, and experiences, but none of them matter if you don't have something fundamentally valuable to offer in the first place--something insightful or amusing or profound; something new; something true.
I don’t know who came up with the catch-all category of “content,” but I can guarantee you it wasn’t a writer. A writer would have more respect for words, would know how much they matter.
Writing is thinking. It’s a rigorous discipline, an art. It’s how one person distills and packages an idea, channels quicksilver emotions, visions, experiences, questions, convictions, and hopes, and smuggles them past someone else’s face into their heart and mind.
It’s how we connect, how we influence and inspire one another. It’s part of what makes us civilized.
In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that we can’t conceive of something without a word for it. In cultures whose languages don’t have separate words for “yellow” and “orange,” people have a harder time differentiating between the two hues.
Language is inextricably tied up with cognition and perception. To learn new words is to expand the menu of your life, broaden your opportunities for experiencing and savoring all the myriad nuances of being sentient.
How comforting to know when you experience schadenfreude that it’s a common enough human emotion to have been granted a name--and how delicious to identify and surrender to it. Without the word, what would you think you were feeling? Mere guilty pleasure? (That’s different: an ill-advised whiskey on ice after bar close, or a mid-afternoon weekday nap when your to-do list looms. Distinctions, distinctions.)
To write is to find out what you think. It is to identify, distill, and articulate your own unique point of view, which, without being wrangled by the pen like sheep by a dog, might very well remain blob-like--amorphous and indistinct. And then how could it influence anyone?
The pen is a spigot on your brain. Open it up, let it flow, and things may emerge that you had no idea were lurking in that opaque rain barrel. To read good writing is to feel the top of your head lift off like a hat in a strong wind--images and ideas rushing in, taking root, and making the rainforest in your mind more alive and diverse. That’s not something “content” does.
“Content” shows no respect for gradations. A robot-generated SEO listicle equals a thinkpiece equals a confessional essay equals an in-depth journalistic exposé equals a video of a donkey in a hammock. Grist for the mill, chum for the sharks.
We have a harder time seeing the difference between yellow and orange when they’re lumped together under one word. We lose the difference between keyword-pushing blog posts, void of all meaning, and incisive, revelatory writing when it’s all just content.
Content is a bag of gummy worms you mindlessly consume until you’re guilty and ill, vowing never to do it again. (Not great, as a marketing strategy.)
Here are some words to remember and reinstate: poetry; essay; argument; manifesto; propaganda; missive; instructions; agenda; prose; infographic; sales pitch; exposé; announcement; editorial; invitation; note; letter; novel; confession.
What are you creating? Is it foam peanuts and gummy worms? If so, you can stop now. We have enough, thank you.
What are you consuming? Foam peanuts will gum up your brain. Experiment with naming the “content” you consume and see if you don’t start gravitating to more nutritionally dense and artfully rendered fare.
By Mo Perry
Mo is a writer, editor, storyteller, and performer