The advice that helped you get across the street as a kid can help you populate your blog. In my class today, we are talking about coming up with ideas for reader-friendly content, and for a lot of people, that is the hardest thing about writing.
I’ve written already about the types of content you produce, the things your audience needs to know and the things your audience wants to know and I’ll be talking today about using variations on a topic to come up with ideas.
Another technique you can try is bringing ideas across media. Here’s how it works:
Stop. Use your reading habit to find ideas in a lot of places. You know you can use an .rss reader to keep up with writing in your area of interest. But do more. What are popular podcasts in your area? Do your YouTube subscriptions bring in new ideas? Keep a list handy in the cloud so you can add to it when deliberately searching and on the go.
Look. Train yourself to attend to serendipity. You are surrounded by content pretty much all the time. Look intentionally at billboards, that TV channel that they plan in the grocery store, the back cover of the magazine that lady is reading on the bus. Snapping photos of things you want to remember and pinning them on a private Pinterest board is a good way to remember this kind of information.
Listen. There’s content that you are interested in, and there is content other people are interested in, too. People talk about media frequently, it is worth it to pay attention to the things they say, both for topics and smaller pieces of information that are interesting. For example, the Superbowl featured a bunch of new ads, like usual, and people have favorites. When they talk about the ones they like, ask questions – what did you like about it? Who was your favorite character? What surprised you? This can give you ideas for both topics and approaches in your own work.
I read a lot. In fact, most days, the first thing I do in the morning is head to the computer to check out what good ideas other people have come up with that people who follow me on social media or here might be interested in. I pick and share the best, and that, in a nutshell, is curation. Here’s what I told my students about it:
I teach the introductory writing course in our majors, and the assignment I give on the first day is to go out and interview someone in a particular demographic about their news use habits. It’s not a scientific survey, to be sure, but it usually gives some interesting results.
First, the good news – all 36 people my students interviewed said they did follow the news in some way, regardless of age or gender. That’s important for a communication major looking to justify his or her career choice amidst a barrage of messages that news is dead. It’s not.
Second, although the great majority consume news online, the ways of finding it vary.
Some highlights –
Social referral was tops for those under 30. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were quite important to that age group – so much so that I asked my students to estimate what percentage of Americans use Twitter, and they guessed 80. (hint – that’s very wrong. It’s more like 20) Think of social referral like amateur curation.
Lifehacking the news was important for folks 30-50. People in that age ranges were like to use aggregation sites like Yahoo News or the Drudge Report or RSS readers to find their news and would regularly check those sites during the day. They also used some legacy media like drive time radio and legacy media web sites. We talked about how aggregation is a tricky one, since in some cases it’s an algorithm that is determining what’s important for people to look at.
Habit won the day for those 51 and up. They used TV news and newspapers at planned times during the day. My students said they thought these older Americans aren’t on line or don’t use social media. That’s also wrong. It just seems that they don’t see social media as a means for finding out what’s important. Out of the whole survey, these folks were most likely to trust professional curation.
If you are in an emergency, you need to use multiple channels. The youngest respondents were the most likely to say they would use a search engine to find out what is going on right now (which is frightening…). In the middle would check news websites. The older respondents all said they would turn on the TV.
Ultimately, the message for communicators is the same: know your audience and find them where they are.
I am mostly through the big annual conference for professor types in my field. Major topics of discussion include what we should be teaching students?
- Social media is a thing and you have to deal with it.
- The advertiser-supported model has changed and you have to deal with it.
- Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it.
In my mind, these all fall under the same umbrella – if you want to get paid for what you do, you have to have an audience and prove you have an audience. Not too long ago, a major ethical concern in journalism was not letting the ad department influence news content. (This is still true, although definitions are getting stretched in some disturbing ways.) But as the audience now finds your content mostly in ways other than picking up a paper from the front porch or tuning in 11, the journalist needs to be adept at selling his or her own messages.
Social media is a thing
I was really surprised yesterday to see conference tweets suggesting things like “Students should learn to use Twitter professionally”. Of course they should. If you are a writer, you must. The deconstruction of news caused by search means that audiences follow stories, not news brands. And they need help to have important stories pop up above the huge amount of noise caused by the “everyone can publish anything” online environment. So help them. Share what is important. Your work, and the work of others too (because sometimes they share back). You have to deal with it.
The advertiser-supported model has changed
Drops in advertiser support mean shrinking news staffs and fewer jobs for our students. Don’t despair. We still live in a mass-distribution economy, and purveyors of goods and services still need to reach potential buyers. And seeing it in conjunction with trusted content from a news organization probably works better than expecting people to join a Widgets-R-Us community or follow Soapy Soap on Facebook. But here’s the thing: You have to be able to prove that the advertising works. Works means gets people to buy things. When that connection is made online (where most news is today), you can measure that. Return on investment is an emerging area in digital marketing. It’s different than charging an advertiser based on impressions, or views or even clicks, and right now, it’s being defined. If you are a news organization, you need people who understand this. If you are an individual producer of content (like a student developing a portfolio), it’s a kind of knowledge you need to have. Analytics-driven media is here to stay, and you need to deal with it.
Big and bigger data is here, and you have to deal with it
Most journalism students are quite grumpy about dealing with numbers. Ask around at this conference, and you will find many faculty who have to review 6th-grade math concepts in college classes. But we need to get over that, if we want to have value in the marketplace of ideas. It’s time to train students to focus on their unique selling proposition as professional journalists. One component is professional ethics. This is hugely important, but I think by and large we do a pretty good job of teaching about that. The other is stories you need a professional to tell, and increasingly, those are data-based stories. Interview-based stories are ok, but they are also relatively easy to do. My students are reasonably good at it after a single course. Bloggers can do relatively easy things, too. So we have to be better. Instead of relying on the bureaucrat to tell you about the growing or shrinking STD rate in your city, you can get the data yourself, see what is really happening, and ask much better questions. Skill in locating, analyzing and interpreting data is something most people don’t have, and can be a reason people read your stories. Numbers tell stories, and you have to deal with it.
If you read this post, you probably came here from social media. And I’ll be using analytics to learn some things about you that will help me to write better content in the future. If you are a writer, these are things you’ll want to deal with as well.
If you want to build and keep an audience, you can take a lesson from Mimi. My tall, classy great-grandmother wouldn’t step out the door of her house (even to the mailbox!) without earrings and lipstick. Her rationale? People are always watching and judging you when you are in public. If you are a communicator, your work is always in public. Here’s how to be beautiful.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – sayings aside, it’s up to your audience to decide what’s good to them. Are they the types who want in-depth rationale and example, or is a quick listicle really going to catch their collective eyes?
Use language correctly – Jokes about grammar nazis aside, people definitely judge you on your mechanics. Spelling ALWAYS counts. Usage and punctuation are important as well. Basically, if you can’t be bothered to look up if it is who or whom, why should I think you bothered to get the facts straight?
Take the time to be elegant – This is going to vary depending on your audience, but a general rule of thumb is to be simple and short. Whenever possible. (As I was writing that sentence, I almost used the word “heuristic”. Bad choice – not simple. Edit for ease of reading.
Pro-tip: Follow the ugly
When you go to professor school, you spend a whole lot of time following the ugly. Reading tough, twisted writing. Sometimes spending days nauseated in front of or inside a microfilm machine. It’s painful. But a lot of the best ideas come from the ugliest sources. Much like monks wear robes as a sign that they are concerned with higher things, many great thinkers don’t bother with concerns like being readable, as a sign that they are focused on the ideas. BUT, a lot of times the ideas are some of the best. So, as you do your own reading and research, take the time to look past the aesthetic and to struggle through the wording when the content is worthwhile. Most people don’t bother, so you just might end up a little bit smarter than everyone else.
I am at a sort of a writing retreat this week, and i thought it might be interesting to document my process.
Writing starts with a usable idea and an audience. These are in the same step, because I seem them as inextricably linked. A usable idea is one that I can competently cover giving the time and resources that I have. For example, I teach writing, so that’s pretty straightfoward for me to write about. I do research about communication technology. So, ditto. I can say something worthwhile with appropriate research because I already have the context. I’m not a big auto racing fan, so if I try to write something about the best performance tires for Darlington, I’d better have a lot of time to understand the context of the field so I can interpret the facts.
Then there is the audience – who will actually read this work, and what are they like. This post gave some ideas about the types of readers. I think a lot of academics think about argument more than audience. But audience is critical. If you are using evidence or logic that will be rejected out of hand, for example, you are wasting your time.
Next is research. This means finding what others have said about the topic, and digesting it into the major views on the topic. For me, this is usually looking at the work of other academics in books and journals, but not always. For a blog post or a Tweet, it may be the arguments of the day or interviews that I rely on. In any case, I like to have most of my ammunition in place before I write.
The next step is the hardest – matching the first two elements into a structure. What should my central point be? How much evidence do I directly provide, and how do I summarize and support in a way that’s the most effect for my intended audience. Remember that it’s not just about you and what you want say. It’s about the people who give my writing life by consuming it and what they want and need. This is a complex process. For me it involves a lot of using optimal distraction to help me think.
Then there is writing. Honestly, by this point when I know what it is that I want to say, I blow through this pretty quickly. It’s lousy on the first draft – especially the first half of the first draft. I’m ok with that, though. I think of the drafting as basically the second half of the thinking.
Finally, I fix it. I go back to number 1 – my idea and my audience – and edit with the question: Am I getting my message across? It may take a couple of rounds here, and if I can, I get someone else to read it for me, to give me an outsider perspective.
A wise editor I knew once said there are two kinds of stories that the news media have to worry about: Hey, Wilma stories and Spinach stories.
Hey, Wilma stories are the ones that are inherently interesting to the audience. They frequently use news values like celebrity, bizarreness and impact to generate interest from the readers. They are the things people want to read.
Spinach stories are the ones we would call dull, but important. Things the city council does, for instance. They are the things people need to read. In the new media ecology, spinach stories are a hard sell, indeed.
Lots of times, media are criticized for having too much Hey, Wilma, and not enough spinach. Just this weekend, I was reading a book by a colleague who criticized the media for reporting blood and gore ahead of higher-impact matters like infectious disease. That’s true. It happens, but not for the reason you think. It’s not some sort of sick interest on the part of journalists or their audiences. It’s not (always) some impure profit motive that causes media to give the people what they want, even those people will go on to kill themselves through information malnourishment (although this happens more and more).
It’s the very nature of news itself, which is what’s new, what’s different, what’s stuff I need to know about now. Although large-scale risks and consequences are certainly important, if they’ve been around for ages, they are unlikely to make the news.
So what’s a writer to do? Even if you are writing for marketing, that novelty news value is key (probably second only to emotion in gathering attention).
- Novelty can be a change in something (more people did something, prices haven’t been this low in 20 years, etc.)
- Novelty can be a new area of interest or new product (Trader Joe’s does a good job of this).
- Novelty can be a new action (“charity donates 20,000 mosquito nets” can be novel)
- Novelty can be an unexpected source (“charity started by a 10 year old” would really be novel)
Important, though, fake novelty doesn’t work. The fact that you are discounting prices on Black Friday, just like you do every year? Not novel and seems manipulative.
But whether your message is pro-social or pro-business, novelty can work for you.