The wonder of me.Clearly, my job was to prove them right (the organizer, not my father). To show the audience what a brilliant person they’d snagged to grace their program. (Not at all coincidentally, this fatal assumption was the exact same one that caused the high-school graduation trauma you promised you wouldn’t bring up.) It didn’t help that I was invariably intimidated by the caliber of my fellow speakers and felt I had to somehow conjure up the illusion that I belonged in their company. The result of this home-baked combination of narcissism and Imposter Syndrome won’t surprise you: Boy did I suck. And when you suck as a public speaker, it’s not your garden-variety sucking. It’s not like murdering ‘Stairway To Heaven’ on a Sears-bought guitar in your bedroom, alone. It’s not like writing a short story ‘in the style of Nabokov’ when you’re sixteen years old and possess exactly 0% of the talent, experience or intelligence of the real Nabokov. (I’m still blushing from that one.) When you suck at public speaking, you suck in public. And, on most stages, there are very, very few good places to hide. (In my experience, most lecterns offer woefully inadequate cover).
It’s a show.Another fatal assumption I made as a beginning public speaker was that any talk is 99% about the content and 1% about the performance. If my stuff was interesting enough, I thought, I could rattle through it like the mumbling introvert I happen to actually be and people would leap to their feet, astonished, demanding an encore (what an encore of a talk about ‘The Power of Metaphor in Modern Marketing’ would look like was a problem for another day — a day that, you won’t be surprised to hear, never arrived and, you’ll be thrilled to hear, never, ever will)*. What do you think, is it time to unveil the point of this narcissistic stroll down memory lane? The point is that the fatal assumptions I’d made about public speaking are eerily similar to the biggest mistakes most content marketers make: that you need to show people how good you are; that you have to disguise the fact that you have no right to demand the attention of this audience; and that the content of your content is far more important than the presentation of it. The “It’s not about you, it’s about them” point has been made a zillion times by every third speaker at every content marketing event. The one about not being worthy is covered (obliquely) in our smash hit slideshare, The Other C-Word, which is about the power of confidence in content marketing. This post is about the third in my collection of fatal assumptions. Because here’s what I had to learn the hard way, in front of hundreds of patently unimpressed people: public speaking is first a performance. Whether you’re writing a blog post over breakfast (snap), creating an ebook on supply chain management (woo-hoo!) or developing an infographic with embedded podcast (duuuuuude), you’re creating a performance. And, if you don’t pay attention to the performance, your talk has less chance of delivering an idea to an audience than a sixteen-year-old kid from Connecticut has of writing a masterpiece that any New Yorker critic would ever call ‘Nabokovian!’. (Exclamation point mine. Also the New Yorker bit. Hey: it’s my fantasy). Every piece of content is a performance. If it succeeds as a performance it has a shot at being an idea-delivery medium. But if you fail at the first challenge, you are guaranteed to fail at the second (the thing that might move an audience an angstrom closer to a cash register).
Let’s steal from the best public speakersSo if content marketing is just like public speaking but in different media, maybe we can learn to be better content marketers by stealing the things that make people better public speakers. The good news: there’s a hell of a lot of advice out there about how to be a better public speaker (I’ve consumed most of it, often on the eve of a talk, in too-little-too-late mode). The not-so-good news: a lot of it is shit—built on the absurd premise that we all have an inner Tony Robbins just waiting to burst out of our chests, all teeth & charisma. But there’s a lot of very good stuff too. (My friend-and-also-friend’s-wife Tamsen Webster has built a thriving business on her mastery of the art and science of public speaking. Go buy her for your team.) And, of course, the best of the best is on display for all, for free, as TED Talks, the never-ending series of short, startling talks on a variety of T-, E- and D-related issues.
TED Talks are what content should be.If you want to make your content marketing better, you should crawl all over every TED Talk and figure out what makes them tick. Remember the good and not-so-good news above? Well, here’s some great news: someone has already done that for you. His name is Chris Anderson, the Head of TED, and he’s written a really good book called, TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. (The sub-title is to differentiate it from the pale imitators who use the TED name in their titles — accept no imitation). Even if you never plan to speak in public (probably a good call), I urge you to read this book. And try this: every time Anderson says the words ‘your talk’ pretend he’s saying ‘your content’.
How to do a great piece of content by pretending it’s a TED TalkThere’s so much good advice in this book for anyone producing content – about the performance side and the content itself. Here are some choice nuggets: Four talk styles to avoid:
- The Sales Pitch – “The speaker’s job is to give to the audience, not take from them.”
- The Ramble – “If 800 people are planning to devote 15 minutes of their day to your words, you really can’t just wing it.”
- The Org Bore – “An organization is fascinating to those who work for it – and deeply boring to almost everyone else.”
- The Inspiration Performance – “Here’s the thing about inspiration: It has to be earned.”
So get your TED onSo that’s my throughline: as a content marketer, every time you put something out there, you’re putting on a performance. Make yours powerful and memorable. Get personal. Start strong. End big. And stop hiding behind that goddamn lectern.
* Sometimes my sentences even appall me Photo source: TED, I imagine