I had been planning to write another piece in the socioeconomic evolution series. I wanted to clarify a lot of the material I introduced a couple weeks ago. It seemed like the “don’t be evil” framing got out of hand and distracted from the material it was intended to introduce.
This is something I struggle with often. I wrote a number of months ago about working backwards. That is how all my material takes shape. The ideas appear first and take on a life of their own. One idea connects to another producing a tapestry of interconnections…
Eventually it comes time to articulate these patterns and communicate them to others…and that is when the difficulty starts. It is at that this point that I need to invent some narrative device that conveys to you – the reader – why you should care. This would be easy if I knew a priori why I cared, but as I just explained, that is generally not the case. I care about a particular set of ideas because it made a bunch of intriguing connections in my head…not because I made a decision beforehand to study those connections.
Unfortunately (for me), remarkable content rarely begins with:
“Hey you! Here’s some stuff I’ve been noodling on. I think it’s pretty cool…So pay attention!”
This is where framing comes in – introducing the primary theme via some narrative device that subtly facilitates shared perspective with the reader. Admittedly, this an area where I need more practice.
It would not be such an obstacle if I were writing about the Facebook IPO or new Ipads. In that case I could just launch into it and assume that everyone knows what’s going on. But when introducing evergreen content generated by the random collisions in my head, inventing a compelling frame can be a challenge.
In face to face communication we would describe this as the process of generating rapport. It is usually accomplished through contextually appropriate small talk that eventually segues into the main course. Gradually you shift gears – clearing your throat, raising your voice, changing your tone, adjusting your posture and expression to indicate what is coming next.
The written word doesn’t avail itself to those same cues. The written word also constrains external contextual cues. We are not sharing a physical space at a dinner party, or a backyard bbq, or in a classroom. There is no shared notion of “the weather” to act as absolute last resort fallback when the small talk reaches a dead end.
Instead we share a simple two dimensional canvas. Any shared context must either be declared up front or artfully crafted into the narrative itself.
Sticking to the Formula
This is why so many bloggers are attracted to tried and true formulas. They precisely identify a legible target audience and subsequently stick to the script. If you know exactly who the reader is then you can skip all the difficult context setting stuff. The context is always assumed to be the target niche, plain and simple.
[The prevailing wisdom in the internet marketing world states that you should choose a niche and then narrow it down with at least two qualifiers. While this particular method is referred to as "the two qualifier method", countless other versions of the same general concept exist. Using this approach, OnTheSpiral might be - "the ultimate source for information on the attention economy for 20-something males who crossfit."]
Sadly, it is not uncommon to see positioning statements that are just that contrived. When used inappropriately, these statements merely provide window dressing, allowing hordes of me-too bloggers to republish the same tired material with only the most superficial amendments. (Which is not to say that the two-qualifier is never appropriate. It has its place for targeting certain types of marketing content.)
But my purpose in this post is not to disparage formulaic blogging yet again…
I am more interested in why/how these formulas come to be so widely accepted.
Shortcuts like the two-qualifier method seem to gain popularity because the alternatives are really hard – i.e. illegible, and therefore not easily conveyed via readily teachable methods. It is far easier to engage in simple stereotyping (categorical targeting) than it is to artfully draw the reader into your perspective. The latter is a skill not easily achieved without arduous self-directed practice.
Compelling content consists of (at least) two components: information and perspective.
Information provides the substance…the particulars. Perspective organizes the particulars, creating coherence.
The former is legible. The latter is illegible. Engaging content needs both. Information without perspective results in dry textbook style prose. Perspective without information results in hollow rhetoric.
Let’s return to the “niche plus two qualifier” method…where does it fail?
The problem is that all three components end up describing legible market segments. They end up constraining the information to be conveyed rather than the describing the intended perspective. Neglect of the perspective is almost inevitable given the phrasing of two-qualifier statements.
In my mock example above, “attention economy” is a legible topic area, while “20-something” and “crossfit” are both legible demographic/lifestyle groups. I might intend the qualifiers to act as proxies for perspectives, but neither is particularly useful in that regard. The fill-in-the-blank format inherently focuses the mind on legible constructs.
Compare to the Nike advertisement embedded below:
Now fill in the blanks. What is the niche and what are the two qualifiers?
Is the niche cyclists? Athletes?
You can’t identify any of the three because that isn’t how the ad is targeted. It is targeting perspective. Nike conveys the intended perspective (attitude) so poignantly that the ad transcends market segment.
Here we need to be careful….the Nike ad is not devoid of legible information. The fact that it features Lance Armstrong (specifically), that he did survive testicular cancer (specifically)…those details clearly contribute to the overall impact. However, those details do not constrain the target audience. It is the illegible content that accomplishes the targeting.
Compelling content can take either form. It can take the form of perspective supported by information, or information supported by perspective. In some cases the targeting might be shared between the two while in other cases the targeting is entirely accomplished by one or the other. A methodology that focuses the mind on only one or the other thereby imposes certain biases on the content creator that may not be appropriate.
So, if it is just as valid to organize content around perspectives…what can we say about perspective?
What Drives You?
A couple weeks ago I was talking to a frequent collaborator who mentioned a personality inventory intended to identify “core motivations”. This particular typology placed people into three groups:
- People motivated by achievement
- People motivated by influence
- People motivated by relationship
It struck me immediately that this list is one pillar short of a full house. Provided only the three categories above, many of the great thinkers throughout history would be left unaccounted for…
Where would you put Albert Einstein in this typology? (Having recently collected a bunch of quotes for my talk at Refactor Camp, this makes for easy fodder.)
You might guess that Einstein was motivated by achievement. Perhaps he was striving to win the nobel prize or to achieve some unique legacy in the field of theoretical physics. His own statements would disagree:
Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.
Perhaps instead he was motivated to attain the influence that is due someone at the pinnacle of his profession. Again, the evidence suggests otherwise:
I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind.
This typology clearly needs a fourth category, to which I will presume to affix the label “coherence”. Dictionary.com defines coherence as:
- the act or state of cohering; cohesion.
- logical interconnection; overall sense or understandability.
- congruity; consistency.
I suggest that people like Einstein are ultimately driven by a desire for “logical interconnection” or “congruity” with their external environment. Adding this fourth category also generates an symmetry that was previously lacking. We can now decompose the four types based on characteristics across two dimensions:
- Achievement – desire to create impact in the impersonal environment
- Influence – desire to create impact in the human world
- Relationship – desire for emotional interconnection with the human world
- Coherence – desire for logical interconnection with the impersonal environment
It is easy to see why this fourth “core motivation” might be missed.
Coherence seekers are potentially the most passive of the four types. The majority of coherence motivated individuals – armchair philosophers and the like – might easily fade into the background. Each of the other types seeks, first and foremost, either to interact with the social world or create some externalized impact (or both). The coherence seeker does not necessarily pursue either, except as such pursuits further his/her primary aim.
The minority who, like Einstein, are unambiguously notable, are easily rationalized into one of the other three categories (assuming we ignore their self-reported internal experience).
Blogging for Perspective
I indulge the tangent above because it offers a set of primitives to anchor our discussion of perspective. The core motivation typology is not definitive by any means, but it does give us something reasonable to work with.
If it’s not obvious already…I see myself as the fourth type. (After completing the associated questionnaire, I predictably scored as confused combination of the three acknowledged types.) I always bristled at the suggestion that I needed to define a priori a narrow target market. Early on, I didn’t have enough experience to pinpoint the flaws in the conventional line of thinking. I only knew that it felt wrong. I have learned over the years that those feelings often point the way towards further coherence.
As I have I have gradually gained experience, it has become apparent that there is this other, equally valid, method of organizing content. I have been unwittingly organizing around perspective from the beginning. The pattern only become apparent in retrospect.
Along the way, as I drifted from one topic to another, the readers who were anchored to specific legible domains did indeed jump ship. That was somewhat discouraging at first. Now I have accepted it…
Blogs organized around topical niche tend to wander around a variety of perspectives. They enthusiastically invite guest bloggers to contribute, introducing numerous (sometimes inconsistent) voices to the stream. That approach is appropriate for some purposes but it is not conducive to coherence. I prefer to meander through a variety of topics, all the while remaining true to a particular brand of coherence.
It is more challenging to build an audience this way. Perspective is difficult to externalize…and even when conveyed skillfully, it is sometimes difficult for readers to internalize as intended. Early efforts are rarely rewarding, and consequently the temptation always exists to milk any legible construct that succeeds in attracting attention.
But those who stick with it will inevitably get the itch to move on to new material…to seek new truths.
I have talked with several people over the past couple weeks who were wrestling in one way or another with this issue. They were all asking some variety of the question: How should someone like me be blogging?
All of these individuals were/are coherence seekers…they are people who excel at identifying patterns across a variety of disciplines and constructing unique perspectives.
The literal-minded types who overwhelmingly dominate the problogger space are ill-equipped to serve these explorers. The probloggers have never traveled this path and therefore, in their minds (for all intents and purposes) such a path does not exist. In a certain sense they are right. This approach does not avail itself to a single path…there is no formula, no twelve step method for instant success. But they are wrong to discourage people unlike themselves on that basis.
For the kindred coherence seekers out there, this my advice:
Recognize that you are setting off without a map or a compass, but don’t let that reality discourage you from wandering around blindly until you find your way.
I say this not from any position of authority but rather as a fellow blind wanderer. Whenever you endeavor to create something original, the normal rules do not apply (except where you decide that they do).
There is no requirement that you must respect existing categories. Your role-models are not other bloggers. Your role-models are other coherence seekers in whatever form they may present themselves. If you are to survive on this path you will need to become adept at translating the lessons from one domain to another.
The price you pay for this autonomy is extracted in the form of slow progress…sometimes apparent only to yourself. Make your peace with the fact that other people will often be unable to comprehend what you are doing, perceiving your efforts as naive stagnation.
Communicating perspective is an art. You gain in capability only through laborious practice. But you will also know unambiguously when you are pointed in the right direction…and once you get moving in the right direction, inertia takes care of the rest…for a while anyway
photo courtesy of miuenski