After “reading” my twentieth or so book on the amazing app Blinkist several years back, I came to a disheartening realization. If you strip a modern self-help book of its cover and its exposition, peel back the skin and pry away the muscle, the underlying ideas and even a fair amount of the supporting information are nearly identical from one to the next.
If you’re reading any one of the hundreds of books on productivity, those gold nuggets of wisdom probably include:
- Prioritize important tasks
- Trust your gut
- Make time for exercise
- Create short, daily to do lists
- Say no to non-essentials
In a nutshell, almost every communications expert has this to say:
- Be brief yet specific
- Be authentic
- Be vulnerable
- Check your body language
Marketing gurus (myself included, though I’m not technically a certified guru if you want to quibble) are also repackaging these weatherworn aphorisms under thrilling titles like “5 shocking truths about marketing”:
- Understand your audience
- Tell a story
- Keep it short
- Agitate the problem
- Solve the problem
To rehash or not to rehash, that is the question.
Is it true that there’s nothing new under the sun as the author of Ecclesiastes suggested thousands of years ago? Or has publishing become so ubiquitous that we’ve gotten lazy in our messages, preferring the straightforward route of the reboot to the more exhausting effort required to come up with an original statement?
Your first idea has probably been done already.
I’m often approached by business owners who want to create lead magnets to capture leads. As we brainstorm, the first half hour is spent throwing out ideas because they’ve already been done a million times before by other entrepreneurs who similarly wanted to create lead magnets.
Chances are if it’s the first idea that pops into your head, it’s already popped into at least fifty other heads (and the lead magnet has already been designed, written, and proudly offered fifty times). The question you have to ask yourself then is: Do I have anything new to add to this conversation?
What if you’ve got nothing new to say?
If your answer to the above is no, another question or two should follow: Do I care? Is originality a core value in my organization?
If your answer to these questions is also no, you might choose to run with the less than original idea even though it’s been done before. (Obviously, you should make a go of doing it better.)
People like confirmation of things they already know, and maybe we benefit from the unified if redundant message of every productivity expert to “just get your priorities straight, for Pete’s sake.” (Or maybe reading another productivity book buys us a little extra time to put off being more productive, so who cares what it says?)
But what if you’re hell-bent on originality?
You may choose another route. You may decide that you want to say something new, something ground-breaking.
New and ground–breaking aren’t easy to come by. First, you have to be familiar with the existing data in your field. Second, you have to be willing to question that data, to look at it from another perspective, or to toss it out altogether.
Why do we often choose the familiar message over the innovative insight?
Innovation is exciting, but it’s also intimidating. Innovative insights demand we look at something in a whole new way and maybe even change how we do things. It forces us to step outside of our comfort zones. Familiar messaging, on the other hand, reassures us that everything is fine just the way it is. It offers some comfort in a world that’s already changing all the time without people going out and intentionally innovating it.
If you’re an industry expert, expressing novel ideas can also put you at risk of sounding like a lunatic to others in your field. As a rule, we know an expert by their adherence to industry standards. When experts stray, their expertise may be called into question.
Back to the original question: Is content originality over-rated?
There’s room for both original and familiar messaging in most industries. It’s not necessary to jump on every trend or invent new ones to connect with people. Word of mouth marketing is the oldest strategy in the book, but it’s new and novel again because so much of marketing has gone online.
While content originality may be over-rated, an original brand voice is not. Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and more recently Jonathan Stroud of Lockwood & Co. notoriety all wrote haunted house stories. The content of their ghostly tales is nothing new. Storytellers have been sending blithely unaware protagonists (and readers) into spirit-plagued places since the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the philosopher Michel de Certeau even argued that “haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” But when Jackson, King, and Stroud wrote, their authorial voices transformed those bare, bony tropes into distinct, memorable, and completely original exemplars in the horror genre.
Likewise, your business voice is one of the things that sets your business apart from the competition (for good or ill), so it’s important to cultivate it, refine it, and in some cases, revise it to better fit the story you’re trying to tell.
How does your brand voice stand out from the rest? What makes your business exemplary?