So much bad advice …
Funny thing — you can ask for people’s favorite words of advice, and you’ll get a decent number of answers.
But ask for their favorite piece of bad advice, and you’ll really get a response. I did exactly that on Twitter, and the podcast and post this week are all about what I found.
It ain’t what you don’t know … it’s what you know that just ain’t so.
In this 21-minute episode, I talk about:
- Jason Miller’s smart article about why the “goldfish attention span” myth is dangerously wrong
- Why it’s a terrible idea to dumb down your content
- My suggestion — that you might find extremely dumb — for reframing a piece of content
- Publishing frequency myths and truths
- The most important thing you can learn from bad advice
The Show Notes
- If you’re ready to see for yourself why over 194,000 website owners trust StudioPress — the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins — just go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress
- Jason Miller’s article The Great Goldfish Attention Span Myth — and Why It’s Killing Content Marketing
- “One Tired Ema’s” Twitter account and really well-written blog
- Kelli Brown on Twitter
- Rae “Sugarrae” Hoffman on Twitter
- Pamela Wilson’s thoughts on formatting for clarity (without dumbing down)
- My recent podcast interview with Andy Crestodina
- I’m always happy to see your questions or thoughts on Twitter @soniasimone — or right here in the comments
Bad Writing Advice: The ‘Post Truth’ Episode
Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.
Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state of the art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, airtight security, instant updates, and much more. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 190 thousand website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress. That’s RainMaker.FM/StudioPress.
Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always find additional links, additional resources, and the complete show archive by going to Copyblogger.FM.
Today I thought I would have a slightly depressing episode for a word person, which is the Oxford dictionary’s word of the year for 2016. If you haven’t seen this yet, the word of the year is post-truth. Their definition being: Denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
This is related to a quote that is often attributed to Mark Twain, probably not correctly, interestingly enough, in keeping with the theme of the show, “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” That’s really the post-truth world, is lots and lots of people who are absolutely certain about things that do not happen to be grounded in the real world.
Today, instead of being depressed about it, we’re going to treat it as a celebration of the good old fashion fact and we’re going to celebrate those who challenge conventional wisdom and actually check things out for themselves and think critically, because we are all about that.
Jason Miller’s Smart Article About Why the “Goldfish Attention Span” Myth is Dangerously Wrong
I actually got the idea for this episode by reading a really truly nifty article written by Jason Miller about the goldfish attention span and you may very well, if you ever go to marketing conferences, you’ve probably seen a slide with this statistic on in. This idea that your content and your marketing need to be geared toward the fact, supposedly supported by research, that human beings are now so distracted and pathetic that we have an attention span of eight seconds, which actually makes us worse than goldfish. The phrase ‘research proves’ often accompanies this slide.
Jason did a really nice job doing a little bit of investigation of where this wacky statistic came from, because honestly, if you think about it for eight seconds, you’ll realize that it’s just not true and it can’t be true. What he found was that Microsoft Canada did some actually very interesting research on human attention spans and how they are changing. That research came from 2015. That research included an infographic that mentioned this, that claimed that human attention spans had dwindled to eight seconds, which put them one second behind goldfish.
I’ll quote from Jason here: “The only problem is that infographic wasn’t actually based on findings from Microsoft’s own research.” Then I’m going to fast forward a little bit: “When you look at it in any level of detail, the stat that has dominated a huge amount of marketing discussion since May 2015 isn’t based on any recognizable research at all.” End quote.
If I didn’t put this factoid into a slide, I could have. I certainly easily could have. It makes a great story. It makes a great slide for a conference. But it’s not consistent and, in fact, I’m not sure why on earth Microsoft would have put the infographic into their report. It’s not consistent with what their research was actually finding, which was not that attention spans were dwindling to something terrifying, but rather that attention was evolving, that it was changing, that how we pay attention was changing. I think we all know that, we all know that from our own experience, from simply looking around.
Devices probably are changing. They’re certainly changing how we pay attention. They could be changing how we’re physically wired, you know. Reading a prevalence of books changed a little bit of how the brain is structured, and so probably our devices are changing our wiring in some ways that might be pretty profound. However, that does not immediately turn us into goldfish.
I’m not going to summarize the whole thing for you, because it was a really good article, very to the point, nicely written. I will send you a link to go read the article in full and get a look at what the research actually did say. You know, what actually should we be doing with our content or with our marketing when we’re thinking about the new attention span and, spoiler alert, mainly it points to your marketing not being pointless or irrelevant. I think we already knew that. But there are some interesting facts and some interesting research findings there that I invite you to go investigate.
In the spirit of Jason’s article, and thinking about this theme of advice or truisms that we’ve all heard, we’ve all thought about, we’ve all seen, that may simply be wrong. Just flat out wrong, or at least not helpful in all circumstances. I went to my good friend Twitter and I asked some people what their favorite piece of bad writing advice might be. Or bad marketing advice would work also. Due to negativity bias, which is our innate tendency to pay more attention to negative things than positive things, I got lots of answer.
I’m going to present some of them for you here, and then in the interest of not making this podcast like an hour and 20 minutes long, I’m going to also compile some of the responses into a blog post. If you boogie on over to Copyblogger.com and check out the blog, you’ll find my post on the same question with some additional answers and also some thoughts from the Copyblogger editorial team.
Why It’s a Terrible Idea to Dumb Down Your Content
The first answer I got was from OneTiredEma who has a great Twitter account and actually a wonderful blog, and I will give you a link to that in the show notes. You can just type Copyblogger.FM in your browser and it’ll take you right there. She had kind of a multi-part tweet. “Worst advice: Dumb down content. So many fields are complex/technical, but worth exploring (for business or edification). There are middle ways of exploring complex subjects in intelligent but non-jargon language, such as a series of posts. Oversimplifying or skipping or leaving the content ‘rarefied’ does everyone a disservice.”
Then she had a postscript on that: “Also, dumbing it down leads to its own special sort of bad writing, in my experience.” I heartily, heartily concur. I thought that was lovely that that happened to be the first response I got back. This idea that it’s very related to Jason’s point about the goldfish. This idea that audiences are just dumb. They’re just stupid and they can’t pay attention to anything and this is often served with a giant helping of bashing against millennials, and they don’t have attention spans, and, “Get off my lawn you annoying kids.” This whole idea that audiences are dopes and you have to just make your content really stupid so that they’ll understand it. I am not seeing this actually work.
Now, there are some kinds of popular content that are stupid. For example, I was reading about the YouTuber PewDiePie, who is the most popular YouTuber in the world. His style has been described as ‘aggressive stupidity.’ Based on my exposure to his channel, I think that’s a pretty good description. Some things that are stupid are popular. That does not mean you should make your content stupid, because doing that will make you popular. That does not follow.
Now, clarifying things, simplifying things, presenting things in a way that’s clear, and you’ve done the thinking, and it’s well organized, and it’s properly formatted so we don’t have these walls of tiny grey text, those are all things you can do to make your content more accessible to people who are rather distracted, without making it stupid or dumb or boring. Stupid content just tends to be dull. Make it lively, make it interesting, and make it relevant, but don’t dumb it down.
My Suggestion — That You Might Find Extremely Dumb — For Reframing a Piece of Content
I’ll give you an example of what I mean and you may very well decide, once you’ve heard my example, that I am an idiot. Which is okay, I am cool with that. But I am with my son taking one of these free courses that you can take on Coursera, a college course. It’s an introductory college course on genetics. My son is 11, so it’s a little challenging, but it’s good. It’s an interesting course, and the guy’s talking about recombinant DNA. He’s talking about fruit flies.
First of all, these things are repulsive. I mean, they’re fruit flies. They’re hideous. He’s giving this example and this one has red eyes, and this one has shriveled up wings, and they’re just these gross, dead flies on one side of the screen and you’re trying not to look at them or you’re trying to understand the example. Honestly, if he had used examples from the X-Men, now I know the X-Men are not real, but I would have found that much more memorable. Right? If Mystique and Magneto had a baby, then which genes are recessive and which genes are dominant? Now I realize this is dopey, but it’s the same basic idea that the idea about recombinant DNA is the same idea. The numbers are the same, the math doesn’t get easier, but just presenting it with an interesting metaphor instead of hideous pictures of dead fruit flies makes the information just more appealing.
That’s what I mean when I talk about formatting it or packaging it to be appealing without making it stupid. You can very often find an interesting metaphor that makes your point. I don’t want you to dope your point down, and you probably think that that was doping it down, but I thought it would have worked pretty well. But, if you can associate your ideas with something that is interesting, that does meet the person where they are, then that idea is going to be easier to learn, easier to retain, and easier to recall. That’s kind of what it’s about, especially with content marketing. It’s actually teaching people something that they can remember and that they can use. Hopefully, Ema doesn’t kill me for suggesting that genetics professors talk about the X-Men in their lectures.
Why Long Form Content Still Has a Place
The second response I got was from Kelli Brown and interestingly, it was thematically, I thought, kind of close. Her example of bad advice was: “Long blog posts cannot do well, bore readers, don’t get shared, et cetera, and are therefore a bad practice by default.” Again, I thought this was interesting because she had no idea that I had just read the Jason Miller article about the goldfish attention span. Her observation on this was very much to the same point.
Now, long boring blog posts or videos or podcasts are a bad idea. Boring content, irrelevant content, is not a great idea. If it’s long, then there’s just more not-a-good-idea to go around. But there’s nothing wrong with long form content, it has a place. Some content creators are known for it and always have been. There have always been some content creators who went for long and complex and in depth over the short and the punchy and the super easy to grasp, the super bite size. Both of those content types can work, and if you feel so moved, you can have both of those content types within one content marketing program.
You can have some things that are bite-sized, and you can have some things that are longer and more thought out, really supported with more evidence. Just make sure, again, that it’s presented in a way that’s easy to consume. If it’s text content, things like: make sure you have plenty of subheads and make sure that your blog setup has plenty of white space. Things that make it easier to read online, easier to consume. But yeah, long form content can work really, really well. It tends to work for fewer people, but the people it works for tend to be the people who are actually going to do something with what you’re talking about. They’ll be the really good customers or they will create the most change in the arena that you’re trying to create change in.
Publishing Frequency Myths and Truths
I’ll wrap up with a thought from Rae Hoffman. If you don’t follow Rae you should, on Twitter she is SugarRae. Rae spelled R-A-E. Very smart woman, just very tough and brainy and smart at business, smart about SEO, and smart about business. Her suggestion for bad advice was: “Write as much content as you can.” Then her thought accompanying this was: “A plumber doesn’t need to publish three blog posts a week, nor does the world want them to.”
TJ had a thematically related addition to this that I thought was interesting. His bad advice was: “Publish constantly … Google wants to see lots of fresh content.” Then he expanded on that a little bit with: “Before Penguin, SEOs pushed ‘publish weekly.’ Google wants to see fresh content and active sites. Now it’s ‘Less is more. Quality!’”
TJ and I just had a little Twitter conversation about that. It’s true that Google likes fresh content. They do like content, they like sites that are publishing reasonably frequently. The kind of observation that I made in this conversation is, “A pile of crap that’s steaming is fresh but it’s still crap.” If you are publishing a lot because you think that Google cares more about freshness or recency than it does about something good, you are making an error. I know it’d much rather see you publish less often, but publish something worth, really, really worth publishing than push out a lot of mediocre stuff. Volumes of mediocre thin content have a very hard time getting any traction and a very hard time actually getting any business goals accomplished.
There’s always that one guy who’s like: “I’ve been pushing out weak, thin, terrible content for, you know, 10 years and I’m a millionaire.” I think that’s great, but I gotta tell you I’m not seeing that work for the people who are in my communities and the people whose sites I’m looking at and helping them out with. Thin, weak stuff, really, most of the time it just doesn’t work well. If it’s working well today, it probably won’t work well next year.
Publish good stuff and then your publishing frequency is at least in part dictated. Well, how often can you publish good stuff and how often can you make that happen? I think Andy Crestodina has really articulated some lovely things on exactly that point in both of the interviews he did for this podcast. I can give you links to both of those again if you just drop Copyblogger.FM into your browser, you’ll be in good shape.
All right, well as I said, I don’t want this podcast to go on forever and trust me, it could. When you ask people for their favorite piece of bad advice, you get lots and lots of feedback. I am going to be compiling additional Tweets into a blog post along with a few of these and a few thoughts on these, and some thoughts from the Copyblogger editorial team, because they also had lots and lots of thoughts on their favorite piece of bad writing advice.
The Most Important Thing You Can Learn From Bad Advice
For me, the recurring theme, the thing that keeps coming back to mind as I read these and chuckle at them and agree with them or, in some cases, only agree with them partway, is that a lot of these pieces of advice have their place. They do have contexts in which they are good advice. It is a good idea to publish content reasonable frequently. It does help you out, not just with Google, but it helps you out with your audience. Now, don’t create more content than people want to hear from, but yeah, creating content more regularly really is helpful.
It’s not so much that these are always bad advice, but that they can be taken too far or they can be applied in a context that doesn’t make sense. What I want you to take away is: when you get a piece of writing advice, and it might very well be an excellent piece of writing advice for many people, if it just doesn’t work for you, then you just have to sort of use your observational skills and your critical faculties and say, “That’s probably a great piece of advice for a lot of people. I have not found it works well in my situation.” And go on from there.
Our observation, not about what we believe to be true, what we know that just ain’t so. It’s not about that, it’s about paying attention to what’s working and what’s not working. It’s about moving forward on what’s working well and it’s about paying attention always. Just keeping your eyes open to the situation as it is, rather than the situation as you think it ought to be.
That’s it. Hope you will join me over on the blog. If you have a favorite piece of bad advice, and I know you do, please share it with us. You can share it either in the comments at Copyblogger.FM or feel free to drop something into the blog post over at Copyblogger.com. Either way, I’d love to hear from you. You are welcome to Tweet me always @SoniaSimone and I am looking forward to hearing your favorite pieces of bad advice and if you want to let me know your favorite piece of good advice, I’ll take that one too.
That’s it for today, talk to you soon. Take care.