My essential role in life is the creation of content. This is a nice way of saying that I write; in fact, I write a great deal. Literally millions of words have poured through my fingers and out a laser printer over my career. I’m not sure precisely how many, and I have no interest in counting. Workshops, process documents, reports, audits, plans, and even whole books have been thumped out of the keyboard.
That’s not a brag. It is to highlight an observation about how content gets created, and the influences that shape the ways that content is produced. In developing work—whether for myself or for my customers—I have tried to be original. I have never been a fan of one-size-fits-all, a truth all too evident here in my continued iteration of my favourite term: “it depends.”
If you are going to do something, then do it well. It needs to be relevant, it needs to be appropriate and it needs to be targeted correctly at its audience. This is especially true if you are going to the effort of investing dozens or hundreds of hours developing materials and delivering content. It needs to land, and it needs to land well, if it is going to be valuable and valued.
While that may be my philosophy and belief, it is seemingly not widely shared. As I alluded to last week, I have been bombarded in the past few months with online ads on how to be a better consultant, a better speaker, a better marketer and a better content creator. Every single one offers their take on the secret, never-before-revealed insights that will take you from ignored to idolized. They promise untold riches and unrivalled success, as long as you sign up to their course, coaching, webinar or consulting.
When you step back and look across these offers, something remarkable emerges. They are all the same. They offer similar formulas and approaches. The ads and the videos that accompany them follow the same model. The steps of their marketing style follow the same path at largely the same pace (with a big, “act now before it’s too late,” looming deadline and countdown clock right at the end). They are, overall, astonishingly derivative.
This isn’t new, of course. Plagiarism is a term that has been around for a very long time. As has the joke about stealing from one source being theft, while stealing from multiple sources is research. It’s hard to produce content. It’s easier to paraphrase—or worse, straight-out copy. Easier, but less credible.
Online marketers aren’t the only ones who do this. Particularly once you dive into the specifics of a subject, repetition is prevalent. I have sat through the same presentation, read essentially the same article, watched a similar video not because I’m repeating myself, but because the authors, speakers and talking heads are repeating each other. In many instances, they are borrowing content wholesale and simply regurgitating it.
The good ones at least paraphrase. But that is damning with faint praise. I will always remember the tragic delight I uncovered while searching for some background material for a presentation I was preparing. I wanted some alternate takes to the perspective I was providing, and I was curious as to what others had to say on the topic (which was relatively esoteric and narrow, even in a field that isn’t massively popular to begin with). What I very quickly found—to my initial disbelief and later amusement—were several web sites where the same (incorrect) facts and assertions were made by each author. In many instances, they also used the same grammatically incorrect and awkward phrasing to make their point.
While these are some of the (painfully) obvious examples, they highlight a broader challenge that many of us eventually face: it’s extremely hard to continually develop new content. The corollary of this is also true: it is extremely easy to create derivative content. It’s why so many people do it. This also isn’t specifically an issue that falls under realm of plagiarism. Many of us do it to ourselves.
For all that I highlighted at the outset the value that I place on originality, it has not always occurred. For example, there are many presentations that I have delivered many, many times to different clients. Sometimes, it is an introduction to project management. Or strategic thinking. Or strategic planning. Other times, it’s on the merits, value, roles and challenges of building project management offices. Perhaps it is about improving project management maturity. It might even be about how to improve organizational project or strategic management practices.
When I have been asked to deliver yet another presentation on a subject that I’ve spoken about many times in the past, it is enormously tempting to dig out a presentation I have done in the past, dust it off and repurpose and repackage it to accommodate the new request. Particularly where something delivered well and was received positively in the past, the temptation and easy solution is to reuse it again.
There is a reason why repurposing is easy: we are cognitively lazy. That isn’t just my opinion, but the conclusion of decades of research into behavioural decision making. Our brains don’t like doing the work if they don’t have to. If there is an easy way out, it’s tempting to take it. That is also not to say that you shouldn’t repurpose and reuse material that you have used in the past, especially when it has been successful. In doing so, however, there is a trap that you need to avoid.
The first time that I develop a presentation takes work, as you can imagine. I need to get clear on what I’m driving at; what outcome I am trying to arrive at, and what conclusion I want to support my audience in taking. There is work to identify the messages, structure the content and lay out the presentation in a way that is relevant, meaningful and appropriate. There is time spent considering what interaction would be valuable, and how to engage in discussion to help make that conversation occur. The presentations that work really well are the ones where this up-front work pays off in clarity and confidence for me, and comprehension for the audience.
Doing this takes a great deal of effort. Producing a one hour presentation can take anywhere between 8 and 24 hours to produce, depending on the complexity of the content and the depth of visual presentations. There is a trade-off there; throwing slides together that are just words takes comparatively less effort. Distilling a presentation to the essence, and finding and developing meaningful visuals that reinforce the message takes significantly more time and thought to prepare.
That is all well and good when you are choosing to build new content. It’s when the repurposing happens that the real challenge emerges. Building new is work. Reusing existing content can be no work at all. That is where the danger lies. The first time you deliver a presentation may rock; you are focussed, in the zone, the material is fresh in your mind and you are clear about what you are trying to do with the audience. Do the same thing over again, though… and difficulty emerges.
The temptation is to flip through what you did before, remember how well it went, and decide to do the same thing all over again. Total investment: maybe five minutes. Walk into the room, though, and attempt to make that happen and there is a very real risk that you will leave them cold. Deservedly so. In terms of preparation, you just went from doing all of the work to doing none of the work. You are riding on the coattails of past you, and hoping that you will still be just as awesome this time around. It just isn’t likely to happen.
The challenge here is many-fold. The audience is different. What they care about is very likely different. What they need to hear, as a result, will need to be modified. The same perspective and stories may not resonate, they may be responding to other challenges and what they are looking for in a solution—or a trusted advisor—may shift as a result. Your attention is different as well. In building the presentation the first time around, you thought about audience, and outcomes, and approach; you considered message and you sifted through structure. This time around, you just did what you did that worked the last time.
There are ways to appropriately re-use material, and there are ways that are pretty much doomed to fail. If you want to revisit previous content to solve current challenges, you can, but it requires thought and deliberation. The same initial thinking about the problem needs to occur, and the same critical evaluation about how you approach the solution. The complicating factor is that you now have existing material to use; that sounds easier, but it can actually be harder.
Once you have taken the time to be clear on what you are trying to do, you need to critically assess whether the material that you have will get you where you need to go. You need to be totally comfortable with the fact that the answer might be “no.” Or at the very least “not entirely.” My preferred approach—and what I would recommend—would be to start with defining the structure you need, as if you were planning the content from scratch. Then go back and assess how much of the content that you have fits and aligns with what you are looking to create.
In doing this, you might discover that some components still work well and are fit for service. Others aspects might require tweaking or nuance; that might be in terms of words on the page, or simply in how you present and speak to the content that you have. There will be times, though, where what you have simply doesn’t work (or isn’t anywhere near as good as you remembered it). That’s where you are going to dig in and figure out what else need to be created. This is also where the real work begins, in that you now have to figure out how to creatively bridge the components that you have with the content that you need.
Have an opinion. Be clear about what you are trying to do, and critical about what doesn’t serve your end result. That is true whether you are evaluating the work of others, or considering your own work and its relevance for what you are doing now. Engage. React. Support what you like. Argue about what you don’t. Make a case for where you need to go next. The creative juices that comes from reacting to what has come before can be just as useful and relevant—and actually lead to a better result—than approaching each piece of work as a blank page.
We never really start with a blank page; everything we do is shaped by what we have done before. The creative work involved in building up from ground level, though, is work we know we need to do. When we know we are building on what has been done in the past is where we think it becomes easy to take shortcuts. Those shortcuts are invariably longer—or less effective—than if we do it right the first time. Rework can take as much—or more—effort as new work. Know that, accept that, and tell the cognitively lazy part of your brain to pipe down when it tries to convince you otherwise.
This topic makes me thing of The Beatles and other great bands who would reinvent themselves over and over so their sound was different.
Mark Mullaly says
Great feedback, as an awesome analogy.
I think there’s an interesting thing to explore there, about reinvention for the sake of reinvention—which sounds painful and is arguably unproductive—and continued striving for better.
There’s an awesome read from a while ago in the Atlantic about the recording of the Beatles from the technical side of things that talks a lot about that process of reinvention and striving. Awesome read.
Michael Hilbert says
Excellent points. It reminds me of a specific presentation that gave during my past life as a 9-1-1 Director. We had a gas explosion that leveled 8 houses and killed 6 people. As part of our after action / lessons learned review, I created a presentation that dealt with the incident from the perspective of the 9-1-1 Center. I was asked to give this presentation multiple times, to different public safety and civic groups (Up to the State level). I attempted to frame each presentation from the perspective of that particular group. The facts of the incident did not change, there was an explosion and people died. What I changed was to highlight the incident points from the perspective of that groups unique interests. While the core presentation was the same, the changes allowed the audience to view it from a perspective they were involved in, familiar with and could relate to in within their particular function.
Mark Mullaly says
This is an awesome illustration of the kind of scenario that the article was trying to address. The value creation is entirely centred on what you identified as, “I attempted to fram each presentation from the perspective of that particular group.”
This is where the work is. This is where connecting with the audience, and their expectations, and the outcomes that you are trying to create, actually live.
It would be easy to say, “Been there, done that, delivered the presentation.” And to roll out of bed essentially assuming that you’d just do what you did last time, and that should be good enough. That’s the temptation that exists when we’ve done it before, and we are being asked to do it again. Taking what we’ve done, and reframing it from the perspective of “what does this audience need to hear?” is the essential exercise of keeping the message focused, the delivery fresh and the content tailored to the intended target.
Thank you so much for sharing!