Fiddling with content, while story, meaning and emotional connection burn

Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight famously said to an audience of newspaper reporters, “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.”

Part joke, part poisoned-tipped joust, the heralded Knight voiced an ambivalence about writing and writers that lingers within many college marketing departments and their creative agencies.

Entire blog columns and books have advanced the notion that “content is king.” That idea  traces to an 1996 essay by Microsoft founder Bill Gates who envisioned an Internet buoyed by fresh, enlivening content. Google Ngram shows that phrase rocketing straight into conventional wisdom. One could argue the theory, but the eye test says otherwise — the vast seas of web content carry mostly ephemera.

My first digital assignment — a 155-character meta description — began my re-education in a new hyper language, one that promised greater speed and potency. As newspaper writers, we learned a seven-second rule — the average time a reader engaged a news or feature lead before deciding whether to continue.  In the digital world, a second’s worth of someone’s attention felt like a gesture almost too full to imagine — or accept.

In this way, both writer and reader share responsibility for the spread of oversimplification. Did we first lose the habit of mind — our ability to read for meaning — or did we slowly stop caring much about the merits of any one piece of communication, conditioned by a tsunami of junk content? Either way, Knight’s glancing insult now sounds like something of a premonition. We no longer make time for careful story planning or reporting. Training and craft — even basic rewriting — have become luxuries.

Today, everyone writes, everything, all of the time, ostensibly on their way to achieving “greater” things for clients and colleges.

Content managers and management systems underscore the operational paradigm — efficiency over effectiveness. In this mechanistic environment, story has become endangered. Even as we marvel at the power of a good story to sustain global religions or topple empires, we find it too time consuming or burdensome to report our own.

While many colleges crave the rewards of great content — sincere audience connection, brand loyalty, unmistakable voice — few hire enough skilled writers to see any of it materialize. Marketing and communications teams, some staffed with fine and experienced writers, can easily get reduced to content sweat shops. Any impulse to write well or read for meaning must defer to a more pressing concern — curbing the (Google, Facebook, Instagram) algorithm’s appetite.

Many colleges ask why, despite investments in facilities and faculty, they struggle to move the perception needle. Wesleyan University President Michael Roth addressed the “perception gap” head on: “The richness of the curriculum and high quality of the instruction may receive a nod, but they are rarely celebrated. Promoting everything except what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but the result is to make the entire enterprise of higher education more fragile.”

One can only have high admiration for those higher education marketing teams and institutions that keep the story faith and carry on.  Despite everything, your insistence on reporting and telling human-scaled stories and speaking in an authentic voice will return lasting dividends.

Should you find yourself short on inspiration, look to smart retail for encouragement. Why did Apple find their voice, while Microsoft fell short? How is it that Southwest celebrates a brand vocabulary filled with self-expression and tiny gasps of joy, while other airlines stay grounded under the weight of formality and procedure?

In my experience, another inspiration is music. Like music, story and voice use language, but never language alone. They communicate with tone, color, vibrancy. Breath and pitch. Half and full notes.

The strategic value of good writing can easily fade amidst so much noise. Remember, voice is trust. A clear signal sent and received, time and again. Why hire, nurture and value great writers? For starters, they will help to restore trust, and allow you to build and sustain the tribe.