If you’re a Star Trek fan you might recognise this famous quote by Dr ‘Bones’ McCoy. At the time he was applying his surgical skills to a silicone-based life form, using nothing but a trowel, but it reminded me of the dilemma facing business owners who are being told by marketing gurus to produce great content (blogs, video, audio, etc).
They might reasonably say, “I’m a recruitment consultant, not a journalist!” but nonetheless there is a compelling case for companies to create and share interesting and engaging content. TWO such reasons – it makes you more visible on the web AND helps to convey your unique voice as a business.
However, to generate authentic material from within your workforce you need to convince them it’s a worthy mission AND help them identify what sorts of things people might want to read. When it’s done badly, the content is an endless stream of sales messages produced by the marketing department. A better effort is to let the staff talk about their work – a ‘day-in-the-life’ diary-style piece can work well, especially if some of the writer’s personality is allowed to come through.
Taking it to the next level might involve some really good observations of everyday life, and finding interesting ‘angles’ which demonstrate a depth of thinking that few company blogs display.
I’d like you to read an extract from ‘Neither Here Nor There; Travels in Europe’ (Black Swan 1991), one of the many books written by my favourite travel writer Bill Bryson. He’s a master when it comes to close observation and sells millions of books off the back of it. Enjoy this description of a visit to a restaurant in Sorrento, Italy!
“I had dinner at a restaurant just off the square. It was packed, but super-friendly and efficient and the food was generous and superb – ravioli in cream, a heap of scallopine alla Sorrentino, a large but simple salad and an over-ample bowl of home-made ice cream that had tears of pleasure welling in my eye sockets.
Afterwards, as I sat bloated with a coffee and a cigarette, resting my stomach on the tabletop, an interesting thing happened. A party of eight people came in, looking rich and self-important and distinctly shady, the women in furs, the men in cashmere coats and sunglasses, and within a minute a brouhaha had erupted, sufficiently noisy to make the restaurant fall silent as everyone, customers and waiters alike, looked over.
Apparently the new arrivals had a reservation, but their table wasn’t ready – there wasn’t an empty table in the place – and they were engaged in various degrees in making a stink about it. The manager, wringing his hands, soaked up the abuse and had all his waiters dashing around like scene shifters, with chairs and tablecloths and vases of flowers, trying to assemble a makeshift table for eight in an already crowded room. The only person not actively involved in this was the head of the party, a man who looked uncannily like Adolfo Celli and stood aloof, a £500 coat draped over his shoulders. He said nothing except to make a couple of whispered observations into the ear of a pock-faced henchman, which I assumed involved concrete boots and the insertion of a dead fish in someone’s mouth.
The head waiter dashed over and bowingly reported that they had so far assembled a table for six, and hoped to have the other places shortly, but if in the mean time the ladies would care to be seated….He touched the floor with his forehead. But this was received as a further insult. Adolfo whispered again to his henchman, who departed, presumably to get a machine gun or to drive a bulldozer through the front wall.
Just then I said, ‘Scusi’ (for my Italian was coming on a treat), ‘you can have my table. I’m just going.’ I drained my coffee, gathered my change and stood up. The manager looked as if I had just saved his life, which I would like to think I may have, and the head waiter clearly thought about kissing me full on the lips but instead covered me with obsequious ‘Grazie’s’. I’ve never felt so popular. The waiters beamed and many of the other diners regarded me with, if I say it myself, a certain lasting admiration. Even Adolfo inclined his head in a tiny display of gratitude and respect. As my table was whipped away, I was escorted to the door by the manager and head waiter who bowed and thanked me and brushed my shoulders with a whisk broom and offered their daughters’ hand in marriage…. I turned at the door, hesitated for a moment, suddenly boyish and good-looking, a Hollywood smile on my face, tossed a casual wave to the room and disappeared into the evening.”
It’s a wonderful piece of writing, closely observed and a great example of how Bryson finds amusing material wherever he goes. You may say, “Well, I can’t write like that!” Quite possibly, but my belief is that we can ALL get better at seeing the things around us that could make great content for our business.
Stuff happens to us all the time – late for a meeting, lousy service in a restaurant, losing our keys or hearing something funny on the radio. Bryson shows that it’s possible to convert minor incidents into something worth reading. He happens to be extremely good at it, but then again he’s got to fill entire books with this stuff! Most people don’t (“we’ve got a day job, thank you”) but we can certainly come up with something funny, well-observed and insightful from time to time.
There’s a 3-step process here:
- Observe something
- Make a point about it
- Package it so it’s ready for sharing
Let’s say you go to a restaurant for an office lunch. What questions might you consider by way of close observation?
- Why did you choose that place?
- How were you greeted?
- How long did you have to wait for a table?
- What kind of people were there?
- How did the waiter handle your order?
- What was the menu was like?
- How long did the food take to come?
- What was it was like (presentation, taste, portion size?)
- Did the waiter attempt to up-sell?
- Was there anything else going on in the restaurant?
- Was the bill correct?
- Did you split it?
- Would you go again?
Any one of those might generate an interesting angle.
Why do people choose one restaurant or another? It’s a conundrum for business owners trying to compete in a crowded marketplace and it often comes down to the less tangible elements of atmosphere, style of service or something quirky. It’s not all about price, a lesson for any entrepreneur. So telling us WHY you like that restaurant above all others may help you discover an angle about differentiation and customer loyalty which applies to ALL businesses.
Did the waiter attempt to up-sell? This is often irritating if it’s done mechanically but if it’s handled in a more natural, conversational or humorous way it can be highly effective AND quite fun for everyone involved. Again, a relevant skill for anyone in a selling role.
Splitting the bill is one of those slightly tricky things about eating in a big group. It’s easiest if you just add 10% for the tip and divide it equally but occasionally there’s ONE person who gets his calculator out and objects on the basis that he passed on the starter and his main course was cheaper!
My pal David Lomas once described this scenario and suggested that you might not immediately warm to that individual or consider him a ‘team player’. But if you’re looking for a financial controller in your business with an eye to detail, maybe he’s EXACTLY the character you need!
My point is there are ALWAYS angles and the potential for a nice blog in the most everyday experiences. I’ve only cited relatively ordinary situations – no Mafia types in fur coats here – but if you’re observant and curious about the world and you’re willing to think a little more deeply about simple things, you’ll find a rich vein of material wherever you go.