PCTO2011 Coverage: When Creator Becomes Content

This is a live blog coverage of Anthony Marco’s (@anthonymarco) session at Podcamp Toronto 2011. Everything that follows this italicized paragraph is based on Anthony’s presentation, and are not my own ideas. If you feel I misrepresented any of his ideas, please leave a comment and let me know.

We can often get similar content from a lot of different sources online. But we often make our choice based on who making the content.

We first go somewhere because of the topic. We see raw information and that’s what draws us in.

After a while, though, the raw presentation gets boring. So what content producers try to also do is make you see the content from their mind’s eye. They offer some perspectiveon it.

At this point, we move from “objectivity” to “subjectivity.” It becomes less about the raw information, and more about the personality delivering it — i.e. taking a personality that you can relate to and having that personality deliver an otherwise “dry” topic.

And, of course, this is where the bias comes in. Here, the raw information is already taken for granted, and what’s happening instead is that the content creator is trying to put it into context.

Now the creator has become the content. The point of the content is now entertainment rather than information. Both Glenn Beck and Jon Stewart do this.

The content creator now relies on reflection, commenting, and introspection. How does the information impact me? How does it impact you? How should it?

And the way that content creators answer these question is through narrative. They tell stories to put topics and information into context.

As content creators do this, we begin to relate to their personality. So while we’ll start out consuming some of their content because of its topic, we’ll start to consume other topics that they cover because we’ve want to consume the content creator themselves.

It’s similar to when “learning becomes fun.” For example, you can have 6 math teachers teaching the same curriculum, but some of them are going to make it more interesting and engaging than others, and that’s because they can give us a perspective we can relate to. They put it into a context that we understand, and show us how that information affects us.

PodCamp Toronto: Saleem Khan on Street/Cred

I sat in on a session by Saleem Khan at Podcamp Toronto 2010.  Saleem Khan is a Toronto-based journalist working independently for major international and Canadian media outlets.  He blogs at saleemkhan.com.

His session covered the best ethics and professional behaviour practices used by established journalistic and how they relate to the blogging community.  Saleem made the audience aware that this session was a carbon-copy of his session last year at Podcamp Toronto, and is therefore does not offer new insight (unless, of course, you weren’t at his session last year!).

Saleem began by asking the audience what their impressions are of established media outlets, such as the CBC, BBC, the New York Times, etc.  A wide variety of responses were given.  He then proceeded to show some statistics revealing that large, established online media outlets remain as the dominant source of news information for the general public.  The reason, most likely, is credibility – people will go to their trusted sources.

Bloggers will often want their blog to be a reflection of their personality, whereas large media outlets are uniform – they are cultural institutions that people respond to.  Saleem says that bloggers should aim somewhere in the middle by adopting some of the practices of large media outlets.

A blogger must establish trust.  This is done by maintaining standards, including accurate information and correct spelling and grammar.  When an error is made, offer your correction publicly – this does not damage trust but enhances it.  Be clear about how you work, and about your activities.  Be fair in words and in deeds – people can instinctively feel when you are not.  Think – set rules and structures and plan ahead so that, when an inevitable conflict occurs, you are prepared to address it.  Always be ethical, and always know how to handle ethical conflicts.

Finally, he says, be calm and professional and use the lessons in courtesy and politeness that your mom taught you.  If you are looking for more information and training, the BBC has a free online college of journalism (note: available only from a UK IP address) to help guide bloggers in issues that established media organizations have been dealing with – and learning from – for years.

How to Inject the LOLs Into Your Articles

Sadly, you can’t really teach anyone to be funny. You’re either funny, or you’re not. Most people think they’re hilarious because they tell jokes that sometimes cause milk to shoot out of their friends’ and co-workers’ noses, but when it comes time to bring the funny to people who’ve never met them or care anything about them, many fall flat.

A strange fact about comedy of any kind, whether it’s a live performance, a recorded television show or words on a page: If a joke bombs, not only will people not laugh, but they will vehemently resent you for even trying. We’ll forgive the musician for playing the occasional wrong note, but tell a bad joke, and it’s off with your head. I know this because as a comedian and a social content writer I have had the pleasure of bombing live in front of hundreds of unimpressed humans, as well as online in front of thousands of Digg, Reddit and StumbleUpon users, who have absolutely no problem indicating how unfunny you are, and who are extremely creative in telling you how you suck. You’ll need to develop a thick skin, and even more importantly you’ll have to learn how to mend the pieces of your shattered soul when the hateful comments come pouring in.

I’m not trying to paint a negative picture here, nor am I here to discourage anybody. Comedy writing is one of my favourite things to do on the planet, and there’s no better feeling than making someone laugh; I just want you to be prepared. So for the brave souls who still want to add the “hee hiddly hoo ha’s” to their blogs and social media content, I’ll try my best to pass on tips I’ve learned from studying the best, as well as a few tricks of my own.

“I don’t know the key to success, but I know the key to failure, and that’s trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby

A quick look at how a joke works

Jokes invoke laughter in a variety of ways: they can shock you; they plant hilarious images in your brain; they expose embarrassing things that you thought only you did; they connect on a nostalgic level by attaching situations and characters from the past to scenarios in the present (Family Guy is particularly famous for this), and the list goes on. Ultimately, a joke’s aim is to surprise you. To take you down one road and then startle you with a sharp left. For this to work as a writer your readers needs to relate to what you’re writing about (set-up) in order to be on board for the sharp turn (punch-line). In an interview with Jerry Seinfeld he compares a joke to jumping off a cliff. The set up defines the cliff you want the audience to jump from. The punch line is the other side. If it’s too far, the crowd falls, you’ve lost your audience, no one laughs. If it’s too close, there’s no excitement, no titillation, no one laughs.

Never publish angry

One of the best things about comedy writing is that humour comes from all of the emotions. The trick is to capture those emotional moments while you’re in them. Any writer will tell you to ALWAYS have a pen and notebook handy. If something pisses you off, write about it, and don’t stop to censor yourself or to correct your spelling. Just let it flow. Then put it away and don’t look at it for 24 hours. When you do get back to it you’ll have those raw emotions on page, but now you’re more relaxed, thinking clearly, and you can start to pull some comedy from the heap of rage. We make our friends laugh because we are relaxed and comfortable around them; this is the frame of mind you need to make strangers laugh.

Some Basic Humour Techniques

Pull Out to Reveal

The term is actually a camera direction that you would find in a film or television script. It refers to when the object in focus’s true context is only exposed when the camera pulls out to reveal its surroundings. Little by little you give readers more information until you present them with the full picture, which is indeed the punchline.

“I once farted so loudly I interrupted a Metallica concert. And I wasn’t even at the concert…I was at home.” – Judah Friedlander

One trick is to start with the full picture in mind. Pick a crazy scenario or image that makes you laugh out loud, then work your way backwards. What series of events would lead to the big picture? Once you’ve got your story, go back and tell it from the beginning.

Relationships

Not to be confused with the beaten-to-death premise of why women are different from men, this technique generates humour through the combination of two or more ideas, and the existing relationship between them. Comparisons, analogies, similes, all grammatical tools we learnt in English class, all available to make your writing funnier. The set up involves a fact or truth of some sort. The punch line involves re-stating the set up, but through the lens of your secondary idea. The basic formula for this would be:

Fact(set up). That’s like this______ (punchline)

Your brother’s ugly. He looks like something that crawled out of the port-o-let at a troll concert.

One of my favourite sources for online laughs is The Onion.com, where they use this technique of idea relationship on the macro as well as on the micro level. It all starts with their headlines. They take tiny slivers from our mundane everyday lives (set up) and they bold-face caption them as newsworthy headlines (punchline). Then the words in the headlines themselves very cleverly combine two ideas together to get a big laugh: Dog Humiliated In Front Of Entire Park. This combines dogs with human emotions, an effective literary technique known as anthropomorphism. Treating non-humans as human is often funny, so feel free to go back to your articles and anthropomorph the crap out of them.

Exaggeration

Often working hand-in-hand with idea relationship humour is exaggeration. “Yo mama so fat…” jokes are juvenile but classic examples of this (Yo mama so fat, we’re actually inside her right now). When you’re describing a scenario in your writing, the universe is the limit as to how far you can stretch an idea to make it funnier. If something is smelly, how smelly was it? If an article of clothing was tight, how tight was it? If you got wasted, how wasted were you?

“I’ve drank ‘till I couldn’t remember my own name, I’ve done cocaine ‘till my nose was bleeding like the fourth week of Lilith Fair.” – Doug Stanhope

All Together Now

My favourite comedy writer of all time hands down is Dave Barry. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of over thirty books and internationally-syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald has been an inspiration to me since high school, as he is a master of all the techniques mentioned above, as well as many more. Being funny is all about taking the ordinary, and twisting it into the absurd. Here is an excerpt from his book Dave Barry’s Bad Habits where he discusses how barbecues were invented. Watch how he pulls out to reveal, establishes the relationships between two ideas, and exaggerates the hell out of just about every sentence he writes.

“The barbecue was invented more than eighty-million years ago by Cro-Magnon Man, who was the son of Stephanie Cro and Eric Magnon, a primitive but liberated couple. Cro-Magnon Man used to eat dinosaur meat raw, and it tasted awful, worse than yogurt. One day while Cro-Magnon Man was eating, lightning set a nearby log on fire. Cro-Magnon Man was so surprised he dropped his dinosaur meat onto the fire, where it ignited and gave off a disgusting odour that drove off the insects, which in those days were the size of mature eggplants and extremely vicious. “This is terrific,” said Cro-Magnon man, only nobody understood him because English hadn’t been invented yet.

Burning dinosaurs quickly became a major form of insect control. At large Cro-Magnon lawn parties, the hosts would put whole brontosauruses on the fire, and they would sizzle into the night, keeping the insects away and giving off a stench that lingers to this very day at the northern end of the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Get Real

I’ll wrap things up with this comedy writing technique, only it’s not so much a technique as it is a state of mind. Just be real, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Millions of people listen to Howard Stern everyday, to the point where he is the highest-paid radio personality in the United States. Whatever people think of him is irrelevant, because the truth of the matter is he’s real. He hides nothing, he makes fun of himself, he openly admits all of his shortcomings and because of this people relate to him. They feel better about their “imperfections” because someone else shares them. The best comedians are the ones that seem to be inside your head, admitting embarrassing things on stage you wouldn’t even tell your closest friend. This is where the HUGE laughs come from. Audiences laugh until tears come out of their eyes because they’ve been there, done that. The same applies to your writing. Don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes, to joke about yourself, because as soon as you do you disarm your readers. They can’t call you stupid if you’ve already listed some of the stupid things you’ve done. To be human is to makes mistakes, to f**k up, to fall down. And there’s nothing funnier, than seeing someone else fall down.

Notes on Producing High Quality Content: How and Why

Content is one of the easiest aspects of SEO to do badly. In a far from unrelated point, it’s also one of the cheaper ways to get some SEO work done. It’s not hard to find error-ridden content providers (still) going on about keyword density, when the main thing you need them to say is “I can write fan-effing-tastic content” and offer the samples with the quality to prove it. If you’re looking to write the content yourself, check here to get some tips. What follows addresses how to go about producing consistent great content precisely when you can’t do it yourself.

Why is Great Content Worth It?

The goal of your content production ambitions might not be to attract links. Why not? If you’re capable of having great articles fit within your site’s subject matter at all, then go for it. The extra links acquired will justify the greater expense, especially since commissioning the article is a one-time expense, whereas the benefits it brings keep on giving.

If the content is good enough, it might have a shot at success on social news sites like Digg or StumbleUpon. While you can read more about social-potential content here, for now you can be sure that high quality writing that is entertaining and informative is the core of social-worthy content. Success on those sites can bring great traffic and backlinks, juicing up your SEO efforts with a cleansing wash of natural links. Content may need some voting support to have a chance, but the real key is having a strong piece.

Finally, crappy content can be tempting as a cheap way to boost the sheer amount of unique pages and words on your site, to add some pages to rank for some longtail phrases. Consider two points:

  • Let’s say this page ends up ranking – if it’s terrible, the user is much less likely to continue on to the rest of the site. The page could be their first impression, so why not make it strong?
  • You may be prepared to ignore human reactions in favour of appeasing just search engine spiders that don’t appreciate the subtleties of stylish language. But there’s a chance your site could come under manual review, and if the majority of your resource text is horrendous, don’t expect that section of your site to offer much value. At worst, the presence of extremely weak text could be poisonous.

What Will It Cost Me?

Fortunately for you, even though great writers are rare, the fact that crappy writers are a dime a dozen still drives the cost down. Copywriting can cost as little as two cents per word, but for something good, expect at least ten. As with most things, you get what you pay for, and someone who’s able to write articles worthy of publication (real publication, not blog publication) is going to write content worthy of links, too. You should be willing to compete with going publication rates. Check Writer’s Market for a general idea, and as far as salaried employees, I wouldn’t expect to pay less than $40,000 for great writing.

How Do I Know I’m Getting What I’m Paying For?

Whether you’re hiring someone in-house or looking for a freelancer, the same principles apply. Look for previously published material. If the prospective writer has been published in print, take that as a great sign. Copywriting firms have to produce large volumes in short periods of time, so be extra vigilant about the quality you receive. Some copywriting services offer varying levels of quality at a range of prices. Hire the more expensive ones, but be ready to drop them if they aren’t performing.

Get at least one great writer on board, preferably with a strong editorial sense. This person will be your main barometer for copywriting quality. If you’re not a great writer yourself, you can probably identify great articles, but that doesn’t mean you’re able to discern as well at lower levels. A great editor can also potentially turn mediocre articles into link-worthy ones if they’re good enough (and if it’s possible).

Ideally, try to find a copywriter whose articles have accumulated links. Rather than a copywriter bragging about their SEO knowledge of keyword density, imagine a copywriter showing you a portfolio of articles with great links pointing to them. THAT would be impressive.

If you come across great articles and you can see that they have accumulated links on their own, approach them. Googling for writers will yield results, but there are gems to be found on their published turf.

Does Cheap Content Have a Purpose?

If the content you’re adding has no chance to accrue links because of length restrictions, subject matter, or any other constraining factor, then cheaper content might be worthwhile. Still, if it’s on your website, you should want every section of it to reflect the quality of your main product or service. Estimate the literacy level of your audience and try to keep from disappointing them. Cheap content still has to be minimally decent, too, so don’t put up with word trash.

Building Quality Content with Link-Worthy Articles

The web may be a great place to find and share information, but it is also a pit of unchecked facts, uncensored opinion and terrible spelling. Though you certainly do not need a degree in journalism, communications or literature to create content for the web, at the base of any good article is quality writing. Obviously, the topic is crucial, but delivery will make or break a story. As a copywriter/content creator, I am meticulous about incorporating the fundamentals of my journalism background in order to produce quality content that 1. incites a person to read the article, 2. keeps the person reading the article until (hopefully) the very end, and 3. ideally incites a backlink. While this article is about content creation apart from search engine optimization considerations, a strong piece of writing gives you a better shot at attracting links.

Eye-Catching Headlines

Your headline is essentially the advertisement for your story. You want to intrigue the reader and make them want to find out more. Try and keep the headline short and to the point. Usually, no more than six words. A good little trick to save on words is to avoid verbs. Questions in the headline often work quite well for catching eyes, but it can run the risk of looking gimmicky. Use them when they’re clearly appropriate and support the content of your article. Also, avoid half-truths. Readers are not afraid to point out a headline that doesn’t match the article, so try to keep those comments positive.

Answer The 5 W’s

WHO, WHERE, WHAT, WHY, WHEN (and of course) HOW. This is the skeleton of your article. It will give you a solid point to start from and can be helpful when making an outline. Answer these questions first, and then expand.

Unique Angle

So much information out there is just a reiteration of something else. Give the facts and be accurate but dig deeper until you find something new, another perspective that hasn’t yet been .

Use Humor, Examples and Anecdotes

These don’t necessarily need to be about your life, but find something that will give a new twist to your article.

Other Tips

  • Don’t bury your lead. Especially on the net, people can jump around from site to site so if you don’t make your point clear and fast you run a very high risk of losing your reader.
  • Keep paragraphs short, use proper punctuation, use spell check, and have someone else read it before publishing.
  • Use visual elements: people are attracted to pretty things, so the more colour you have on a page, the less black & white the article will be for the reader. Pictures and videos help to support what you’re saying, and quite honestly you are 95% more likely to catch and keep a reader’s interest than if they are staring at a screen full of words. People tend to read titles, skip to the pictures and captions, unfortunately.
  • Include statistics and verified data to add value to your content.
  • Read, watch, and listen. Get up-to-date with what’s going on in the world around you. News sites, podcasts, social sites, blogs, and YouTube are all very handy tools in extracting topics that are current and of interest to your public.

Those are my tips, but George Orwell’s Rules from Politics of the English Language are useful too:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (exception use a complex word if it replaces two simple words and is precise)
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon if you think of an everyday English equivalent
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous