Plato and Aristotle… getting back to the roots of rhetoric (image via image editor – Painting is Scuola di Atene by Raphael Sanzio)
A few months ago Colleen Jones, principal of Content Science, released Clout, another great book that should be on every content professional’s bookshelf. Colleen has provided an excellent exploration of how to create influential content for the web. The book starts by discussing the foundational principles of influence. The rest focuses on putting these principles into practice: how to plan, follow through, evaluate, and adjust your approach to influential content. It wraps up with a discussion of the ethics of influential content, and a look towards future digital content developments that will make you glad you started developing that competitive edge now.
We grabbed a bit of Colleen’s time to ask her some questions about how she draws on other disciplines for the ideas in the book, why we should learn to love rhetoric again, what mistakes people tend to make, and some of the ways that influential content inspires her and drives her forward.
S/G: The subtitle of your book is “The Art and Science of Influential Web Content” and that’s not just a turn of phrase. In the book you explore the principles of influential content via two disciplines: rhetoric, as the art aspect, and psychology, as the science. How did you come to think of influential content in this way?
Colleen: Two big reasons. One was I studied rhetoric in grad school. I kept using rhetorical principles in my work successfully. But, if I tried to explain to people what I did as rhetoric, they had no idea what I was talking about. So, I saw an opportunity to make those principles practical and usable.
The other big reason was over the past few years, I’ve seen persuasive marketing and design use pushy tactics in the name of cognitive and social psychology. Psychology principles focus more on form than on substance. Psychology, as a simple example, would tell you to have logos and quotes that endorse your product or service. Rhetoric would tell you to have those endorsements be from brands and people that your audience identifies with. For example, Alice.com has a brilliant endorsement from Good Housekeeping. To me, psychology helps with form, while rhetoric helps with substance. They complement each other well.
S/G: The discipline of rhetoric has gotten a little bit of a bad reputation because of its misuse by people who want to manipulate others, and you’re trying to reclaim it by going back to its roots. What would you like people to know about the art of rhetoric to help them appreciate it again?
Colleen: I’d like people to know that they don’t hate rhetoric but the manipulation, and rightly so. We notice rhetoric more when the words don’t match the action behind them, when the promise laid out isn’t fulfilled, when there’s a contrast between what was said and what is really happening. When manipulation happens, it’s the fault of the person doing it, not rhetoric.
And, I want people to know that rhetoric is practical. You don’t have to get into all the depths of theory to get immediate value from it.
S/G: What is the most common mistake people make in the realm of influential content?
Colleen: Going too extreme. Trying to be too pushy or trying to be completely objective in your content are opposite extremes that will fail more often than not. For example of too pushy, I get at least one email from Banana Republic with a discount every day. (I haven’t unsubscribed because I like to observe what companies do.) Although the wording of the emails isn’t too pushy, the frequency is. And, it backfires. I pay little attention to BR email discounts because I know another one is probably on the way.
CDC, on the other hand, at times tries so hard to sound so objective they sound cold. While it’s appropriate for CDC to make their voice credible and professional, it doesn’t have to be inhuman. It’s possible to be scientifically accurate yet personable.
S/G: What influential content inspires you?
Colleen: I like Mint.com, especially as an example of bringing together data and content, then giving it meaning. It’s a fantastic example of helping people make decisions. It’s a deeper and more useful influence than a pithy ad.
S/G: If you could pull some organization aside and make a recommendation for how they could better use influential content, what would you advise ?
Colleen: I’m inspired by the possibilities of electronic health records. They could be like Mint.com for your health, bringing together your personal health data, quality health content, and communications with clinicians. Content strategists can turn that data and content into “meaningfulness,” as you call it. I’m deeply concerned that IT is driving that bus alone. Content strategists need to be brought on board, or else the possibilities for EHRs (and the applications that use them) won’t become reality.
Improving the health care experience through EHRs is deeply important to me. Growing up, I watched my younger brother, Parker, go through the worst possible ordeal. He had a brain tumor that was misdiagnosed for many years as separate conditions, such as migraine headaches. No system was tracking all the signs and symptoms that, together, pointed to a brain tumor. When it was finally diagnosed, surgeons couldn’t operate on it. Parker underwent months of radiation and other treatments. None of them worked. Along the way, there were countless appointments and bills to track. Talking to doctors happened mostly at appointments. There were constant miscommunications among clinicians and between doctors, hospitals, and insurance. All while treatments to help Parker were not working. I’ve never felt so helpless. No one should ever experience that. Ever. If electronic health records reach their potential, no one ever will.
So, I feel an extra sense of urgency to make EHRs work. When EHRs turn data into influential content, they will help patients, clinicians, and other parties in the health system 1. communicate better and 2. make better decisions about diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing care.