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Trade Secrets from the Unexpected Heroes of Authentic Content

May 18, 2018 • Michelle Moriarity Witt

Authentic content. Marketers have seized upon this term in an attempt to reinforce the value of what they do. Brand campaigns hammer at authenticity as a defining value. Amid all the clamor for marketing innovation in a complex digital landscape comes a heightened need to be fresh, bold and interesting as well as truthful, fair and transparent.

As we navigate this delicate territory, now’s a good time to take a closer look at what “authentic content” truly means and how it’s done right.

Imagery, items held in an archive, video, writing, what-have-you—these are all content. Truth, integrity and impact are what make content authentic.

Sounds simple, right? It’s anything but.

Authentic content is a relatively new term, but it is not a new phenomenon. Many of today’s content creators have roots in journalism, which matured as a discipline in the 20th century by upholding standards for accuracy, accountability and impartiality.

Some of the 20th century’s best journalists elevated authentic content creation to an art form long before “content” entered the lexicon. Their writing holds clues to success that are just as important today as they were in past generations, if not more so. Good journalism is built out of facts, insightful quotes, and clear, direct writing. Great journalism—the kind that moves people and inspires action—goes further.

Consider these examples:

John Hersey, Hiroshima. This account of the survivors of the atomic bomb was distinctive because of the rigorous reporting that went into it. Hersey, a veteran war reporter, flew directly to the source and focused “on people rather than on buildings” to convey the magnitude of the disaster and put a human face on the fallout of war. It remains one of the most important accounts of World War II ever written.

Lillian Ross, Portrait of Hemingway. It takes serious cojones to write about another writer—much less one as vaunted and controversial as Ernest Hemingway. Ross’ genius was in her ability to build a strong enough rapport with her subject that he invited her into his world—no filters, no apologies. Upon achieving that rare intimacy, she proceeded to “describe as precisely as possible how Hemingway, who had the nerve to be like nobody else on earth, looked and sounded.”

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood. Capote served as a “fly on the wall,” devoting years of his life to research and interviews so that he could understand and write about events of the past—in this case, the murder of a family in Kansas—as if he had been there himself. Described alternately as “cinematic” and “overrated,” Capote’s masterpiece is still a hot topic of conversation more than 50 years after its publication.

Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Decades before publishing bestselling memoirs about the deaths of her husband and daughter, Didion tapped into the zeitgeist of 1960s California with unprecedented candor, perpetually toeing the line between mundanity and disaster. Her prose is ruminative, personal and at times self-deprecating, and geography—whether the San Bernardino Valley or Honolulu—figures prominently throughout.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. Bush vs. Gore? Trump vs. Clinton? This century’s elections can’t hold a candle to the drama of Nixon vs. McGovern (vs. Humphrey vs. Muskie). Thompson’s brutal honesty and vivid descriptions, amped up with recreational drugs and profanity, lead to a colorful and unprecedented critique of politics-as-usual that also takes aim at the mainstream media. These writers, whose bodies of work included a nearly limitless list of subjects, followed some basic practices that anyone aspiring to create authentic content should adhere to.

5 Lessons from the 20th Century on Creating Authentic Content

  1. Focus on people, not abstract ideas. Stories have heroes and antagonists. People have virtues and flaws. In professional communications, this may be one of the most difficult lessons: Some have trouble seeing the value in chronicling reality, warts and all. Flaws are relatable and scream reality. Embrace them and put them in context.
  2. Know your subject matter. When a content creator has broad and deep knowledge on a topic, he or she can write with confidence and candor. When content is written from a position of knowledge, it shows—and people respond to that. In business circles, this is referred to as “thought leadership.”
  3. Engage all the senses. What color was the car? How did the air smell? Describe the texture of the upholstery, the flavors in a meal. Paint a picture. Events and people resonate more deeply when readers can envision them clearly.
  4. Pay attention to detail. Check all facts, then check them again. Errors, including seemingly unimportant ones, call into question the expertise and even the integrity of the writer.
  5. Don’t let words get in the way. The best storytellers use plain language and simple sentences.
    The shrewd reader will note exceptions and see how they are employed for a particular effect. In general, simplicity is the watchword.

These aren’t unattainable goals. But in a business context, they require content creators to think outside the box. “The box,” in this instance, is an archaic way of communicating that leads to forced smiles at ribbon-cuttings and made-up quotes in press releases. In an age when content consumers demand authentic connections, a manufactured, arm’s-length approach to content simply won’t fly.

It’s no accident that the brand of journalism practiced by the writers mentioned here is associated with social and political turbulence. The challenges people faced in the mid-20th century opened doors for new and bolder forms of expression. Today’s world is no less turbulent, but content is complicated by the multiplatform digital assault that is social media. Inauthenticity doesn’t appear only in press releases. It’s also in memes and clickbait and “Fakebooking.” It spills into professional communication. But we have the power to contain the flood.

Our five 20th-century prophets of authentic content were deeply curious, persistent and observant. They researched tirelessly. They listened to people. They paid attention to their surroundings. They poured everything they observed onto the page with care and diligence. If we want our content to be truly authentic, we should do the same.

Are you ready to work with people who will create your content with the care and diligence it deserves? If so, let’s get the conversation started.

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