The Fallacy of Frameworks: What Craft-Driven Creators Know

I've become oddly obsessed with listening to comedians discuss their processes. I'm not looking for laughs. I'm just in awe of how much someone you assume is naturally gifted actually tinkers on their craft. They have a process. They follow it. They study it. They adapt it. And they take it very seriously.

One of the more consistent moments in each of these interviews is when the comedian talks about his or her influences. They all start out inspired by others, and they initially emulate their heroes' mannerisms and stylings. They basically put an X-ray over someone else’s comedy to find their framework.

And then, without fail, a successful comic reaches this point where she's confident enough to create her own framework. She thinks about her own voice and storytelling style. It's her "ah ha" moment which she brings up during the interview as THE moment that transformed her career and made her truly great. 

Sure, her comedy is informed by the greatness of others before her. But rather than copy it completely, she slowly and steadily molds herself into something more original. Her act becomes uniquely hers.

That’s how all the great comedians seem to reach new heights: They find a framework -- not to follow it as the rule but to simply establish the baseline behavior -- and then they create original material around it or even build an entirely new framework. Inevitably, other comedians come along and emulate them, and the cycle continues.

We can learn so much about our work as content creators by looking to these comics. The very best among us seem naturally gifted, but when you zoom way in, you realize they have a process and act like students, constantly working to improve their craft. 

Too many marketers obsess over finding a framework to then follow it blindly. That's why Tips-and-Tricks posts, listicles, and the always over-promised “N Secrets to Do XYZ” are so popular -- they play directly into that need for a framework. They all seem to say, “Just read this post and follow these instructions, and you'll never need to work hard or apply any critical thinking and creativity whatsoever! Hashtag Marketing!"

Our jobs today are to stand out from the noise. And a great way to operate exactly like someone who wants to blend in is to follow a framework that worked for others for the duration of your career. (To get you started, as with the comedians I've listened to, this can be great. But over the long arc of time, you'll struggle to advance your cause.) 

As content creators, we’re tasked with more than just "being present in the world." Our goal is to be memorable. That’s hard in and of itself, but it’s even harder if we simply follow some kind of hand-delivered recipe. And it’s harder still if we begin with the mentality of "give me the recipe."

In one of my favorite recent books, Out on the Wire, cartoonist Jessica Abel interviews the brilliant minds behind public radio's top shows. Here's one of the more telling quotes about this whole framework concept. (This is Jessica talking to Ira Glass, creator of This American Life.)

When Wistia started as a tech startup in Boston with zero dollars in VC funding, they didn't create educational videos based on their peers or what others advised. They inserted their human, warm, goofy selves. They knew the framework. They'd even tried it. But they completely reinvented it and became a global business with hundreds of thousands of customers and a thriving team and culture.

When TED began creating business events, the organizers knew the framework for key notes, breakout sessions, and workshops. The recipe was there. But they altered it, at first only slightly to learn about their audience, but then they took a giant step away from what was "accepted" and understood. They didn't stop with what a business conference "should be."

Red Bull Media House. GE Podcast Theater. That one guy you used to work with who never seemed to run out of surprisingly good ideas. They all do the same thing when it comes to the "recipes" and "best practices" out there. They understand them, sure. But then they shatter them. They take little step after little step until suddenly they're a giant leap away from them.

So yes, go hunt for that framework. Use educational content. Use your heroes. Figure out what they did in their process, and study hard. But don't just copy it without thinking, at least not for very long.

Don't try to follow the best practice. Try to create it.

Don't emulate the industry standard. Try to become it.

Find the framework to break the framework.


Posted on February 19, 2016 .