What Ruined the Best Video of All-Time


Our Undefeated Rival

Robby Novak delivered the line as earnestly as he could. He adjusted his jet-black suit and bright red power tie, furrowed his brow towards the camera, and spoke.

“I think we all need a pep talk.”

Millions would eventually watch him deliver this line. Robby's video has now received 44 million views, but who's counting? (YouTube. YouTube is counting.) However, few if any of those millions of people know Robby Novak’s real name. He’s on camera. He’s speaking to the viewer. He’s featured in hundreds of other videos too. But most people know him as something other than Robby Novak:

Kid President.

“I think we all need a pep talk,” said the nine-year-old, back in his 2013 video. The initial, haunting notes from a post-rock song then eases us into the speech. (The song is “Households,” by Sleeping at Last, as the closing credits later reveal). From that first line, delivered in stately fashion in front of a chalkboard, we cut to a sepia-toned wide view of Robby in the middle of a Tennessee high school football field. A few handwritten words slowly appear on screen:






And then, in the most earnest, uplifting, and moving way imaginable, KP delivers his plea to the adult world.

“The world needs you to stop being boring. (Yeah: You!)

"Boring is easy! Everybody can be boring! But you’re gooder than that.

"Life is not a game, people. Life isn’t a cereal, either. (Well, it IS a cereal.) And if life IS a game, aren’t we all on the same team? I mean really, right? I’m on your team. Be on my team!

“This is LIFE, people! You got air coming through your NOSE! Your heart beat…” (drums on his chest) “that means it’s time to do something!”

The video continues for a couple minutes, as the music crescendos to that delicate place between uplifting and cheesy. Later, Kid President concludes his monologue.

“I don’t know everything (I’m just a kid!) but I do know this: It's everybody’s duty to give the world a reason to dance. So get to it!”

The music reaches its climax, and as it begins to fade out, you hear Robby's voiceover saying, “You’ve just been PEP TALKED! Create something that will make the world AWESOME!”

I have watched this video more times than any other video on the internet. That’s just the truth. I’ve watched this video so much, I can probably recite the whole damn thing, word for word, and re-create it, shot for shot. As a lifelong maker, a self-described emotions junkie, and a card-carrying member of the Sensitive Men’s Club, I. Love. This. Video.

But sometimes, I can’t stand it.

Sometimes, I’ll watch it several times in a row (I’m not proud, but I’m not sorry) before I need to take a break. It actually starts to annoy me — this, the most awesome of videos in this world. And so, I have to set it aside for weeks. Months, even.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Our favorite song, or blog, or favorite follow on social media; our go-to restaurant, or jogging route, or that old reliable dish we like to cook ... they can all stop feeling as awesome as Kid President would like things to be. But for some reason, we seem to forget that reality when it comes to our work. Way too often, we act like the successful thing we've created, the thing that others find awesome about our work, will ALWAYS resonate with our audience. We'd be wise to remember that even the best things we create aren’t sufficient to build exceptional companies or careers over time. Clinging to and routinely repeating “what works” is a sign that we don't understand the power of the opponent we must all face: Time.

Father Time is undefeated.

He is infinity-and-0 in his career. He’s never met a project, a company, nor a person that he hasn’t in some way changed, worsened, or killed. The longer something sits unchanged, or the more the tried-and-true is tried, or the more often “what works" is experienced by our audience, the harder it is for the work to, yanno … work.

Time is the great equalizer. Every team and every individual plays by the same rules. Nothing we do can prevent time from somehow altering our work — not casting an adorable nine-year-old, or using chest-swelling music, or writing a tear-jerking talk track. Not ranking first on Google, or boasting a ton of followers, or hiring the best people, or coming up with a brilliant new idea, or going viral, or winning an award. Nothing is time-proof. As time moves, context changes, and so too must our work.

But does it? And how would that work anyway? Is there a process we can use to be proactive in the changes we make, instead of constantly reacting?

I don't know. Not yet. But I can't wait to find out. Before we get there, however, I need to tell you one final thing about Kid President: He’s fragile.

I don’t mean that figuratively. Robby Novak has osteogenesisimperfecta, which essentially means his bones are unusually brittle. He’s more susceptible to bone damage and breaks than the average person. In fact, in the pep talk video, you can occasionally spot a blue cast on his right arm.

Unfortunately, Robby's condition gave bullies at his school a reason to pick on him quite a bit. Of course, given his message to the world in the Pep Talk video, you might not be surprised to learn that he took a negative and turned it into a positive, through both his inspiring videos and his nonprofit work together with his adult brother-in-law and video producer, Brad Montague.

Just like Kid President, our work is fragile. (This time, I do mean that figuratively. Unless of course you make, like, blown glass penguins for a living, in which case I can haz one? It’s for my 8-week-old daughter, I swear. Also? It is for me.)

Our work is fragile because as soon as we push something out into the world, time begins to change it in ways we don’t control. It’s exposed.

We create our work in the past, launch it for today, and then it's dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

One of the big reasons I’m exploring this idea of consistent creativity throughout 2019 is to challenge the “kicking and screaming” part. What if we better understand what it takes to produce resonant work over time? Rather than getting dragged forward, kicking and screaming, we might take our cues from Kid President and dance our way forward.

Last week, I talked about how we usually approach this problem. (If you missed it, go back and read that blog post version of the newsletter, because it's a vital step forward in our exploration this year.) To summarize what we discussed: Our work often looks like an ongoing attempt to manufacture spike after spike in the numbers. We push all our chips into the middle of the table called NOW, and we hope we win big. Whether or not we do, our next move is still IDENTICAL (crazy, no?), as we splurge on yet another stack of chips and push them all in, once again betting that we can win big NOW. This frenetic, short-term approach has created a culture of shortcuts throughout the business world, and it has bastardized people's understanding of creativity, from an ongoing process to what I call Random Acts of Creativity.

In that article, I concluded that our obsession with shortcuts, hacks, cheats, and one-off creative stunts is actually a symptom. It's not the real illness. The real illness is what happens as a result of our manufacturing spikes: the drop-off.

Following a Random Act of Creativity, we have no system or process to continue arching the slope of the line north ... so instead, it drops off, and we're right back to concocting the next Random Act. I feel like saying to those teams who applaud themselves for creative stunts: Congrats, you manufactured a moment. The moment has passed. Now what?

For all their glorious highs, they've then got to grapple with the subsequent low forced upon them as time passes.

In our journey to push beyond commodity junk and create unassailable work, we agree that consistent creativity is more useful than random acts. But as we push forward in time with the work we create, even with our good intentions, we face the very same issue that random acts create -- because time is the great equalizer. So, the real enemy, and Father Time's weapon of choice?


When we want to build anything great, we do so over time. And few things affect our work over time quite like stagnation, a state or condition marked by lack of flow, movement, or development. Left unchanged, the work we create, the knowledge we possess, and the behaviors we exhibit can all grow stale over time. Without evolving ourselves and what we do, and without re-inspiring or re-engaging the audience, we risk losing any emotional resonance we experienced before.

I call this time-induced decline from resonance to stagnation Emotional Decay.

Next week, we’ll aim to truly understand this issue of stagnation in our work and with our teams by deconstructing the various stages of Emotional Decay. This is my first time discussing the concept publicly, and so I'll lay it all out for you and invite you to give your take. My thesis is that we do indeed possess a way to combat Emotional Decay and to turn the negative affects of time into a positive tool at our disposal. More on that next week.

Until then, remember: Boring is easy. Everybody can be boring. But you’re gooder than that.

It’s our duty to give the world a reason to dance.

So get to it.

You can find Kid President’s pep talk here. While you’re browsing talks, here’s a clip from my speech at last year’s CMWorld that I just released publicly — I’m currently booking events in the spring after grounding myself for daddy duties this winter. Email speaking inquiries to jay@unthinkablemedia.com.

And as always, you can get a transparent look at my year-long journey to understand creative consistency via the travel log.

Posted on January 23, 2019 .

Let's Put an End to Random Acts of Creativity


The article was mundane enough. So why did it make me so mad?

The title read, “Sample 11 of the Best B2B and B2C Content Marketing Ideas of 2018.” 

On the surface, there was no reason for my gut to start screaming to my eyeballs to go find something else to look at, ya dinguses. I mean, who hasn’t seen dozens of these articles before? Here was a simple, curated list of things, brought together in one piece because we as humans ascribe special meaning to 12-month time periods for … reasons.

I just couldn’t figure out why the hell this seemingly innocuous article bugged the snot out of me. And then it hit me, whilst blowing my nose: This article perpetuates a great misconception about creativity in the workplace, one that bastardizes our understanding of the idea. In fact, this article, whether intentionally or not, contributes to one of the worst things happening in business today:

Shortcut Culture. 

Regardless of whether we write blog posts or host podcasts or build and sell products or lead teams, we all tend to validate our success by looking for the same thing: a spike in the numbers. We want the work to work. But not just "work" -- we want it to crush. Like corporate versions of Ricky Bobbywe wanna go fast.

Can't you just feel the rush of witnessing that sudden boost in numbers? Don't you just crave a moment of up-and-to-the-rocket-hyper-ship-growth?

Imagine: you've had a long and stressful week. It's Friday, and you keep thinking about your couch, and Netflix, and that glass of special something, and that special someone snuggling up next to you (human, feline, canine, or otherwise). You're trudging towards that brief respite from the mad dash of constant business growth. Finally, mercifully, you decide to see how things are going. You peel open your laptop. You pull up the data. Your heart is clamoring to escape your chest and retreat behind your hands, which, without you realizing, are now covering your eyes. You slowly take a peek at the graph ... and, OMG, could it be?!



You smile broadly and breathe deeply. Ahhhhh … that’s the good stuff.

Over time, we start to conflate “great work” with “outlier results.” No spike, no good. When we experience The Spikening, it forever changes our conversations too. We whisper in the halls, “Christina’s video was good, but it was no Holiday Video of 2012.” We hear from clients, " “Let’s really go big here. Yeah. Have fun with it.” We're poked and prodded by bosses, ever so passively, ever so aggressively: "We need our next version of the Ultimate Collection of Social Media Templates.”

In the blink of a very twitchy eye, our jobs become manufacturing more spikes. We're no different than whatever soulless monsters spend their time seeking the next Call Me Maybe or MMMbop or (gasp) Macarena. ("And now for the 16th time this morning, here’s Miley Cyrus singing her latest smash hit, Call Me MMMacarena!”)

And so it goes: The endless search for singular moments of spiking numbers. We wander through the desert until HALLELUJAH! We work away until BAM! We stress and struggle and strive until WHAMMY!

unnamed (1).jpg

Is this our fate? Is that what our work really is? 

When the greatest possible success we can have is a big spike, our jobs start to change. We don’t exist to deliver great work. We exist to manufacture an outcome that arrives faster and arches higher ... through whatever means necessary. Is it any wonder the business world is filling up with people and programs promising see-spikes-now schemes? The shortcuts. The cheats. The hacks, “secrets,” and gurus. The social media bros who mean-mug the camera for their YouTube pre-roll ads, promising that you, too, can make millions and buy a mansion and trick people into paying you—op! wait! ignore that! Did I mention THIS SWEET NEW CAR I BOUGHT?!

Ugh. I am so. freaking. sick. of shortcut culture in business. Even when we’re not desperately trying to click away from brotastic bullshitters, we still fall victim to endless content and ideas focused on short-term gains. We want Ultimate Guides to tell us everything we need to know, end of discussion, end of learning. (That’s what “ultimate” means, after all: "being or happening at the end of a process; final.") We create internal playbooks specifically so we can run them again and again. We seek out lists of tips-and-tricks from Yet Another Expert Interview Podcast, and we fall all over ourselves when someone claims to know EXACTLY what to say to a prospect, what to do with the algorithm, or what to buy to make the numbers climb rapidly, today.

Ahhhhh yes ... there it is.

So, why did that well-meaning list of inspirational marketing examples grate on me? Because it applauded something I call Random Acts of Creativity.

When we approach our work with a short-term focus or we actively seek shortcuts to juice the numbers, creativity becomes one-off. Like a stunt double, we call upon it to emerge from some trailer in the back parking lot of our brains, and we treat it like a stand-in for the real work. But consistently successful teams infuse creativity in everything they do. It's not a stand-in for the real work. IT IS THE REAL WORK. As the legend John Cleese often says, creativity is not a talent. It's a way of operating.

The business world is full of examples of Random Acts of Creativity replacing creativity-as-process: articles applauding one-off projects, awards for campaigns and viral pieces, and persistent requests to "jump in a room" to brainstorm THE idea ... just to name a few.

If we're going to create unassailable work -- original, resonant, always exceeding ever-higher expectations in others -- than we can't rely on Random Acts of Creativity. What if we stopped seeking them out entirely, and started emphasizing consistency instead? What if we created things made to STICK, instead of spike?

In the end, building exceptional companies and careers unfolds over the long arc of time. Zoom in and you'll find a rather zig-zaggy approach. Some things work and some things don't, all to a varying degree. What matters isn't the next spike. What matters is the slope of the whole damn line.

unnamed (2).jpg

We all want to create unassailable work. That is our shared goal. To achieve that, we know we need to be creative, to produce work that resonates emotionally with both us as the creators and the audience as the recipients. In our quest to do so, we face a choice: Fall victim to the popular dialogue around creativity, or prioritize consistency. I say, it's time to ditch the stunts...

unnamed (3).jpg

So what can we put in its place? Consistent creativity, sure. But how does that work? What's our solution to shortcut culture, the substitute that we feel better serves our shared goal?

Well, to figure out the cure, we have to diagnose the illness, and if I'm being honest, I don't think we've done that quiet yet. While shortcut culture and the Random Acts they prompt are obvious targets of our ire, I don't believe they're the root problem. The root problem, I think, is the core reason why RACs are ineffective in the first place. After all, none of this would matter if you could indeed use a single stunt to create a special career or company.

No, to find and diagnose the true illness here, and to build back up something new from first principles, we have to dig deeper. Why is shortcut culture ineffective? What happens when we rely on Random Acts of Creativity that hurts our cause rather than helps it?

I'll share my theory next week. 

Only one thing is certain in our shared journey so far: We're putting shortcut culture where it belongs...

unnamed (4).jpg
Posted on January 16, 2019 .

The Worst Career Advice I've Ever Received: "Be the Best"


What's the worst advice you've ever received? Can you recall? Go ahead, I'll wait. (I literally can't move forward until you scan your eyes further down, so...)

Seriously, what's the absolute worst advice you've ever received? 

Prefer to listen to this story instead? Right this way to the Unthinkable podcast (or try Apple, Overcast, or Spotify).

When I was 27, I was put in charge of a content team of about 9 people at a high-growth, well-known tech company, and for the first time ever, I found myself in a purely managerial role. Unlike past leadership positions at past tech companies, where I was able to make stuff AND manage, leading a team of 9 at a rapidly scaling startup required that I ditch my beloved maker schedule (big blocks of uninterrupted time for deep work) and assume a manager schedule (30- or 60-minute blocks, mainly taken up by meetings back to back to back to back to blahhhhhhhhh).

Can I be honest? Sometimes I feel guilty about hating that experience. Everything about the job was supposed to be wonderful. The team was swell. The brand was sterling. The influence of our content around the industry was all that and a bag of clicks. The perks, the power, the pay -- I was supposed to love it. 

But I. Was. Miserable.

One day, I decided to share that fact with my boss, a director who'd been at the company for years and who, we all knew, was being groomed to eventually lead the entire department. 

"I don't feel like I'm being fully utilized," I told him. "I'm not doing my best work."

"Yep. I agree," he told me. Oh. Um. Thanks? (Turns out, he was NOT the best of bosses. That tends to happen when you're continually gazing upward in the org chart as a manager. You forget that the way to climb above is to better serve those below.)

I started clicking my pen nervously. See, the noise can distract a boss from his erstwhile attempt to fire you. Or so I'm told.

"I feel like I'm caught between two roles," I told him. "I'm in this manager position where I'm supposed to be a content strategist, but my love is to create."

"Well," said my boss, now placated by my magic pen, "you have to choose. Given where this industry is at, you could probably be the best strategist. You probably won't be the best creator. So, solving for enterprise value is solving for your career here: You should focus on being the best strategist."  

So it was settled. With a few tumbles of a tongue fluent in Corporate Bullshit, I had my marching orders: Shut up and go do your job as assigned. 

Here's the worst part: I thought he was right at the time. I believed he was. I was one of very few people in my position in the entire industry, and at a young age too. Whereas most content teams were one, two, maybe three people, I worked with NINE -- and we were hiring more. It felt like the world was my oyster, and my boss had instructed me to crack it open, toss out the pearl, and cram in some tips-and-tricks blog posts that ranked higher on search.

Blah. Did I say blah already? I don't care: Blah.

Looking back, I can't help but laugh at his advice, because what the hell does "the best" even mean in this line of work? That's so subjective. That's a fool's goal, I think. We don't keep stats to measure ourselves against others in our industry (and don't get me started on social followers).

LeBron James can aim to be the best. Maybe he measures that on most all-star appearances, or championships, or playoff scoring, or hell, merely the public narrative around a very public career declaring him "the best." But last I checked, global media outlets aren't publishing weekly rankings, opinion columns, and talking head TV shows to decide whether or not we're the best.

Be the best? Nuh uh. No thanks. Not a chance. Not a real thing!

How about, be the most fulfilled by the work? What about, find something that drives you ceaselessly forward, towards constant improvement, and learning, and joy, and the chance to bring your full self to your work? 

Or what about this:

Go on a quest.

That's how I frame this work we do: like a quest. It's an ongoing, never-ending exploration of just how deep this well goes, or just how dense this jungle is, or just how high this mountain climbs, or just ... uh ... how tasty ... the pasta ... is?

MY POINT ... is that I am hungry. For pasta, yes, of course, I'm Italian, BUT ALSO for the journey to understand and improve and create. Turns out there is no finish line in all that. There's no finally reaching the status of "the best." There's no "winning." There's only constant improvement, constant motion forward. That's all any career is. As my friend, the author and speaker Andrew Davis, likes to say: We go on quests.

So today, I'm excited to invite you to join me on my next quest, unfolding throughout 2019 and maybe beyond, via my organization, Marketing Showrunners.

Together, we're fighting one enemy in the workplace (Shortcut Culture -- ugh), and we're striving to master one thing (creating consistently great work: original, resonant, and beloved by both us and them).

My hypothesis right now? The key is to understand how to master the art of reinvention, rather than obsess over Random Acts of Creativity -- all those shortcuts and short-term approaches the working world lauds to make the numbers go higher, faster, today. Consistently great work consistently changes in little ways, all the time. Thus, if we want to be innovative or creative over time, we need to master the art of reinvention. Marketing Showrunners exists to advance the craft of marketers making shows to build passionate audiences, and I can think of no better place than the MSR newsletter to explore this big, complex topic. Shows are, after all, a practice in consistency and little reinventions over time.

So why is this a "quest" anyway? Well, I know I have one of those careers where I'm supposed to have answers. The truth is, I have a ton of questions, and I can't wait to pursue them to see where they take me -- where they take us. My role in this working world isn't to dole out answers. I've written way too much already about the problem with experts and gurus and false "secrets to success." Instead, my work packages and presents what I've found, not what I "know." To quote Anthony Bourdain for the umpteenth time to you, this time via one of his tattoos: "I am certain of nothing." 

Creativity isn't a final destination. It's a never-ending quest. In reality, the choice presented by my old boss was an impossible one to make at all, because the outcome (being the best) doesn't exist.

What's the worst advice you've ever received? Can you recall? I was told to pick a job where I could strive towards something that doesn't exist. But this quest? It's very much real, and very much launching right now.

Starting today, you and I can let others obsess over the hacks, cheats, "secrets," and shortcuts. Starting today, we can focus all of our time on resonance, not empty reach. We can choose to think longer term, to build projects and companies that are unassailable and beloved. Let others profess to have "the answers." We have questions. And that's why this work is worth doing.

Screw being the best. I love the quest.

Posted on January 9, 2019 .

Don't Just Be "Different" - What It Really Takes to Consistently Exceed Their Expectations

different better than better

In 2006, two Boston-based entrepreneurs named Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz launched a video software platform called Wistia. Over the next 12 years, they created some of the business world's most entertaining videos. In the words of Savage, their CEO, they take "emotional risks." As a result, their work stands out as a beloved exception in B2B. They feel like a breath of fresh air compared to most business content.

I've been a fan and follower of Wistia's since 2008, when I moved to Boston for my first job in tech, working as a digital media strategist at Google. Over time, I grew disillusioned with big company life, and I craved a path that would let me create for a living, rather than advise and sell as I did for the Big G. Looking around my own city, I took solace in the fact that Wistia was (A) a B2B business that (B) created lots of content about business topics and (C) embraced creativity and emotional risk-taking.

Over time, I got to know Wistia's people, and as my relationship deepened with them, I noticed two things that they did better than most. These two things are why I'm writing this today, and they lead us to our next big adventure together on my newsletter and on my podcast. Who knows? Maybe there's a book in here. There's definitely a speech. Regardless, here are the two things Wistia does better than most:

First, Wistia's videos have a certain consistency to them. They've created a unique identity thanks to a number of traits that, after watching just a few videos, become readily identifiable as "Wistian." They have a peppy, quirky tone, with a production style to match, a recurring cast of "characters" (employees on camera), and a propensity for quick-cut asides and jokes. White label a Wistia video, and you'd still know it was them. They know what works for their brand.


Despite knowing "what works," and using that consistently, Wistia also proactively and consistently changes their work over time. They don't rely on the tried-and-true, beating it to death as so many teams do. Likewise, when they try something new, they don't merely glom onto the latest trend to evolve. While every corporation claims they want Hashtag Innovation, most of them treat change like they're buying a new Maserati: It has to be big, bold, and expensive, or it apparently doesn't count. Of course, then what happens? They hit the gas and careen wildly down the road. They have no idea what they're actually doing as they prioritize a trend or tactic without any real strategy. They aren’t driving change so much as the change is driving them. They’re reactive. They’re not in control.

With Wistia, it's different. Despite the stress and the fun of growing a young tech company, Wistia's changes still feel proactive, not reactive. "Someone screamed something from a stage? Who cares? What should WE do?"

Wistia doesn't let the change drive them. They indeed drive the change, both internally and, really, around the industry as a whole. Instead of careening wildly down the street, unable to control the horsepower of their Hashtag Innovation, they eaaaase onto the driver's seat. (Oooh, that feels nice.) They leeeean back as they start the engine. (Oh my, just listen to that puppy.) And they go cruuuisin' down the street. (Mmmm, yeah.) 

They seem to know what to change and what to keep. They make proactive changes over time, too, which keeps us engaged over time. Yes, I know roughly what to expect from them -- but not exactly what to expect. And that's exactly why I'm still a huge fan 10 years after discovering them. They continually change the right stuff about their work in order to exceed my expectations every time.


Wistia isn't alone, either. I just wrapped up Season 1 of Exceptions, a 10-part docuseries about the world's most creative B2B brands. Each of them are breaths of fresh air in their niches: InVision (in the design industry), Gusto (payroll/benefits/HR), Help Scout (customer support), Lessonly (employee learning and development), First Round Capital (VC), Zoom (video conferencing), Grado Labs (my B2C example among the bunch, in consumer electronics), Buffer (social media marketing), ProfitWell (SaaS analytics), and yes, Wistia (video creation and analytics).

All 10 brands seem to do the impossible in today's noisy, conventional wisdom-filled world:

They avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations. 

What does that take to achieve? How can we do that too? I can’t shake this burning desire to know.

Welcome to Our Next Journey Together

In my first book, Break the Wheel, published in October, we completed the first leg of our journey together. We explored how to escape the endless cycle of best practices, conventional thinking, and trendy new tactics to do our best work. After two-and-a-half years of asking questions and looking for answers through story, we pushed ourselves away from conventional thinking. But now that we've done so, the big question becomes: How do we keep pushing? 

How do we avoid lapsing back into that endless cycle of best practices and commodity work Once we've raised our audience's expectations for what they can expect from us, making "exceptional" our new status quo, how can we continue to set the bar ever higher in their minds? If we could do that, we'd become the welcome exceptions in our niche, much like Wistia, and those other 9 brands, and about 50 other examples of work from all shapes and sizes that I've already gathered. All of these examples can be described with one powerful but under-explored word:


Yup. They’re refreshing. Not "different." Refreshing. It’s a subtle difference but, as these things so often go, it makes all the difference in the world.

The Conventional Advice

The usual advice for standing out among all the noise is to be different. At first glance, it seems like this is the answer to my questions above. Want to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? Be different.  

Rather than try to win on competency -- slight incremental benefits that the competition lacks -- we strive to win on originality. Don’t be “yet another.” Be the only. Want word-of-mouth? Give them something remarkable, or worth remarking about. As I said in my book, if we want to be exceptional, we need to find and follow what makes us an exception.


I can't shake this feeling that maybe, just maybe, that idea doesn’t tell the full story.

In fact, recently, that sneaking suspicion leapt out from where it was hiding to reveal itself more fully to me. (Ew.) It pointed a gnarled and calloused finger my way and said, “HEY! You're one of those people who says things for a living! So if you want to continue this work you do, then answer me these questions two!”

  1. Isn’t the goal to be different and good, not just different? (Obviously, the goal isn’t to just pull stunts or try a bunch of gimmicks. We aren't rebels without a cause. We very much have one, or even several. We want to do work that others actually love. We need a more nuanced view here. We need the right MENTALITY. )

  2. What does that take anyway? (Obviously, we can’t just throw out everything we do and replace it with entirely new stuff. So how do we evolve with a purpose? How do we recognize when something is stale and needs to change? What do we change, and what do we keep? Clearly, we need a STRATEGY.)

A mentality and a strategy -- sounds like "nuance" to me. And nuance is one of those pesky but important things that requires genuine exploration and deep work to understand. As always, there is no One Simple Secret. So we better start our exploration.

The Problem with Aiming for "Different"

This idea that we should be “different” rather than compete on competency is far from new, but it was immortalized by the great thinker and speaker Sally Hogshead in 2015. In an article on her blog, she codified the idea into the pithiest and most memorable (and powerful) of phrases:

Different is better than better.

She writes:

We grew up with a myth. The myth says: Work hard to be “better.” Better than everyone else. Better than the other students in our classroom. In your career, be better than our competition… because that’s how to be the best. I’d like to end this myth right here. Your competitive advantage is NOT the way in which you are incrementally better than the competition.

She goes on to describe the benefits of competing not on price or efficacy of our product or fancier new marketing or technology, but by identifying and deploying our unique advantages.

"Different is better than better."

Be still, my beating heart. I feel like I can sprint through a wall just hearing that, don’t you? I think, “HELLZ TO THE YEAH! I’m gonna be different! I’m gonna do things MY way! I see you, Frank Sinatra! In fact, I’m so excited, I don’t even care that I just used the phrase HELLZ TO THE YEAH in public! Let’s do this thang! WOOOO!!!!”


Then those questions creep in.

How are we different?

Also, are we different enough?

Also, are we different in some absolute, final sense, or must we keep finding different ways to be different over time?

Also, is our different a different that others really want?

Also, how do we achieve THAT?



It’s hard for me to admit, and it may even border on controversial (settle down), but maybe being different isn't really the goal. In fact, without those pesky, nuanced things — the right mentality and the right strategy — we our thinking might be incomplete and dangerous.

It's incomplete because the goal is indeed to be welcome, not merely unconventional. Our work has to, yanno ... work. I could deliver my keynote speeches with my back turned to the audience for an hour. I'd be different. I’d also be terrible.

Unfortunately, saying "different-and-welcome is better than better" isn't all that tweetable. Still, I think a vastly underrated skill when crafting a career or company is knowing what to change and what to keep as we evolve our way forward. That’s how we can consistently create something different and avoid the real enemy in this exploration: stagnation.

Next, aiming to be “different” might actually be dangerous too. When we want to be different, we’re forced to answer one implied question that informs all our actions: "Different from whom?" Answer: The competition. But that’s never where we should start or focus our efforts. That’s a reactive, incremental way to craft our careers and companies. At best, that approach leads us to achieve what Sally Hogshead calls “a flimsy advantage that can be toppled in a millisecond by someone with a bigger following.”

What If We Focused on Being Refreshing Instead?

What if we found a smart, strategic way to continually refresh our work? What if we focused on feeling refreshing, not different?

Aiming to be refreshing, like aiming to be different, forces us to answer an implied questoin. However, this question focuses the work on something better than the competition. Rather than ask, “Different from whom?” we must ask, “Refreshing TO whom?” Answer: The customer. The audience. The client. The team. The community. The people we aim to serve.

Because that’s the real goal.

So, how can we refresh our work over time? What does it take to avoid stagnation and consistently exceed expectations? How can we ensure our work is embraced and beloved, not just once, but always, over time, in ways that resonate in such a deep way that they consider it refreshing?

As you can imagine, I've got some ideas for how this works. Mostly, I've got questions, and I’m starting a public journey to find some answers right now, with you.

So I hope you'll join me along this journey. Because while we all want to do exceptional work, it's simply not sufficient to break from conventional thinking once. We have to routinely identify stale patterns and evolve our way beyond them. Sometimes, that means making incremental changes, remixing our work.

Other times, that requires reinvention. Recently, that's exactly what Wistia did.

After 12 years of making the marketing world’s most beloved short-form videos, the team created a four-part documentary series, One, Ten, One Hundred, exploring the relationship between money and creativity. (Full disclosure: I was honored to be a consultant on this project.) The decision to reinvent their content followed a decision to reinvent the entire business, as Wistia had previously launched a new product, a Chrome extension to help you make beautiful video quickly called Soapbox.

Wistia continues to refresh their work. I think we should too. So let's journey together to uncover the subtle but powerful art of knowing what to tweak and what to keep as we evolve. Let's strive to be the beloved exceptions in our space. Let's avoid stagnation and consistently exceed their expectations. If we do, we might hear just about the best damn compliment to our work we can receive from others:

"THAT is how EVERYONE should do this."

How refreshing. 

JOIN THE JOURNEY: 2 ways to follow along with each question, story, insight, and behind-the-scenes content:

  1. Read and respond to my weekly emails. I'd love your thoughts, questions, and stories you think I should explore. I read and reply to every email I get. Subscribe below.

  2. Listen to my podcast, Unthinkable, for featured stories, plus a special behind-the-scenes miniseries called Creative Cafe, where I talk to some of the world’s best at continually refreshing their work (including Wistia's creative director!). Both types of episodes are coming in 2019. Subscribe free on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercast, and anywhere you listen.

Posted on December 17, 2018 .

The Great Myth of Brand and Finding a Simpler Understanding

great myth of brand

Conventional thinking says we should grow reach.

Conventional thinking says we should look for more.

Conventional thinking says bigger is better.

Conventional thinking ... is conventional for a reason.

No matter how sound or logical, pervasive or pithy, best practices are lagging indicators, not leading indicators. On my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices, and really in all my work, I've long advocated for a renewed focus on resonance instead of reach. It's not just my little corner of the internet, either. Over the past 6 months, I've gone inside 10 of the world's best B2B organizations to uncover how and why they're prioritizing brand. In this docuseries, Exceptions, I profiled InVision, Zoom, Wistia, Help Scout, First Round Capital, Grado Labs, ProfitWell, Lessonly, Buffer, and Gusto. In talking to both their teams AND their customers, my eyes were opened to a simple fact: Great brands grow by prioritizing resonance instead of reach.

In the end, brand is merely the sum total of every experience others have with you (whether that's "customer experience" or "employee experience"). Every tweet, every email, every purchase, every MOMENT -- it all adds up to create the brand. In other words:

Brand is how others feel about your people.

Period. That's it. It's all about those two things: how they FEEL ... about YOUR PEOPLE.

Again, brand is the sum total of every experience they have. Every experience is created by people. Thus, every brand is built by the collective behavior of your people. That's all this is. We overcomplicate this, and we hide that blunt reality behind words like "company" and "department" and "campaign," but these are merely constructs. They are legal or theoretical entities. The words are shorthand for "the people who work for us." In reality, a "company" is a nonexistent, empty container -- that is, until we, the people doing the work, fill those containers with what we create. Brand is thus the emotional reaction that others have to our stuff that creates a brand.

And today, in this world of infinite choice, we choose to spend time with great experiences. In other words, we choose great brands.

In the business world, we tend to inflate these ideas into more sophisticated-sounding but ultimately meaningless ideas. We think building a brand means launching one-off “brand initiatives,” but in reality, EVERYTHING we do builds the brand.

We chalk up those discrete “brand initiatives” as things that don't drive results, but in reality, a great brand grows inbound results while making it easier to go outbound.

We think “brand” means putting some final polish on something or perhaps launching something fun or “viral.”

In short, the conventional thinking on "brand" is that it's a nice-to-have thing which is all about reach. In reality, it's all about resonance. It's the emotional response others have to our work.

Here’s the bottom line: Every individual has AN experience of our work. The only real question is: Are we being proactive about crafting a great one?

This idea was originally shared to my newsletter. You can subscribe below.

Posted on December 9, 2018 .

Worthy Or Not, Here I Come: The Cure for Imposter Syndrome


My aspirational anchor (the method for setting goals that helps us make more contextual decisions) has long been “to tell the most emotionally resonant stories about work that I can.” This forces me to focus my time and effort on a few things above all else, each of which comes with a tradeoff: stories (not advice), resonance (not reach), and constant improvement (not expertise or any other notion of finality — the “that I can” part of my anchor). My biggest area for improvement is that third part (which is a bit obvious, I suppose, when you consider the third part is “constant improvement.”) 

I don’t know about you, but I often forget to ask myself, “Is this thing I’m creating better than my last?” In my drive to publish, I often release work without ever pausing to consider if I’ve really created the best story about work “that I can.” Instead, I prefer to rely on the number of reps that I put in, because I know I create a ton of stuff relative to the average bear. (Squirrels have me beat though. But they mostly publish clickbait.)

To get better at getting better, I plan to ask myself two questions before shipping my work. They won’t take long to answer, so I can avoid paralyzing myself, but they should be a part of my flow from here onward:

  1. Did I articulate the story’s conflict with enough clarity and emotion? (For those who missed it, here's last week’s email about why conflict matters to story, and how to build your own using the One Simple Story framework.)

  2. Did I tell the story my way? (This means that my quirks, beliefs, and voice must be fully present. I don’t want to create derivative work, nor do I want to create what I think will “work.” If I do either, it’s a sign I ignored the most crucial variable between my context and everyone else’s: me.)

I don’t think I’m alone in struggling with these things, and since I addressed #1 last time, it’s time to tackle #2. What does it mean to do the work "your way" anyway? Isn’t that a scary and vulnerable place to be? What does it mean to be fully present? And, of course, why would anyone care that I did it my way? Am I worthy of their time, attention, and love?

Uh oh. We’re stumbling towards the vast swamp of self doubt, with all its twisting vines of internal debate and the endless croaking of frogs. “Fraaaaud! Fraaaaud! Rippit (up). Rippit (up). Fraaaaud!”

Imposter syndrome plagues a lot of us. But if I’m being honest — and, for once, I feel awkward about being honest — it’s never plagued me.

"ALRIGHT, tough guy,” I hear you thinking. “Nice humble-brag, you greasy-haired egomaniac.” (Not the hair, c’mon…)

Look, it’s not that I’m a single cell better than anyone who DOES feel imposter syndrome. It’s just that the nature of my work has REMOVED the issue entirely. This might sound surprising, given that I’m basically a business personality. What could cause imposter syndrome quite like that line of work? It’s all about ME, isn’t it?

And that’s the issue. It can’t be all about me. It ISN’T all about me. I believe that to remove imposter syndrome — and, really, to do this creative stuff we all do WELL — we have to remove the self.

Hear me out, because I don’t mean “don’t bring your full self to your work.” Just the opposite. We have to bring our full self, but we have to bring it TO the right endeavor. Think of it like this: 

You aren’t the work. You're the vessel for it.

In Break the Wheel, I advocate for a simple switch in how we make decisions. Rather than act like experts, who have all the answers, I propose we act like investigators, who ask great questions. Whereas experts value absolutes, investigators value evidence. It might be helpful to know some generalized theory, but what really matters is asking question after question, finding clue after clue, as the case unfolds. 

Well, if you’re an investigator, then ultimately, your work isn’t about “who you are” but rather “what you’ve found.” You stop focusing on this implied notion of self-importance (“I AM something”) and begin focusing on your investigation (“I FOUND something”). 

When you’re investigator, it’s no longer YOU that must be worthy. It’s what you’ve uncovered. Anyone could have done it. You’re not special. But what you FOUND is. And that’s the work they came to see.

With this simple mental switch, we can beat imposter syndrome. Why are we worthy? Who are we to earn their time, attention, and love? We’re the people who spent meaningful time asking important questions and investigating them thoroughly. We're here to present to them what we found. Let them judge away! They aren’t judging us. You’re judging what we found. We can then step back, away from that thing we found, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them to try and see it their way. We shouldn’t feel any more afraid or attacked than if we dug up a rock from the dirt and had someone point out what they see to be true about that rock. That’s not a comment on us. It’s a comment about what we found. 

Who we are still matters, but only so much as it informs our pathway to the work. The person you are is the trusty magnifying glass you can use during your investigation to see the world a certain way. But you still need to pull out that objective truth, and yes, put that truth out there for the world to see or judge.

Ultimately, I think we're all just vessels. Like journalists or detectives, we’re on the case. We ask great questions, and we seek the truth in the world, through whatever we create. 

When someone exhibits imposter syndrome, they continually doubt their worthiness or authenticity, and they live with a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” When you’re an investigator, however, this seems silly. Fraud? As in, a fake? I don’t even see how that would be possible. How can you fake the fact that I embarked on an investigation? How can I fake this thing I found? I assure you, it’s quite real.

In this era of insta-fame and Insta fame, we aren’t actually the stars of our work. That’s how I can avoid imposter syndrome even though I’m more or less building Jay, Inc. That’s how YOU can avoid imposter syndrome, regardless of what you do. They aren’t here to see us, nor are they really judging us. They want to know what we’ve learned. They’d like an update on our investigation. Work that’s worthy of their time and adoration isn’t created by handing others your answers. It requires that you ask great questions. Every individual alive is capable of doing that. 

Now open your word processor, turn on the microphone, start your design, take your camera on the road, start your company, go for that promotion, or walk through that curtain ... and give them what they REALLY came to see. 

It’s not who you are. It’s what you’ve found.

This post was originally shared to my newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. You can subscribe below.

Posted on December 6, 2018 .

Most Brands Use Data Incorrectly When Trying to Be Creative. Here's How to Avoid the Issue.


In the digital age, we can measure everything. We can measure clicks and views and how many of those views were unique. We can measure exit pages and bounce rates and conversion funnels. We can measure CPC and CPM and CPA.


We can measure (extremely Chris Traeger from Parks & Rec)LITERALLY everything. And because we can measure LITERALLYeverything, we find ourselves buried in data. This can both help and hinder creativity. The difference?

Are you "Aristotelian" or "Galilean" in your approach to data?

It turns out there are actually two ways we can use data, and it doesn't matter if the data in question is qualitative or qualitative. (After all, "data" simply means "information stored for later use." It doesn't mean "numbers.")

In our quest to create exceptional work, we'd be wise to understand both approaches to using data. We'd be even wiser (I'm talking owl with a graduate cap on his head-level wise) to use one of the two in our work.

So what are these two approaches, and which should we use? Ladies and gentlesubscribers, let's meet our contestants...

The Aristotelian Approach

Up first, we have the approach espoused by Aristotle and his followers. A-Stots believed the world was best understood by first seeking theessence of things (what we might call absolutes). 

We can know a rock by knowing the essence of rocks. We can know a river by knowing the essence of rivers. We can know a frog by asking for its license and registration. (Kidding of course. Frogs are notoriously apathetic about proper identification.)

unnamed (8).png

According to this approach to data, the more we gather information about something, the more we can update our understanding of all versions of that something. We strive to get closer and closer to understanding THE truth. In this way, your brain becomes a sort of filing cabinet. The more we learn about things that exist in the world, the more we can divide and subdivide everything into various categories. Then, when we encounter something that needs interpretation, we merely pull out the right drawer in this ever-growing cabinet in our heads. 

There are two glaring problems with this approach: absolutes (the “essence” of something) and the past (the filing cabinet).

When we approach data with an Aristotelian lens, we plan tomorrow's actions by looking at yesterday's understanding of the world. We cling to absolutes, or as I like to call them, assumptions. In the modern workplace, where many of us face complex problems requiring creative solutions each day, it's dangerous to make decisions based on assumptions. That's where Galilean approaches to data can save us.

The Galilean Approach

Galileo pushed a more modern approach to the scientific method in his focus on testing variables. Whereas Aristotle sought to understand The Truth, Galilean approaches to data require us to seek A Truth. In other words, rather than make decisions based on assumptions, we test, learn, and iterate quickly based on the specifics. 


When we view data with a Galilean lens, we embrace that context matters most. Effectively, Galilean decisions emphasize on firsthand learning, not theory or precedent. Rather than gathering up all the information (absolutes) we need to justify acting, we act to find new information.

As I wrote about in my book, Break the Wheel ("Break the Wheel: The spectacular new book from Jay Acunzo. Get yours now on Amazon!"), it's possible to make decisions with greater clarity and even speed when we make one simple switch: Stop acting like experts and begin acting like investigators. This means we no longer start our thought process by seeking everyone else's answers. Instead, we ask ourselves great questions about our specific context. Whereas experts know absolutes (what works in general or on average), investigators focus on evidence (what works in THIS situation).

Investigators prefer the Galilean approach to data. They realize that the Aristotelian approach hurts creativity. If we must justify every action we take using past precedent, well, we've all seen what happens:

  • The executive joins the company and begins to implement her playbook or hire "her people" without understanding this new team whatsoever.

  • The marketing team publishes list article after list article, bland piece after bland piece, because a famous brand or favorite expert or past moment of success suggests it's "the" approach.

  • A friend bugs you for yet another round of feedback for this new project they're going to launch, they swear.

  • A public speaker performs the exact same 45 minutes with every single speech.

  • ...and more, oh so much more!

In every case, these people build their work on a simple premise: "What worked there and then will work here and now."

Simple, yet faulty. Whether knowingly or (far more likely) implicitly, they're Aristotelian in their approach to data. The data says X. That's the essence. That's the absolute. That's The Truth. 

Cut. Copy. Paste. Ugh.

Don't Market to Vegetarians

Eric Siegel is a predictive analytics expert. While helping an airline brand figure out how to fill its flights more consistently, Eric noticed in the data that vegetarians missed fewer flights. Now, a busy executive or stressed-out marketer might stop there and say, “Great! The data has given us THE answer. We should market to vegetarians."

Thinking more critically and creatively, however, Eric wondered, "Whydo vegetarians miss fewer flights?" (Funny how that pesky question of "why" always slips past us when we just stare at the data.) Why do vegetarians miss fewer flights? Does the essence of a vegetarian include punctuality? 

Well, just think: How did Eric identify these people as vegetarians in the first place? That's not written on their ID, right?

The answer: They requested vegetarian meal options. Ah ha! It wasn't the fact that they're vegetarians that caused them to miss fewer flights. It was the fact that they personalized something about their experience! Whether because they were forced to spend more time with the brand, and thus it was top-of-mind, or because they were looking forward to their experience a bit more than the typical passenger, these people missed fewer flights.

By trying to contextualize an absolute, Eric found a true insight -- an insight on which they could act. Thanks to Eric, they realized,We shouldn't launch a giant campaign to target vegetarians. We should get more people to personalize something about their flights. 

And so they did.

And so they succeeded. 

It may have been cleaner for a chart or graph or statistic to point to THE answer, but remember: Reality is bag of crumbly cookies called Nuance Chip. (Inevitably available as vegan cookies soon...)

Which approach will you take?

Data informs. It doesn't instruct. That's why the need to be data driven is slowly given way to a new phrase among my personal community of tech entrepreneurs: being data informed. That idea hasn't leaked out of the tech bubble much just yet, but I believe it's the better approach to data. I believe it's the Galilean approach, renamed.

Just the phrase "data driven" brings to mind a six-foot, humanoid spreadsheet sitting on a horse-drawn carriage, only WE are the horses. But great work happens proactively, not reactively. When we're data informed, we isolate variables, test, and learn. We insert our own sense of taste and our intuition into the process. (As readers of my book know, intuition comes from the Latin intueri, which simply means "to consider" -- just like any good investigator does.)

If we're data driven instead of data informed, if we're Aristotelian instead of Galilean, then we base our decisions on one fundamental assumption: Our context here and now is exactly like to another situation there and then. In reality, of course, it's not EXACTLY the same. It's ALMOST the same, and considering the differences makes all the difference in the world.

We shouldn't make decisions by shrugging and saying, "Close enough."

Because close enough leads to work that's "good enough."

And "good enough" simply isn't enough ... for us.

unnamed (10).png
Posted on November 30, 2018 .

How a Simple Experiment at a Picnic Revealed a Universal Workplace Problem | Unthinkable Podcast

unthinkable podcast picnic experiment

Why do we gorge ourselves on holidays? Why do we do ANYTHING that seems mindless? "Because that's how we do things around here."


In this story, the psychological phenomenon that explains this type of decision-making ... and what we need to do to break from it.

Unthinkable is the podcast about questioning conventional thinking to think for yourself at work. The show features stories of people who make decisions that seem crazy, until you hear their side of things. It’s a highly produced, narrative-style show unlike anything you’ve heard from other business or career podcasts.

Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, or wherever you get your shows.

Better yet, get each new episode via email (plus a new original story only found through the newsletter) by subscribing below.

Posted on November 19, 2018 .

One Simple Story: A 3-Step Framework for Telling More Compelling Stories


The following was originally shared via my weekly newsletter, Damn the Best Practices. If you like what you read, consider subscribing at the bottom of this article. I’ll send you my all-time most popular pieces right after.

Pay attention to these four stories, because, yes, there will be a quiz at the end.

Story 1) The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout. Out came the sun, and he happily continued his climb.

Story 2) Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess named Snow White. In the nearby forest were some dwarves, somewhere between six and eight of them if I had to guess. One day, a prince came calling for the princess. “Yo, shorty, what’s good?” he said. “I am! I’m good! And so are you, boo.” Then they lived happily ever after. (The dwarves did well, too: paid off their student debt, got a job at the fast-growing FaceScroll, and vested some serious equity before the IPO.)

Story 3) Meet Steve Jobs. He’s a wildly creative dude. Together with his cofounder, Steve Wozniak, Jobs built a computer. “Hey, Woz, you deserve most of the credit. Let’s tell the media that,” he said. “Rad,” said Woz. Then Steve turned to Bill. “Hey, Bill? I owe you a ton of inspiration for lots of this stuff, so I'll give you credit for that too." Bill was pumped. “You’re real neat!” he told Steve. Steve’s company thrived, every employee enjoyed working for him thanks to his pleasant management style, and he was always great father and never got sick and still lives in California today.

Story 4) Our company is revolutionizing the way businesses grow. By combining best-in-breed technology with exceptional service, we help you realize your dreams. Just ask our customers! (Cut to case study video.) "They revolutionized how our business grows. They combined best-in-breed technology with exceptional service, and they helped me realize my dreams."

POP QUIZ! Why do all these stories make me want to press my hand against my cheek and make truly offensive fart noises?

Because they’re awful!

And why are they awful? Because they're all missing something. They're missing CONFLICT. In fact, without conflict, I’d argue these stories aren’t really stories at all. They’re just … statements of fact.

Conflict, or friction, or uncertainty, or drama, or tension, or something, anything at stake … THAT is the most foundational piece of a story. It's what creates the narrative arc that holds attention, resonates emotionally, and inspires action.

Just think about why we call it an "arc" in the first place. Arcs move upward towards a crescendo before sloping back down. What causes that lift? We raise the stakes. Their anticipation grows because they understand that what we're saying truly matters, and they can't wait to hear what happens next.

That's what happens when we insert some conflict. We create a compelling arc:

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 6.12.26 PM.png

Unfortunately, we often fail to add that piece into our stories at any level: our brand, our team, our careers, our content. When we don’t tell an actual story, what happens to our communication?

It falls flat...

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 6.12.45 PM.png

And when what we say falls flat, they flatline. They feel nothing. They remember nothing. They do nothing.

When we fail to tell a story, we become ... nothing. Just a forgettable pitstop in their day, gone once they begin to spend time with something else that truly resonates with them.

With adding conflict, the itsy-bitsy spider merely climbed up a water spout. No worries at all. (Also? No need to sing about him.)

Snow White and the ... I wanna say four? Four dwarves? They began happily and lived happily ever after. No need to think about them ever after hearing their non-story.

Jobs was yet another guy who did well in his career. No lore takes shape.

And then, of course, there's our companies and how we usually communicate. We try to win their attention, to earn their trust, and to make them feel, but all we usually do is deliver statements of fact, void of interestingness, because they're void of conflict.

"Our company is soOoOo awesome. Have ya heard? Just ask our customers! They adore us, let me tell you what! We'll also tell you why ('cuz of all the awesome), and how (by paying us all the monies), and when (always and forever), and where. (Trusted by over 6.9 million companies, across 1,200 different continents, on 78 different planets.)"

Hand, meet cheek…

We need to get better at telling stories -- genuine, worthy, legitimate stories.

Story Structure Made Simple

Last week, I got a great question from a subscriber named Robert Rouse. He’s building a new product, and as a self-described technical guy, he wondered how he could improve his ability to communicate the power behind what he was building.

“I talk about the features, how it's made, pointing out how nothing else today can do what this will do. But that's not a story. It's not personal. No one cares about the features, they care about why the features should exist. How could I break out of thinking in "tech mode" to craft a personal story instead of explaining prototype sketches?”

Bloody brilliant. The key, as I hinted at already? Get bloody. Fight someone, and, if you have to, murder them. C'mon, do it for the story...

I’m kidding! I AM KIDDING! But, look, there’s a reason murder mysteries are so popular everywhere from books to TV to movies to news articles. (Experts predict that by the year Whenever Podcasts Became a Thing, every other show will be required to be a murder mystery.) And why? Because if raising the stakes makes for a great story, then few things are higher stakes than putting a life at stake.

In our work, we don’t need to kill anyone. (2018 Nominee: Least Necessary Sentence Award.) But we do indeed need to add more conflict to the things we say. If we did, suddenly, we’d become great storytellers. In a world where that phrase has become jargon, we'll reclaim it as something worthwhile because we know how to craft things worthy of their time. And yes, we can make this simple, through a three-part framework I call (pause for effect, casually sip coffee while looking you in the eye, start feeling like I’m using too many parenthetical asides in this email, decide that, screw it, I should just tell you)...

I call it the One Simple Story.

In branding, there’s this concept called the One Simple Thing. For years, Coke’s was “happiness.” My business, Unthinkable Media, might claim that every show we create for clients is in some way “refreshing.” I first learned about the OST years ago, and since then, I've wondered how a team turns the idea into ... yanno ... stuff people like? How does the OST turn the theory behind our brand into the actions we take? (That's how I define brand: How others feel about your team's collective behavior.)

Well, to move from idea to action, we can expand a One Simple Thing into a One Simple Story.

Every story contains three fundamental pieces:

  1. Status Quo. This is an agreed-upon belief or state of being. In other words, it's a statement of fact. It is the way it is. This email didn't open with four stories, it opened with four status quos.

  2. Conflict. BUT THEN ... something threatens or changes that status quo. (There's a reason every innovation story seems to use the word "disrupt.") Something is at stake, something just got hard, and we face open-ended questions or problems that need solving.

  3. Resolution. AND SO ... we reach the conclusion of the story. How is that conflict resolved? What is the answer to our big question, or the payoff to the stakes we've raised. The resolution is the better way of the world or the outcome we all seek on our journey together.

Status Quo. Conflict. Resolution. These are the three most basic, most foundational pieces of any story, and way too often, we forget to add the second, and so our audience never journeys with us from the first to the third. Simple? Yes. Transformative? Only if you're communicating with humans.

See if you can feel how much better the "status quos" from earlier become once I add the conflict:

Status Quo: The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.

Conflict: Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Resolution: Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, and the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again. You go, Itsy! (Yes, we're on a first name basis. We go way back.)

Status Quo: There once was a beautiful princess named Snow White, and like a baker’s dozen of these dwarves.

Conflict: Snow White’s mother dies, and her father remarries this horrible woman. Snow's new stepmom keeps asking her magic mirror on the wall, "Who's the fairest of them all?" When the mirror says Snow White, the stepmom tries to have her killed. But the huntsman fails to do so. Then, stepmom disguises herself as an old woman and convinces Snow White to eat a poisoned apple.

Resolution: The dwarves help Snow White until the prince ultimately vanquishes the evil stepmom and saves the beautiful Snow, because #truelove and #outdatedgendernorms and all that.

Status Quo: There once was a creative guy named Steve Jobs. He wanted to make beautifully designed and simple to use personal computers.

Conflict: He received market pushback, fought with his cofounder, and battled the powerful Bill Gates and Microsoft. He was also a terrible father for most of his life, and very sadly, he contracted cancer and died far too young.

Resolution: Steve Jobs built the most valuable company in history. He eventually mended his relationship with his daughter, inspired a generation of tech entrepreneurs, and delivered some of the most emotional and uplifting words during a commencement speech shortly before his death. Steve Jobs thus became legend.

So what about our story?

Whether it's our brand positioning, some website copy, a speech, a case study, or content we publish in any medium, we're faced with endless chances to tell a better story in our work. But each time we fail to add that second piece of the One Simple Story, we get stuck at the first, the Status Quo. We hand out a bunch of statements of fact, and if there's one thing I know you know, it's that facts don't convince anyone of anything. Stories do. Emotions do.

What if crafted our One Simple Story? What if we let that inform everything we did? Better yet, what if we created a compelling narrative arc from the perspective of the audience?

Our brand might stop looking like a commodity and become the refreshing exception in our niche. Our copy might convert, our speeches might inspire, our case study might actually be worth watching or even sharing (imagine that?), and our content might earn the time and trust we need to achieve all our goals.

Stories are friggin' magic.

Thus, rather than simply claim to be awesome, or best-in-breed, or other abhorrent jargon that prompts my hand and cheek to commence a disturbingly audible dance together, we might instead tell an actual STORY.

In the interest of transparency, here's my organization's One Simple Story. For context, Unthinkable Media creates original series with B2B brands.

Status Quo: As makers and marketers, we want our audience’s attention, and so for years, we focused our efforts on acquiring it.

Conflict: But today, thanks to multiple screens, ubiquitous and instantly accessible content, and endless choice in nearly every competitive niche, the buyer now has total control. They only choose experiences they genuinely enjoy. It is no longer enough for us to simply acquire our audience's attention.

Resolution: We need to hold it. That is our new mandate as makers and marketers. We need to shift our focus from impressions and traffic to subscribers and community. Everything we are trying to achieve becomes possible and gets easier when our audience spends minutes or even hours with us, not seconds. Don't just acquire attention. Hold it.

When we tell our One Simple Story, we also set up a kind of filter. Those who agree with or believe in that story are those we should serve. Those who don't see the world that way aren't worth our time. Best of all, once someone passes through that filter -- once they agree that, yes, this is my story, I'm on board, and I'm feeling you -- we reach a sort of "oh by the way" moment.

At the end of Unthinkable Media's OSS, there's this implied idea that IF you agree with that resolution, IF you want to hold attention, then, oh by the way, there's a type of content you can create with the one expressed goal of holding attention. It's called a show. That's what we make. We make them solely for growth-stage startups and challenger B2B brands, and we make them refreshingly enjoyable. Why? Because the goal is to hold attention.

Let's talk.

Your One Simple Story inspires action because it makes that next step seem utterly irresistible, not because you've gamed any system or hacked your way to a result, but because you genuinely and emotionally resonate with your audience. We crave reach, but we should focus our efforts on resonance. Because then? Oh by the way, you should download our report. Oh by the way, you should subscribe. Oh by the way, you should buy / attend our event / invest in our company / hire me for this job...

Stories. They're magic. Glorious friggin' magic.

Status Quo. Conflict. Resolution. The most overlooked piece is conflict. We don't need to craft any giant hero's journey, either. That individual you're interviewing for your blog or podcast? She’s struggling with something, whether she's an intern, an author, or an industry veteran. Find it. Explore it. Get her thoughts and more crucially her feelings on the subject.

That company you’re building? It exists to solve a problem for the buyer. What is it? Have you described it? Do you own it? Complain about it? Paint a picture of tackling it from the perspective of the customer?

That team or entire industry you’re trying to lead? Something's broken and needs to change "out there." Rally others to fix it. Beyond the jungle is a mountain peak. Bring others on that journey. Advocate for that change. Get angry at what's broken, then have the audacity to do something about it.

What conflict can you include in your story?

We all want to tell a compelling story, no matter what we do or where we work. But too much of what we say falls flat, and as a result, their emotions flatline. We can't continue to keep handing out status quos, pummeling people with statements of fact. The fact is, facts don't change people. Emotions do. So if we can tell a compelling story? My friend, there's nothing we can't achieve.

If we only mastered that ability to insert a little conflict, we'd put back the emotion into what we're saying. In doing so, we might finally deliver something worth spending time with, worth sharing, and worth loving.

We all want others to care about our work, but ask yourself: Are you actually giving them a reason?

Posted on November 15, 2018 .

The Hidden Force Causing Teams to Stagnate (And How to Break Free)


The following is an excerpt from my book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. It's available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

Jim Mourey is an assistant professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago and holds a PhD in marketing and psychology from the University of Michigan. He’s spent his career studying how subtle cues in influence our choices and behaviors. When we spoke, he recalled a pivotal moment in his career that, on the surface, seemed rather innocuous.

In his mid-twenties, as he was exploring the city of Paris, he noticed a woman take a cigarette out of her purse and start smoking. That seems simple enough, but Jim couldn’t stop wondering: why do we constantly make mindless decisions? 

“I’d grown up in a generation in the states where smoking is this horrible, abhorrent thing that nobody should do,” Jim said. “Here was a woman who was non-consciously going through the motions and smoking a cigarette.” 

When something feels easy and familiar to us, why do we seem to abandon critical thinking, even if what we’re doing isn’t a good decision?

It turns out the culprit is a phenomenon known as cultural fluency. 

“In every culture, there are expectations of what’s accept- able and what’s not acceptable,” Jim said. “If something is unfolding in a way that we’d predict it would, that would be an experience that’s culturallyuent. And when some- thing is uent, we don’t have to think very hard about it because the world is happening as it should.” 

On the other hand, when something seems unexpected or different or even counter to conventional norms, that experience is considered culturally “disfluent.” Unfortunately for those who want to think critically for themselves, culture operates in the background. We don’t often notice its effects but are influenced by them when we make decisions. Something that feels culturally fluent becomes more like an automatic behavior than a conscious choice, and that can be incredibly dangerous if our goal is to make the best possible decision in a given situation. 

“Culture guides our behavior on a very subconscious level, so when things feel culturally fluent, we go with the ow, and when they feel culturally disfluent, we stop, hesitate, and think a little bit harder.” This was Jim’s hypothesis. To snap out of any pattern of mindless decision making, you can introduce some cultural disfluency. 

Unfortunately, that might feel rather uncomfortable. Since moments of cultural fluency happen so organically that we hardly notice, moments that are culturally disfluent create some discomfort. In the workplace, that can feel nearly impossible to tolerate. Jim understood this, and he set out to test just how much disfluency a person needs to experience to make better decisions. Naturally, he decided to run a test at his mom’s Fourth of July party, experimenting on unsuspecting friends and family. You know, typical picnic stuff. 

As guests approached the buffet table full of hot dogs, hamburgers, and sides, Jim handed them plates. Half of the group received festive plates covered in American flags and fireworks, while the other half received plain white plates. Without knowing it, these guests had just been enlisted in a psychological test. Because picnic stuff.

Waiting at the end of the buffet, Jim then weighed each of their plates. The results revealed the unseen power of cultural fluency.

“What we found was that people with the Fourth of July plates took significantly more food than the people who got the white plates.” 

Jim surmised that, since the Fourth is an American holiday based on gorging yourself, it felt natural to those guests with festive plates to take more food. Those with white plates, however, were disrupted ever so slightly and subconsciously from the mindless ow of the holiday enough to consider what they were doing. 

Later that year, Jim ran the test again, experimenting once more on his friends and family, this time at a Labor Day picnic. In this iteration of the test, half the guests received white plates while the other half got plates intended for Halloween. As he predicted, people with the starkly out- of-place pumpkins and ghosts on their plates took less food than people with white plates. 

“So taken together, we get at least initial support for this idea that, when there’s a cultural fit, when things are as they should be, people don’t really think. They tend to go with the ow. But when there’s a disconnect, suddenly things are strange. They’re not so strange that consciously we think, ‘Oh, I should take less food.’ It’s just that, for automatic behaviors, we do them less. We hesitate a bit.” 

We hesitate a bit—that line really stood out to me. When our minds urge us to follow a best practice, what if we hesitated just a bit? That would create the necessary space we need to think more critically. According to Jim Mourey, when our minds notice a disconnect between what we expect and what actually happens, even if that disconnect is small, we tend to make more informed deci- sions. Those moments of cultural disfluency awaken our brains to the reality right in front of our faces that we’d otherwise miss as we follow the ow of familiar behavior. In that way, small moments that are uncomfortable can trigger the use of our intuition, i.e., that ability we have to contemplate our environment. Now here’s my question:

What if we could proactively create moments of cultural disfluency? What if we could awaken our intuition on demand?

I think we can, if we’d only master one skill above all others: asking better questions.

By asking great questions of the world around us, we can create some small but necessary distance between us and an expected behavior or flow. That helps us begin to form a more thoughtful answer. In other words, when we act like investigators, we break from cultural fluency to begin thinking more critically. 

“There are people who subsist in the status quo,” Jim said. “These are the people who see the numbers, they’re meet- ing the numbers, and life is good, so they don’t need to change anything. But if you want to be truly innovative, what my research suggests is that this is not the correct approach. If you truly want to innovate and change, you need to break up that ow. This can be something as crazy as redesigning the workspace so it creates an experience of dis uency, or it can be something as simple as traveling.” 

We don’t need to make ourselves unbearably uncomfortable to think more critically about our work. Sure, overhauling your entire workspace could do the trick, but so could a quick trip to a new location, or maybe a plate that looks slightly out of place at the family picnic. Yes, quitting your job to try to build something entirely new and different removes you from the daily flow, but so does simply asking good questions to better understand and test things around you. We need only experience some slight discomfort, and suddenly, we’re paying more attention. Our intuition has been activated. It can really be that simple and small. What matters is that we can see things more clearly, think for ourselves, and make the best decisions for us.

We don’t need to do anything radical to achieve that.

As we established earlier, intuition is the act of considering the world. Thanks to Jim Mourey, we’ve identified what appears to be the biggest barrier to doing so: cultural fluency. However, I actually think that cultural fluency is a symptom. It’s not the illness. Yes, it prevents us from thinking for ourselves, but we aren’t trying to merely think for ourselves. The entire purpose of this journey we’ve taken is to act in better ways. We want to create better work. That may start with making better decisions, but we’re not making these decisions in our heads. They have to inform and change our work each day. So if cultural fluency is the symptom, the blocker to better thinking, then what’s the illness? What is the final barrier between you and taking action?

That's what we explore next...

*   *   *   *

(It's me again. Blog Post Jay.) Knowing about cultural fluency has changed my life. Seriously. I'm in love with the work that I do, and therefore, I can let my aspirations run wild on me. At times, I can let blind aspiration take over for critical thinking. "Blind aspiration," it turns out, can lead to the work equivalent of gorging yourself on the Fourth of July.

Because I'm hungry, and excited, and excitable, and adore creating, and get dopamine hits when people say nice things or when I earn that next show, or speech, or check ... well, I sometimes eschew mindful decision-making for moments of going with the flow based on what one is supposed to do in that situation.

Recently, for example, I was scoping my plans for Unthinkable Media for 2019 in a way that would have been truly detrimental to my happiness if I didn't catch myself. I was setting these aggressive financial goals, which runs exactly opposite to my OWN thinking on how to set goals.

And why? Because driven, ambitious people do such things? Because annual planning means setting huge growth goals? Because "success" means building a staff of people and passive revenue and becoming a zillionaire? 

Yep. Because of that. Because of cultural fluency. 

Instead, I've reverted back to my aspirational anchor. That means thinking about the craft and the process. It means focusing on RIGHT partners (growth-stage startups and challenger brands) instead of the BIGGEST partners (because I find the way most leaders act when they work for massive organizations to be insufferable). I scheduled video chats with subscribers (I'll do more again soon). I switched from mindlessly reacting to what "one should do" to a more proactive, mindful approach to figure out what I should do.

Look, I know this excerpt above wasn't the emotional gut-punch or inspiring story you might have come to expect from me. Maybe you loved it, maybe you didn't, but I am down on my knees (or, at least, reclined on my couch on a Friday night) and I'm BEGGING you: Take cultural fluency seriously. Don't make mindless decisions. All it takes it asking a few more open-ended questions about the working world around you. That's enough to create that necessary cultural DISfluency to the situation to think more critically and make better decisions. (If you need more guidance, that's why I wrote the book.)

I PROMISE you, if you do this, you'll avoid doing things because that's what "someone" in your situation should do, and you'll start down the path towards what YOU should do.

Because that's what matters.

Posted on November 9, 2018 .