Is Your Content Good? Test It With These Three Questions

DSCN8165In creating the marketing platform for your book, what counts most is the quality of your ideas. David Ogilvy, the legendary advertising executive said, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.”

An essential task for idea entrepreneurs is sifting through all the content we create and choosing which ideas to develop. Sometimes we’ll float an idea online and ask for initial reactions. But when it comes to going public with an idea over the long term, we need to ask some tough questions.

Following are questions that matter most to me. They won’t surprise you. But are you willing to ask them consistently—and answer them honestly?

1. Is This Idea New?

Perhaps you’ve read a book or sat through a presentation and said to yourself, I’ve heard this all before. When a critical mass of our audience members react this way, we have a problem.

Why would anyone bother with our content unless we offer something new—or present familiar ideas in a fresh and compelling way?

2. Have I Tested This Idea?

According to Ryan Holiday—whom I admire and wrote about here—the most “self-destructive” impulse you have is “believing that thing it took you two seconds to come up with was a genius idea.” He adds:

Contributions come from taking the time to develop a deep understanding of everything at play and more often than not, coming up with gradual improvements and suggestions. They come from the rigor and discipline of really knowing something. Half your ideas get thrown away. More than half deserve to be thrown away. Maybe there is some vaunted genius out there whose every thought is mind-blowing but that person is not you.

That’s in-your-face (and mine), isn’t it? But think about what we ask of our audiences—to invest their precious time, energy, attention, and money in our ideas. They will be tough on us. Let’s be prepared.

I’ve written many times about the why’s and how’s of testing ideas. For example:

The Art of Crap Detection

Before You Publish, Try to Destroy Your Ideas

Won’t Get Fooled Again—Three Levels of Credibility in Self-Help Books

Does Your Personal Experience Prove Anything?

Three Questions to Ask Before Writing a Book

The Ultimate Challenge for Idea Entrepreneurs—Practicing What You Preach

Three Complaints About Self-Help Books

John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

3. Does My Message Fit the Medium?

One way to develop a book manuscript is to draft it as a series of blog posts—the blog to book method.

At the same time, remember that a collection of blog posts is only a rough draft of your book. Those posts will need a radical makeover before they remotely resemble a book manuscript.

Why? Because online content and books are starkly different media. For details, I’ll refer you to this article by Jakob Nielsen, an expert in user experience research. If you are an idea entrepreneur and read only one thing today, make it this.

Finding Time to Write—One Thing That Actually Works

DSCN5673Idea entrepreneurs need to write. Writing is the most precise way to collect, incubate, test, and share ideas. The problem is finding time to write.

You can bore through the time management literature for suggestions. But I’ll save you some time. Here’s what actually works:

Stop doing other things that are less important than writing. Then schedule a regular time to write every day.

Hardly sexy advice. But then again, the useful stuff often isn’t.

Eric Barker—author of the blog Barking Up The Wrong Tree (“How to be awesome at life”)—expands on my suggestion in the following posts.

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every DayApply some “80/20″ thinking: 1. What handful of activities are responsible for the disproportionate number of your successes? 2. What handful of activities absolutely crater your productivity? 3. Rearrange your schedule to do more of #1 and to eliminate #2 as much as possible.

Spend time wisely: How to focus on the things that matterPlan ahead and protect a period of time every day, probably in the morning, and use it to do the long term things that matter.

Here’s The Schedule Very Successful People Follow Every DayIn studies of geniuses, most did their best work early in the day…. Can’t do the work of your choice when the day starts? Get in early or work from home before you head into the office.

Chris Bailey echoes Barker’s posts and adds some juicy suggestions of his own in The top 10 lessons I learned from A Year of Productivity.

Also remember that you can ease into regular writing by making it a tiny habit.

This effort it worth it. As Ben Casnocha points out, regular writing is as essential as breathing if you value critical and creative thinking:

A lot of busy people say they wish they had more time to “think” — to be proactively thoughtful rather than reactive. But “thought time” is a hard thing to actually schedule, let alone measure. Writing, on the other hand, is something you can schedule to do and then evaluate and measure the output (e.g. 700 words a day or a blog post a week). When someone tells me they don’t do much writing anymore, I sometimes wonder, When do you think deep-ish thoughts? And how do you ever know how coherent your thoughts actually are?

John Butman on Stories, Methods, and Metrics—Three Staples of Nonfiction That Can Backfire on Authors

breaking-outAuthor John Butman got a daily email from TED—the organization dedicated to “Ideas worth spreading.” This got John to wondering: “Are these really ideas? Are they truly worth spreading? Who is trying to spread them and why, and to what end?”

In a talk at the Chautauqua Institution’s Hall of Philosophy, John Butman shared his answers. Before you make plans to write a nonfiction book, set aside an hour to watch the video at the end of this post. It’s essential viewing.

Two Key Terms

First, a bit about John and his wonderful book Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas, which I’ve posted about here and here. He coined two terms that turned my head around.

One is ideaplex, which John defines as “all the activities by which we create, we distribute, and we consume ideas.” This includes publishing and other media, academia, consultants, think tanks, conferences, and events such as TED. John describes the ideaplex as “an enormous idea generation and consumption industry in this country like never before seen on the face of the Earth and like none that exists anywhere else on Earth besides the U.S.”

Second is idea entrepreneur—a “new kind of cultural player” who emerges from the ideaplex and fuels it. These people don’t primarily sell products or services. They sell ideas about “how other people might think differently and behave differently and act and make decisions differently.”

Meet the Idea Entrepreneur

So who are the idea entrepreneurs? Stephen Covey was one. So was Gandhi. So is Cesar Millan, Sheryl Sandberg, Atul Gawande, Al Gore, Reid Hoffman, Malcolm Gladwell, and even Eckhart Tolle. If you want more examples, just check any list of best-selling non-fiction books and look for the authors, especially in the “advice” and “business” categories.

“They’re all sort of hybrid characters,” says John about idea entrepreneurs. “They come from very different backgrounds. But they bring together aspects of the educator, the entertainer, the practitioner, the evangelist, the entrepreneur—and, yeah, there’s a bit of huckster in most of them.”

Three Key Methods

So how do successful idea entrepreneurs cut through the vast noise of ideaplex and actually change people’s beliefs and behaviors? According to John, idea entrepreneurs rely on three methods that are “seductive—and fraught with complications”:

  • Personal stories, which can be gripping—and apocryphal.
  • Methods—instructions for how to do things, which can be useful but not cover every contingency.
  • Metrics—measure of success that can yield valuable feedback or meaningless data.

Check out John’s talk for the details.