Can writers innovate?

Leather bound book with gold lettering and hand


Can writers innovate? Of all the ways we communicate today, writing is thought of both as too old school to be relevant, and too crucial to be ignored.

Writing divides people. Some say video is where it’s at. Others are moving towards the spoken word as audio. And there’s a snobbery towards hanging on to the heritage of long-form, while at the same time Twitter pushes us towards succinct precision.

Whatever you write, and however it reaches its audience, it has to resonate to provoke a response.

Quite apart from the estimated 100,000 words we all consume each day (roughly equivalent to a 300-page book), we trade in ideas ceaselessly: opinion through digital media; ideas from people claiming authority; comments on other peoples’ thoughts; conjecture by pundits; reporting by broadcasters; comments from friends – and then there’s advertising.

You can call writing old-school, but look at how it’s the centre point around which everything else happens.

Why discuss the importance of writing in a blog that concerns itself with innovation? More to the point, why read about it?

Somehow, at some time, you and I have connected, and you thought my blog was worth spending a few minutes on. I’m grateful. I’m also keen to make it worth your while, and so we have a consumer-centric relationship. I try to keep you engaged by turning up and being interesting, useful or providing value. You read my writing, and you may even comment or ‘like’ it.

As far as relationships go, it’s a low risk, low pressure, low impact, arm’s-length kind of thing. And yet, isn’t that how relationships start? Isn’t that how we may find value in each other, and why you may eventually pay me to deliver the service I provide?

Writing for business has a specific set of needs to meet. Whether I’m trying to explain how different room44 is, or how interesting I might be to talk to, or tell you about a special offer, the fact is that I’m selling. Let’s not dodge it. Everybody is selling, all the time.

On the flip side, most consumers of writing are window-shopping or passing through on their way to another thing.

How to innovate with writing? Turn up and be different. Target your audience and don’t relax.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s no different to what we need to do to get traction for our idea, to attract investment, to scale our start-up, to get a yes from the management team, to get our 20% time project approved.

Writing is an undervalued medium at the point of consumption and so overvalued at the point of production that it’s hard to understand why some people can succeed at it and others fail. Why does Stephen King sell 100,000 copies of a new hardback title in a day and you can’t give an e-book away? After all, Stephen’s book is complete fiction, and yours is based in practice, precedent and fact.

The difference is partially to do with reputation, but a large chunk of the equation comes down to value: there may be millions of writers creating fiction but there is only one Stephen King doing what Stephen King does. There are a thousand of us talking about design thinking and a million of us talking about innovation.

Maybe Stephen just knows who he is talking to better than we do.

Writing may be one of those subjects to which the practice of innovation is hard to apply. Differently ordering the same words sounds a bit like changing the colour of a mobile phone, but the intrinsic value that the word order provides depends on you and I working out the best order of the words for our target market.

Easy, right?

Here are some different kinds of business comms that work today:

Seth Godin– writes unillustrated copy sent to his mail list every day – without fail. Possibly the only person who can get away with posting a ten-word or a ten-paragraph blog. Prescient and thought-provoking. Other job: author and speaker.

James Altucher– challenging daily blogger who champions the simple act of writing and being completely honest. Other job: author and speaker.

Malcom Gladwell– long-form ‘thinker’ skilled at presenting the blindingly obvious as if it’s a new idea, with an aura of an accessible academic. Other job: author and speaker.

Why do I say, ‘Other job: author and speaker’? In the real world, where we aren’t known as authors and thinkers, and where we are trying to sell a product or service, some other rules apply. Writing is as often monitored by Google as it is read by a person, and here the priority changes. Content, written to be optimised and found by spiders, has to comply with rules, like you find in Yoast or Hubspot. Here, the style you need to develop may not always be the one you want to adopt. How we regard the demands of the automated bit of the internet comes down to our personal bias. It’s unlikely that Stephen King optimises his novels for search, but it’s absolutely nailed on that every content agency is plugged into Grammarly, even if they’ve never heard of Zipf’s Law.

So, take your pick. Use your writing to meet the perceived need of your customers, or do it because you enjoy it. Maybe you’ll get lucky: serendipity does have a part to play in innovation – right place, right time.

In the meantime, here’s an advert that might surprise you. A building society using poetry to sell its persona. Not necessarily selling a product with every word, but describing an ethos and a character. Innovation? Probably not. Different enough to be noticed? Certainly.

To think of writing as ‘enough’ isn’t enough. Of course, with the plethora of channels available for us to reach our audience, we need to know where our consumers are spending their time. This amounts to nothing more than standard advice that you’ll pick up from every article you ever read on writing. But occasionally, with tenacity and energy, you will get a glimmer of a response to build on. And it starts by writing about what you do.

I’ve used this quote before but it may be one of the most important I’ve come across about innovation and why it reflects our attitudes to writing, consumers and consistency:

“I’d been lied to all my life: great innovation didn’t come from geniuses having moments of inspiration. It was about putting in the work; finding a way through and messing up and figuring out why you messed up, and then trying something different. And this incremental, step-by-step approach to innovation was just how everybody else was doing it around me too.”

Kevin Ashton, the consumer sensor expert who coined the phrase ‘the Internet of Things’

Seeing it differently. Future proofing. Innovation justified. It’s what we do.