Image from Unsplash.
When I was younger, I went to school with an extraordinary dancer.
In every style and step she was a sight to behold, with her effortless grace almost-impossible strength. My mother told me she’d be a prima ballerina someday, and I didn’t doubt it. When she’d so much as step onstage to rehearse, a hush would fall across the noisy gaggle of theater and dance nerds lounging in the red velvet orchestra seats (myself included).
It was the Spring of her senior year, and what would likely be her last performance for my high school. But that wasn’t the only thing different about that evening.
In fact, something wasn’t just “different”. Something was wrong.
The lights went up for her solo, and I stood in the shadow of the wings, holding by breath.
Backstage the rumors were flying: Someone overheard the dance teacher exchanging urgent whispers with the costume designer. Words like “sprain” and “rolled ankle” flew like smoke bombs.
And yet, the music had started, the curtain had risen, and there she was. A ray of light en pointe in a red leotard, her shoes making satisfying, soft taps between leaps, arabesques, and pirouettes. She smiled her same, confident smile. The audience sat entranced, as always.
They must have had it wrong. I though to myself, settling into my usual mix of admiration and envy as she floated through the final notes. She looks fine.
The number ended. Applause like thunder.
She sashayed offstage with that shimmering grin, and a final, elegant wave.
… And as soon as she was out of sight of the crowd, she collapsed into the arms of the dance teacher and costume designer. Her perfect face cracked to contort with sobs.
“Oh my god,” I heard her moan in what could only be desperate pain, as they quickly carried her off. A stagehand was already rushing to wrap her ankle with an ice pack as they hurried past me. “Oh my god.”
I watched, jaw unhinged, as she disappeared into the dressing room and out of sight.
I never found out exactly what was wrong. I never found out if she became a prima ballerina, either.
But that image has been burned into my memory.
Because moments like that are beyond an act of love for your passion and your art.
Anyone can have passion and love. What this dancer had, in that moment — was an unbelievable force of sheer will, and commitment to the finish.
(So many dancers share this willpower as part of their job — especially ballerinas. Misty Copeland starred in “Swan Lake” and “The Firebird” with six stress fractures in her ankle. Six.)
She was not being paid. There were no talent agents in the crowd. She was just performing for parents and administrators.
And yet, she took that stage, and took that risk… because she was expected to deliver. And deliver she did — through to the last split second when she could allow the pain to consume her, and rest, and cry.
And I knew in that moment that I’d come face to face with the grit that excellence requires. I knew that moment had given me a glimpse of what it takes to be truly great.
She wasn’t just gifted. She was incredibly powerful.
I thought about that moment again for the 10,000th time a few weeks ago, lying on my living room floor.
I was on the floor because I was nauseous.
I was nauseous because I had spent roughly entire the month prior working from 8 AM to 10 PM, and weekends, finishing and beta testing my course, wrangling intense client work and launches, and restructuring my business model. Again.
Total exhaustion manifests as nausea for me, and after a while it’s uncomfortable to sit up. So I laid on the floor that night for a moment — still with more work to do, breathing deeply.
This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, and I’m sure won’t be the last.
It’s not a food poisoning or car sickness nausea, by the way. It’s more a vague, almost-manic feeling in my belly, similar to sensation you get when you’re in your last .10 miles of a many-mile run. You know your finish line is ahead of you. Your breathing is becoming shallow as your body starts to scream at you to stop.
Your brain, however, knows the final, glorious sense of success is inevitable.
You need to keep going. Just a little further. You can do this. Push.
I’m no prima ballerina. But as an entrepreneur, and full-time professional creative, I find my career path requires a similar sense of…
“If you’re strong and masterful enough, it can look easy.”
“Don’t let them see you sweat.”
“Pay no attention to the competition. Your own skill set should be the only focus.”
Still, that whole willpower thing was about as un-glamorous as could be as I lay there on my bright pink rug in two-day-old pajamas, smelling awful, and staring up at the string lights on my ceiling, breathing just so I could finish working.
Why do I do this? I asked, as I sometimes do.
And the answer was as it’s ever been — for myself, for that extraordinary dancer, and maybe for you:
Because this is what it takes.
Some people insist that business and creative success can be all-around easy and fun if you just “find your flow”.
Make no mistake, though: You cannot expect ease 24/7. Yes, it can feel easy some days (and, like a ballerina, you can make it look effortless). My job feels easy overall because it brings me joy, and having sole dominion over my professional fate is immensely satisfying.
The difference is, those “just find your flow” peeps are gleefully sharing their end result. What they don’t share is how long it can take to find yours.
Sure, they take selfies on their gorgeous tropical vacations and post far and wide about why they stop work at 4 PM every day to get in plenty of time for reading, journaling, and yoga — like they’ve been doing it from day 1. But they don’t reveal many dams they had to build to discover their flow for themselves, or how many rapids they had to fight upstream.
Now, I don’t recommend people work themselves to the point of nausea or illness. There are better ways to do things, of course.
But the truth is, every crazy-successful person I know has stories equivalent to performing beautifully en pointe with a rolled ankle.
If you really want to create an extraordinary business that flourishes, you have to lay the groundwork. Sweat is required. Throwing yourself exhausted off stages and across finish lines is required.
There is no 4-hour work week way to make a million dollars, or change the world.
But the upside is: If you’re willing to take the journey, you’ll discover that you can summon almost-impossible reserves of strength. When others give up, you will find you have the power to press on to glory.
Sweat begets ease eventually, if you know where you’re going.
That’s why, for every nauseous moment on your living room floor, for every sobbing dancer collapsing just offstage, there are 100 moments of pride, accomplishment, and certainty in one’s own abilities.
For every question of “Why do I do this?” the answer comes back the same, but stronger: “You can quit. But if you love yourself, and the future you’re creating enough, you won’t.”
And there is an end to this test of will. Supposedly.
Someday, you won’t have to clench your teeth and grind your way to whatever’s next. Someday, you’ll perhaps have others working with you, willing to push themselves the way you did, and follow your example to stand on the shoulders of you, the giant.
It’s having the courage to do it for yourself in the first place that can transform your life.
Because this is the grit every extraordinary thing has been forged with.
Because you are stronger than your doubts, your fears, and even your exhaustion.
Because you deserve to see everything you sweat for come to fruition — and it will, in time.
Don’t forget that.
Because this is what it takes.
Photo by Juliet Warren
Fun fact: I think “writer’s block” is bullshit.
Firstly because I don’t like the phrase. A ‘block’ implies a third party sitting stationary in your path, when in reality, the only thing in your way is… you.
Secondly, I don’t dig the way some writers use “writer’s block” as an excuse to stop trying.
“Welp!” they say, throwing their hands in the air. “That’s it. Writer’s block. Can’t do anything about it. Guess I better go do something else while I wait for my muse.”
The reality about content creation, and creative work in general, is that if you want to be good, or even great, at it? You have to stop giving yourself excuses to throw in the towel.
You are capable, and you are accountable, and no pretend invisible obstacle or “muse” is going to change that.
However, that doesn’t negate the fact that anyone who’s spent more than 3 months blogging has experienced the most annoying of internal dialogues:
You: “OK brain. We need a new idea for a post!”
You: “The. Blog. Post. We’ve gotta put something out there soon.”
Brain: “Oh! Hm. Nah… I got nothing.”
You: “Well maybe you should try harder.”
Brain: “No thanks. Hey, I know — let’s watch that Cats vs. Cucumbers again! For inspiration!”
You: “I hate you so much right now.”
There’s good news and bad news here. Bad news first.
The bad news: If you haven’t run into this challenge yet, you’re going to.
Oh, and Donald Trump is going to be President, in case you missed that.
The good news: There is a way to avoid bumping up against that blocked feeling — and it has nothing to do with an invisible idea fairy coming to find you.
It involves changing the way you think about your work, and anticipate sitting down to write.
After all, at the root of all of internal dialogues like the above lies the same reality:
You can’t wait for inspiration to hit you “in the moment”. You have to start gathering it, consistently and persistently, from everywhere you look.
While you can always grab ideas from things you see and hear around you (read more about that in this post), there’s one big secret to keeping good ideas flowing — the kind of ideas you want to write about, every time.
That secret? Asking yourself questions. Constantly.
And not superficial questions like “How am I feeling today?” (Although sometimes, that’s enough. See: the collection of post-election think pieces making the rounds right now.)
I’m talking specific questions that trigger an emotional response from you. I call these “trigger questions” — original, I know — because they tap into where you are right now in your life and work, and get you ramped up about insights you have and want to share.
It sounds simple, but it’s the absolute best way to stay inspired, and keep yourself in touch with the way you want to talk to, and rock with, your audience.
The coolest thing about questions? They’re easy to carry around with you at all times.
Make a physical list, or keep a rolodex in your head of some trigger questions that really get you talking. Think them over on your commute, write your responses down in a note on your phone, in your journal, or on your laptop.
Then, based on your answers (and the angle you get the most excited about), shape an outline if you need to. However, if you’re feeling especially passionate that day, a post might just flow out of you effortlessly.
To help you get started, here’s my list of trigger questions that get me completely fired up and ready to write (without fail):
- What do you love right now about your industry/niche?
- What do you hate right now about your industry/niche?
- What book, movie, song, artist, or public figure is influencing you most right now?
- What’s something more people need to be talking about?
- How do your clients/the people around you influence you?
- What advice do you catch yourself giving over and over?
- What do you wish you knew when you started your business?
- What cool scientific breakthroughs or discoveries are making waves for you and your craft right now?
- What lessons have you learned along the way?
- What lessons are you still learning?
- What makes you feel good about your work?
- What makes you feel bad about your work, and how are you overcoming it?
Your trigger questions will ebb and flow as you and your writing evolve, and you’ll add some of your own before long.
So remember to give yourself time and space to figure out which ones work best for you.
After all, when you’re striving to share original and insightful content, the more deeply you dive into your own ideas, the better off you’ll be. And the ability to share your opinions, fearlessly and freely, will make you a better creative, a better writer, and a better servant to your audience.
So start thinking. And start asking.
And tell your muse you won’t be waiting up.
Every day, two million blog posts are published online.
Of the few that actually get clicked, 55% of readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading. Factor in that the average reader gets through 250 words a minute, and you’ve got a measly 62 words to grab someone’s attention.
And this isn’t just for writers. That 15 second rule applies to your design, your app, your site.
Every day on the internet is a battle for attention, and most of us are losing.
So what do we do? We try to game the system. We try to follow the ‘hacks’ and ‘tricks’ that promise to help us come up with better ideas, and capture our audience. After all, we want to be more than just words on a page. We want to be valued, examined, and (most importantly) remembered.
Because when people remember us, they come back for more, trust what we have to say, and may even eventually buy from or hire us.
But it doesn’t take long to realize there are no hacks or tricks. Not really, anyway. The only hope we have of creating something truly memorable on purpose is to understand just how our memory works.
Why creativity and memory are just two sides of the same coin
What you create and how you consume are closely tied together.
Whether you realize it or not, every time you sit down to write, design, or build something, you’re bringing your years of experience, memories, and interactions to the table.
You have a wealth of information your brain has been storing for decades, and you can pull from that treasure chest with almost no effort. And, just as you’re a walking vault of memories and experiences—your audience members are too.
That’s why your memories are essential to both the creative process, and the impact that process has on the people who come into contact with its end result. As a creative, you’re using your memories to put ideas together that others wouldn’t. Because in the end, your memories make up your understanding, and help you dream up concepts no one else can.
As Steve Jobs famously explained:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
When you connect the dots for your audience it seems too simple. As if it were something they should have known already. Those moments stick with your audience.
And when you achieve this ‘stickiness’, you become part of your reader’s own collection of memories, thoughts, and experiences. Your ideas hold long-term influence (however small) over the way they experience the world.
So, how does ‘making yourself memorable’ work?
While there isn’t necessarily a ‘hack’ to creating memorable content, there is a simple science behind it—one that combines the novel (the idea you’re presenting with your work), with the familiar (the memories and cognitive processes your readers already have cemented in their own minds).
It’s this connection of the seemingly disparate—new and old, weird and expected, traditional and avant-garde—that will make someone remember you. But in order to do that we need to understand how the brain reacts to shiny, fresh ideas versus familiar concepts.
The science behind the way your brain reacts and remembers
It’s a no brainer (puns!) that novel experiences stick in our minds longer than familiar ones.
Think about it. You’re much less likely to remember your drive to work if nothing special happens. However, if there’s suddenly a cow in the middle of the highway, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for hours or days afterwards.
This isn’t coincidence, either!
Studies have shown that novelty actually increases the brain’s plasticity (a.k.a. your neurons’ ability to create new pathways), which improves memory, and your ability to learn and process new facts and ideas. The weird and unexpected naturally stay with us.
However, you can’t just keep throwing new ideas at the wall and expect them all to stick. Taking in and understanding new ideas takes a lot of effort, and our brains are lazy. So along with novelty, we also mentally equally crave consistency and familiarity.
When events or ideas are easy to understand, we call this cognitive fluency. And just like in language, it’s the same idea—your brain is able to understand the concept wholly without any ‘translation’.
But it goes one step further. Cognitive fluency is also the way we feel about taking in new information. If we understand a concept, we find it ‘easy’ and our lazy brain is happy.
Take websites as an example.
When you first visit a site, there are certain elements you expect to see: a navigation bar at the top for getting around, or a check-out cart in the top right corner for an e-commerce site. It doesn’t matter if you’re shopping Gucci online or reading your sister-in-law’s blog: almost every website has these things.
However, when a site doesn’t conform to these expectations it’s harder for our brains to decode and we almost automatically judge it as either too complex or poorly designed.
Stop by the website for Comme Des Garcons, a Japanese fashion label and you’ll conceive that it’s utterly unnavigable.
You can’t purchase clothes on the site, learn more about the designers, or find out who their PR manager is. When you visit, you may remember it—but largely because of its avant garde nature. It might stick with you because you don’t get it.
However, While concepts like this are cool, they also don’t make the reader, viewer, or shopper want to come back again.
Compare that to the website by Crane Brothers, an Auckland-based contemporary menswear and tailoring company.
Notice how the image on the front page captures your attention with a Picasso-like man in a suit. However, the website is also easy to navigate, with a simple scroll up to the menu. You can see the option for the drop down menu in the top right hand corner as well.
You can also click anywhere on the Picasso homepage image and be taken to their selection of similar clothing.
Seeing this, you’d probably come back to shop here over Comme Des Garcons, right?
That’s the difference between novelty for novelty’s sake, and novelty to present a new idea.
Creating memorable work means walking the line between the familiar and the strange. It’s creating an environment that’s safe and then introducing your unique element into it.
So while the idea that ‘new ideas have to be cradled in old ideas’ may seem a bit paradoxical, it does make sense when you think about it.
Our brains have evolved to create mental ‘shortcuts’ based on what we know (our cognitive fluencies). If something’s a ‘no brainer’ that’s because you literally aren’t using most of your brain to understand it.
So instead of fighting against your lazy brain, why not work with it?
Old ideas—ones that we’re happy to believe wholeheartedly can be used as a vessel for something new. Think of it like a Trojan horse for your brain.
In the websites above, the mental shortcut is what we expect to see on a website. We’ve been conditioned to expect certain elements in certain spaces and when that doesn’t happen we’re likely to give up and move on.
So how can you actually use these ideas in your writing, podcasting, or video content?
Now comes the fun. Let’s take a look at how to bring all of these ideas together into a blog post or other piece of content. How can we use the way our brains have been conditioned to create memorable work?
To start, let’s look at one more example of a mental shortcut we all have that we can use as our Trojan horse.
If I were to ask you “What color are bananas?” you’d tell me “Yellow!”, even though bananas can also be green or brown.
That’s because we’re conditioned to think of bananas as yellow, first and foremost. “Banana = yellow” is just part of our brain, and once we identify those ‘no brainers’ there are a number of ways we can add in our unique and novel information.
Comedian Mitch Hedberg used this distinction to his advantage in his famous joke: On a traffic light green means ‘go’ and yellow means ‘yield’, but on a banana it’s just the opposite. Green means ‘hold on,’ yellow means ‘go ahead,’ and red means, ‘Where the hell did you get that banana at?’
$5 says if you haven’t heard that joke before, you’ll repeat it at some point, because it’s so memorable. It’s easy to store in your brain because it taps into something you already know, but also disrupts your natural understanding (that bananas = yellow), which helps it stick.
Here’s how to make that work for yourself in your content:
1. Adding in personal anecdotes
Putting new ideas in the context of familiar experiences can increase the impact of whatever it is you’re sharing.
Let’s say you’re writing about the newly-discovered, scientifically-backed fact that 4 bananas a day can increase your productivity massively.
If you present that idea on its own (no science, no context, nothing), most people won’t believe you. But, present it first by explaining your own struggle with productivity, and the science that backs up your claim? And you’ve got an idea that will stick in people’s minds.
2. Sharing common experiences, or creating a character
Another great way to build an emotional connection with your audience is to create a character they can relate to, whether it’s you, a client or friend, or a total stranger.
To use the example above: talking about how bananas improve cognition isn’t a very engaging way to share the idea. However, if you tell a story about a dizzy, distracted, but otherwise charming entrepreneur named Diane whose life and business were changed by the power of 4 bananas a day, your audience is much more interested to learn what happens to her.
Every entrepreneur struggles with their attention span. Everyone wants to find ways to do better. So this story makes the novel idea instantly relatable.
If you talk to your audience about the things they experience every day you give their brains something to latch onto, and a context for your idea.
3. Using visuals
While the average reader will spend about 2.6 seconds skimming an article before reading, science has shown that people will actually look at and read every image.
The reason is, visuals are simply easier for our brains to parse. Our brain sees writing as individual designs that need to be decoded, whereas visuals can be understood far more rapidly. That makes images another key to establishing familiarity and comfort with your content.
And because we can ‘decode’ an image quicker than we can read a paragraph, they’re another incredible vessel for your unique ideas. It’s why we’ve seen such a rise in infographics and data visualization—it’s just easier for our brain to take in an image.
So for your banana post, why not create an image for it? Show a banana and break down the individual elements in it that are helping you become a better, more productive person. Or show Diane pre and post-banana.
The final piece: creating ‘effective surprise’
Now that we’re clear on what will help people stay comfortable, how does one create the right kind of novelty that grabs people’s attention without upsetting their cognitive fluency?
Yes, we’re more likely to remember a novel situation. But there’s a limit! You can’t just be talking about website conversions and throw a random meme in there that’s completely out of context.
You need to create the right balance, which cognitive Psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner called ‘effective surprise’, and the hallmark of creativity. He writes:
“The road to banality is paved with creative intentions. Surprise is not easily defined. It is the unexpected that strikes one with wonder or astonishment. What is curious about effective surprise is that it need not be rare or infrequent or bizarre and is often none of these things. Effective surprises … seem rather to have the quality of obviousness about them when they occur, producing a shock of recognition following which there is no longer astonishment.”
To translate, the highest level of breakthrough you can offer a reader (that involves them accepting your idea) with your piece is to make them feel like they’re learning something they already mostly understood. It’s an “Aha… of course!” moment that takes them by surprise, but also feels comfortably inevitable.
Back to our banana example, an article done right on the scientific findings will help the reader say: “Of course bananas will help me be more productive. Bananas contain vitamins, minerals and amino acids that enhance brain function. And I can totally relate to the story about Diane. I have the same problem! Time to buy crazy amounts of bananas.”
So, before you get to work on your next ‘made to be memorable’ piece, consider how you’re going to connect the dots; using your own experience, and the understanding of your audience to nestle your novel concept in a familiar casing.
That way, it’s easily digestible, engaging, and sticks with your people. Kind of like bananas.
While you likely catch me on this blog on the reg, you might also know me as fast-typing fingers that bring you the weekly Death to Stock Writers Prompts.
(Heads up: I’ve included some extra prompts with matching header graphics at the bottom of this post!
These are more content marketing oriented, to help you start writing great new stuff for your people, and offer up a new window into you & your awesome ideas. Use ’em on your blog, Medium page, social media, or privately!)
Every prompt is designed to help you flex your wordsmith muscles, get feedback on your content, and explore new ideas you may have never played with before. I also personally read and reply to every single prompt shared, and every week we pick our favorite response to share with our entire Writers Prompts mailing list — which you can sign up for here.
They’re a blast to create, and a process that brings me a lot of joy. If you’ve been playing with us for the past few months: thank you.
A few members of the Death to Stock tribe have reached out with questions about how I do what I do, how I choose weekly featured writers, and more.
So I’m taking this chance to answer those questions, lift the curtain a bit, and show you what it’s like to whip up weekly inspo beamed out to 7000+ writers and counting. (You can click here to join if you’re not with us already.)
“How do you come up with and execute your ideas?”
Let me start by saying: I don’t work in a vacuum. Almost every week, on Slack or via email, Death to Stock founder David and I volley a bunch of ideas back and forth until we land on a concept we really like
Each post that makes the cut follows 3 principles:
- It’s a little uncommon and unexpected
- It asks people to stretch their imaginations in ways they may not otherwise
- It’s something we’d want to write about, too
“Why do you choose certain topics over others?”
If something feels like it’s trying too hard, or it’s not something we’d do ourselves, or it’s been done to death, into the digital garbage it goes.
We also like to avoid creating any sense of complacency in the community. So, one week you’ll be telling us about a stranger you’ve met, the next week you’re finishing the start of a fiction story, and the next you’ll be imagining yourself as a 10 year old.
Can’t let you plateau creatively! We’ve gotta send you curve balls. :)
“How do you find time to answer every single prompt response?”
Scheduling, baby! An hour a day (or week) keeps the overwhelm away. I also set time in my schedule each month to go back and review past prompt responses people have answered after the due date.
I make it my job to pen each response from a place of positivity and encouragement – while also giving responders feedback that can improve their work and ideas.
“How do you select the featured responders every week?”
Every Monday, we highlight a response from the previous week. It’s not always an easy decision, but it’s a blast to congratulate the hardworking writer on the other end of the line.
We get so many great posts, but the ones that really stand out to me take an unexpected angle and are very unique in their voice, pace, and sense of expression.
Often, they feel completely natural in their approach. You can really sense the writer is “in it”, and having a great time with the creation process.
“How long will you be running the writing prompts?”
Or, until David tells me to knock it off. Which won’t be any time soon.
So: are you ready to get writing or what?
If you’re looking to get back on the word horse, or just whip up an awesome new post for your people this week, here are 3 prompts to help you create more content your peeps will be dying to read.
We’ve also had Death to the Stock Photo’s awesome in-house designer Lexi create graphics to match. Use ’em for your blog header, social media shares, or whatever feels right.
Just remember: link what you write back to Death to Stock so we can check it out! Tag us on Twitter & Facebook, too. It’s always phenomenal reading what our tribe has to say.
Ready? Pick one and get writing.
- Name 7 things the internet may not know about you (yet) DOWNLOAD GRAPHIC
- What’s something you’re sick of seeing in your industry, and why? DOWNLOAD GRAPHIC
- Tell your origin story (no, not an about page bio – the actual story about why and how you can to do what you do.) DOWNLOAD GRAPHIC