All form and no substance makes your story a waste of time

Empty Message

While I was stewing about what to write for this month’s post, “Every TED Talk Ever” entered my line of sight. Care to watch it without spoilers? Go ahead. You can meet me in the next paragraph in five-and-a-half minutes.


Hilarious! At least it was to me. I’m forever pushing clients to bust out of predictable formulas, to say something new, to resist “the way we’ve always done it.” So, I was super-entertained by Lindsey Quinn’s parody of formulaic TED Talks.

But the real-time audience—those in the room with Lindsey—seemed not to get the joke. In her own LinkedIn post about the experience, Lindsey says she expected her audience of “smart, ambitious tech insiders” to catch on quickly. They didn’t.

“…the insight-starved audience at TEDx Oakland clung to my every word. They shushed people who laughed. They nodded knowingly at the Warren Buffet quote hastily pasted over a stock image of a random old man.”

How is this possible? How could a roomful of intelligent, receptive people buy into a five-minute speech with zero substance? Aren’t consumers of content supposed to be so busy, so demanding, so selective? Why would they let an empty message pass through their filter?

Because they’re not really listening. They’re skimming.

And the more conventional your message, the more likely your audience is to miss your point.

I can hear you, you know—out there muttering your “yeah, buts.”

Yeah, but my boss wants consistency.
Yeah, but we have to follow corporate standards.
Yeah, but we have to use the template.

I’m all for consistency and standards and templates. They can be good for a brand and major time savers for those of us who create content. And, to a point, predictable forms can teach an audience how to consume your messages. That’s how we’ve learned to turn pages, click links, and swipe left.

But there are risks in staying true to the way you’ve always done it, or true to the way everyone else is doing it: You might get bored, and you might be boring.

Slide into complacency with your message, and your audience will slide along with you.

The more formulaic your approach, the easier you are to miss.

Do you want to blend in, or stand out?

If you’re serious about getting noticed—and being understood—you have so many options for telling a distinctive story. For starters:

  • You could tell the same story using different words.
  • You could tell the same story from a different point of view.
  • You could present your message in a different format.
  • You could share your story in a different venue.
  • You could speak to a different audience.
  • You could shift the balance from verbal to visual, or vice versa.
  • You could compress your story into a smaller container.
  • You could tell your story in a new order.
  • You could cut all the boring parts.
  • You could cut to the chase.

You could actually say something.

Above all, make sure you have not held so closely to the form of your message that you’ve eliminated its substance. Say something!

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