How Counterintuitive Thinking Can Help You Cut Through the Clutter

I’ve seen many articles from content marketing buffs on how to “cut through the clutter.” That’s a legitimate concern, given that more than six million blog posts are published daily. But much of the clutter-cutting advice is not helpful, and here I will invoke Sturgeon’s Law, which says that 90% of everything is crap. In breaking through clutter, Sturgeon’s Law manifests itself in two ways. One is bad: 90% of the advice you will read on how to cut through said clutter is useless. Recent crap advice for cutting through the clutter includes:

  • Use images: We have done that since 1806 when The Times (of London) accompanied an article about Lord Nelson’s funeral with his portrait.
  • Spread your content far and wide. If your content falls in the 90% crap category, this is like spreading manure (which, by the way, is 100% crap).
  • Make content portable: Dang, just as we were mastering the art of carving it onto stone tablets.

The other manifestation is good: 90% of what’s published in your area of expertise is also useless, so it shouldn’t be hard for you to rise above it. Crap advice repeated endlessly in professional services firms’ articles includes:

  • The world is ever more competitive: No, it isn’t. Competition has been a feature of markets since the dawn of civilization. If there are too many potters in a village, the price of clay pots decreases until a potter goes out of business, and then the market re-equilibrates. Competition self-regulates, at least until the government gets involved.
  • Attitudes toward risk in a company depend on the tone from the top: This derives from an assertion made by the Institute of Internal Auditors about 20 years ago that has never been proven but has nonetheless been repeated endlessly.
  • Millennials are different than other generations: That’s convenient for editors who need to fill column inches. However, a meta-analysis of 20 studies with 20,000 people revealed only slight and inconsistent differences in job attitudes between generational groups.

So, lots of clutter, lots of crap. But how to cut through it?

The answer is the same as ever: create good content and distribute it well. There are many determinants of good content, as well as of good distribution, but let’s focus on one thing that helps content stand out from the crowd: saying something counterintuitive. Research shows that concepts contradicting our beliefs are more readily noticed and easier to remember.

Of course, it’s easy to say the opposite of what everyone believes. You could say, for instance, that big data and analytics are liabilities for any business. That’s counterintuitive and will stand out. But it’s probably wrong, and it’s not helpful. To posit a point of view that is counterintuitive, verifiable, and useful is more complicated. But what happens if we try?

  • Silos are good: It’s a business cliché that we should break down silos in organizations. A certain editor once told me that he would slit his wrists if he ever read that phrase again, and that was ten years ago. So, why not write an article about when, where, and why silos are beneficial? We don’t need to break down the silos between sales and accounting, for instance; no one needs salespeople messing about with the numbers. An article in HBR once reported that the best collaborators in an organization are quickly overwhelmed with requests from so many teams they become ineffective. The authors suggest structural changes. Anyone for building a few silos?
  • You don’t need top management support: Another cliché is that any initiative of import must have top-management support. No, it mustn’t. Top management doesn’t have time to support everything someone thinks is important. A client recently told us it would have taken him two months to get the $30,000 he needed to kick off a development project. Instead, he went to a client who contributed $2 billion to a financial services business to use as a “development sandpit.” “I’ll take it to top management when we’ve designed the new business model,” he said.

There are many ways to ensure your content falls in the worthy 10 percent, and being counterintuitive is one of them. But it’s perhaps a muscle we flex less often because it seems difficult. However, it gets easier if you assemble a few bright, talented people and, without top management support, stick them in a silo to figure it out.

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