Want to create distinctive content? Even geniuses need to put in the time

This past November, I went to see Stevie Wonder play his epic double album (and four-song EP) Songs in the Key of Life in its entirety. As you would expect, the show was transcendent and reinforced the mind-blowing sweep of styles and influences that helped to produce this indelible record.

Before “If It’s Magic,” a meditation on how we often overlook love despite its power, Stevie introduced the song by acknowledging that it took him all of two hours to write. The vast majority of musicians in the world could work their whole lives and not produce a song of such quality. (Please ignore the fact that art is about expression not competition, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

I don’t doubt the story is true. Stevie’s got no reason to embellish his accomplishments. However, it does feed the lie that high quality is the result of stroke of brilliance or divine inspiration, that accomplished artists and thinkers need only pour out their ideas, which will magically assemble themselves into a form that pleases and delights anyone who comes into contact with it.

Just as there may be natural athletes in the world, but nearly all champions are distinguished by those who work really, really hard, great content—be it editorial or design—doesn’t materialize out of the blue. It takes a persistent effort on the part of both expert and writer/editor/designer to produce material that engages, provokes thought, and ultimately leaves a lasting impression.

Why does it have to be so hard?

As my colleagues and I have noted before, the process of distilling and articulating ideas for a general business audience is critical to high-quality content. No matter how intuitive concepts might seem to those who talk about them all the time, there’s something about the exercise of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that exposes areas that could be strengthened as well as highlighting ideas that might actually have greater resonance with a more targeted audience.

One of the most important steps in the content development process is iteration. This back and forth typically serves to refine even the most field-tested ideas or suggest different ways to connect thoughts to increase their impact. I’ve worked with many clients who come away with an even deeper command of their own ideas because of this editorial revision process. We’re in the midst of writing a report now that has gone through several iterations in both outline and draft form. With each turn, the ideas get more focused, the structure more clear. As we get into the design and layout phase, this process will continue, and ideas that have been murky for weeks will suddenly become clear enough to revise and set right.

In contrast, a surefire way to squander your ideas is to disengage before this process can play out. I’ve worked with a few experts who blessed the first draft I presented. In one case, the article was published before I could convince the client it really needed more examples and input from the partner. By falling short of its potential, such content wastes the company’s resources—in the worst cases, it can even damage the company’s reputation.

So when you embark on the path to sharing your ideas with the world, get ready to roll up your sleeves. It doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process—a good editor works hard to use executives’ time as efficiently as possible—but some iteration is absolutely necessary.

The postscript to Songs in the Key of Life is that Stevie Wonder spent two years in the studio writing and recording his masterpiece. For most of those tunes, going from the initial inspiration to finished song happened over multiple (sometimes hundreds of) takes, endless refinement, and a persistent desire to create something special.

And if a genius like Stevie Wonder has to put in that kind of time, we should all accept it as the price for greatness.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of Leff. He's spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he's had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of "lean content creation" as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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