The trouble with content

Yesterday, I got to speak about speaking with the speakers of the National Speakers Association in Indianapolis. How meta.

I was more controversial than I thought I’d be. For I suggested — and demonstrated — that speakers would do well to have conversations with the people in the room and not just lecture them. I said I’ve learned as a speaker that there is an opportunity to become both a catalyst and a platform for sharing. I talked about my wish to do a project built around events and conversation — process as product — with a book perhaps as an afterthought, a result. And I talked about testing a business model with Kickstarter that could help speakers and the people formerly known as the audience wrest back control of events from conference organizers and speakers’ agents.

Some liked what I said. Some didn’t. And even those who liked it said on Twitter and in the hall that it was disruptive and controversial.

When I went into the room to have a conversation with these speakers — Oprahing — I heard this from some of them: We create content. That content has value. Implicit in this: We don’t want to share the stage with the audience. And I would ask whether that means they don’t sufficiently value the audience and the wisdom it brings.

That is precisely what I have heard over the years from newspapers, magazine, and media people: We create content. We control content. It’s ours. Pay us for it. We don’t want to lose control of it by opening up.

This made me see this content worldview as a problem, a seduction.

If you think that all you do is create and sell content, then you box yourself in and cut yourself off from other opportunities, including acting as a platform for sharing knowledge. That’s the problem news organizations have had. Apparently, so do some speakers.

Now, of course, content can have value. But that’s a high bar to jump. It’s proving to be more and more difficult to extract that value. If you make a great movie or write a great novel or sing a great song, then that’s unique and I’ll agree that it has value (though, of course, it’s getting harder to get paid as much as you used to for those creations). Still, if what you do is unique and great, it’s possible. Hard, but possible.

News is not unique. That’s why my industry has gotten in such trouble holding onto the idea that it creates content. Period. The attention they used to hold captive is now free to roam anywhere, including to an abundance of free competitors. I’d warn speakers, too, that some of them could be replaced by a YouTube video or a Google+ Hangout, unless they embrace these threats as opportunities.

Oh, yes, there’s still a business in content. But it’s an increasingly difficult business to survive in. It’s a limiting business. It’s an expensive business. It’s a business with more and more competitors and more and more price pressure. It’s a business that still requires blockbusters but they are harder to come by. It’s a business in which the bar to success is constantly rising.

Are you *sure* you want to be in the content business?

  • Scott Ensign

    I wish I could have responded to this while you were writing it.

    • Heh.

    • donw1234

      You could not have responded while a speaker was writing his content either, but you were just able to respond to his writing, just like he advocates for a speaking event.

      So I guess you approve of his suggestion.

  • “If you make a great movie or write a great novel or sing a great song, then that’s unique and I’ll agree that it has value.”

    Likewise, if what you make is ‘unique’ and has value it is likely that there is someone else who has equally unique and valuable content that doesn’t minding giving it away for free.
    Great content isn’t so scarce. People love to create, and the passionate creators do it very, very well. Usually. Sometimes.

  • Some very important points here. Wish I could have been at NSA to be in your presentation.

  • I’m rather surprised that the big media companies haven’t found some way to sue bloggers, not for stealing content, etc, but for somehow encroaching on their profits by offering up competing content for free.

    Or has this happened and I just haven’t heard of it yet?

  • Harold Hart

    I’ve always viewed content (print or broadcast) as only a starting point. I take it as my responsibility to seek out more information if it’s of interest and learn more about the subject matter. Sure, i don’t do this for everything that crosses my path, but with today’s focus on ‘sound bites’ or link teasers one would do well to dig deeper into a topic and do some research before just accepting what gets spoon feed to us by content business folk. I’m just saying engagement is an opportunity to learn and develop your own knowledge base to grow successfully in the environment.

  • Ivica Kartelo

    Migrations to the internet = migrations of content on the Internet are still in its infancy. Remember America 1600 years and see what is happening with life (content) to the present. First, the man lived alone. Then came the railways. So the city … They created permanent new sales opportunities and new content. All jobs from time immemorial have been content. Car salesman living in a salon, of their content.

    Jeff got a job at the university for your content. I as well. When my books are no longer sold, and blogs I have collected so, the call came from middle schools to create their new profession web designer, and I have had 9 years of vivid professorial salaries. Now every day I am content in front of students and for me to pay school.

    It is what we like to go out and stem on Long Tail, where there is room for everyone. Through own content, we gain trust from this is then always a convenient birth.

    Which will create all forms of income in this way we discover a virtual content every day.

  • One thing I think is overlooked in this discussion is the human aspect of ego. Some content creators and speakers tend to feed off a feeling that they are the teachers and everyone else are students. A powerful writer is (in most cases) resistent to a challenge of their content via comments due to the feeling that they are right, no matter what. The same goes for someone speaking to a large group. They are on stage speaking out to their pupils with zero dialogue occurring. The energy they receive from being the point person or man-in-charge drives the speech.

    If you introduce a dialogue info the content creation process (via text or as a speech) you are ruining the fantasy that I am the teacher and you are the student. Luckily, with the improvements of technology we are able to have open dialogue on multiple platforms about a specific topic with or without the teacher.

    My recommendation for those wanting to be in the content business that are afraid of dialogue is to first do an ego check and see if that is what is holding you back.

    • Oh, yes, Jeff, ego is a big factor. I know because I have one, too.

  • Making content is easier than engaging with people. It’s economically more valuable for the producer. I think we’re just at the start of the collaborative / participatory revolution and it make take a generation before people are regularly willing to pay for participation / curation / engagement than just broadcasted content. But I think we’ll get there.

  • Andy Oresto

    On a practical level–an engagement with the audience would help the speaker delve closer to the heart of the curiosity of the audience. If you go beneath the surface of the scene ( remove the titles: speaker, audience, and subject matter) you are left with a gathering centered around a topic where the people are curios enough to be in the room and probably have experience or expertise in the subject at hand as well. Open honest communication would help center the topic on the essence of the gathering.

    A lecture on jingoism (fresh from the last buzz topic) may turn more pointedly to dialogue regarding human rights in the face of exporting jobs, which raises the spirit of the audience more so than the path the lecturer may have envisioned. But why not? Shouldn’t the majority of the people in the room have control over the direction of where a conversation should go regarding a particular topic. The point here is… we sat in many a lecture where the audience could just as well brought a pillow. A loosely centered discussion around a topic of conversation will do well to better engage the audience.

  • Jarvis,
    I happened to be in the audience and I was struck by what you had to say. It was disturbing but in a positive way because it forced me to seriously consider adapting. Adapting on an evolutionary time scale is intellectually intriguing and even sparks religious and philosophical debates. However, adapting in one’s own life is a different matter because adaptation requires us to make changes or respond to changes or risk becoming irrelevant, obsolete, or gradually insignificant in some way.
    I agree with your message 100% because when I was in the audience I heard focus on both content and process but not just content. Too generalize your message to other fields, I heard that it is financially dangerous to put all your eggs in one income stream believing that that one income stream will always be there. Financial advisors know the foolhardiness of this approach which is why they recommend diversification, corporate titans know the foolhardiness of this approach which is why they have different produce and service lines, and even “mother nature” knows the foolhardiness of only having one plant or animal species in a single climate. In short, the message I took away was as follows, “Marty, you may have some good content that you produced and that is OK but challenge you to find ways to build that content with others and share that content with others in a different way.”
    On a more pragmatic note, as a member of the National Speaking Association, I like my fellow members develop content for speeches, for books, for articles, for blogs but in the past 5 years I have also facilitated more board retreats, served as a MC, hosted television shows, and even facilitated a meeting online using Skype.
    To close, Jeff Jarvis…I was a bit embarrassed by the reaction of some of my colleagues but I know as a psychologist that they were feeling a bit upset and threatened which means that your speech will be remembered and somewhere in the future some of my colleagues will say, “He had a point and I better get busy because I don’t know too many employed journalists anymore and I don’t know any full time, employed typists or file clerks.”
    Be Well,
    Marty Martin

    • Marty,
      Thanks. I think I was there to disrupt. I thought I wasn’t going to be that disruptive. Apparently, I was wrong for some folks.

  • People want to eat, but they don’t want to join the hunt. This all sounds great until the dawn comes to set out to go hunting. Then all of a sudden, not a whole lot of people want to go. And those who do, usually have a hidden agenda, mostly having to do with power.

    As the hunters who are willing and able to create content die or run off because they are not getting paid enough by the hordes who still want to eat, the more anemic and pale the content becomes, making even the best distribution, curation or packaging system silly. It is like ordering a pizza from Dominos and they are able to get you a box out in :30 minutes, but there is no pizza because nobody wants to pay the cost of the content, i.e., the damn pizza.

    • As they used to say in The New Yorker: Block that metaphor

      • Damn, I really tried to use just one more metaphor too… my English degree was really expensive and I’m old and running out of time… if I could only have found a use for juxtapose…. a 25pt word…

  • Mellanie True Hills


    Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us at NSA.

    I hope we can avoid painting all NSA’ers with a broad brush. As you know, every industry has those who are ostriches, with their heads in the sand; they will ignore whatever is coming, like newspapers did. Every industry also has those who will fight the change and those who will accept the change.

    Every industry also has those of us who will drive the change. We love to be the disrupters and innovators, figuring out how to use technology to support change, and how to stay on the leading edge. We see change as an improvement, not simply change for the sake of changing. Those of us who love to drive change, and love collaboration (I wrote one of the early collaboration books, Intranet as Groupware, for Wiley back in 1996), would be thrilled to engage with you in your new vision.

    Thanks for bringing us your wisdom.

    Mellanie True Hills

    • Mellanie,
      That’s why I tried to take pains to say that just some of the group felt this way (just as only some — a big some — of newspaper folks share this worldview). It wasn’t so much a commentary on NSA that I wanted to make but a one on my lesson learned about the content worldview.

      • Mellanie True Hills


        Yes, you did, and you were very clear that some agreed and some didn’t.

        We all know that 100% of the audience will never agree with us, and some just may misunderstand what we’re saying. Some took your comments to mean that we in NSA don’t engage and communicate with our audiences (I didn’t hear you say that). That’s why pioneers are the guys and gals running around with arrows in their backs.

        Like yourself, many of us have tools (blogs, discussion forums, etc.) to engage our audiences and collaborate with them in expanding our understanding of the issues and solving the problems. (You’re always welcome to come discuss afib options with us.)

        Thanks for being thought-provoking.


  • Larry Sheldon

    I used to do a fair amount of public speaking (2000 souls absorbing at the peak), and early on I discovered some interesting things.

    This was back in the days of 36mm slides but I would discover at the end of a 50 minute talk that I was still showing the second or third slide.

    More of my prepared speech was Un-recited.

    The comments, Q & A time, and post meeting conversations (and attendances at later sessions) suggested that I had been a success.

    My wife (an Episcopal Deacon) has independently discovered that when she stopped reading her sermons she began to get rave revues, people testified to how she had touched them, and ho she had filled needs, and she worried about how often she had not said everythong she had intended to say.

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  • Mark G

    Jeff, I worked with a national organization in 2006 that tried something like this at their national conference for some of their sessions. Instead of just a speaker, they wanted it to be a group-think exercise and conversation led by the speaker with two staffers helping to guide and maintain the audience. We did about 10 different sessions using this format. Unfortunately, in all 10 sessions, it turned out to be mostly disruptive and the participants came away disappointed for the most part. There wasn’t a single review that someone found it “helpful”. In hindsight, we could have done a better job preparing for these, but my point is that it is very difficult to pull this off, and requires a lot of insight and planning, perhaps of the nature that many speakers are not familiar with.

    I think you would need to craft your audience in a way; develop one single-minded of purpose, but diverse in experience. I would be interested to know if others have done this with success. Best of luck with the idea.

  • Glen


    To be fair, I am not in the content business per se. I don’t write for a living. I don’t have a blog or any platform to deliver content. I typically end up being involved in training and coaching wherever I work. I discovered a long time ago, that when presenting information the effect it has when being a one way street of communication pales in comparison to a collaborative back and forth exchange of ideas and even energy. The net value achieved skyrockets as more people in the class or group become engaged and offer both ideas and feedback on the fly. This experience ultimately raises the bar both for the group and the person presumed to be the presenter simply because he or she is positioned at the front of the group. It seems like common sense but only to those whose primary goal is to add value. If you’ve ever been in front of a group and someone commented or posed a question and you’re reaction was “whoa I hadn’t thought about that!” you shouldn’t see that as a gotcha situation but as an opportunity to add value on the fly.


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  • I was the speaker/convention planner who brought you to speak to the NSA meeting in Indy and am here to tell you that you were brilliant! You did exactly what I had hoped which was to create discussion both in the room and beyond. You made us think by offering perspective from outside of the speaking profession, and you made us nervous by forcing us (professional speakers) to confront the reality that in order to survive we must adapt and compete against new players in the dissemination of content. Although you caused the intended disruption…we loved you! Now for my rebuttal. In my mind Jeff, you place speakers into the category of “distributors of content”. If that is the case then YES, youtube, Google+Hangout, and crowd sourced formats will compete with the traditional speaker model. I categorize myself and a large number of your audience at the NSA convention as PERFORMERS of content. As a professional speaker, I am responsible for not only delivering my message but also delivering an experience. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a humorist so there are no huge gasps of awe as I blow peoples minds with new information, but even the “content speakers” Like Gary Vaynerchuk, Peter Sheahan, Jeffrey Gitomer and yes Jeff Jarvis help create a live experience with charisma, talent, skill and PERFORMANCE that will never be replaced by google+hangout or youtube. The economy sucks! we get it! conventions have been hit hard because it is expensive to make one happen when people are being forced to choose where to invest time and resources. This has created an opportunity to receive content from other sources BUT I believe that this is a distant second to being a part of a gathering with a charismatic professional speaker at the helm. I’d much rather hear the Eagles live than on my iphone. So YES, I agree with you that like the newspaper and magazine business, the speaking business is in a state of disruption. Yes, some of the speaker herd will fall to the wolves, but I also believe that as long as people gather in person to share ideas, experiences, and Marriott chicken there will be a need for a kick ass professional speaker to lead the conversation. Thanks Jeff for your contribution and if you (Jeffs followers) have never heard him live…make it happen!

  • What’s so cool about what you did in Indy is to disrupt our thinking so that we see another way of doing what we do. Thoroughly enjoyed it – even though I’m a humorist and have mostly spoken to my audiences rather than interacting with them! Maybe this old dog can learn a few new tricks to take my programs to a new level of effectiveness.

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  • speakingpro

    Your philosophy sounds like the format at podcamp. They call it the unconference and they believe that the audience has as much value to offer as the presenter. I believe that as well and my style has always been “interactive.” While I don’t believe I’m in the content business I do uphold that we are the owners of our intellectual property. I’m in the empowerment business and I also think that my content has value.

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  • Eugene USA

    Its really sad that NBC chooses which scores to post on TV. Also the incredable amount of negativity coming from the announcers is appalling. Get a grip NBC!

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  • Justin

    A former Wisconsin governor, the funny and down-to-Earth Lee Sherman Dreyfus, once told me as a cub newspaper reporter that, if I ever had the chance, to get into speaking at conferences because it’s the “biggest racket around.” He wasn’t a ripoff artist; in fact he was an engaging and warmhearted presenter himself. But his main problem even 30 years ago was, in part, what you get at here: too often, speakers step up to the podium, bark out some bullet points, and bring little of great value to a crowd that has paid to listen. But with actual, valuable content and insight (some of which may very well be buried in that PPT), the types of presentations Jeff professes (and practices) above move the “Oprahing” into a collaborative engagement rather than boring participation in a “racket.” Good stuff!

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  • Dr. Letitia Wright

    Wow.. that is an excellent insight. As a crowd funding strategist, I see the possibilities you are talking about. Speakers need to understand the audience of 2013 not 1913. When I hear professional speakers say how they don;’t allow texting while they speak, I laugh, it is happening anyway. Crowd funding would make them more interactive and like you said, take away all the power from the conference people and back into the hands of the speakers who are creating content. ‘

    BRAVO to you, sir!

    Dr. Wright http://www.wrightplacetv.com

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