Snyde Comments: Substance over Shine in Business and Content

Dave Snyder


February 21, 2013 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

The Power of Why

One of the best TED Talk videos I have ever seen is Simon Sinek’s thesis on how great leader’s inspire action.

A lot of this concept is theoretical, as it was not a system that the leaders Sinek mentions (Apple being notable) actually followed, but rather a model we extrapolate from their common qualities. However, I think the model is worth exploring in many contexts.

The model centers around the concept of The Golden Circle.

The basic principle is that average companies start on the outside of the circle and manufacture their message inward. They tell you what they do. Great companies, leaders, etc. lead through beliefs first, then explain how they aim to achieve those beliefs, and what the plan is.

At CopyPress our existence today is based on our belief that we want to make online content more collaborative between creatives and advertisers, giving both sides a way to allow collaboration to improve their professional lives.

How do we do that? Through awesome software, workflows and training.

What does this all mean? You can use our software as an advertiser to drive traffic and sales, and as a creative to make money.

The alternative approach to this messaging is to start of telling what it is you do, and this is exactly how we used to approach CopyPress sales. We would list off all the products we offer, all the software we have, and all it would do is confuse our customers. People want to buy into things they believe in, not what they know is a fundamentally good decision. The second part is important but becomes more powerful combined with the “Why.”

The Hedgehog Concept

The Power of “Why” dovetails into one of my other favorite business concepts, The Hedgehog Concept.

Like the Golden Circle, the Hedgehog Concept is a theory extrapolated from data. It comes from my all time favorite business read, Good to Great, which is based on intensive amounts of data.

The hedgehog concept comes from the story of the hedgehog and the fox. A sharp-witted fox decides he is going to eat a hedgehog and spends copious amounts of time planning the perfect attack.

Meanwhile, the hedgehog, goes about its business unaware. When the fox ambushes, the hedgehog rolls himself into a spiny, impenetrable ball. Undeterred, the fox keeps re-strategizing, but the pattern repeats itself over and over. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” the poem famously concludes.

The companies in Good to Great all focused on their one big thing, getting rid of everything else. This concept revolves around three concentric circles”

As you can see, the “why” fits directly in this concept.

At CopyPress, when coming up with the details for our Hedgehog Concept we used the Golden Circle to help us identify our “why” because sometimes passions can be many, and coming up with the singular passion that helps to drive your company can be difficult.

Substance over Shine

And yet the reality is that the “why” alone gets you nothing.

Sinek didn’t talk about this in detail, but it is clear from examples in history. Great passion and ideas alone do not build greatness.

To put it another way, without the “how” and “what” you have a lot of shine, with absolutely no substance.

A Ponzi scheme is a great example of this concept. The investment seems to have amazing returns, and the person running the fund sells those returns through beautiful words and understanding how to manipulate the human desire for security and success. At the end of the day however, all that is left is the fund manager’s charisma.

A lot of companies, especially in the startup friendly atmosphere we find ourselves in, fall into the area of shine over substance. I sometimes call this “polishing the turd.”

Relationship to Content

And content follows the same rules. If you only approach content from the standpoint of “why” you are creating it, and “what” you are trying to get across, you lose the important differentiator of “how” it needs to be done to be successful.

This is the birth place of crappy infographics.

Some marketers says, “Reddit loves cats, we should do some content on cats!” [WHY]

Another marketer says, “Yeah, you know what is awesome right now, infographics, so let’s do an infographic on cats!” [WHAT]

Add water. Viral Gold!

Only this never works, because they didn’t think about “how” it needed to be done to work.

In this case, the platform they are focusing on, Reddit hates marketers and rarely do you see infographics going big on the platform.

The question they needed to ask is, “how can we create content that will appeal to Reddit’s love for cat’s while not appealing to their hate for marketers?” The obvious answer here is a “Harlem Shake” cat video.

The Harlem Shake is made of cats from Michael Tiong on Vimeo.

Leaving out the “how” of content that works is where I see so many people getting content wrong. They understand content should get a message out there, and they know what formats are popular and buzz worthy, but they just don’t make the entire concept function.

Substance Takes Time

So why aren’t more businesses and marketers approaching start-ups and content alike with a more balanced approach?

Because substance takes time. It takes trial and error. And since there is error that means there is failure and pain. It is easier to just throw stuff out and spend more time on the package than the product.

Shine over substance is the true meaning of contentless.

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Dave Snyder

CopyPress writer

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