Back in 2018, we published an overview of five mental models we find useful for content marketing. Now, four years on, we wanted to share another collection that has proved its worth, time and time again. These ideas can help overcome writer’s block, fuel your ideation, tighten up your self-editing, and make your writing more satisfying.
1. Gordian Knot
There’s a long-winded Grecian parable that goes something like this: a peasant farmer, driving an ox cart, gets appointed as the king of Phrygia. Said king ties his ox cart to a wooden post with a knot of unimaginable complexity. A prophet, loitering nearby, declares that anyone able to release the knot from the post would be destined to rule all of Asia. Alexander the Great appears and, after brief contemplation, draws his sword and cuts the knot in two.
Many problems seem, at first blush, impossibly complicated or difficult. We can take these problems at face value and wrestle endlessly with their twists and turns; or, like Alexander, we can “cut the Gordian knot” and find a simpler, lateral solution — reframing the problem and presenting it as a non-issue or finding some higher-order solution.
This is a powerful writing tool. Michael Pollan’s book Food Rules is deeply satisfying because it promises to reduce an intensely complicated subject — nutrition science — down to a handful of simple catchphrases. As Pollan writes, “The deeper I delved into the confused and confusing thicket of nutritional science… the simpler the picture gradually became."
This is something we should aim for in content marketing: to not just solve our reader’s immediate problems but to zoom out and look for opportunities to solve the bigger, broader issues that render the problem irrelevant. This is something we try to do in our content:
- Attribution is hard → Don’t worry about traffic; just focus on SQLs
- My content calendar dies in December → Don’t bother writing new content
- Having ideas is hard → Just dump everything into a Google doc
This runs the risk of oversimplifying reality and pandering to the reader (reducing the hard problem of content distribution to a checklist of social media sites probably strays into unhelpful simplification). But used correctly, these lateral solutions can make our reader smarter and let us earn the goodwill that comes from saying, “hey — this is less of a problem than you thought.”
2. Chekhov’s Gun
Imagine that you’re watching a play and there, on the set wall ahead of you, hangs a rifle. The rifle dominates center stage; perhaps the actors even allude to the fact that the rifle is loaded, latched on a hair trigger. The play progresses, the tension around the loaded rifle builds… and then the curtain drops, the play concludes, and you find yourself deeply unsatisfied. Where was the bang?
This metaphor was used by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov to illustrate a core lesson in writing: any notable element within a story has to have some impact on the plot; it can't create false promises by disappearing into obscurity after being featured heavily. If you note the rifle, it has to be fired.
In content marketing, our titles, headers, and introductions routinely write checks that the rest of the article needs to cash. If an opening paragraph talks about “building a community, establishing authority, and distinguishing your brand,” the following sections need to explicitly and systematically address how to build community, how to establish authority, and how to distinguish your brand from others; otherwise, your earlier words are empty, failing to deliver on the promise they made.
As you’re rifling around in a thrift store, you happen upon a battered old metal box adorned with scuffed gold paint and a faded outline of a centaur. It’s labeled with a $5 sticker. You recognize this battered box: it’s a Klon Centaur, the most sought-after guitar pedal in existence, routinely selling for thousands of dollars. With shaking hands, you open your wallet to find five bucks.
The thrift shop didn’t know the pedal’s real value, but you do: you have information asymmetry, allowing you to buy the Klon for $5 and immediately resell it on eBay for $5,000. This is a simple example of arbitrage: “the purchase of something in one market at a low price and the reselling of it in another market at a higher price.”
Arbitrage can be used in content marketing. Stories, concepts, and ideas that are commonplace (and hence, low value) in one context can be made more valuable by sharing them in a different context:
- Ideas from one domain, like finance, can be repurposed in another domain, like marketing.
- Information locked up in dense PDFs or books can be made more accessible in blog posts.
- Data points spread across dozens of disparate sources can be centralized into one place.
4. Hamming Question
The mathematician Richard Hamming developed a reputation for trolling fellow scientists at conferences and events. He would ask, “What are the most important problems in your field?” and when they answered, respond by asking, “Why aren’t you working on them?”
Hamming’s question highlights a cognitive dissonance that most of us suffer from: even if we are able to articulate the most important, high-leverage problems in our field of expertise, we are often deterred from pursuing them by pragmatism, distraction, or the simple minutiae of day-to-day life. We know what we should do, and still, we don’t do it.
This is a good reflection to bring into your work and writing. It’s easy to get caught up in doing things for the things’ sake: we want to stick to our publishing schedules and keep our traffic growing. But look at the last 10 articles you published: do they matter enough? Do they tackle the biggest, hardest problems facing your readers? Are they achieving a worthwhile outcome?
When I think about this in content marketing, I think of hard problems like marketing attribution, content distribution, and AI content. There may be reasons why we can’t always pursue these topics — but it’s good to reflect and keep ourselves honest.
5. Oblique Strategies
Suppose you’re a musician. You’re in a studio with legendary producer Brian Eno (good for you), and despite your best efforts, the day’s production is grinding to a halt. You’re running out of ideas. Inspiration is fading. You’re stuck. It’s then that Brian reaches into a jacket pocket, fans the deck of cards contained within, and offers it to you. You choose a card, and it says simply:
“Give way to your worst impulse.”
This is one of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a series of intentionally vague directives used by Eno to help himself and other creative artists escape mental ruts and create new ideas. In this instance, your worst impulse is to put down your instrument and stop recording — so you do. Your focus shifts from adding new material to refining what you already have. That last track is shorter than intended, sure — but what would happen if you tried to make those two short minutes as dramatic and memorable as possible?
Eno’s oblique strategies operate on the idea that constraint breeds creativity. Following a prompt — even an arbitrary one — can be useful for reducing an overwhelming array of possibilities to a practical and unexpected course of action. Writing is prone to similar creative peaks and troughs, and Eno’s Oblique Strategies offer a way to blast through them. Choose a constraint — any constraint — and apply it to your work.