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6 things to ask yourself to determine if what you’re doing is pointless

When you do the kind of work I do to help people feel excited about something, you learn what doesn’t work. I’m better at noticing when something is bad than when something is good. You probably are, too.

You do this all the time. If you read a news story and it starts to sound like a press release, you kind of get that. “Yeah, I can skip these quotes,” you say to yourself. You already know what they’re going to say. That’s because press releases are almost universally lame and quotes never say anything (especially in politics).

Here are six things to ask yourself or notice to determine if what you’re doing is pointless, dull, lame, boring, and a waste of time.

  1. “Is this something even I care about?” If you don’t care about it or find it interesting, how can you expect anyone else?
  2. “Are all the quotes in this sanitized or using academic language?” There’s nothing wrong with being smart or academic. But if you’re explaining things and can’t simplify a topic to its essence, you don’t understand it well enough to share. Your reader has kids to pick up from school, 3 voicemails to listen to, 91 emails in her inbox, and a slight headache. She does not need a lecture right now.
  3. The more time you spend on something does not mean it will get noticed more. In fact, it’s probably a diminishing return. I spent 90 minutes the other day scheduling a month’s worth of social media posts for a client. Before that was a solid day of creating graphics and bouncing spreadsheets of post ideas back and forth. We’re a quarter of the way through April and we’ve attracted 15 clicks. People don’t schedule conversations through spreadsheets. Neither should you.
  4. For website owners, you cannot compile other people’s material weeks or months later and expect anyone to care. There was a time where an aggregation strategy could work. Not anymore. If you’re not creating your material, everyone’s already seen it.
  5. “Do we have an opinion on this topic? “I see too many people afraid to make an opinion about otherwise opinion-worthy things. Sometimes it’s because of money. Often, it’s out of fear of upsetting someone. If you’re trying to upset no one ever, expect no one anywhere to care what you think. Because clearly you don’t think anything.
  6. “Are we spending more than a day writing, editing, and vetting a Facebook or blog post?” Revising and editing are wonderful. But a NY Times reporter can write out a story in an hour if all the pieces are there. You most likely have all the pieces. You’re probably running in circles trying to approve every word. Remember: it’s a tweet, not a Constitutional amendment.

I’m lousy at telling clients when their ideas are bad. Or at least telling them when what they’re suggesting won’t work. And by “won’t work”, I mean it won’t work on any measurable detail:

  • People won’t click on it
  • People won’t share it
  • People won’t open it
  • People won’t buy it

And for almost everyone, if people aren’t doing one of those four things, we’re all wasting our time.

I’m sad to say we waste a lot of time. For our part, it’s my job to make people’s events, conferences, meetings, books, products, or advice “sell”. Unlike the world of Mad Men, we’re not working with airlines or Life cereal and a million dollars. You and I are working with needle exchanges, monthly business meetings, counseling, awareness campaigns, and almost no dollars.

I see clients jump up and down over every tiny detail of an email campaign. I try to take things as seriously as the client does, but when you’re spending all day fussing over link colors in an email you’re sending to 200 people when I know about 20 will open it, get on with something more important.

There is a murky bright side. When I talk to clients it’s not hard to get them animated by something. Every organization has a topic or two that triggers them. The sort of thing that gets everyone worked up and extolling the virtues of this thing or that. Or makes them say things about what they’d do about such-n-such.

One person scoffed when I suggested, “You need to be a lot more like the NRA or Planned Parenthood or the ACLU.” Her response was almost as if I must be having a stroke. I said, “You care deeply about your work. So do those organizations, and they make their opinion known. That attracts attention, which attracts money, and that makes things happen. The ACLU would not be the ACLU if after every policy proposal they said, “We understand the differing opinions on this law and we encourage everyone to sign up for our email list.”

NO! Instead, it’s, “This law is deadly and will kill at least 5,000 people every year. It should be repealed and replaced with our proposed language below. Sign up for our email list to be alerted to more on this topic as we fight for change. The legal fees for this battle will be expensive, so please consider a donation.”

Talk more about those things you believe in. Form an opinion and stand by it. You’ll find all the people who agree, separate out a few who don’t, and be much more potent as a result. Otherwise, what the heck are you doing?

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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