Don’t Be Trapped by Form

When I first came to Los Angeles, one of my screenwriting instructors told me something that I still find invaluable today. He said, “When you have a story, outline it, abstract it, even write it without considering whether it will be a novel, a screenplay or a television show. If you start with the form, you immediately fall into the tropes of that form. You may miss the deeper and more impactful meaning of your story.”

Form can be a trap.

For example, imagine what Game of Thrones would be like if it had been written in the form of a television series instead of a series of books. It would almost certainly lack the depth of the huge, layered world that George R. R. Martin created. I would argue that it’s a better television show for having started in novel form.

The trap of form applies to business content, too. As business communicators, we almost always think form first. To solve a particular challenge, we say, “We need a website” or “We need a white paper” or “We need a printed manual.” Only then do we say, “Great, what kind of content should we pour into that form?” I’ve seen many amazing big ideas get trapped in the form of a blog post, a white paper, or a printed article simply because that’s how the ideas were initially conceived.

What if we thought outside the form? What if, instead of saying “We need a blog post,” we asked, “What value could we deliver to our customers at this part of their journey?” and then (and only then) “How would that value best express itself over all the possible forms?”

The form trap is especially difficult to escape when a given form has brought you success. I ran into a team stuck in this kind of trap recently at a client advisory. The team was gathered to talk about scaling a successful blog. They talked about doubling down on the content velocity, adding tabs to the website, redesigning the site, getting better writers. One of the suggestions I made was that the team think of this great content, and the story that they had created, as a collection of ideas. I asked them to consider what other types of experiences might convey those ideas. Perhaps a better way to scale would be to create a physical event, a podcast, or a series of videos.

Basically, I asked them to do what my screenwriting instructor had asked me to do: Look first at the story. Then consider the audience. Then choose the form.

When you succeed with one form of content, do you default to creating more and more of the same type of thing? Or do you look beyond the form to consider other ways – possibly more effective ways – to convey that value? Do you think outside the trap?

If your honest answer is no, don’t worry. Seeing the trap you’re in is the first step toward getting out of it.