What Shakespeare Taught Me About Blogging (and Business)

Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer in the English language. During his career he crafted 38 plays and 154 sonnets. All of his known works were created in a 20 year period between 1592 and 1613. While he achieved some degree if fame during his lifetime, he was not the most popular playwright in Elizabethan times (Christopher Marlowe most likely held that title).

So what does this have to do with blogging? Like a blogger, Shakespeare was often focused more on quantity than quality. During his most prolific time, he was writing 4 plays a year. That is, he went from idea to fully staged production in 3 months. Much of what Shakespeare wrote is crap. Painfully bad. Yet Shakespeare developed some habits that allowed him to rise to the top. These same ideas also apply today to successful blogs.

Recycle Ideas Reading through Shakespeare’s works you notice that he recycles many of the same ideas from play to play. Iago, his most wonderful villain in Othello is extremely similar to Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is almost a caricature. His motivation and hatred of Antonio is not fleshed out. When we encounter Iago, he is a fully formed, a villain we can understand and almost feel sympathy towards. By recycling his best ideas, Shakespeare improved and polished them over time until they became great.

When writing blogs I am tempted to treat an idea or theme only once. To tell a story a single time. Fact is, the first time I tackle a theme or tell a story it probably sucks. But that’s OK. There is nothing stopping me from revisiting that theme later with a fresh perspective. Eventually I will really nail the idea that I was working on.

Tweak From Feedback Shakespeare’s plays were never meant to be read. They were for popular entertainment. Every performance Shakespeare would observe the audience reaction and make changes to the play. We know this today because the handful of primary sources of Shakespeare (stage manager notes, actor recollections) do not agree, indicating that changes were made throughout the production. The challenge for s Shakespeare scholar today is determining what was the “final” version of a play. Shakespeare wasn’t working to a singular personal vision. He observed what worked with his audience and was willing to change.

Modern blogging has so many metrics and measures of what our audience likes. From comments to tweets, page views to content aggregation, we have a plethora of metrics about what our audience is reacting to. The best bloggers can take this information and use it to guide selection of future post topics. I look at all the metrics to try and understand what readers are responding to. And I plan future posts to align as best as possible to that feedback.

Repeat Yourself In the 19th and 20th century, reading became a dominant activity. With modern public schooling most everyone could read and the written word became the preferred way of communicating. Reading has also been a solitary activity. You would put a kettle on and curl up in alone in an easy chair to quietly read a book. Your entire focus would be on the printed page. As such we have developed over the past 100 years a writing style that favors saying something once.

Shakespeare didn’t have his audience’s undivided attention. His audience was eating, drinking, flirting, conducting business — paying attention to the play was probably the least important thing going on. So Shakespeare repeats himself. A lot. It is not uncommon for a character to say the same thing 5 different ways in a single speech. Hamlet’s famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy states his fear of death (or suicide) half a dozen times in 36 lines. And the there are all the plot recaps. Minor characters will chatter about what so and so has done and how whosit will react. There is a lot of repetition in Shakespeare.

With the information revolution we are no longer reading and consuming information in a quiet focused manner. We a back to the days of Shakespeare where the printed word is competing with countless other distractions. I read blogs on my iPad while communing on the bus. My attention is divided between making sure a don’t miss. My stop, emails coming in, and the music playing only iPod. The best bloggers seem to have recognized this. They will repeat themselves. The TL;DR meme is an example of repeating key information so that it rises above the competing noise.

Looking back over what I’ve written, this doesn’t apply just to blogging. It can equal apply to building and launching a successful product today. Gone a the days of a Thomas Edison toiling for years in a lab, perfecting the product before releasing it. Instead we build something, out it quickly in the market, and get feedback as soon as we can. We recycle and reiterate what worked and quickly move to the next release. The best products focus on simple interfaces and ideas, using repetition and redundancy to reinforce how the product is to be used correctly and differentiate in a sea of noise.

In my blogging and my business I try to apply the habits that Shakespeare used hundred of years before.

PS It is no coincidence that I’m blogging about Shakespeare on the Ides of March 🙂

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One Response to What Shakespeare Taught Me About Blogging (and Business)

  1. MW says:

    Time to reconnect…
    It has been a while… Kenton!
    Interesting perspective… What else do you have?
    Mark w.

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