“I don’t find it pleasurable,” Dan Lyons told me when I asked him about the writing process.
I asked about it because Dan’s done a heck of a lot of writing. With an MFA from Michigan, he’s not only published a novel and a collection of short stories, a parody based on The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs, countless articles for Forbes and Newsweek, and, most recently, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, a chronicle of his experience working as a “marketing fellow” for HubSpot. Oh, yeah, and he writes for the HBO show, Silicon Valley.
I wanted to know if he got into some kind of zone when writing, striking what the novelist Patricia Highsmith called “the delicate balance between dreaming and trying.”
“I don’t think so,” he responded.
“I find it hard,” he continued. “I tend to write and rewrite and then write and rewrite. I do a lot of drafts and I never really like it. I tend to carry it around with me, where I’ll work in the morning or I’ll work all day, and then, when I’m not writing, I’ll be thinking about it, like a puzzle. What’s the next piece going to be? And, structurally, how does that work? And I’ll walk around with it at night in my head, and maybe make little notes next to my bed, and then get up in the morning knowing where I’m going to start the next day.”
The Craft of Writing
“I mean, I can work for long stretches,” he added. “In grad school when I was getting my MFA, I could work for really long stretches, uninterrupted, and enjoy that. I still can, sometimes.”
I asked him if writing for television was very different from blogging or writing novels.
“The TV writing I’ve done is very mechanical,” he said. “It’s not inspirational. It’s like, ‘How can we make all these jokes fit onto this one page?.’”
“It’s much more like journalism, in a sense,” he offered, “where you have a hard line count or word count or inch count, but you can’t get it all in there. So, now you’re two inches over, or you have a 500 word limit but you’ve got 750 words, and you want to keep everything, so how do you cut this to make it fit? It’s amazing how you can go through and cut individual words out of sentences or rewrite sentences and you can start finding all these places to take words out.”
“It’s sort of like making furniture and at some point you have to do the little detail work,” he explained. “I actually kind of like that work. I love having to take words out of something. I can noodle around with that and find that very interesting, which is not very highfalutin, but I like that aspect of craft.”
The State of Brand Journalism
Since Dan had compared TV writing to journalism, at least in terms of writing to very specific constraints, I asked him about the current state of brand journalism. At the time when he was hired by HubSpot (2013), brand journalism seemed to be in the air and, in fact, his joining the company was part of that burgeoning trend.
Today, I told him, the term doesn’t seem to be bandied about as much, so I was curious what he thought about that.
“I didn’t know that that term wasn’t used much anymore,” he told me, “so I’ve probably been operating under the sense that the world was frozen in amber in November 2014. Which may not be the case!”
Of course, I ended up feeling like the one living in an amber-filled bubble when he began talking about examples of brand journalism he particularly admired.
“Is Microsoft Stories still going?” he asked [It is. – Matt]. “I haven’t looked in a long time, but I think what they did, and may still be doing, was amazing. I thought they really did incredible stuff there.”
“And GE Reports, I’m pretty sure, is still going [It is. – Matt],” he asserted. “The work doesn’t look as nice as Microsoft Stories. The presentation isn’t as slick and amazing; it’s kind of more simple and traditional. But the writing is really good and Tomas Kellner [Senior Managing Editor at GE Reports] writes about really amazing stuff inside GE.”
“So, that’s one side of the question,” he said, “Is there still work for journalists? The other half would be: Is there still value for brands? I like to think that GE is getting value out of the work Tomas is doing, or IBM from the work of Steve Hamm [Chief Storyteller, IBM].”
Is Content Marketing Doomed?
In other words, while brand journalism may not be at the top of every company’s to-do list, some very large companies continue to invest in it. At the same time, the vast majority of companies say that they are involved in, if not brand journalism, then content marketing.
On that front, I asked Dan, somewhat tendentiously, if he thought content marketing was doomed.
“I think it depends on what you mean,” he said. “What is the purpose? If the purpose is lead gen – create content, put a call to action at the bottom of it, and try to convert that into leads – I think that works.”
“But, as the numbers get bigger,” he went on, “as the company grows, you can do the math and say, ‘Well, if we extrapolate from the amount of traffic we need just to get the customers we have right now, and the company is going to be ten times this size, in theory we’re going to need ten times the traffic. And that means we’re going to be bigger than the New York Times!’ At some point the model breaks down.”
“A lot of the guys [doing brand journalism] I talked to,” he said, “weren’t really driven by a numbers goal. Now, they were very much aware of the number of hits and number of comments and views. And, I suppose, if the number was ‘zero,’ and nobody was reading this stuff, at some point the company would shut it down. But, they weren’t pushed to do clickbait. Their primary thing was still to do stories that they thought were interesting based on their intuition and gut sense and their judgement.”
“That, to me,” he concluded, “still seems to have a lot of value and makes sense.”
A Larger Idea
Looking back, Dan said of brand journalism, “It did seem to have a lot of buzz for a while when I joined HubSpot. I remember thinking, ‘Ooh, I’m getting in on the next big thing!’”
And, while that didn’t exactly work out, it did get him thinking about a larger idea.
“OK,” he said, “the media business is collapsing and we now have hundreds – if not thousands – of journalists floating around with nothing to do, looking for work. And the reason the media business is collapsing is because all their corporate advertisers have stopped spending money on ads because they realized the ads don’t work.”
“But,” he said, “those companies still have budget and they’re still looking for ways to reach customers. So, get rid of the media company. Disintermediate the media company. And put the journalists together with the brands and let each brand have its own little newspaper or magazine or whatever it wants. And some will be better than other and some will be more legit than others.”
“Look at what Red Bull has done,” he noted, “Red Bull has basically created a real media company inside the company.”
So, what has gotten in the way of this big idea?
“I think most brands don’t have the courage or the money,” he replied. “But, really, it’s the mindset to do what Red Bull does. They can’t really let go. They have to go in and pop four references to the company in each piece. They absolutely don’t get it.”
Epilogue: Steve Jobs and Donald Trump
On a final note, since I had first read Dan when he was writing as the Fake Steve Jobs, I did have a question about that, although he quickly warned me, “I remember very little of the Fake Steve stuff.”
In preparation to speak with Dan, I had gone back and read a bunch of the Secret Diary and was struck by the way that, at least in Dan’s construction of Jobs, he sounded like Donald Trump.
“Certain people have a way of speaking,” Dan started, “of using language, that is not like hypnosis, but it’s loaded language. And that’s what I was always writing about Jobs.
“I used to say that he was using NLP [Neuro-Linguistic Programming]. I don’t really know what NLP is or how it works, but when I would write those things, I would have people write to me saying, ‘You know, I do know NLP, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. He’s loaded up his language in a way that makes you persuaded.’ And I’ve read that Trump is doing something [similar] with language.”
“And, of course,” he said, “there was the Jobs thing of just saying, ‘This is the best. We’re the best because we’re Apple and Apple is the best.’ It’s sort of a tautology: Well, of course, it costs more because it’s the best. And you want it because it’s the best. And you want it because it costs more. You don’t want something cheap. You want something good.’”
And that, of course, is a statement with which it is difficult to argue.