DivvyHQ Book Club: Break the Wheel by Jay Acunzo
For many years, our good friend Jay Acunzo has been at war with best practices. Blindly following these generally recommended methods and techniques won’t help us be exceptional, he argues; it’s more of a path toward sameness and conformity.
“Finding best practices isn’t the goal. Finding the best approach for you is.” This leading slogan on his website pretty much summarizes his overarching viewpoint, which is at the heart of his latest book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work.
To help us reach this elusive goal, Jay packs a wealth of thought-provoking insights and real-life examples into Break the Wheel. Today we’re going to call out a few of the excerpts that hit us hardest, and explain – from our view – why they’re especially meaningful for today’s content marketing managers.
Why Content Marketers Will Enjoy This Book
“Standing out in a crowded digital marketplace is harder than ever!”
Pardon me if you’ve heard this (or some variation) about five billion times before. It’s true, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s useful. We all know that saturation and competition have reached new heights. What are we to do about it?
The shortcut is seeking out “best practices” as some kind of magical elixir. But that’s what everyone is doing, so it’s sorta counterproductive, right? In Break the Wheel, Jay lays out a framework for looking inward to assess our own unique context, and capitalizing on our “unfair advantage” – the thing that sets us (and our teams) apart from others.
The book isn’t written specifically for content marketers – it’s more generally entrepreneurial – but everything within is very relevant to the profession, and Jay’s extensive background in the field (he was once Head of Content at HubSpot, among other gigs) shines through.
If you watched our BIG Simple webinar series hosted by Jay, many of the themes in Break the Wheel will feel familiar. The concept of that project – we wanted to do webinars differently – as well as the content are very much aligned with the premise of his book.
Here are five passages that were especially compelling to us from a content marketing perspective.
5 Resonant Excerpts from Break the Wheel for Content Marketing Managers
“Best practices become incredibly dangerous because of how precise and prescriptive they are. They seem so specific, but in reality, they lack the context that only you can provide. However, when we start to deploy our intuition, we start considering the variables that best practices miss. We can’t know them all, but we can come a lot closer than industry-wide generalities.”
A Google search for “content marketing best practices” will yield about half a billion results. In many cases, as Jay asserts, they seem very specific and simple to implement. This is a pitfall that can often hinder us from identifying important truths. He talks a lot in the book about harnessing our intuition, which refers to that distinctly human ability to instinctively make important mental connections and deductions.
You are where you are for a reason. When planning out content, don’t be afraid to let your intuition factor in heavily.
“What is the core issue or fact that you’ve learned about those you aim to serve? Whether you’re investigating your prospects or customers, your readers or viewers, or your employees or bosses, support your intuition by cutting through the conventional understanding about your audience.”
This really ties back to the first episode of The BIG Simple, in which Tamsen Webster talked about her Red Thread Method of understanding our audience and their specific aspirations. At the risk of offering up an overly prescriptive best practice, I truly do believe that one of the primary ways for content marketers of all stripes to succeed today is by understanding their audience better than their competitors do.
This often requires something called “first-principle insight,” which Jay references frequently in Break the Wheel. He defines it as “a foundational but hard-to-reach truth,” and adds that “if you can reach it, you can build back up more original thinking from there, making better decisions because you started in a better place.”
First-principle insights can’t be uncovered through best practices or demographic data. You need to talk to your customers, and the people who interact most closely with them (i.e., sales and customer service). You need to question your core assumptions.
“He doesn’t look anything like your average keynote speaker, because he’s not trying to be an average keynote speaker. He’s trying to be exceptional, and in doing so, he knows he has to use what makes him an exception. He wishes more speakers would do the same.”
In this excerpt, Jay is referencing a gentleman named Scott Stratten, who doesn’t exactly fit the “keynote speaker” mold. Rather than stuffy business attire, he takes the stage in jeans and boots, with a man bun atop his head and big beard on his chin. He doesn’t follow the prototypical model and he’s successful for that very reason.
Stratten is an entertaining, engaging and relatable guy, which is what helps him connect with audiences. He capitalizes on his unique set of strengths. It’s a great lesson for brands everywhere. But, a caveat…
“The goal isn’t merely to create something ‘different.’ Anybody can be weird for no apparent reason. The key is doing something different and purposeful at the same time. As a result, I believe aiming for ‘different’ is missing the point.”
This is the disconnect I often come across: the desire to be “different” just for the sake of differentiation. (Almost every misguided attempt to “GO VIRAL” seems to stem from this mindset.) Brands need to reflect deeply on that aforementioned unfair advantage that sets them apart from the rest, and place it at the center of their strategies. Jay Baer’s talk triggers are a great example of how you can put this into action operationally.
“I talk about authenticity and talk about disruption,” Stratten says in Break the Wheel. “I don’t know if I could talk about that in a strong way without being that myself.”
Does your company live its mantra through all of the content that it produces?
“When we embrace our constraints, we being to scale our work based on results, not theory or trends. Who cares about the big idea in theory if it doesn’t work for our audience? Who cares about the latest trend if it’s not the best approach for our specific situation?”
People tend to look at constraints as a bad thing. Jay believes we should embrace them, and frankly, he’s right. Total “creative freedom” can be problematic because most of us need some sort of structure and organization in order to produce. That’s why businesses have strategies in the first place.
This is, in my mind, one of the big advantages of using a content marketing software solution. Centrally coordinating and compartmentalizing your content plan, workflows and strategic elements helps provide the practical constraints that maximize creative impact and keep work moving forward.
Let’s Do Our Best Work
“When your goal is to stand out, noise isn’t the problem. Sameness is.”
How can we break away from that sameness in a way that fits completely with our company’s purpose, and also with the needs, pains, and desires of our customers? I recommend grabbing a copy of Break the Wheel to find numerous inspiring examples of individuals who’ve done just that.
You should also make sure to check out the full first season of The BIG Simple, which lays out the groundwork for such a shift in a way that’s (obviously) very much influenced by Acunzo’s point of view.