My son Isaac recently performed in the spring concert at his middle school. His jazz combo played “‘Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk, and it was incredible. These kids were playing this technically difficult, harmonically complex song, and playing it with feeling. The audience felt it, too: even the adults who thought Thelonious Monk was a Buddhist priest. It was a moment of art.
This is not my son. This is the real Thelonious Monk.
For the grand finale, they had a big group of kids play an amazing techno song on electronic drums, keyboards, and Launchpads. There was a smoke machine. Isaac was on the keytar, and just rocking it, with the wah-wahs and the power slides. The audience was so moved that they flooded the front of the auditorium and had a spontaneous dance party.
This also is not my son. It is just an insane keytar solo.
Then, at the very end of the song, Isaac’s keytar cable fell out. It was the final solo, and as he tried to plug the cord back in, the keytar strap broke. The drummer hit the downbeat, and that was the concert. “Thank you, good night!”
I grew up playing music, and while I’ve had a lot of great performances, I’ve also had a great number of bad performances. I had a performance where my amp buzzed incessantly during a slow song, in a church. I had a performance where I forgot the music, and the audience had to wait uncomfortably while I ran backstage to find it. I had a performance where I got in a fight with my then-girlfriend, on stage. (Long story.)
Here’s the thing that no music teacher ever taught me: performing is also practice. In music, you spend an incredible amount of time in practice, then you perform. But performing is much different than practice, as anyone who’s ever spoken in public will know to be true. There’s no way to get experience performing except by doing it. You have to practice performing, and nowhere is this more true than in content marketing.
How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
There’s an old joke about the hurried maestro who’s rushing up Seventh Avenue in New York, when a stranger stops him. “Excuse me,” asks the stranger. “Do you know how to get to Carnegie Hall?”
“Yes,” responds the maestro. “Practice!”
The new version of that joke is the hurried Google manager who’s on his way to deliver a keynote at the content marketing conference, when a stranger stops him. “Excuse me,” asks the stranger. “Do you know how to get my company to Page 1 of Google?”
“Yes,” responds the manager. “Publish!”
To get better, you have to practice. In content marketing, “practicing” means “publishing.”
Let’s take hypothetical PerfectCorp, whose philosophy is that every blog post needs to be vetted by a team of five subject matter experts and three editors before it can be published. “Our customers are discriminating,” the marketing manager explains, “and every blog post needs to provide accurate, up-to-date thought leadership.”
However, the subject matter experts are busy with their day jobs, and the editors each keep re-editing the work of the others, so consequently PerfectCorp only gets four blog posts published per year. On the upside, everyone feels the blog posts are perfect: the company is called PerfectCorp, after all.
Compare this with Agile.ly, a hypothetical company that focuses on publishing a lot of content (quantity), and doing it well (quality). They have one writer and one editor, both subject matter experts who set up a process to publish one blog post every weekday. The downside is that with so much content, they occasionally get something wrong, and have to re-publish a post. Also, some posts are better than others. But at the end of the year, they have 250 blog posts to measure.
PerfectCo has four data points to measure their content marketing efforts. Agile.ly has 250. Which company will learn more about what resonates with their customers? Which company will generate more blog traffic? Which company will have better keyword rankings?
Everything is practice. You can talk marketing theory until your face turns purple, but there’s no substitute for actually doing it. You never know what kinds of display ads or direct mail pieces or landing pages or TV spots or sales messages will work until you try a bunch of different things. You’ve got to continually try, and try again. You’ve got to iterate. You’ve got to practice.
Practice Makes Progress
My family was recently watching this clip of Frank Sinatra singing “High Hopes.” The interesting thing is that Frank Sinatra is not perfectly on pitch. It was clearly just a live take, and Sinatra was so notoriously impatient that he probably just said, “Hey, good enough.” And it was good enough. To me, it feels so authentic: you catch a little of that Sinatra vibrato and you realize there’s so much mastery of his voice, but it’s still not perfect.
This also is not my son. It is a child actor from 1959.
Today, everything is so tightly produced and autotuned that we tend to think of artists as perfect, but the reason they’re autotuned is they’re not perfect. You’re hearing the best of dozens of takes, all spliced together and digitally perfected. When you see TED talks, you’re seeing heavily edited performances, the speakers carefully vetted, the talks practiced in front of countless audiences.
I studied music as an undergrad, and at one point I practiced four hours a day. The first hour was scales and arpeggios, the second hour was learning difficult pieces, the third hour was improvisation, and the fourth hour was learning something fun. Day in and day out, four hours a day. By the end of the first year, I had made tremendous progress.
Then I took a year off to tour with a music group. We performed about four to five times a week. By the end of my time with that group, I was at the peak of my craft. I progressed much faster performing than I did practicing. This always mystified me: on the tour, I was playing the same songs, and I wasn’t practicing as much, and yet I got better faster than practicing alone. In hindsight, I was practicing performing — which makes you progress faster than practicing alone.
I no longer agree with the phrase “practice makes perfect.” I believe that practice makes progress. Progress is what we’re after: getting a little bit better each day, whether that’s public speaking, performing, or parenting. Erase perfect; embrace progress.
Perfection is a myth. There is no perfect jazz song, no perfect movie, no perfect business, no perfect government, no perfect person. In business, in marketing, in content marketing, understand that no one will ever do it perfectly. There will only be those that get better, and those that won’t. There will always be room for improvement, always a way to innovate.
View content marketing — and everything in your life — as practice. And know that the more you practice, the better you get. Practice makes progress.
Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower, and author of Mind Hacking: How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days.