Create, Don’t Copy

Create, Don’t Copy

My first question to my new client was, “So, what’s your topic and approach?”

He responded, “My topic is innovation. I developed my methodology by reading everyone’s books on this subject, collecting the best tips and synthesizing them into a 10-step plan.”

I looked at him, a little shocked that the irony of this hadn’t occurred to him.

I said, “Well, you asked me to be honest with you, so here’s my professional opinion. That’s not synthesizing; that’s stealing.”

Now, it was his turn to be a little shocked. “But that’s research. That’s what everyone told me to do.”

I responded, “Reading other people’s books on your topic and then using their material makes you derivative at best, plagiaristic at worst. If meeting planners wanted to know what these other experts say about innovation, they’d hire them to speak. They’re paying to hear your insights, not to hear a book report.”

“But how am I supposed to come up with content?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.

“You create your own.”

“How do I go about doing that? I’ve been told how to polish my platform skills, build a profitable business and market my services; but I don’t think anyone has ever showed me how to come up with my own stuff.”

The acronym C.R.E.A.T.E. explains six ways to create original content.


Ask yourself, “Do people agree with what I’m saying?” If they do, it’s boring. Why are you wasting their valuable time telling them something they already know? It’s far more interesting to introduce emperor-has-no-clothes insights that take exception to their beliefs. Ask yourself, “What does my audience assume to be true about my topic? How can I challenge that and point out how it’s outdated or inaccurate?”

I wrote an article titled “The Customer Is NOT Always Right,” which lists criteria to help you determine when it’s smart to fire high-maintenance customers who are verbally abusing your employees. It’s become one of my most requested articles because it contradicts (versus confirms) a norm.

After attending conventions for more than 16 years, John Alston’s, CPAE, keynote stands out because he disputed the notion that goodness is either intrinsically motivated or modeled.

I remember, as if it happened yesterday (the hallmark of memorable material), John throwing his arms wide and thundering, “Goodness must be taught.”

Read and riff off today’s news

Promise yourself you will read a local and national newspaper (you know, the paper things they used to deliver to your front door) the morning of every presentation. Pick out what pops out, and then dovetail it to your audience’s issues. This forces you to be fresh. It causes you to craft timely, topical material instead of giving a canned spiel you’ve perfected over the years.

When I shared these criteria with my client, he said, “Doesn’t referencing someone’s story from a newspaper fly in the face of what you said about not using other peoples’ ‘stuff ’?”

“Good point,” I agreed. “My dad used to say, ‘Rules make good servants, but poor masters.’ These rules to create your own material are meant to be guidelines, not absolutes. Feel free to break them when, in your judgment, doing so will make your presentation or project stronger.”

Then, my client asked, “Can you give me an example of that?”

“Well, I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Pink (author of Whole New Mind) and Alan Webber (co-founder of Fast Company Magazine) recently when Dan interviewed Alan about his new book, Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning At Business Without Losing Your Self.

I think it’s okay to include other experts’ epiphanies as long as you: a) fully attribute their work, b) couch their nugget in a personal story of how you encountered this individual, 3) relive the moment his/her wisdom impacted you, and 4) relate the expert’s idea back to your audience so attendees can apply it to their personal circumstances.”

My client shook his head and asked, “How do I do that?”

“You ‘put us in the room’ so we’re meeting this person and Socratically discovering his or her insight, just as you did. For example, Alan’s book introduces pithy yet profound chapter titles such as “Learn to Take NO as a Question” and “Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much.”

I complimented Alan with, “You are the ‘Socrates of Sound-bites.’ Do you have a system for crystallizing your ideas into concise, compelling one-liners?”

He thought about it for a moment and replied, “Yes, listen hard and think in bumper stickers.”

The secret to making an expert’s epiphany relevant to our audience is to share its revelatory influence on us and then dovetail what the expert said back to participants with a you question, such as ‘Would you like to know how to think in bumper stickers? Would you like to learn how to Twitter your thoughts into clear, compelling soundbites? If so, you’re in the right place because we’re going to discuss three specific ways to do just that.’”

Examples with dialogue and visual details

No apocryphal “starfish” stories! Think back to your own experience and vividly relive real-life situations

that illustrate your points so we see what you’re saying. Make each anecdote come alive by acting out the back-and-forth dialogue so we feel as if we’re a fly on that wall. This is guaranteed to make you one of a kind because no one can duplicate your life.

My client asked, “Why is dialogue so important?”

If you simply explain something that happened to you, it holds little or no interest for listeners because it’s all about you. Or, as Bette Midler said in the movie Beaches, “Enough about me. What do you think about me?”

The second you re-enact what people said in that situation, it is no longer something that happened solely to you in your past; audience members are experiencing this as if it’s happening right now. They feel like they’re part of the conversation.

Tell and show

A colleague, Nisha Money, is a medical doctor from India who is licensed in yoga and acupuncture. She is also a military officer stationed at the Pentagon who reports to the Surgeon General because she’s in charge of fitness for the Air Force.

That’s remarkable, but that’s not the story. The story is that Nisha and her friend had the opportunity to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Instead of just telling us it was a memorable experience (yawn), Nisha puts us on Washington, DC’s “mall” (the grassy area in front of the Capitol bordered by the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Institute).

As Nisha tells it, “It was already so crowded by the time we arrived at 6 a.m., we knew there was no way we could spread out the blanket we’d brought and ‘picnic’ while waiting for the ceremonies. My friend spied a tree a few hundred yards away and said, ‘Let’s claim that tree. At least, we’ll have something to lean up against for the next seven hours.’”

“So, that’s what we did. Surrounded by more than a million people, we danced in place, talked with strangers and reveled in this historic day. We were so far away, we couldn’t actually see the Capitol steps; all we could see was the huge IMAG screen. The thing was, we were behind this tree so we couldn’t see the whole screen, so we watched the entire ceremony, from Aretha Franklin singing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ to Obama taking the Oath of Office—half tree, half screen.”

I told my client, “See how interesting that story is with the dialogue and visual detail of that tree? For me, it makes Nisha’s example iconic because it’s her unique experience, but through her, we feel as if we were there.”

Ask everyday people what they think

Create a quiz and interview everyone you meet to get never-would-have-thought-of-that insights that add variety to your topic. Ask taxi drivers how they deal with difficult customers. Ask Little League coaches how they get the best from their team. Ask waitresses how they keep their cool under fire. This adds breadth to your talk instead of simply sharing one perspective—your own.

Top ten lists

Take a tip from David Letterman. People love lists. Do you speak on leadership? Create an annual Leadership Hall of Fame. Run a contest and invite nominations on your website and social media pages. Ask audience members to share their recommendations to make your presentation interactive. A bonus is that Top Ten Lists draw media attention because journalists are always looking for the next new thing.

Engage with mystery

I’ll always remember Elmore Leonard telling Maui Writers Conference attendees, “Page-turners are intentional, not accidental.” There is an art and science to using suspense to keep people on the edge of their seats. However, as Dylan Thomas said, “The secret to being a bore is to tell everything.” So, instead of telling everything, I’m going to practice what I teach. If you want to know more ways to engage audience members with creative, can’t-wait-to-hear-what’s-next content, send an email to with “Edge-of-Seat- Speaker” in the subject heading. You will receive three more ways to capture and keep the favorable interest of audiences and readers.

My client is well on his way to becoming an in-demand resource on the topic of innovation because audiences, media and meeting planners know they can count on him to share original insights. You, too, can catapult your success; just commit to C.R.E.A.T.E. your own content.


Sam Horn

Sam Horn

Sam Horn, author of POP!, believes speakers and authors have a responsibility to C.R.E.A.T.E. their own content. Through her presentations (a top-rated speaker at Inc. 500/5000), consulting and workshops at Washington, DC’s National Press Club, she has helped thousands develop one-of-a-kind material on the page, stage and online, and welcomes the opportunity to help you do the same.
Sam Horn
Sam Horn
Sam Horn
Sam Horn

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