5. Content Dictates Form
Jen explains to Pete what she means when she says "content dictates form" .
Peter: Hey Jen.
Jen: Hey Peter.
Peter: So I need to pick your brain about something that you have spoken to me about a few times, but for the wonderful people listening, they need to hear you talk about this idea of content dictating form. You've said those three words to me so many times. I kind of understand it, but I want to hear you talk about it one more time, so if it's okay with you, I would like to unpack that.
Jen: Can't wait. This is The Long and The Short Of It.
Peter: So talk to me, Jen. What does it mean when you say to me, "But Petah," - but you actually sound like this - "but Peter, content dictates form." What does that mean?
Jen: Okay. I got to give a little context first.
Peter: Please do.
Jen: Arguably the greatest composer and lyricist in the history of the American musical theater is a chap named Stephen Sondheim, and I only say arguably because it would have been in-arguably before Lin Manuel Miranda came on the scene, but I think they are both vying for - maybe they can share the title of greatest lyricists of all time. In any case, Stephen Sondheim has several rules for writing - one is: less is more, two: God is in the details, and three: content dictates form. And all three of those rules are in service of one thing: clarity. These are the rules that he adheres to in order to output his extraordinary, genius work. And for any of our listeners who are musical theatre fans, they'll know what I'm talking about. So Sondheim has this unbelievable ability to take what's happening in the scene, the emotional content, the time, the place, the levels of tension, how quickly or slowly the characters are thinking, how much passion is between people or how much passion isn't between people, and take all that information, all of that content, and then the container that he puts it in (the song), the way the song is shaped is specifically built for the content. So let me put this in this sort of backwards way: one way to guarantee that you're not going to write your best song is to have someone say, "I need you to write me a song and it needs to go: verse, verse, chorus, verse, and I want it to be in A flat minor and I really want the high note to be this and this line has to be in it." That's not the best way to do the work because that is the form dictating the content. You're being handed what it's supposed to look like and then you've got to fill it up.
Jen: So I had an epiphany about my own work in the last year, which was that the times during which I was aware that I was less than my best, I've been able to pinpoint that the reason I was less than my best was because I was allowing form to dictate content rather than content dictating form. As a creative person, I've got ideas all the time, and those ideas can turn into any number of things. Some of those things might include forms that have existed before, and some of those things might be new forms that I invent, but when I sit down to do creative work and I say to myself, for example - because you, you have witnessed this particular experience with me - "I need to write a sixty-minute keynote," and then I create content so that I hit the sixty-minute mark, that is not my best work. But when I sit down and ask myself, "What do I have to say? What's important to me? What is this really about? What am I hoping people receive from this message?" and I figured out what the content is, then I can ask myself, "What would be the best way to deliver this content so that people receive it? Oh, maybe it's a keynote, maybe it's a workshop, maybe it's a blog post, maybe it's a video post." Now the form is actually serving the content, which ultimately serves the audience because it is all in service of this one thing: clarity.
Peter: You are an absolute genius. My mind is just exploded like five times over here, and it makes me think of so many examples in my own work, but in some of my clients work as a coach where people will get stuck because they've let form dictate the content. So I've had countless conversations with people where it's along the lines of, "Well I have to - I really want to start a blog, but I don't really know how to start a blog, and I didn't really know what I want to write, but I think it's sort of me discussing a topic and unpacking an idea." And they're really fixated on this idea that has to be a blog - and you can apply this to any medium - but once you start to bust open up frame of, "Does it have to be a blog? What would it look like if it was a video? What would it look like if it was a podcast? What would it look like if it was a book? What would it look like if it was a short film?" any number of other mediums, that can come later. The most important thing, I think, like you said, if I'm hearing you correctly, is to just get the content out there in whatever way suits you at that particular moment. Then you can reflect on that and figure out what is the ideal form for this content. Is that sort of what you're saying?
Jen: That is exactly what I'm saying, Mr Shepherd.
Peter: I passed the test!
Jen: Okay, now let's take this a step further, shall we?
Jen: Let's apply this rule of "content dictates form" to life - to your life or my life or someone's life. I'll choose the life of a hypothetical actor, who, let's say, comes to me and says, "I want to be a lead in a Broadway show." And I say, "Well, which show?" "I don't know. I just need to be a lead in a Broadway show." So now we've got form coming first, right? So let's say we talk this actor through a series of questions, perhaps: "Who's it for? What's it for?" We dig deep. We find their "why," and now when this person talks, they talk about the change they're looking to make in the world. "Well, what I'm really looking to do is to help people who feel unseen find a way to feel seen," or, "What I'm looking to do is create an environment where everyone knows that they truly belong, and they always feel safe." That's the content. So then when I say, "So what do you want to do?" they go, "I'm not so sure if it's Broadway anymore." Now I said "hypothetical actor," but the truth is I've had this exact conversation with several dozen people probably in the last six months.
Peter: Yeah, I feel like I've had this conversation with quite a few people as well. Some of them will come to me and say, "I really want to be promoted in this company that I'm working with. I really want to be the CEO, I really want to be the COO," or, you know, "I've been the CFO for the last five years and I think it's my time to be the CEO." And that is - I haven't thought about it like this - but that is, like you said, that's form dictating content. And often when we unpack that - because I think part of the reason you and I get along so well is we have similar approaches in the way that we coach people - and so by digging to these particular people and asking them a lot of questions: "Who's it for?" "What's it for?" And one of my favorites, "If I gave you ten million dollars, what would you do with your time? Would you focus on being the CEO of this company?" And so often the story that they have about money, this idea that they have about status, this form dictating their content, is a trap. And they'll say, "Oh, if I had ten million dollars, I'd actually - I'd start my own not for profit." Or, "If I had ten million dollars, I've got this little side business that I've been thinking about since I was a kid - I'd love to do that." And all of a sudden they start to realize - as you said, they feel seen, they feel heard - and they start to realize, "Oh, maybe that's not the thing that I want to do. Maybe I don't really want to be the CEO anymore," which can be quite jarring as well, which is probably a whole separate conversation.
Jen: Indeed. So, I'm reflecting right now on my own career path, and I feel like kind of unpacking it, because I was super fortunate to get to sort of check off some of those milestones really early in my career - made my Broadway debut and I was twenty-two, I think. So I got to check that off, and so I didn't spend that many years sort of obsessing over that kind of a milestone, but I do remember five years after that particular milestone feeling very lost, kind of at sea. I was about your age, so you're doing so much better than I was at your age. I was very antsy. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, didn't really have a sense of direction. And then when the coaching started - which, that's a whole other episode to kind of unpack how to just say "yes, and..." - once the coaching started, I really started recognizing that there was a bigger calling; that I was meant to do something more than I had been doing. And at that point, since I was still an actor at that point, acting was like one of the components of this bigger picture that I couldn't fully visualize yet. But as I started working with more and more people and generating more creative output and recognizing that everything I was doing had an impact, whether I wanted it to or not (so maybe I should pay more attention to what the impact would be), the content really started shifting and becoming a much more purpose-driven, outward-facing, let me expand my thinking, let me be more inclusive, make sure all people are being called to the table, how far can I reach, how many people can I help? And the idea of service really became the content. And as a result, the form has been in a constant state of shape-shifting. And I love that part. I love that - I was saying to someone yesterday, "I literally could not tell you one year from today, anything that will be going on in my life. I have no idea what we'll be doing a year from today." And I love that. I do know that it will be in service of people, and will be in pursuit of helping people to express themselves in some way, but I have no idea what form it's going to take.
Peter: I'm smiling - beaming, in fact - over here, because we say this a lot, but sometimes I just feel like you and I are the same person, Jen. That whole story about having some success at a young age, getting to a point where you were like, "But what else? I'm a bit lost. What else is there? This doesn't feel right." That was me eighteen months ago, two years ago even. And you said you were roundabout the same age, which is crazy because I, I felt, I just - everything that you said resonated, and ultimately where I got to, and where I am now is the same kind of lens that you just described, which is helping other people, so in service to other people as a coach, as a podcaster, as a writer, you know, all these things that we do are in pursuit of a broader form, I guess, which is, you know, you call it "the why statement," call it your broader vision or purpose or whatever. To go back to your point, it's not that I seek to be a podcaster, and so I'm podcaster forever. It's not that I seek to write a blog, and so I write a blog forever. It's that actually whatever the form is, it doesn't really matter as long as it's in service of the content. The content is the more important thing, the why statement, whatever that means, whatever that is. So I just think this is a very long-winded way of me saying we are the same person.
Jen: And that is The Long and The Short Of It.