What A Fool Taught Me About Content

By Ivan Meakins 

The other day I was taken to see a new production of the Shakespeare play As you Like it.

It was a charming play, and I left feeling rejuvenated in some way. Like the world was all of a sudden a better place for the happy union of lovers in the fictional forest of Arden.

But there was one thing I kept coming back to in my mind.

It wasn’t the performance of the protagonists or the complex love triangle that was developing that tugged at me. 

The “Material Fool”

It was the character Touchstone, the “material fool”. 

Throughout the play, Touchstone pranced around on stage, looking the part. But buried beneath the motley, silly prancing and jingling of bells, was real wisdom. An understanding of the world as the other characters did not see it. 

It perhaps summed up best in the lines:

The more pity, that fools may not speak wisely what wise
men do foolishly.

It’s clear this figure of comic relief is more than just a respite from the trials of everyday people. Under the comedic surface, there lay something deeper, more meaningful.

What is interesting is that this paradox of the wise fool is a common theme in storytelling and, as we will learn, it can be used to great effect in marketing too.

Often the fool is more than meets the eye

The fool seems to possess a kind of omniscience that other characters do not, with one foot immersed in the world of the author, the other breaking the veil – almost reaching out from the story to teach us something. 

In the play King Lear, for example, the fool is able to comment on things other characters cannot; he both protects the king and openly mocks him. He possesses an understanding of events that no one else in the play does, a mysterious knowledge of things to come as he warns the king not to trust his treacherous daughters, Goneril and Regan.

He’s mad that trusts in the tameness of a wolf, a horse’s health, a boy’s love, or a whore’s oath.

So why does Shakespeare use a fool to do this? Why not a protagonist to dispense wisdom? Or perhaps a classic guide like in a typical hero’s journey story?

A perfect vehicle to learn from

I’m sure more scholarly folk than myself can offer a more academic answer to this question but I think the unassuming nature of a fool acts as the perfect vehicle for an audience to accept hard truths about their own lives.

This content is not forced on us by the fool; we aren’t made to feel like we are being lectured on morality or given a drab monologue about our failures.

The fool is able to dispense this wisdom by mocking the other characters of the play under the guise of jest, which we are only too glad to receive with a chuckle, and then ponder on later.

It’s the literary form of the sugar-coated pill. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. 

Shakespeare and marketing: where two worlds collide

What I find fascinating is how this very same tactic is used in marketing time and time again. First, great content creators draw you in with a great lead, hook, and headline, and then, only once you are sitting comfortably, they do their work. 

A great example of this is the phenomenal marketing campaign laid on by Google in 2010 entitled Parisian Love which chronicles the heartwarming story of a couple who fall in love through the Google search bar.

It’s a simple, romantic story which is impossible not to get drawn into. We are charmed by the narrative without even realising it’s an Ad for Google until the end. 

Or what about the famous 1984 Super Bowl commercial “Think Different. The guise? A harrowing dystopian world like something straight from the pen of George Orwell (timely, given the year of release). Mindless monochrome drones are being lectured by a digital tyrant, before being liberated by a beautiful woman – an enthralling setting for sure!

Did Apple care about selling a list of features for the new Macintosh? Nope. They used a story to teach us how important it is to “Think Different”. 

They cloaked their product in a cape of dystopian motley, and oh boy, did it work. 

So, how can we take a leaf from the great Bard’s pages, and channel a Touchstone of our own in the content we create? How can we dazzle, delight, amuse or surprise our audience into absorbing the lessons we want to teach?

Let me be clear here: I am not proposing we trick people into reading our lousy content or create trashy clickbait articles … so make sure you have something useful to offer at the end of the day, not just bells and whistles. That is all I ask. 

Funny chemistry at work

Content creators can harness the impact of Shakespeare’s fool in a number of different ways, and it all starts with what goes on in our brain when we encounter something “funny”.

The human brain hasn’t changed all that much since its last iteration some 200,000 years ago. 

For millennia, we have been wired to assume a state of high alert whenever our brains encounter something out of place.

Angus Fletcher, in his excellent book Wonderworks sums it up perfectly:

To our brain, an object can stick out in two different ways. First, the object can be a familiar thing that sticks out in a strange environment. Second, the object can be the opposite: a strange thing that sticks out in a familiar environment.

When something is out of place and appears odd, our brains kick into action, driving our attention towards the object to assess if it’s genuinely a threat. If so, it triggers a flight response, but if we find there is no danger, we can find amusement in it.

That’s why cheap horror flicks can cause waves of roaring laughter in an audience.

If we can tap into this concept, and create hooks in our content that stick out against the norm, we can replicate the awe felt when watching a Shakespearean fool do his thing.

Square pegs into round holes

Indeed, many of the greatest stories you know of use this technique to craft engaging tales:

  • Boy from 1986 time travels back to the 1950s, and runs into teenage versions of his parents … (familiar into the strange)

  • Arthur Philip Dent is a normal run of the mill Brit, until he gets abducted by aliens and begins an adventure around the galaxy (familiar into the strange)

  • An alien crashlands in Tujunga, LA and sparks a close friendship with a young boy … (strange into the familiar)

  • A team of archaeologists uncover a secret book that awakens a 3000 year old mummy from his resting place who runs amok in 19th century Egypt (and later London) … (strange into the familiar)

How many of those sounded familiar to you? Well, the list goes on and on.

Being able to hook your message in something odd, unusual or “funny” can be the key that helps you successfully deliver your valuable message to the world. 

Here’s how this technique may look in a business context:

  • Man loses 111kg in 11 months from a diet of Subway sandwiches. 

Fast food doesn’t belong in the world of weight loss! Or does it? This is the true story of Subway’s greatest poster boy Jared Fogle (before he was arrested in 2015).

Here’s another example:

  • Fisher Pens are the most advanced writing instrument in the world – built with NASA-grade technology and can even be used in outer space!

Do you NEED a pen that can write in zero gravity? NOPE! But I bet you want one now. This is a fantastic way to take something ordinary (a pen) and throw it into an unfamiliar world (outer space).

Building a high-arousal world for your audience

Ultimately, what we are aiming for is to create an environment where your audience finds themselves in high-arousal states. 

What I mean by this is feelings of energy for pleasurable states (e.g. excitement), or tension for unpleasant states (e.g. fear). These can be distinguished from low-arousal states such as calmness and depression, which we don’t want to channel in our audiences, ever. 

When we are in these states of high arousal, the emotional side of the brain kicks in and drives us to action – sometimes without even considering the logic of our decisions.

Some examples of high-arousal states would be:

Anger: one of the favourite weapons of choice used by certain politicians and activists throughout history. 

If you can blame a common enemy for your audience’s problems, and direct their anger towards it, people will be far more open to hearing what your solution is – at times with horrifying consequences. 

Joy: Making people feel elated, or joyful is a great vehicle for delivering your message. Watch that example of Google’s Parisian Love and you will know what I mean. Or, just wait for Christmas to come around with the inevitable John Lewis adverts.

Curiosity: This is a big one to get people chomping at the bit to hear what you have to say. If you can lay out a real mystery, or unearth some hidden secret, you are going to have them following your trail like a couple of German kids in an enchanted forest. 

I actually wrote an entire blog on curiosity in content, last year which you can check out here (teaser alert: it’s got a great story about potatoes in it). 

Shock: A personal favourite of magicians, YouTubers and late-night TV salesmen alike. My favourite example of this is the brilliant, and shockingly successful Will it blend? YouTube show from Blendtec. The host, an awkward-looking middle-aged American dude, literally puts anything into his range of blenders: iPads, phones, batteries, lighters, and all manner of random items have fallen victim to the awesome power of Blendtec.

Consider the fool and be wise!

High-arousal states like this are the modern version of Shakespeare’s fool. It’s a sneak attack on our senses; it disarms us and lets our guard down, and only after we have smiled, chuckled or gasped along with the fool’s jibes, jests and jokes, do we begin to ponder the deeper meaning of his words.

Rather than sell sell sell to audiences (ABC is actual BS), or bore them with to-do lists or reasons why they need to change, content creators may benefit from learning from the material fool. 

Don’t try too hard to convince people to change; instead, think of ways to delight, woo, enflame, or shock your audience’s senses. If you can, your content will be unique, engaging, and – most importantly – remembered long enough for people to take action.

As the great sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov once said:

‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.’

Curious about how to craft engaging content that sparks a reaction in your audience? Book a clarity call with us today to get some pointers.  

This article was lovingly crafted by Ivan Meakins, Head of Content at Write Business Results. 

So next time you pen your next piece of content, be wise and consider the fool.

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