Authenticity is Invaluable; Originality is Non-Existent

This headline (thought-provoking, isn’t it?) is a quote from Jim Jarmusch, the director of such cultish films as “Only Lovers Left Alive” (about vampires), “Paterson” (about poetry), and “Coffee and Cigarettes” (about coffee and cigarettes). Jarmusch’ s more complete quote is, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it.”

Jarmusch, of course, was talking about making movies. So, what has this to do with creating thought leadership content?

A lot, I think.

Very often writers are so concerned with saying something earth-shatteringly original that they forget to be authentic: to base their assertions on things that are real, and with which they have valid experience. The mistakes we commonly see authors make who forget this are to:

  • Speculate about a future several years away: One author, writing about the future of business process outsourcing, and striving to be original, predicted the emergence of a new class of outsourcers; vendors that could take on the whole range of support functions for a company, from purchasing to insurance, and at rock-bottom prices reflecting the volume of services. But there was no evidence to support her assertion, and it ended up on the editor’s floor.
  • Claim as new something that isn’t: Another thought leader, also writing about outsourcing, once proposed that vendors would soon deploy IT solutions to help their corporate clients streamline their operations. Since he had no examples, we found a few for him in the public domain. Some were as many as 10 years old. Since the real examples undercut the assertion that the trend was new, that one also was cut from the final article.
  • Dress up the banal with hyperbole: One piece I edited recently (disguised here to protect the author) concluded with this paragraph: “IoT will be the primary driver of value in the information age, generating massive flows of data and uncovering amazing new insights that will define world-class companies.” However, there was no evidence in the article to support this breathless conclusion.

Any of these devices, if they survive to final copy, will make readers uncomfortable. Managers are looking for ways to solve pressing business problems, whether (for instance) squeezing a bit more productivity from their manufacturing process or mitigating cyber risk. So, they need recommendations they can be confident will work. They need authentic new solutions, not made-up ones, or old ones dressed up as new.

A director of finance performance systems once told us he had been impressed by an article from a major consulting firm about reorganizing the finance function. But then he looked at the authors’ profiles. “I’ll be blunt,” he told us. “They were both 32. They’d been working for about three years. It was a very smart, very intelligent, very well-written article, but it hadn’t been tested by fire. If I had tried to do that in an organization, I’d have been killed.”

To reassure readers that his prescriptions work, a thought leader must talk about things that have already been done, or at least are being done and are showing benefits. He must take his examples from things his clients or others are doing and, as Jarmush advises, celebrate his thievery by citing the protagonists (anonymized, if modesty or policy so dictate). In other words, he doesn’t have to dazzle with originality, but he does have to show that his advice works, that it is authentic, and so is he.

That may sound less exciting that speculating about incredible things to come. But as Jean-Luc Godard, another film director once said, “It’s not where you take things from [that matters] – it’s where you take them to."

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