Nowadays you can’t swing a cat without running into the words web content, social media content, email content, blog content, content is king, content marketing, and on and on. As a language nut, I have become increasingly curious about when and how the word “content” came to mean what it means today.
It took a very deep dive into an Oxford English dictionary to find a definition that fit today’s usage: “information made available by a website or other electronic medium.” Yep. That’s it.
But what about all the definitions that came before it?
Ah, The Content’ We Never Knew!
The first definitions came from the Old French for the adjective, con-tent’ – as in “I am content’ with that decision.” In other words, I am satisfied.
Much later we see the evolution of the Late Middle English noun con’tents – which originally meant “things contained.” For example, “The murderer poisoned the contents of the flask.” Ouch. OR contents could be used for a “Table of Contents,” meaning “All the stuff that’s in this book.”
It is only when we get to “things contained” that it becomes possible to segue to the “information made available…” definition.
Why Does Any of This Old Stuff Matter?
When I look at articles that are frantically concerned about consistent messaging and messaging silos and chatbots, I wonder if it would help to know that the word “content” once meant satisfying? What if we were in the business of providing content that is satisfying to the reader. Not necessarily a “Call to Action” for us – but satisfying to the reader. However counterintuitive that may seem, satisfaction is built into the word. And maybe we can have both.
Organizations that know their audience will be able to create content that is truly of interest to them – and satisfying; on the other hand, “buckshot content marketing” is unlikely to be satisfying to the writer or the reader.
There are some simple ways to make even complex writing more satisfying and easier on the reader. For example:
Chunking information into manageable bites. There’s a big difference between satisfaction and indigestion.
Readability is part of reader satisfaction. That can include anything from the use of shorter sentences to avoiding jargon, acronyms, and “insider” language. Make complex points clear and simple wherever possible.
Be a GPS. Leading the way is part of reader satisfaction. If you stay focused and “on message,” use transition words to connect ideas, use images to illustrate whenever you can, you’ll be a reader’s GPS, helping them get where they’re going – and where you want them to go.
Know Your Audience and write accordingly. The tone you strike should be appropriate for the audience. You don’t have to be stuffy, but “Hey Dude” rarely strikes the right note (though I have rewritten articles for people who did exactly that, so you know I am not kidding).
Use humor if appropriate. This also depends on your audience, but sometimes humor, especially self-deprecating humor, is rather – well – satisfying. I am laughing at myself for being a grammar nut, word nut, dictionary nut, and language nut, so it’s ok to laugh. I’m used to it!!
Satisfy Your Audience!
Next time you sit down to write content, I hope you will take a moment to remember where that word came from. You may be satisfying a reader’s desire for information or for opportunity or for new connections. But whatever it is, satisfy your audience and you’ll knock their socks off! If you’d like some help, let me know! I love writing content that satisfies.