By Marcia Riefer Johnston published January 25, 2016

Liven Up Old-Hat Content: 4 Ways to Find a New Twist


Barbara’s small audience had heard it all before. Her message was the epitome of ho-hum. Bo-ring. I’m talking boy-do-my-cuticles-need-a-trim boring.

Except that it wasn’t. Coming from her, that same-old-same-old content, typically delivered as a mindless spiel, had us all looking straight at her.

Barbara is a flight attendant. She was talking to the group of us sitting in the emergency-exit row. She had just invited us to review the emergency-exit card. Sure. As soon as I finish messing with this hangnail.

“See that thing that looks like a tornado? That’s smoke.” (Wait. Smoke that looks like a tornado? I reached for the card.)

“What would you do if smoke were coming in through both of these doors?” (What would I do? What would you do?)

“Your brain would tell you to make for the same door you came in, up front.” (Ha! She’s right. What should my brain do instead?)

“Remember, there’s a door in the back of the plane, too.” (This plane has a back door! What a revelation!)

I mean, I knew about the back door. I had seen many a flight attendant mechanically indicate its location. But no one had ever warned me that my fight-or-flight brain would forget about that door’s existence.

By giving us, her fellow travelers, a fresh, thoughtful, human-to-human take on some obvious facts, Barbara had taken her topic from boring to interesting.

What wouldn’t a marketer give to pull off this trick day after day? Here are a few lessons that marketers can learn from Barbara. Well, not learn, exactly. You already know these things. That fact brings me to the first lesson …

Revisit your core messages – with a twist

Information doesn’t have to be new to be interesting. We all need reminders of important messages – even (maybe especially) when we’ve heard them before. No worthwhile information is too familiar to revisit.

To liven up a bit of old-hat content, think of it as having two parts:

  • The topic (X)
  • What’s interesting about that topic (Y)

When Barbara talked about emergency-exit instructions (her X), she described the plane filling with smoke and noted that, in such a situation, our brains might forget about the back door (her Y).

In her book Out on the Wire, Jessica Abel says that a good story needs both X and Y. She calls this combination the XY story formula. Hat tip to Michele Linn for pointing out this passage:

The topic is just part of the story idea, it’s the first half of the XY story formula. ‘I’m doing a story about X.’ X can be a person, an event, or even an idea. But if you haven’t got a Y, a pretty engaging, surprising Y, you never leave topic-land and arrive at a story. Work out a good Y, and you’ll identify your hook and you’ll have your story.

Liven up old-hat content by looking for a new twist. @MarciaRJohnston #contentmarketing Click To Tweet

Anyone can repeat an old X. The effective communicator brings out the Y.

What core Xes of yours are worth revisiting? What Ys might you bring out?

Explore your old content for inspiration

Sources of compelling new content may be hiding in plain sight in the form of old content. Barbara had apparently studied the emergency-exit instructions and considered ways to engage a disengaged audience.

What are your organization’s equivalents of emergency-exit cards – core, classic content that people tune out? What details could you bring back to fascinating life? What is the back door of your plane?

TIP: You can mine Google Analytics to answer questions such as these:

  • What are people looking for on our site?
  • Which of our blog posts are most engaging to visitors?


Barbara took enough interest herself in this boring content to figure out an approach that piqued our interest.

To get attention, pay attention

Many flight attendants accept being ignored as part of the job. When they speak, they look at the walls of the plane and talk like robots.

Barbara looks into people’s faces. She knows who is paying attention and what prompts people to do what she wants them to do (reach for that card, look back at her). People reward her with attention because she pays attention to them.

On an effective scale of robot to Barbara,

  • How much attention do you pay your audiences?
  • How might you use analytics data to gain more useful insights into your website visitors?
  • How could you listen more effectively to what people say about your organization on social media?
  • How could you take fuller advantage of in-person events to look into the eyes of your customers?

Ask questions

Barbara could have simply told us what to do if we saw smoke at both emergency doors. Instead, she asked us, “What would you do if smoke were coming in through both of these doors?” Her question nudged us to confront our uncertainty. It made us curious. It got us thinking, not to mention feeling.

An apt question transforms non-listeners into listeners who just might become remember-ers. Doers.

How might you use questions more effectively in your content? (You see what I did there.)


No content is inherently boring. If you have something useful to say, don’t be afraid to say it over and over, keeping in mind these ordinary truths demonstrated by an out-of-the-ordinary flight attendant:

  • Revisit your core messages – with a twist.
  • Explore your old content for inspiration.
  • To get attention, pay attention.
  • Ask questions.

As I was wrapping up this article, I came across a mock airline safety card that had been packaged with a set of DVDs of the award-winning TV series Lost. I could practically feel the universe tapping me on the shoulder. Boring? You call these cards boring?


How about it? Do you have an idea for how to rejuvenate some old familiar content of your own? Tap into your inner Barbara and share your idea as only you can – the X and the Y of it. I bet that we, your fellow passengers, will find it interesting.

Want to learn more about how to create the Ys for successful content marketing? Join thousands of your fellow professionals and hundreds of experts at Content Marketing World, Sept. 6-9. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

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  • heidicohen


    Great article to light a fire under marketers, We have a responsibility to get our audience to stop and pay attention.

    I’ve been a proponent of applying content marketing skills to ALL of your company information and communications. It helps increase your budget and gets people to read it. (For example, how many people read the HR manual except to check their vacation days???)

    BTW–Air New Zealand had a break through in-flight audio to get people viewing.

    Happy marketing,

    Heidi Cohen
    Actionable Marketing Guide

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Heidi, Thanks for taking time to comment. I’m glad that you found some value here. Can you point to any write-ups on the Air New Zealand breakthrough? Sounds intriguing.

  • Sherri Henkin

    I can use these tips when I interview subject matter experts. Sometimes the interviewees also respond more completely to creative scenarios! Thank you for a great article!

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Sherri, I’m happy that you found this piece helpful. I never thought of applying this approach to interviewing people. Thanks for the idea. If you do something like this in your next interview, come back and let us know what you did and how it went.

      • Sherri Henkin

        Marcia, I used a form of this technique yesterday, after this post. I emailed friends to discover tourist activities in Los Angeles. I asked, “When you have visitors who don’t know LA, what do you suggest they see?​” By making the question personal, folks responded with creative suggestions.

        • Marcia Riefer Johnston

          Sherri, Perfect example. Thanks. Questions do open things up. Simple, powerful, obvious—but I forget to do this. Made a point to include a question in a recent email to my daughter and realized, “Hey, my mom does this all the time.” It’s no surprise that people like to be around my mom. She’d be a magnetic content marketer.

  • Nikolay Stoyanov

    Like Heidi, I completely agree that getting attention is an important part of our job. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given that we are swarmed with information and only superb content can get the needed exposure. In fact, companies usually lose their ground precisely because they do not have a proper channel to their audience. As marketers, we often think that we know what is the best solution for our visitors/clients. Nice article Marcia!

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Thanks, Nikolay. What’s your favorite technique for getting your audience’s attention?

      • Nikolay Stoyanov

        Hey, Marcia. You’re welcome! I try to implement social triggers in my content. Have you heard of them before? Work really great for keeping your audience’s attention.

        • Marcia Riefer Johnston

          Nickolay, what kind of social triggers have worked for you?

          • Nikolay Stoyanov

            Marcia, I am happy that you asked :) Mostly I rely on the following 3: utility (very useful and practically oriented content), content length (1000+ words of content, the more the merrier) and Memory Glue (use branded strategies or infographics). How about you?

          • Marcia Riefer Johnston

            Nikolay, I like that term “memory glue.” Thanks for the examples.

          • Nikolay Stoyanov

            My pleasure, Marcia :) Yes, this is powerful stuff. Let me know if you need more of these. Cheers!