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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 Share on X

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