Content comes second to delivery? On books … and bodies

Image of a wrapped birthday present.Last week I used a throwaway line in my post. I said, ‘content may come second to delivery’. This concept was fresh in my mind because of a talk I recently attended.

It was a Powerhouse event in Zurich, where Daniela Sfameni (HR executive at UBS in Zurich) spoke about Navigating Organizational Politics: Playing Your Own Game. One point she made was in relation to the delivery (public presentation) of content. Your content, she said, is second to its delivery.

She gave an example of a woman who spoke in front of a room full of suits, and who ‘lost’ her (mostly male) audience because she became anxious. She rushed, her voice went up in pitch, she wasn’t able to stop to consider her message. As a result, the audience became twitchy, they sensed her anxiety, and all the hours of preparation and careful content-writing went down the gurgler.

As someone who is very keen on content, all I could think was, “That’s not fair! The ideas should stand alone.”


But it made me think about other kinds of content – the kinds I deal with – and I couldn’t help but come to the same conclusion: if someone hands me a manuscript for proofreading and it doesn’t conform to the standards I expect (12-point, double spaced, polished prose that’s ready for a final read), I spit the dummy. Send it back.

So yes, the same rules apply: when we write fiction, we get an editor to proofread it. We get a design ninja to make it look beautiful. We do everything we can to make it shine. As JD Smith (design ninja) said in her presentation at January’s Indie Publishing Event in Zurich, “A book cover is a promise.” It’s the first thing we notice. It has to be good.


We are visual creatures, those of us who are lucky enough to be able to see. We judge books by their covers. First impressions count. (Ripping out the clichés here, all in a good cause.) Which is fine; we all accept that the only things we have to go on when we encounter a stranger are our senses. Do they stink? Are their shoes worn? Is their bag expensive? So of course we trust our senses to pick up signifiers, as well as to perhaps subconsciously assess if that person fits some stereotype of ‘beautiful’ or not.

Picture of Playmobile dude
“Welcome, and enjoy your stay on this planet.”

As a teenager I occasionally got mad at the world. One time, I was mad at my long, blonde hair in particular for being a Redneck-, Lecher-, Boof-head-Magnet whenever I went out with my friends. I didn’t want that kind of male attention, so a friend and I chopped it off. I was left alone at the bar after that.

Another time, I was mad at the world for expecting smooth-skinned legs on every woman. So I grew my leg-hairs and dyed them orange. (Epic fail. Not advisable unless you want to look like an albino tarantula gone wrong.)

But my reasoning was exactly the same: “Content,” I wept, “should stand alone.” In this case, I wanted people to notice me: the person inside the body I happened to be allotted for the duration of my stay on this planet.

Gender performance

There’s plenty of juicy feminist writing about how western culture objectifies women in a way that would never be applied to men. Twenty (ahem) years ago, when I was reading cultural studies at university, I was sure that the writings of Judith Butler and Sheila Jeffreys on gender performance, and Laura Mulvey on the male gaze, for example, were going to change this. I was excited, because it all seemed so logical, and couldn’t everyone see this?

Well, no.

See, it doesn’t work like that out on the planet surface. Out there, everyone is doing their darndest to fit in and propagate the species. Unless you’re from Planet Beautiful, in which case you might be harnessing your assets for Good or Evil. (Not going to go down that track. I might have to start writing a sci-fi, and then I’d never finish this post.)

And back to signifiers

Kids with caps onTeens are acutely aware that the primary input we get as humans is visual. They also want to be noticed and loved for being themselves. Which is why minutiae count. One back-pack might signify ‘sporty gal’, whereas a slightly different one (read: exactly the same to the adult eye) might signify ‘feral outdoor gal’.

Alright, I’m being a bit dramatic here, but the point is that at an early age we become very good at giving visual clues as to what lies beyond the first impression (ie. hot or not?) … precisely because we only have a very short time in which to make that impression. (And I’ve noticed the drive to exhibit these ‘clues’ seems to fade as we age and settle into our respective space colonies.)

All hail the fiction writer

Writers in particular are good at this stuff. We could be intergalactic spies. Partly because we spend inordinate amounts of time studying and building characters, but partly because our mantra is ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t join the dots for your reader. Give them signifiers. Give them an arrangement of information bytes. Give them action, but don’t tell them why. Let them work it out. And then let the ‘why’ be the Aha! moment.

And so we study character, we observe actions, and we observe backpacks and shoes and gender performance. And we write and we write and we re-write and re-write. And hope like crazy that someone looks at the cover of our book and wants to read the first page.

PS. Hmm. Did I just write a sci-fi?

PPS. I still didn’t get to disposable literature. I’ll get there. I promise.


  1. Thanks for “liking” my Tsiolkas post. Love your blog … Love what you say here about content, about blond hair and shaved legs and arms. I’ve spent the majority of my life not shaving in order to make a point that shaving is, really, infantilising women. We want women to look like hair-free children. That’s a worry. We also want women to spend time and money on shaving, waxing, whatever, on colouring hair, etc, rather than on reading, seeing plays, going to galleries. That’s a worry. Enough rant … Let me just say, I’ll be back.

    1. Agreed! Wasn’t sure how the leg-hair anecdote was going to go down, but I’m glad to hear it struck a chord.
      (I very much enjoy getting your posts in my inbox too, by the way.)

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