Is My Sister Smarter Than A Monkey?

Science. The bedrock upon which our nation was built. The foundation of our society and engine of our progress. The framework of knowledge, without which, we would be no different than the beasts who roam the Earth and howl in the dead of night.

I am referring, of course, to the annual Second Grade Science Fair, held just a few weeks ago, at the prestigious Elmwood Elementary School, right here in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.

Tomorrow’s greatest scientific minds were represented, their work proudly displayed:

Pete, who posed the timeless question, “Which Cheese Grows Mold the Fastest?”

Christine, who had the courage to take on big business, with her look at “Which Brand of Soap is the Sudsiest?”

And my own son, Jonathan, who sent shockwaves throughout the transportation industry, with his investigation, “How Many Pennies Can a Paper Boat Hold?” (We couldn’t have been more proud.)

And yet, despite all the smiling children, pretty pictures and fancy graphs (some of which were quite obviously created by middle-aged second graders stuck in a staff meeting somewhere), a crowd gathered around one particular display; Matt’s project: “Is My Sister Smarter Than a Monkey?”

Here’s what he did. Matt catalogued the skills of a typical two year old Capuchin Monkey (playing the piano, getting dressed in the morning, riding a bicycle, etc.) and compared these to the observed capabilities of his two-year-old sister, Megan (who, I’m sorry to say, lost by a considerable margin).

Ground breaking research? Not really. And in terms of the underlying information, no more gripping than soap, cheese or pennies. No, what made Matt’s project so compelling, was the way in which he framed the question.

I spend a fair amount of time each month helping my clients decide which topics to cover in their respective E-Newsletters. The subject matter in general is pretty easy to define. Law firms talk about law; recruiters talk about hiring; life coaches talk about life; etc.

The hard part – and the part which for my money, accounts for much of the difference between a great newsletter and one that’s just pretty good – is how you frame the question. And the key, in my opinion, is presenting your good, solid insights in a way that the reader is compelled to, in effect, “come visit your science project.”

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples…

Here’s a typical kind of E-Newsletter topic for a recruiting firm:
“Five things to look for when reviewing a resume.”

Now compare it to this one:
“Why standardized testing of job applicants is a waste of money.”

Or how about these two; both for a financial planning E-Newsletter:

“Understanding 529C Accounts”


“Three Things The IRS Hopes You Never Find Out About 529C Accounts”

I think you’d agree that while each topic within each pair of examples might cover much of the same information, one is considerably more compelling than the other. The difference, is in how the question is framed.

In my experience, those just beginning to publish E-Newsletters tend to focus on the basics – the useful, but not necessarily all that interesting topics within a given area of expertise. It’s okay, and certainly can be effective. Over time, however, we try to move to a higher level… a level of “expert opinion.”

Granted, it’s not so easy to do (at first). There’s a tendency to divide up your knowledge like chapters in a book and just run through the information. As a professional service provider, however, the real value you offer to clients is insight and perspective – beyond just the mechanics of your trade. That’s hard to demonstrate, unless you pick a compelling question to begin with.

How do you do it?

Some of it just seems to be based on experience. I don’t meet many people who can jump to this higher level in the first year or so of their newsletter. There seems to be a breaking in period of basic topics that get covered, so if you’re just starting out, give it some time.

One key to getting there, however, is looking for where you “break ranks” with your peers. If the entire industry thinks 529c accounts are great, for example, but there’s something about them that doesn’t sit quite right with you, there’s an intriguing topic lurking in there somewhere.

One more thing and then I’ll leave you and your monkey alone. I’m not simply talking here about giving each issue a catchy title (although that certainly is important). It’s about approaching the topic overall, from start to finish, in a way that is intriguing and different from what everybody else is already talking about.

In the end, it’s the simple, but often elusive task of taking “What Things Can Monkeys Do?” and turning it into, “Is My Sister Smarter Than a Monkey?”

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