What Marketers Can Learn From Poet Sarah Kay

You might know Sarah Kay from her world-famous 2011 TED talk (embedded below), the first few minutes of which she spends earning a standing ovation from reciting a powerful poem. The poet and teacher recently spoke with Brian Koppelman about the art of poetry as “an exchange of gifts,” along with many other subjects in a 75-min. interview.

This phrase jumped out at my marketing mind. You see, a gift exchange is very much at the heart of marketers’ art. If you’re a marketing artist, you create gifts to share with your audiences, who, in turn, give you loyalty.

Other themes she spoke of that should ring true to marketers are those of empathy and human connection. These days, everyone knows the brand that can’t connect on a human level looks pretty evil … and is easily outed and discarded. Therefore, brands (and the marketers who represent them) that want to have any decent, profitable lifespan would be wise to heed Kay’s words about listening and presence.

Though Kay is not a marketer by title, her sentiments would not be unfamiliar to those who follow top marketing minds. When she says things like “working on your craft confers talent,” as opposed to just having talent by virtue of birth, I think of the Joe Pulizzis and Seth Godins of the marketing world, who are always encouraging us to carve out our niches and express those things which we do best (and that make us—and our companies—unique). Whether we’re talking content strategy or general marketing philosophy, we can find unexpected inspiration from Kay, a self-described “gateway drug to poetry.”

The concept that your skills increase as a result of your discipline and dedication is an empowering message. We’ve all had times where we’ve wondered why we can’t seem to get struck by a “lightning bolt” moment … or why some other marketer seems to have what we don’t. According to Kay, the more prudent way to think about your creative work is: Practice makes perfect (talent). Rather than how you were made, the dominant influence should be how well you choose to devote yourself to making things. Translated for marketers, the things we make are great ideas, connections with people, or motivation to action.

You don’t need to be a performer of spoken-word poetry to cultivate the same “training in empathy” Kay did early in her career on the spoken-word circuit, which she says opened her to “being a good human.” By performing at marketing as active listeners who create inspirational messages, we can use empathy to achieve our own success in this age of the buyer.

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