How To Make Boring Content Sexy: A Lesson From John Oliver

How To Make Boring Content Sexy: A Lesson From John Oliver

Do you ever hold back from blogging because you wonder if anyone will read it?

Or, have you refrained from content marketing altogether because you think that your business is just way too boring?

(You can be honest. I won’t tell.)

If the answer is “yes,”
 you’re not alone. A LOT of people feel that content marketing won’t work for their industry because it’s not interesting enough.

But, I call hogwash on that.
 I’m going to show you that even the most boring topics can be interesting, but only if you know how to go about it the right way.

How to Make Boring Content Interesting

And to prove it to you, I’m going to show you what you can learn about making boring content sexy
 from Last Week Tonight,
a weekly late-night talk show and satire program on HBO hosted by British Comedian John Oliver.

Now, you may be thinking, “What does my business have in common with a weekly comedy show?”

The answer: way more than you think.

If you’ve never watched the show, let me give you a quick primer. In addition to some shorter comedy bits,
 Oliver typically includes a
 10-15 minute featured story that goes really in-depth on a particular topic.

And guess what?
 The topics are downright boring. Let me run through some of them for you:

Net neutrality.

Standardized testing.

The IRS.

Big pharmaceutical companies.

Civil forfeiture.

Wage inequality.


Just looking at this list, you would never think that this is a comedy show. And, let’s be honest — even though you know these issues are important, I doubt you’d want to give them priority in your DVR.

But, John Oliver has a way of making these seemingly boring topics incredibly interesting, engaging and funny.

And, what’s really incredible is that he has even been able to create dramatic change with the topics he covers by stirring the audience into action.

This is something that people are calling the “John Oliver effect.”

Top Content Marketing Lessons from John Oliver

Although it appears Oliver has a Midas touch, the reality is that he has just illustrated the perfect recipe for content marketing.

Just because your business might be boring (to you, anyway), doesn’t mean your content has to be. I’m going to show you how you can mimic Oliver’s approach to make your content interesting too.

1. He simplifies complicated topics.

Part of John Oliver’s brilliance is that he takes complicated topics and breaks them down into simple ideas that people can easily understand.

How does he do this?
 By using analogies and metaphors.

When talking about the wage disparity between men and women, Oliver argues that politicians have it wrong when they say that women earning 96 cents to the male dollar is virtually the same.

He offers this analogy in rebuttal:

“If someone takes a dump on my desk, the size of the dump is not the issue.”

When talking about how big pharma spends more on marketing to doctors than on drug research, he says this:

“Drug companies are a bit like high school boyfriends. They’re much more concerned with getting inside of you than being effective once they’re in there.”


Yes, his jokes might be a little crass. But, they effectively get the point across in a way that people understand.

How can you do this? Here are some ways you can simplify your content:

 2. He makes it relevant and relatable.

Last year, if you had uttered the words “net neutrality laws,” most people wouldn’t have a clue of what you’re talking about. Not only is net neutrality a loaded term, but it’s a boring topic.

John Oliver even admits this in the segment:

“This is even boring by C-SPAN Standards.”

But, thanks to Oliver, legions of people not only learned about the implications of this law, but also took to the FCC website to protest the idea.

 He made the issue relevant to people’s everyday lives.

He talked about how the proposed law would create a two-tiered system for service. Essentially, a fast lane and a slow lane of service.

“It would be like Usain Bolt and Usain bolted to an anchor,” Oliver said.

In today’s world, there are few things more important than access to the Internet. And yet, there are few things more hated than Internet service providers.

John Oliver was able to tap into that disdain and show how this change in the law would impact people’s lives.

How can you implement this idea? Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk about why someone should care about the topic. Answer the question “Why does this matter?”
  • Tap into the emotional aspects of your content.
  • Talk about what would happen if your product or service went away.

3. He does his research.

If you watch any of John Oliver’s segments, it’s clear he and his team have conducted extensive research to make his case.
 In fact, going into the second season of the show, they hired more researchers to help uncover stories for the show.

In this interview with Esquire magazine, Oliver says the “accidental acts of journalism” is just a means to get a laugh. And, while that might be true, his segments hit a nerve with the audience because he is able to use data to prove his point.

Throughout his segments, not only does he showcase news clips, but also he often cites studies, statistics and other data to make his case.

Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Find ways to implement data, statistics and studies into your content.
  • Compile and explain research so people know what it means.
  • Conduct surveys and research of your own (like Andy Crestodina is doing, for example)
  • Create charts, graphs and infographics to illustrate data.

4. He makes it funny.

John Oliver is a comedian. So, undoubtedly, his show is incredibly funny. Even though he takes on serious topics, he can’t help but find humor in every topic he covers.

Certainly, this tip is a bit tricky. Not everyone is funny. Heck, I’m not that funny. Just ask my husband.

But, there are ways you can lighten things up a bit so it’s not so serious or boring.

Customers and clients want to see the personality behind a business, and your content is the perfect place to show them that.

Here are some ideas for you to implement this:

  • Include GIFs, memes, videos and other multimedia content to help illustrate your point.
  • Be willing to let your hair down, poke fun of yourself (or your industry) or showcase your team being silly.
  • Find humorous team members who can help inject some personality into your content.

5. He makes it shareable.

Last Week Tonight is on HBO, which has a subscription-based model for their shows. Despite that, the featured segment from Oliver’s show is available for free on YouTube.

That has been one of the contributing factors to John Oliver’s massive reach.

Instead of keeping the show locked down and only available for HBO subscribers, they have flung open the doors for his content to be shared far and wide. The net neutrality video, for example, has more than 9 million views. And his segment on the wealth gap has more than 7 million views.

The tendency in content marketing is to keep your best stuff secret. But, John Oliver proves that
 your best stuff is exactly what you should be getting out there. Oliver wants you to double over laughing the first time you watch one of his videos. You should want to blow your audience away the first time they check out your content, too. That’s how you get them to remember you and come back for more.

How you can implement this:

  • Don’t be afraid to share your best stuff – make your content free and easy to view.
  • Make it easy to share your content.
  • Share the content where your audience hangs out (i.e. Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Reddit, etc.)

6. He includes a call-to-action.

What makes Last Week Tonight so incredible is the fact that Oliver has been able to inspire so much measureable action and change.

But, this doesn’t just happen by accident. Almost all of his feature stories end with a call-to-action.

For example, in his takedown of the Miss America pageant, he encouraged viewers to donate to other organizations that offer scholarships to women, such as the Society of Women Engineers.

The result?

The organization received $25,000 in donations within two days of the segment airing.

In the net neutrality piece I mentioned earlier, John asked people to go to the FCC website to sign a petition against the law. The FCC website crashed as a result. And months later, the FCC adopted net neutrality regulations.

Including a call-to-action is a big part of Oliver’s ability to drive change. But, this only works because his segments have all the previous ingredients. If he didn’t get that right, it would be hard to inspire

How you can implement this:

  • Give your audience a specific action you want them to take — comment, share, subscribe, buy, etc.
  • Tell them how they can get involved.
  • Use hashtags to make people feel they are part of a movement.

Hopefully, this gives you proof that even the most boring of topics can indeed be interesting, entertaining and sexy. You just have to think about how to present the content the right way. Just take it from John Oliver.

What do you think? How will you incorporate these ideas into your content marketing efforts?

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Laura Click

Laura Click is brand strategist, speaker, podcaster and the founder of Blue Kite. Learn more about Laura and her work at Blue Kite.

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