This talk was presented at TEDx Square Mile on March 18th 2017. 


I’m going to start with a quick Q&A: how many people in this room are considering buying a saddle at the moment? Put your hands up. How many people are thinking about buying a horse? How many people are interested in buying three horses, two saddles one packbag and all the other equipment needed for an 800 mile horse ride?

Weird things to buy right?


But what if I painted the story a little differently, and explained how this equipment allowed me to cross across the Great Steppe of Eastern Kazakhstan several years ago. How I spent two months under the blistering Central Asian sun on my horses traversing the old postal roads that had been once travelled down by an gung-ho British explorer– A man called Sir Charles Howard-Bury and that I was travelling his route exactly 100 years on from when he’d first set out.

I could tell you how with this equipment, I saw sights that few Westerners ever, ever see. Sweeping storms rolling across the plains of Central Asia that broke all around us with thunderclaps so loud and thick it sucked the air from our cheeks, seemingly endless deserts pure white salt nearly a hundred miles across, unvisited, silent, completely empty.

Or I could tell you how on this very I saddle raced a true Kazakh cowboy into a setting sun. Two horses going faster and faster alongside each until the grass below became this swirl of greens and streaks of yellow, and of my very real fear that one misplaced hoof would mean a broken neck. And yet still keeping on going in spite of all that and then seeing through the blur of adrenaline, out the corner of my eye, the other rider finally pull back, and knowing that I won my first ever horse race.

Okay, so let’s reframe the question, who in this room would be interested in living the  experience of one of the events I just described?

A few more people; that’s good, and that’s a good sign for what I’m here to talk about today.


I’ve been journalist and a storyteller all my adult life, but it was only after spending six months in some of the furthest reaches of Central Asia back in 2013, that I really began to dissect the powerful influence stories have had on me. I spent 63 days riding across Kazakhstan, all because of a book, this book, it’s called the Mountains of Heaven and it was written by the same explorer in who’s hoof steps I rode.

So why did I do it? What motivated me to suspend all semblance of a normal career path, and spend the entirety of my life’s saving to recreate a mad-capped journey in a book that’s long been out of print?


This question intrigued me so much that I went back and analysed my old diary notes to find out what motivated my younger self to first of all undertake this journey, and then to see to see it through when the going got really grim. What I found was absolutely fascination; three repeating processes came up time and time again which believe pulled me along this entire journey from start to end. These three levers were aligning aspirations, closing knowledge gaps, and living in the experience.

I would also like to show you how you can apply these principles – which are fundamental elements to my profession as a content marketer – how you can apply them to your business, brand, charity – or any organisation – and use them to create an online presence that will act as profitable community hub for whomever your target audience might be. With these levers, you will pull people towards you.

Are you interested? Are you excited? Okay, Let’s go.

Aligning Aspirations

Content Marketing, for those of you who might not have heard of it, is a relatively new term. But to distill it down to its core essence, the concept can be defined as creating something of value, and then distributing that something to a clearly defined target audience, driving a positive action from them as a result. That positive action could be a purchase, it could be an email address, it could be a horse-ride.

So this book was the item of value and it taught me about Howard-Bury. He was a eccentric type, breaking illegally into Tibet in 1905, and leading the first ever expedition to attempt to climb Mount Everest in 19211; he even had a pet bear which he bought in Kazakhstan ten years previously and used to wrestle in his garden in Ireland every morning as a keep fit exercise. To the younger me this seemed a man both mad and brave, and somebody that I desperately wanted to emulate.

Looking back, what was happening here was a process I now call ‘aligning aspirations’. The content I consumed created a yearning for me to match up with the same qualities I perceived Sir Charles had embodied—concepts of adventure, exploration, heroism, epic feats and great deeds all that — so I took a positive action to achieve a perceived alignment with these values; I went and actually recreated Howard-Bury’s journey.

We see the process of aligning aspiration in the wider world too, everywhere in fact. As anyone who’s watched Simon Sinek’s amazing TED talk on how great leaders inspire action will know, the best businesses of the world know not only what they sell, and how they sell it, but why they even exist in the first place. The values and beliefs of your organisation, what it stands for and what it represents are all major influencers on the customer purchase decision – because people are buying more than a product.

They are a buying into an action, one that reflects how they want to position themselves in this big wide world. People buy MacBooks because they want to define themselves as creative or digitally savvy, they buy travel trips to Antarctica because – like me – they want to chase a concept they have of adventure. They give generously to some charities and ignore others because they believe in a certain ideological construct of moral value..

If you, as an organisation or as an individual, can articulate a clear, cohesive and positive mission statement of what you want to achieve in the world, people will align themselves alongside your goal. And that’s why content marketing leaders – those best at digitally articulating their aspirations –  generate nearly 8 time times more website traffic than non-leaders, at less half the cost of traditional outbound marketing. We as a profession know about aspiration alignment and use content –words, articles, videos – to create it.

Closing Knowledge Gaps

Now pause for a moment. Imagine, a vast expanse of dry desert scrubland. There’s no water, no shade, the nearest town is 60 miles away and it’s currently 45ºC. The horses need a drink, far too much water for us to carry, and we the riders don’t have that much left on us either – our throats are already beginning to swell up and parch, our skin burning in the heat of the midday sun. We don’t know where we’re going to quench our thirst, but if it’s longer than a day – which it might be –we’re going to start getting in real trouble.

Having listened to that description, and putting aside for a moment the obvious physical stressors mentioned, would being in this situation make you as a person feel uncomfortable?

Why is that?

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s is a knowledge gap in play here —literally a gap in what you know—where’s the water—and this is one of the most uncomfortable experiences you can image on an expedition. The great unknown, the undiscovered country. For us, It spurred on action in the form of an almost trance-like panic to get to the other side of every bit desert–even if that meant walking ourselves to exhaustion, pulling the reluctant horses along behind us, which is not fun.

Of course this is an extreme example of a knowledge gap, but you’re probably familiar with the use of them in the online world. Hand’s up here, right, who’s ever fallen for a clickbait title? You know them, this mom’s unbelievable trick has dentists fuming, or who knew a simple toaster could save on your family heating bill [question mark]?

Hands up.

Now keep your hand up if you knew that link was going to be complete rubbish before you clicked it.

The most blatant of these articles are nearly always a disappointment, we know that before we even click on them but we still click on them irregardless; why is that? Because we need to close that gap; we want that knowledge-that concept of value-that we previously didn’t know existed. And this works: According Quantcast, Buzzfeed regularly attracts more than 10m unique users every single day and this is through knowledge-gap creating titles.

Let me give you an example from my own journalism career: Fourteen years ago, a man named Chris Velten disappeared in Africa while retracing the travels of an explorer called Mungo Park. He hadn’t been heard from at all — until he sent a friend request. The result of this heartbreaking story framed with such intrigue-inducing wording? 46k have clicked through to the piece on Medium organically, and nearly 18k of them had read all 21 minutes of the story to completion. 18 thousand people spent 20 minutes of their day closing a knowledge gap, because they simply had to know what happened to Chris. That’s how powerful the unknown is to us.


Living in the Experience

We were camped outside a small village the night I turned 25. For the first time in the entire journey, we’d managed to pitch our tent in a green field just by a river. It was beautiful almost like being back home in England, but despite the wonderful setting I felt totally depressed, unsure about wether this was the destination I had wanted my life to end up in. It was pitch black and the stars were shining brightly. My expedition partner Matt had already gone to bed but I stayed up drinking vodka, mulling over these black thoughts, when before my eyes a meteorite fell from the the sky, so bright it seemed to turn night to day. Then this huge shooting star fell directly down, breaking up into offshoots of molten red and candle-light yellow, which spread across the inky blackness before burning and out and plunging the world back into darkness – this was a message from the from the cosmos, or so it seemed to me.

Unlike aspiration alignment, which is very much a cerebral process of creating intellectual self-value, living in the experience is a lever for the internalisation of emotion, event and place. It’s those memories we hold dearest to us, the building blocks to a life well lived, and something we all seek out. Surprisingly, this translates to business world too. According to the consulting firm Walker, by 2020, customer satisfaction, more than price and product, will be the key differentiator between business offerings. What they’re saying is that within three years we’ll all be caring more about the experience created by a company whilst it’s selling a product and afterward than the actual producti tself. That’s incredible.

If people just wanted a product, a functional item stripped of all societal, cultural and ideological baggage, why is digital advertising  – here’s our item, here’s what it does, isn’t it great –  failing so badly? 200 million people in the world now use ad blocking software online and you’re more likely to get to the top of Mount Everest than you are to click on a banner advert. By contrast content marketing costs on average 62% less than outbound marketing, yet generates more than three times as many leads, and it’s no surprise that the experience-rich medium of video is growing so rapidly that by the end 2017, it will represent 74% of all internet traffic. By 2020 it will be 82%.

Individuals want to be part of a experience bigger than themselves. If you can offer your audience a story, and get them to buy into it and make them feel something beyond the monotony of a transactional purchase then you’re onto a winner.


So I’d like to tell you one last story. It’s a very simple account, so it won’t take that long.

It’s about a kid who devoured every single book he could find on explorers in far off lands. He was a bit introvert; he ididn’t go out and he didn’t have that many friends. But he kept reading, and with each page turned the dream grew bigger and bigger inside him. Until one day, now 24, the guy set off his own expedition to the ends of the earth, inspired by his heroes and their aspirations for adventure.

We all have a story that weaves across the narrative our lives; concepts we find valuable and experiences we simply want to hold on to forever. But, it’s when we articulate our stories, offering them up honestly and without deception – although a little intrigue generation is allowed – that we start to make a truly human connection with other people. It’s only then – with this help from others – that our passions can grow, and action arise where once there were only dreams.

Let’s start making better connections.

And telling more honest stories.

Thank you.



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