Skip to main content
Content StrategyField Notes

Field Notes #078: The lost art of Sprezzatura

The lost art of Sprezzatura

“A line [of poetry] will take us hours maybe;

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,

Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”

– William Butler Yeats, Adam’s Curse

Here’s a paradoxical lesson I’ve learned over the years: you don’t want to appear like you’re working too hard. 

Most people think the opposite. “If I could only explain how hard it is to do the things I do,” people think, “then I would get more respect, buy-in, raises, and promotions.”

“If only you knew how hard it is to run an agency,” I might imagine, “then you would understand me better and value my work that much more.”  

You can see this in the flood of social media posts that expand a job description, like that of a content marketer, to include anything and everything, and to make it seem like it’s 20 different jobs. I don’t know how to use LinkedIn search, but they look like this:

Every time I see one of these, I think, “yes.” That’s the job. And I just want to see the painting, I don’t want to hear about the process by which it was painted. 

Obviously there are limits to this, beyond which stands a delusional and toxic boss who doesn’t understand a role or is exploiting someone’s ambition. And that leads to burnout. No bueno, and that’s not what I’m talking about here. If you’re in a situation like that, leave

But realistically, if you’re a content marketer at a startup, your job is NOT just the publishing and distribution of content. It DOES also include the internal alignment, the customer research, the analytics, the optimization, all the background stuff that you likely spend the majority of your time working on. 

As Ryan Holiday wrote in his piece on advice to young people, “Make it happen. Nobody cares what it will take, what problems this causes for you, what personal stuff you have going on. Just get it done. You can tell us what you went through…after.”

When I started at CXL, I barely knew what an online A/B test was. I was 23 years old and I spent my nights and weekends reading countless books, taking courses, and setting up A/B tests on my own website. 

Then, over time, I knew things. I could do things with effort, ease, and sprezzatura. I could write an essay about A/B testing in 2 hours. In later jobs, managers noted how quickly I could ship a solid essay, Wiki post, or article. 

I’ve seen this recently within the SEO space as well, where SEO experts, instead of simplifying the practice, draw out all of the technical nuances and details:

This is important and true…for SEOs when talking amongst themselves. In my experience, I would never bring this to an executive. I would simply fix the problem, communicate the impact, and move on. 

I know SEO isn’t life or death (unless you’re a niche affiliate blogger apparently), but imagine two doctors, one of whom is graceful, calm, and assured, and the other is sweaty, trembling, and visibly stressed out, explaining to you a million bits of tedious minutia. With whom do you feel more comfortable?

Sprezzatura, which is the ability of a courtier to display”an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them,” brings a little bit of magic back to your work. 

Think Jack Kerouac, who carefully crafted this perception of nonchalance and stream-of-conscious writing, but in reality was deeply meticulous and painstaking about his process. 

I’m not even saying “work harder, but don’t talk about it.” Maybe you could even work less hard. I’m saying whatever work you’re going to do doesn’t need to be communicated in excruciating detail, and when it is, it often diminishes the magic of what you’re actually producing. Leave a little bit of mystery behind your magic. 

Here’s how Robert Greene describes the concept:

“Much of the idea of sprezzatura came from the world of art. All the great Renaissance artists carefully kept their works under wraps. Only the finished masterpiece could be shown to the public. Michelangelo forbade even popes to view his work in process. A Renaissance artist was always careful to keep his studios shut to patrons and public alike, not out of fear of imitations, but because seeing the making of the works would mar the magic of their effect, and their studied atmosphere of ease and natural beauty.” 

Look, don’t miss the nuance here – if you’re overwhelmed, speak up – but my experience has been that the less I show my cards, the more respect I’ve gotten for pushing the work product. 

The master black belt looks effortless; it’s the white belt who trashes around, wasting one’s own energy. 

Internal Marketing

I saw a hot take on LinkedIn the other day that said you shouldn’t have to do internal marketing. It’s a waste of time, he argued, and we should simply be valued and trusted without putting the time and effort into proving ourselves. 

This is what I’m calling a fantasy-land take. 

In an idyllic utopia, I’d agree. But like all idyllic utopian ideas, the real world comes around and punches it in the face with messy human behavior, trade-offs, and a whole lot of game theory. 

The simple truth is this: there’s a finite amount of time and resources, so we can’t do everything at all times. Additionally, leaders don’t have a crystal ball nor do they deeply understand the nuances of every channel, craft and tactic. Even at a startup, the ability to pitch your concept as something worth investing in is important. 

But as a company scales, team sizes increase, and there are more permutations of connections you’ll need to align with, the ability to market yourself and your programs internally isn’t a career boosting thing, it’s essentially for alignment and actually driving results. 

Instead of beating up on this take more, which I’m tempted to do, I’ll just give you a couple quick tips of things that have worked for me when building out novel programs at HubSpot and Workato (including the Surround Sound SEO strategy at HubSpot, new at the time, and building the experimentation team from scratch at Workato). 

  • Weekly newsletters – did this at both HubSpot and Workato. Coveted past (concluded experiments), current projects, and future plans, plus some editorializing and shoutouts to build alliances (more in the next section on that). Send this to as many people as possible; people will ask to get added to it over time. I still send constant updates to the clients that I manage and CC as many people as I possibly can. 
  • Wiki posts – I struggled to get budget for the Surround Sound SEO strategy until I did a little bit of leg work on my own and wrote a big Wiki post on the early results. Then Meghan Keaney Anderson graciously offered some of her team’s budget to scale the program. This was the escape velocity I needed to get this thing off the ground. 
  • Personal brand – I’ve always written, spoken, and published on my own platforms, mostly on my blog, but also speaking at conferences and writing the occasional LinkedIn post. For some reason, if you’re externally validated, then people inside the company also trust you more. The benefit here, also, is that you’re building a personal brand that will have huge benefits outside your current job role. 
  • IRL – I worked remote most of my career, and in many cases, I wasn’t able to get cross-functional support until I met someone in person for a coffee or a beer. This is probably even more impactful today. 

The Win Ladder

Finally, a tactical tip for you. 

Scott Tousley used to call this “closing the loop.” 

When you have the trust of your colleagues and stakeholders, you get a much longer leash. But before then, you’re still building support. 

And during the early days of building out a program, the results aren’t usually champagne worthy. It’s often a slog until you get the machine running. You need to hit “escape velocity.” Especially true with SEO. 

One thing to do is prioritize red meat and low hanging fruit so you can quickly tie back wins and satisfy stakeholders. 

Another thing you can do is celebrate all wins, small as they may be, and give lavish praise and credit to whomever collaborated with you, greenlit the project, or did the work to make it happen. 

At HubSpot, I worked on freemium growth, so it was a very cross-functional role. I needed the support and trust of people I didn’t manage, and across many teams like web strategy, performance marketing, SEO, content, product, and more. 

Take the example of the Surround Sound SEO strategy. Before scaling it to hundreds of keywords and pages, I did really small stuff. Like bring up HubSpot’s placement on our own listicle from position #10 to position #1. This, believe it or not, was a huge debate that I eventually “won” by framing it as an experiment. 

When, two weeks after putting us at position #1, our conversion rate increased by like 10X, I didn’t take credit. I publicly posted in the content slack channel giving full credit to the content marketer who gave me permission to update the post, along with data and the business impact of the additional freemium users. 

Now I’ve got an ally. 

I do the same thing with clients now, especially in the early days of the program. SEO results taking a while to show? Well, we’re building links and, wow, we’ve already landed X placements and increased DR by +5. And wow! This business critical keyword moved from page 3 to page 2. 

This sounds so stupid, but being the cheerleader and pointing out all of these small “wins” drives momentum and motivation, which is hard to sustain in long term projects with multiple stakeholders, but absolutely critical for their success. 

So I’ll be the cheerleader, giving public credit and praise, doing the work to tie-back the data and impact, and leveraging that to drive more and more ambitious programs. 

No one wants to brag for themselves, so do it for them.

Want more insights like this? Subscribe to our Field Notes.

Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.