Contempt for the audience is the real problem with plagiarism

Do you care that Melania Trump is accused of plagiarism when making a speech in support of her husband? Mrs Trump and her speechwriters may be squirming with embarrassment – and the political commentators may have received a gift of a news story – yet by itself this is a “here-today-gone-tomorrow” sort of affair. What’s far more worrying to me is what the story tells us a lot about the lack of originality of thought when creating fresh content, whether in politics, business or wider society.

If the allegations are true – and you can make up your own mind on that – then I’m  surprised that Mrs Trump’s speechwriter could be so naïve as to pick up paragraphs wholesale from the lips of an arch political rival. Yet I wouldn’t blame him or her per sefor looking at past “First-Lady-In-Waiting” speeches for inspiration.

That’s because Inspiration and plagiarism are very different things. There is nothing wrong at all with looking to others for inspiration. And in politics or business, there is nothing wrong either with taking a sneaky peek at what your rivals are up to – you wouldn’t last long if you didn’t. And there is nothing wrong even with borrowing parts of a good idea from elsewhere, as long as you give credit where it is due, and thenapplying it to particular needs or circumstances.

Applying it to particular needs or circumstances – that’s the key phrase here. The problem I have with any form of plagiarism is not only that it demonstrates poor levels of morality. It also shows us a self-defeating unwillingness to think about an issue in terms relevant to the reader, the voter, the employee or the customer.

In the process, plagiarism treats all readers, viewers and listeners with contempt. The needs of all are very different in 2016 from even a year ago – and the failure to recognise this tells us far more about why politicians are distrusted and why businesses go bust.

If you can’t put yourself in the shoes of those you are addressing and adapt what you say or write to show that you understand their particular needs at a particular point in time, then you cannot hope to succeed.

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