Let’s face it—a lot of business and technical writing can be pretty dry. To keep the audience engaged, there are all kinds of tricks a writer can deploy, from storytelling to active language to the now-overused listicle format. Fun pop-culture references have long been another way to make technical concepts more relatable. Recently, I was working on a white paper that described security as a castle or citadel. To jazz it up a little, I wove in a couple of light-hearted Games of Thrones references.
The client liked the references but ultimately didn’t keep them. They were worried that instead of making the piece more relatable, the pop-culture analogy sounded like an attempt to seem cool—which was hardly the point of the white paper. It was a minor point for this project, but my curiosity was aroused. What makes for a good pop-culture reference these days? And in today’s fragmented cultural landscape, is it a device that ought to be retired?
Perhaps tellingly, I’ve never actually seen an episode of Game of Thrones myself. But for years the memes, references, and buzz pieces about it have saturated the internet to an unavoidable degree. In my research, I learned that although 16 million viewers watched the finale of GoT, the majority of viewers were males under 30. My client’s instincts were right. The target audience for our think piece was senior professionals, age 40+. Within their industry, only about 15% of the end users are under 30. Our target audience would be far more likely to connect with a snappy reference to The Voice or This is Us.
But the issue is more complex than age demographics. While 16 million may sound like a lot, it actually reflects the slicing and dicing of our popular culture into specific interest groups. Back in the 1980s, 120 million people watched the finale of M*A*S*H. Today, even the top rated shows reach vastly fewer viewers than they once did. Gone are the days when everyone got an immediate chuckle of recognition from “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Party on,” or “Festivus.”
My Toastmasters club has a theme for each meeting, and a while back a member used the theme of “The Sound of Music.” In its day, the classic musical was one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and was broadcast annually on television at holiday time. Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” right?
Not so fast. It turned out the film, the songs, and the characters were unfamiliar to our group’s younger members and even more of a mystery to our many members who hail from outside the U.S. Since 1990, the percentage of the population that is foreign-born has doubled. Today, over 44 million people living in the U.S. are immigrants to this country. Our pop culture is not only fragmented. It’s increasingly self-referential, an in-joke that is unrepresentative and irrelevant to the actual day-to-day culture being lived by millions of Americans.
I’m glad this issue came up. I’m starting to think that the use of pop culture references in business communications is dated. Spending time and energy on more creative and inclusive approaches to lively pieces would be well worth the effort.
Once upon a time, it was a big deal to publish a white paper. Not only did it have to be researched and written by someone like me, but it had to be designed, typeset, printed, and then mailed to the recipients. A white paper wasn’t mere “content,” a word that wasn’t in use then. It was an event. After all, there was no point in going to all the trouble of publishing this paper unless you had something important to say.
These days, I’ve noticed that my white paper clients are aware that their words are getting lost. The Internet is sloshing with throwaway content. Who has time to read any of it? My clients are turning their backs on puff pieces and looking to bring real talk back to the white paper. But as a society and business culture, we still don’t seem to be there.
Recently, one of my clients wanted to produce a paper on an extremely controversial issue facing their industry. All of their customers know that this issue exists. It is one of their primary concerns right now. It has even migrated from talk among insiders to the general public. Fear and misinformation have undermined confidence in the industry. Yet with every pass through the editorial process, the white paper was watered down. The original language surrounding the issue, gleaned from interviews and input from the company’s own subject matter experts, was “too hot to handle.” The language was massaged, softened, and made vague.
Finally the central point was removed altogether. The white paper spotlighted a non-controversial solution to the issue, which by the end was only obliquely acknowledged. Instead of a meaty discussion, customers were served yet another word salad, initially attractive but with no protein, no takeaway, and no action items.
As a pro I’m happy to create what my clients want. But I sometimes wonder where our business culture is going to find the courage to be authentic. Companies want to provide valuable information to their customers, but then let fear and distrust prevent meaningful engagement on even the most well-known challenges and difficulties. Too often we choose to write on high levels about the big picture, rather than grapple with the nitty-gritty reality that is right under our noses.
Why publish a paper if you have nothing to say?
When was the last time you truly connected with something that you read or heard? In my last blog, I wrote about the spadework it takes to craft a piece that conveys your point. This time, I want to take it a step further and talk about how you can write a piece your readers will actually remember and maybe even treasure.
This time, I thought I’d try something a little different and illustrate the point through something we can all relate to — the classic Bob Dylan tune “Blowin’ in the Wind.” A song has many of the same components as any piece of writing. For example, a few years back, I wrote an online exhibit about the Texas Railroad Commission, a state agency that for most of the 20th century, regulated the oil and gas industry in the Lone Star State. Sounds really exciting, right? Actually it was!
As it turns out, the story of oil and gas in Texas embodies some of the biggest and most complex ideas around, such as economic freedom and personal liberty, but through a story with all the high drama of novels like Giant. Don’t believe me? I can tell you that one of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a man who told me he read the exhibit whenever he felt lonely and depressed. He said it connected him with the power and majesty of something larger than himself.
And while not every piece of business writing tells this kind of story, it is possible to be much more memorable than most of the content being pumped out on a daily basis. What makes “Blowin’ in the Wind” so creative and relevant 55 years later, while its contemporaries like “Surf City” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are gathering dust in the oldies bin? It starts with putting the pieces in place before you ever start putting words on the page.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” asks the listener a series of hard questions, and challenges the idea that the constant babble of opinions holds any answers. In fact, the song tells us that we will not find any solutions if we keep hiding behind our fixed positions. Most people first heard the song as it was performed by Peter, Paul, & Mary at the 1963 March on Washington. It invited people to face reality, put aside their differences, and work together for a better country. Pretty powerful stuff.
To be memorable, you need to find an idea that actually matters—not just to you, but to your audience. To find that idea, think about what your audience is talking about out there in the real world. What questions are they asking and what emotions are they feeling? Is there an issue they are scared, mad, or confused about? How can you shed light on that issue with real stories and examples? Here is where you will find your idea.
2. Believe in it.
These days, people are used to hype and wise to the ways of being sold. This is why companies like Nike are succeeding by standing for something. Regardless of whether you think it is the right thing, it has resonated with people looking for authenticity. It is interesting to learn that Bob Dylan himself became cynical about “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but Mary Travers never did. Her vulnerability and sincerity demonstrated passion, love, and commitment and was critical to the success of the song. The same is true for your piece. Once you have found your message, think about how you can convey your commitment to it in a way that is accessible to the audience and includes them and their concerns.
3. Find the emotional heart of the story.
Once you have found a good idea that you can commit to, it is time to put on your writer’s hat. How can you convey the message in a way that taps into the emotions of the audience? Funny or touching stories are great, but to be truly memorable they need to fit into an overall narrative that leads the audience where you want them to go.
In the Railroad Commission piece, I structured the narrative around dramatic turning points and played up the stakes with historic quotes like this one from the French oil minister at the close of World War I: “As oil had been the blood of war, so it would be the blood of the peace.” In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the entire song hinges around the simple metaphor that an abstract concept (answers) can blow in the wind like leaves—something everyone can relate to.
But there is more to the song’s structure than that. Instead of hitting us with everything all at once, the song asks us to think about some simple matters:
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Before leading us on a journey where the questions become increasingly uncomfortable, ultimately asking us:
How many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
As with getting your point across, creating a piece that is truly memorable starts with a thoughtful approach. Solid writing techniques such as storytelling, analogies, quotes, and imagery will give you punch, but if you don’t have a solid idea as the foundation of your piece, ultimately your words, my friends, will be blowin’ in the wind.
It’s easy to be self-righteous about plagiarism. After all, how hard can it be to acknowledge your sources and put forth original ideas? In reality, it’s not as simple as it sounds. After all, we all study our fields to see what ideas are current. Where do you draw the line between responding to trends and playing follow-the-leader? Where does the line fall between research and wholesale lifting of other people’s thoughts?
Let’s break it down. According to Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is the act of passing off someone else’s words or ideas as your own, without crediting the original source. So first things first: giving credit to your sources is not only the right thing to do, but it boosts the credibility of your own content. Your customers know which industry sources are high-quality and credible. You can work your research into your pieces gracefully by using quotation marks, footnotes, or phrases such as “A 2016 study by the Institute of Peanut Butter Science uncovered a startling fact.”
Citing your sources is essential, but it is not enough. A good rule of thumb is that your paper or case study should be at least 85% original material. In my experience, the most common cause of unoriginal ideas occurs when organizations decide to create content, but won’t do the heavy lifting upfront to generate some original and thought-provoking ideas.
My take: The kind of long-form materials I specialize in, such as white papers and case studies, work best when they spring from your own experiences. It helps to approach each project as part of a focused dialogue you are having with your customers. Invest some time in thinking deeply about them, what they want to learn about, and what you have to offer that is unique. Your customers want to read a good story about how you solved their thorniest everyday problems. And there’s nothing unoriginal about that.
The wisest have the most authority. – Plato
These days, we’re all swimming in more content than we can possibly consume. Like the rest of us, your customers have become adept at filtering out the noise and junk. So how do you ensure the content you’ve worked so hard to create doesn’t just get thrown out with the trash?
One way is to write with authority. Naturally, you know what you’re talking about. But do your words support your message, or get in the way? In this article, I’ll share five tricks writers use to signal readers that what they are about to read is believable, genuine, and worth their time.
And regardless of scope, take the time to interview at least one expert. These chats take preparation. For example, just to create a simple case study, you must determine the right person to interview, prepare yourself and your expert on the subject matter and scope, conduct the interview, transcribe your notes, and then select quotes that support the point of your case study. But the payoff in authority is well worth the effort.
4. Choose specific words. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—Mistakes were made. Doesn’t sound very authoritative, does it? Now consider this one: The outage began on Monday at approximately 3PM PST and affected three of our installations. The problem was patched at 8:15 PM PST. About 20% of users will need to download an additional patch; if you are one of the affected users, you will receive an email with detailed instructions.
The revised text uses words that are precise, clear, and specific. When in doubt, refer back to the old journalistic maxim, and be sure you tell the reader who, what, where, when, why, and how. The more specifics you can include, the more the reader will perceive your piece as authentic and genuine.
5. This one is a real writer’s secret! Most people like to be consistent in their ideas. If you want to persuade your reader to take action or change their minds, create a piece that starts with ideas that are widely accepted in your field. Once your reader has bought in to agreeing with you, you can introduce your points that are more controversial or that involve taking action or spending money.
In the end, writing with authority is all about respect for the reader and for your own message. With time and energy, your content will build loyalty, extend your influence, and ensure a long-lasting relationship with customers who embrace you as a trusted resource.
This week it was my privilege to moderate a panel discussion with three master Toastmasters on the subject of crafting relevant and compelling presentations, and I got some great ideas for applying the same techniques to business communications as well.
Sometimes as marketers we’re so busy sharing tips and tricks that we forget that it’s the fundamentals of great writing that win the eyeballs and hearts of busy influencers. First and foremost is understanding your audience. What do they care about? It may not line up exactly with what you want to “sell” them, so consider carefully what your goal is with the piece you’re developing. Is it an article that will build your credibility? Is it a white paper that gives them ideas on how to solve a thorny business problem? Is it a case study that shows them specifically how one of your solutions works? In every case, be outward-looking and customer-focused as you hone your message.
Secondly, you can spend a lifetime just mastering the basics. Does your piece have a title that grabs the interest of your target audience? Do you lead with a strong opening that speaks to their concerns? Do you distinguish each point and develop it carefully and with respect for the readers’ time? Do you wrap it up with a strong conclusion and call to action?
Whether your presentation is spoken or a written piece such as a case study, white paper, or ebook, you’re communicating, and you want your message to stick. Spending most of your time thinking and wordsmithing may not look that glamorous, but it’s the way to go to craft a message that sticks with your audience. And some of us actually enjoy it!
Have you ever gone to a conference and had to sit through endless presentations that were badly disguised sales pitches? Then, instead of relaxing and networking with your peers at the mixer, you were button-holed by salespeople from other companies, all hoping you were their next hot prospect. Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you just grab a few more cheese cubes and head for the elevators.
Many companies have turned to case studies to better demonstrate their value to prospects and customers. A case study puts the spotlight on a customer and how you solved their problem. But how can you make sure that you don’t fall into the sales pitch trap and end up boring or alienating your audience? For the right mindset, keep these three points front and center:
A final tip: most people are tired of being sold, and wise to the tricks of the trade. Don’t sugarcoat your case study in sales language. This is the time to be real.
In his recent Design in Tech 2017 report, John Maeda refers to writing as the “unicorn skill.” Even as information design has become more sophisticated, the ability to explain a concept via the written word has become one of the rare and outstanding skills that sets a professional apart from the herd.
What makes writing such a specialized skill? After all, we all learn how to write in elementary school. With e-mail and texts, most people probably write more than they did a generation ago. The actual skill that a good professional brings to the table is far more than a facility with language. It’s the ability to fully grasp a concept, then turn around and teach it to someone else using only words.
Back in the day, bards or troubadours carried stories from town to town, teaching them using song. While The Canterbury Tales may seem a far cry from content marketing or technical writing, they actually aren’t so far apart. It always comes down to one basic principle: understand your audience. What do the people already know? What’s important to them? Why is this news? Who needs to know? What’s the hook? What’s the takeaway? How can you make the message stick?
When you put a writer on the job, look for a person who grapples with all these questions right from the beginning, thinks through the answers, and then communicates the ideas with precision and clarity to just the right audience. If your audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then your efforts to reach them won’t have amounted to much. People talk a lot these days about making their voices heard. But it turns out that anyone can shout and be heard. The question is: were you understood?
Today I ran across one of those listicles that uses “humor” to make a point. It was called something like “How to Give a Mediocre Presentation No One Gives a Crap About.” Classy, huh? Anyway, the first practice the author poked fun at was, “Use logic and facts to sell your idea.”
It’s not my intention to deride this author, who was writing about public speaking, not B2B content writing. But it did get me to thinking. I’m immersed in persuasive writing on a daily basis. My clients tell me I have a flair for choosing the right words that evoke emotions such as confidence, loyalty, and security that are so important for large purchases and on-going relationships with trusted vendors. In fact, if you want to evoke these emotions more effectively yourself, I’d like to invite you to download my brand-new quick reference guide How to Cure the B2B Content Blahs (it’s free).
Still, I do wonder sometimes if business writing is swinging too far from “just the facts, ma’am” to the dreaded practice of dumbing-down. We’ve all heard the expression, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” But the sizzle is only important in the first 30 seconds of the first meal. After that, the customer wants a delicious, satisfying, high-quality steak—one that will make them want to return to your establishment and become a regular. To help forge these long-lasting relationships, you need someone to write your content who understands business, who knows how to do research, and who can interview your customers and subject matter experts with knowledge and diplomacy—not one who equates substance with “crap.”
One thing I never lose sight of is that your customers are serious people looking for accurate, helpful information to make decisions worth thousands or even millions of dollars. By publishing white papers, case studies, trade articles, and other marketing content that is dignified and polished—as well as engaging—you become a trusted source. Your customers find real information they can put to practical use, and everybody wins. And there’s nothing mediocre about that.
Have you seen the “Judgmental” maps? Does your city have one? Recently in Austin, a city employee used one of these comic maps in a public presentation. The resulting outcry certainly illustrated the perils of using edgy, profane humor in a business or government setting, and the employee ended up losing his job.
What do you think? I think there is a place for humor in the B2B world. It pays to be smart about it, though. Poking gentle fun at the trials and tribulations we share together is a good bet. I’ve had good luck incorporating humor into presentations and training materials. It breaks down barriers and creates the feeling of “we’re all in this together.”
Humor can also be a great conversation starter. I use lighthearted cartoons on my business cards. A number of companies find great ways to use humor in B2B ads. But by the time you move deeper into a conversation with content-heavy pieces such as e-books, trade articles, and white papers, it’s time to set the laughs aside and focus on relevancy and how you can solve serious business issues.
Right now, I’m working on a corporate history project. In the course of my research, I ran across a “roast” that was done for one of the company leaders in the 1960s. The humor ran decidedly along racial lines. Yikes! It reminded me that what was current back in the days of “Laugh-In” would be unacceptable today—as that Austin city employee learned to his sorrow.
Just read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, a classic mystery about a modern-day London police officer who decides to look into the alleged crimes of King Richard III. And I learned the most delightful word! Tonypandy was the name of a coal strike in which it was alleged that the police had fired shots at the striking miners. Although there was no evidence that such a thing ever occurred, it became a widely believed historical myth.
It’s always a good idea to look out for twisted history, especially in an election year! What do you think? Does your industry have any “tonypandy” you’d like to set straight?
There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all. – Helen MacDonald, H is for Hawk