In a conversation last week with other freelancers, one fellow writer said, “I’m looking for a client who sees a writer as a revenue generator to be maximized, rather than a cost center to be minimized.” I wondered—what would happen if we reframed the way we look at all of our business relationships. What if we stopped thinking of people as risks and liabilities, and thought of them as allies and assets instead?
As with many questions, I haven’t come up with any answers—only more questions.
In the end, I’m not sure that money, status, or titles work as goals, even in the short run. I have a lot of admiration for people who do good work and treat their fellow human beings with respect, care, and appreciation, no matter what the circumstances.
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?
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. — Anton Chekov
Let’s have some fun today. I’d like to share a “writer’s secret” that can create a sense of mystery for even the driest subject matter. This technique is called the “open loop.”
These days, everyone is all too familiar with open loop headlines—so familiar that they’ve come to be called “clickbait.” Here are a few examples from today’s edition of Buzzfeed, perhaps the most notorious practitioner of the open loop:
These headlines leave you with a question that demands to be answered, compelling you to click on the story to find out what the answer is. Since as B2B marketers we don’t have the luxury of wasting our customers’ time the way that Buzzfeed does, we need to more graceful in our use of the technique. Here’s how.
Start with the setup. Here is the opening of a trade article I wrote for one of my clients:
Deep in the heart of a steaming jungle, a ramshackle mining town is full of dangers like mudslides, snakebites, and tropical diseases. Even getting here is an adventure that requires a small plane, a day spent navigating seething rivers, or a hair-raising 4×4 ride over ungraded roads. There are few comforts here and, apart from items in a small camp commissary, almost nothing to buy.
It may seem the most unlikely place on earth to uncover an elaborate fraud scheme.
Here’s another one from a case study I did, with the client info deleted since it was for internal company use only:
Like most [redacted] libraries, [redacted] County Library was hit with extensive budget cuts in 2010 as the shock waves of the financial crash hit county government. The question wasn’t whether the library budget would be slashed—it was where and how to absorb the cuts and still deliver services to customers.
As you can see, these openings set up a question, while still being completely professional. In fact, in a few sentences, you’ve told your readers about very difficult, challenging problems—presumably ones they can identify with. The idea is that your customers and prospects will read on to find out how it turned out. What was the fraud scheme and how was it uncovered? How did the library survive its budget cuts? By the end of your article, you’ve circled back around to close the loop, leading your reader to the conclusion of “Wow! If they could do it, so can I.”
Want to know more? Download my free guide, How to Cure the B2B Content Blahs. Besides the guide, you’ll be one of the first on the list to receive my free monthly newsletter (coming soon) with exclusive tips on how to use writing techniques to make sure your message is heard!
Most people prepare for the known knowns— that is, the problems we already know about —and the known unknowns—such as what projects your customers will dream up next, or what your competitors might bid against you. The most haunting problems are the unknown unknowns—the things that blindside us, the problems that are coming our way that we don’t even know about yet.
How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? Let’s take an example everyone knows about: data scientists blew the predictions about last fall’s election, while one astute observer (former president Clinton) got it right. What did he know that that all the data scientists didn’t know? What combination of knowledge and experience led him to sound the alarm while others thought the election was in the bag? And most importantly, what could we learn from it in our own businesses and lives?
As a writer who helps people explain complex products and services, I think it’s important to remember that no matter how good it is, any analysis is just a simplified way to think about a thing—not the thing itself. Sometimes people are so in love with their own explanation that they forget that!
Former president Clinton, an old-school politico, didn’t use an analysis to predict events. If I had to guess, he reached his conclusions via full immersion in his ecosystem, taking in information from multiple sources on a constant basis. He had a baseline, sure, but he kept tuned in as costly and irreversible events unfolded. To this day, I’m always amazed how many IT projects go off the rails because the people in charge don’t want to spend the time to involve their employees and customers and tap into the storehouse of knowledge right at their fingertips.
Usually, it turns out that so-called unknowns were known to plenty of folks—just not the ones who “mattered” when the decisions were being made. Think “connect the dots.” If you don’t map all the dots, you probably won’t get the right picture, no matter how clever you are or what you decide you see in the dots that you do have.
After he retired, my grandfather wore the exact same outfit every day for the rest of his life: a blue short-sleeved shirt, gray trousers, black socks, black walking shoes, and a gray tweed stingy-brim hat, all of which he would buy at JC Penneys.
A practical man or a creature of habit? Most nights, Grandpa served himself his dinner from the crockpot and watched the Huntley-Brinkley report. He got his in-depth news from TIME magazine and belonged to a mystery book club. At the end of each day, he turned in with Johnny Carson and a shot glass of bourbon.
But wait! There was a method to my grandfather’s madness. By eliminating unnecessary decisions, he freed up his energy for the things he really enjoyed and wanted to do. He spent his days hiking in the woods and swamps, searching for rare wildflowers and ferns. In his retirement, he authored two guidebooks about the plants of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, where he made his home. He also traveled extensively in Central America and in Spain to pursue his passion for rare plants (he was a retired agronomist). The sunny front room of his home was given over to a huge variety of cacti, many of which he collected when he visited us in Texas. In his garden, he grew roses and the most delicious corn and tomatoes you ever tasted, which he shared with his friends all over the state.
These days, the sheer variety of choices available to us can be overwhelming. We have millions of songs, thousands of movies and TV shows, and hundreds of cable channels. We have a constantly refreshing social media feed clamoring for attention. In a large city like Austin, we have many choices about hip and cool things to do and decisions to make about how to get there and where to park.
In their book Willpower, John Tierney and Roy Baumeister write about decision fatigue and how the variety of decisions in our culture is exhausting us. According to their study, your willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued in the course of a day. If you wear it out agonizing over what to wear, what kind of latte to order, or what to read next, you don’t have much brainpower left for the things you actually want to do.
Yet another invitation to live mindfully! Put your most important work first, and simplify your life so you can do just that. Turns out Grandpa was on to something.
Certain slang words seem to sweep through the business world every few months. Right now, “badass” is having another day in the sun. Badass women in particular are everywhere these days. They’re kicking in doors, shattering stereotypes, inspiring future generations, making noise, changing the game, and oh yeah—not appearing in your history books. You get the picture.
In that light, it’s interesting to consider the origin of the word. Badass is 1950s slang for a puffed-up, macho bully, the kind of guy who overcompensated by acting tough, even though everyone knew that he wasn’t.
How many of you have read Disrupted, by Dan Lyons? In this book, the tech journalist writes about the “bro” culture he encountered when he worked at HubSpot. What he describes is brutal, dehumanizing, and hostile to outsiders—which include women, older people, people with families, and anyone else who can’t conform to the aggressive subculture that pervades much of the tech industry these days.
I realize that when people celebrate these so-called badasses, they’re merely trying to even the score a bit. But I don’t think putting on a false face and emulating everything that has gone wrong in our corporate culture is the right path forward. It’s true that coarse, tough, insensitive types make great competitors. But how about celebrating some of the other personality types for a change? Who knows—just maybe some of these people might be useful in business, too. I’ll suggest a few:
A fighting spirit comes naturally to some of us. A healthy society would foster it without posturing, while still recognizing the women and men among us who have other gifts, such as working in harmony, boosting morale, taking care of the customer, ensuring great quality, and tending the flames of vision and creativity.
Last year, I was privileged to work on several organizational and corporate history projects. I’m looking for more of this kind of work. It’s hard to put into words how satisfying it is to research and bring to life the history of a business that has truly stood the test of time, especially when the client holds the finished, illustrated book in their hands for the first time.
I’ve been involved professionally in the history field since 2000. A few years back, I was developing supplemental materials for a client who ran amazing tours for history buffs (alas, a casualty of the 2008 crash). I got to work directly with the historians to develop reading lists for the tours. But there was one historian who refused to work with me because I’m a woman. He said that a woman couldn’t be a historian. Fortunately, few people share his attitude these days, though there are still too many with unexamined prejudices about what women like to write about.
In that spirit, I wanted to take the occasion of International Women’s Day to salute five amazing women authors who inspire me. I chose these women because I recently purchased their books or have them near the top of my to-be read list!
Candice Millard has authored two of my favorite books of all time: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey and Destiny of the Republic: Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. She is one of history’s most gifted storytellers—I would read anything she writes! She is a former writer and editor for National Geographic. A mom of three, she writes during school hours. Her new book on my list is Hero of the Empire, the story of Winston Churchill’s daring adventures in South Africa when he was only 24 years old.
Lynne Olson began her career as a journalist, working as a political reporter for AP and the Baltimore Sun and as a foreign correspondent in Moscow. She’s authored seven books of history, most of which focus on World War II politics and diplomacy. There is so much to learn about today’s world by understanding our past. Her book on my list is Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941. Her next book, Last Hope Island, is about the tide of refugees who poured into Britain fleeing Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It comes out next month.
Mary O. Parker is a freelance writer from right here in Central Texas who writes about travel and nature. Her new book Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, is original, substantive, and delightfully written. Her husband Jeff contributed beautiful photography. Living in a big city, it is sometimes difficult to know how to connect with nature. This book does the heavy lifting for you no matter where in Texas your travels take you.
Zoey Goto is a London-based journalist and author who writes about fashion and design. She is also a mother and a banjo player! As an Elvis fan, I often think there is nothing new to learn about The King, but the new book Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits proved me wrong yet again. Full of great photos I had never seen before, this book is all about Elvis’s cultural influence and has many new stories about the wildly original, playful, and creative person he was.
Finally—have you been a witness to history yourself? You don’t have to be a professional journalist, writer, or researcher to share it. Some of my favorite books are behind-the-scenes looks at history written by ordinary people. Peggy Grande was personal assistant to Ronald Reagan for 10 years after he left the White House, until he became too ill from Alzheimer’s to be able to work. Before she went to work for Reagan, Grande was a salesperson at Nordstrom! Grande’s book The President Will See You Now is high on my to-be-read list.In addition to learning more about Reagan, I’m interested in this book because of my own experiences trying to help preserve the independence and dignity of my aging parents.
History is never “over.” It’s full of stories that need to be told—and sometimes it takes a woman to tell them!
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.
Yesterday I was involved in a great discussion about networking for introverts. It was interesting to find out how many people who are introverts also wrestle with perfectionism and procrastination. I don’t think anyone is immune from deferring a sticky problem in hopes it will somehow just go away!
Introverts like me love to immerse ourselves deeply in our work. The reward is the opportunity to create outstanding work. However, the challenge is letting go so the work can fly out of the nest! Whether I’m doing work for myself or a client, I do like to fuss over the details, and make sure everything is accurate, correct, reads well, and is “just so.”
Luckily, I’m grounded and action-oriented by nature. One tip I can share is to set deadlines and commit to them. This lifts the burden of over polishing from your shoulders and lets you move on and apply the lessons learned to the next project, rather than remaining immersed in the same one.
And as for procrastination, I’ve been dying to share about a great little app called Forest. If you’re like me and find yourself frittering away time on your smartphone, Forest is a fun way to cut back. Through a game-like interface, you can grow trees and create your own forest by tying up your phone for anywhere between 10 minutes to two hours. If you use your phone during that time, your trees die. If you stick with it, you can earn points to unlock new species of trees, and end up with quite a forest each week before the game starts over. You can even save up your points and contribute them towards the planting of real trees. Give it a try!
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Does anyone else remember the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” It’s about a woman struggling in the face of many regrets. This morning I was thinking about how projects (and lives) get off the tracks. Sometimes as professionals we can get so focused on accomplishing a certain goal that we can lose sight of what the whole enterprise was supposed to be about in the first place.
My business coach gave me a great little book—The Dip by Seth Godin—that contains a lot of wisdom about questions like these. Our society makes a fetish out of “winning,” but the truth is that real winners quit on things all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.
At the beginning, when you first start a new endeavor, it’s fun. You could be taking up golf, or beginning acupuncture treatments, or starting a new job or your own business or beginning a new initiative with your work. It’s interesting and everyone is cheering you on. Over the first few weeks and months, it’s easy to stay engaged.
Then “the Dip” happens. You’ve harvested all the easy wins. The long slog to getting lasting results has begun. Perhaps you have 40 pounds to go, or three years on your degree, or you have two tiny clients and none of your sales prospects will return your phone calls. Your acupuncturist poked you full of holes and you’re still in pain.
It turns out there’s a secret to success in this all-too-familiar scenario, but you have some analysis to do. Suppose you have the idea to become a great snowboarder. You’ve left the fun, awesome bunny slope and now you are falling on your butt a lot. You have three choices:
As Seth Godin writes, either of these choices is valid and constructive. But far too many people choose option three:
How many times have you done that to yourself? I sure have—lots of times.
When you are in the Dip and you know what you are doing is truly worthwhile and has potential—if you know that the pain would be worth it if only you could somehow get there—then that’s when you don’t quit! That’s when you rededicate yourself to it, with all the energy you’ve freed up from bailing out of those dead-end activities. Shedding that sunk cost will invigorate you. It’s a different way of thinking, and that helps you change the game.