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Q&A with Ann Handley: Because Every Marketer Writes!

In marketing (and elsewhere) everybody writes. We emphasize the power of a solid story to support our brand’s identity, and to help us connect with our audiences in a way that’s helpful, meaningful, and even spirited.

While the title of “Content Marketing Manager” has emerged across marketing organizations rampantly over the last few years, regardless of your team’s makeup – we all are challenged to embody the skills and tasks of this role. So says Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs (the world’s first!) and author of the new book, “Everybody Writes.”

The book is a viable read for all, but especially helps those marketers who may not feel as comfortable with content, become more acquainted with the idea that everybody does, in fact, write.

Ann will join us as our featured speaker during the upcoming webcast “Essentials in Content Marketing,” on October 30. We’d love for you to join us, too. We’re giving away copies of the book to webcast registrants. Bonus! If you’re looking for writing inspiration, seek no further than our interview with Ann below:

Amanda Batista: What would you point to as the number one writing mishap for marketers? (Why we need to wage a war on content mediocrity)

Ann Handley: I see a lot of grammar and usage errors. But neither bothers me nearly as much as uninspired, boring, generic writing that lacks confidence and a point of view.

We are a planet of publishers, yet many of us are squandering our opportunity. Marketers consistently list “creating engaging content” as one of their top challenges, based on annual research jointly produced by MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute.

Content marketing is embedded as a cornerstone of marketing. Marketers are creating more content; they’re spending more on content; they’re staffing up. Now let’s address this quality issue — let’s tell true stories well.

Plenty of writing books exist. But this is a book is written specifically for marketers, from someone who’s been editing them for almost two decades. (That sounds like a sales pitch – but it’s not. It’s just fact!)

AB: While more organizations now employ a content manager or director (Your content extraordinaire), a person organically more comfortable with writing, how do you advise the content leader to champion a more writing-oriented company culture, so that, “Everybody [on the team] Writes”?

AH: First: Let’s reframe this business of writing. Let’s dispel the notion that some of us are writers, and some of us are not.

All of us as writers. All of us write emails. We all post social updates. We create content on LinkedIn, or Twitter, or Facebook. Some of us write landing pages or blog posts or home page content or product descriptions or memos to our teams.

So recognize all that posting for what it is: writing. And reframe it as a legit aspect of your daily workout — in the same way always taking the stairs becomes, over time, part of a fitness regimen.

Second: Work that muscle. Writing isn't a gift bestowed on a chosen few — it's a muscle we all can work. And like an actual muscle, the more you work it, the faster and more efficient and more buff you get.  

How can the content leader support that reframe and a daily workout? A few things:

1) Help those on your team to become better writers by emphasizing its importance, and through processes that:

a) emphasize a need for The Ugly First Draft and for a rework (few of us are  great writers on the first draft; but good writers tend to be excellent editors of their own work); and

b) include an editor as part of the process. Many companies hire writers; few hire editors. (Some teams edit each other’s work in a kind of buddy system, which can work, too.)

2) Swap places with your reader. In many cases, your reader doesn’t know what you know – so swap places with them on the rewrite: Could you make this point more plainly? More simply? A gem from my journalism school days is this: No one will complain if you make something too simple to understand.

3) Shed the idea that companies always have to buy content expertise. Outside expertise can augment what’s being done in-house, but strong writers internally improve the final product in the way that a great maestro improves an orchestra.  

4) Develop a voice/point of view that’s as strong as your visual identity. This is vastly ignored at many B2B companies.

5) Invest in training. Most marketers haven’t taken a writing class since college or (sometimes) since high school. Actually, can I edit that? Invest in training that’s not boring.

AB: You make the great point that smart writing is derivative of solid empathy, and therefore advise readers to spend more time with prospects and customers to understand how they think. There are many forums for this, but how do you advise marketers to extract the knowledge from that time spent and format in a way that proves meaningful to their marketing communications?

AH: What helps me is to target each piece of content to a specific individual I’ve spoken to directly. So after I write something, I essentially swap places with my reader. I try to be a skeptic of my own work, and for marketers more generally: Get out of your own head, and into your reader’s or your customer’s.

Relentlessly, unremittingly, obstinately think of things from your readers’ point of view, with empathy for the experience you are giving them.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?”

And he will probably ask two more, George wrote: “Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”

Do you dig Ann’s insights? We do, too. If you’re looking for more helpful tips to ramp up your writing to create better content, join us for the upcoming webcast “Essentials in Content Marketing,” 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT, October 30, 2014. 

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