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If you're age 35 or younger and your college degree is in a non-STEM field, I'd bet that you've heard (more than once) some variation of "Oh, so you studied [insert name of discipline that falls under the umbrella of liberal arts]? Have fun serving coffee for the rest of your life, sucker."
Yes, much scorn is heaped on those of us who shunned more technical fields of study. Apparently, we're hopelessly out of touch with the job market, saddled with useless degrees, and unable to keep up with the zeitgeist.
But take heart, because I can tell you from personal experience that's just not the case. I worked in journalism for close to a decade before making the switch to tech and marketing, and the skills I developed in my early career helped prepare me to not only succeed but also thrive in my new role.
Here's how the skills I learned as a journalist helped prepare me to create truly impactful marketing content.
Note: If you work in marketing, I highly recommend tuning into our Pro Webinar series. We cover tips, tools, and examples of how to use data and testing to inform a killer content strategy.
1. The Importance of Reading and Research
More than anything else, my time spent studying and working in journalism taught me the importance of being a voracious reader and a critical thinker.
Simply put, you should be reading—a lot. Start small by creating a bookmark folder in your Web browser where you can save the URLs of major tech websites, such as CNET and TechCrunch, as well as the technology verticals of reputable newswire services, such as Reuters and AP. Digesting the latest tech news, whether by yourself or in a team setting, can be an effective way to brainstorm and generate ideas for marketing content.
Journalistic skills and best-practices are also critical for creating any sort of customer-facing communication, whether you're writing a press release, interviewing customers for research and case studies, or listening to your business's call recordings to hear what consumers are actually asking your business. Interview skills aren't just useful for writing newspaper features and magazine profiles; they are every bit as useful for creating content in the world of marketing.
But honing your skills is only half of the battle. For a distressing number of professionals these days, writing is all about monitoring social media for new headlines and reactions and then working backward from those "hot takes" to create editorial and marketing content, all in the hopes of chasing an existing audience or trend. That sort of (often opportunistic) writing is often fun, and it can be great for attracting attention (and fame—or infamy), but it's generally more confusing than it is illuminating, and more hurtful than helpful.
To craft truly impactful writing—whether you're a journalist or a marketer—you need to do your own research, draw your own conclusions, and express your views to your audience in compelling ways.
So, if you're producing marketing content and you find that you're just rewriting something that someone else has already published, don't despair, because that's a prime learning opportunity.
Consider: Do you want your work to truly make an impact and provide value for your audience, or do you want to publish for the sake of chasing SEO and traffic? The answer is that you want both.
Take a step back and ask yourself some key questions:
- Why is this information important, and why would your audience be interested in it?
- What perspective or data can you provide that hasn't already been covered by someone else?
- What's the key takeaway you want to impart to your readers or viewers?
Ultimately, the kind of content that creates true value for your audience is the kind that matches searcher intent and drives traffic.
When you make time for self-assessment, the content you produce will ultimately be stronger for it. There are no shortcuts or cheat codes for easy success here—just plenty of hard work and dedication.
2. Economy of Language (Less Is More)
Another key journalistic skill is economy of language: being able to express complex ideas and concepts while remaining hyper-efficient with word count.
As some famous writer-guy once said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." This isn't just a pithy turn of phrase that sounds good onstage. It's a profound truth that all writers should take to heart. The power of writing, especially when you're trying to make a persuasive argument to convince your audience, lies in using as few words as possible.
Precise, succinct writing doesn't just look better on the page—it's more effective and convincing, which, in the marketing world, means it's more likely to grab the reader's attention and spur a conversion.
As marketing guru Joseph McCarthy documents in his book BRIEF: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less, professionals on average receive 304 emails per week, look at their smartphone 36 times per hour, and deal with an interruption every eight minutes.
There's a clear and compelling arithmetic here for marketers: Shorter and more effective writing means you're more likely to pierce through those constant distractions and make an impact on your audience.
The next time you're drafting a blog post or a marketing email, consider which parts can safely be left on the cutting room floor—then trim your writing accordingly.
3. Deadlines Make Us Come Alive
A career in journalism will instill a healthy respect for (and fear of) deadlines in any writer. Missing a deadline will not simply damage your relationship with the publication you're writing for; it could well mean that your work will never be published.
The parallels here for marketing are easy and obvious, but they bear repeating: We work in a deadline-driven industry; hitting specific targets on specific dates is key to the smooth functioning of the entire team. (And we all know there's no motivator quite like a looming deadline.)
The best journalists get their work in on deadline; the same is true for the best marketers.
4. Going Beyond the Data to Tell a Meaningful Story...
Marketers live and breathe data these days, so it's reasonable to expect that a marketing writer will be data-fluent, or at least data-literate. But to make the best possible use of data, writers need to go beyond simply relaying facts and statistics back to their audience: They need to be able to transform that data into a compelling story.
One of the best and most straightforward ways to transform data into a meaningful story is to bust out that old standard from your high school days: the 3.5 essay.
In a 3.5 essay your writing structure consists of an opening paragraph that states your thesis; three paragraphs, each of which makes a supporting argument for your thesis; and a closing paragraph that summarizes your arguments.
Instead of thinking of data purely in terms of raw information that must be conveyed to your audience, start thinking of it as baseline material that helps add meaning to the story you're crafting.
5. ...That Moves the Reader's Heart
Everything I've discussed so far is simply a means to this end: to move your audience on a deep, emotional level.
Early pioneers in marketing, such as Edward Bernays, keenly understood that to motivate your audience into buying something, you need to connect with them not by engaging in rational discourse but by stimulating an emotional response.
Indeed, there's good reason why it's suddenly fashionable for everyone from UX designers to marketing writers to call themselves "storytellers." There's an innate understanding at play here—that the art of telling a tale goes far beyond the mechanics of rational arguments. Effective storytellers don't just offer bland recitations of facts and statistics; they spin yarns that can move their immediate audience, or their entire town, or even the whole world...
Good marketers, like good journalists, should also think of themselves as storytellers. Framing your work in terms of moving your audience on an emotional level makes for more memorable and effective marketing. (And it's a whole lot more fun to produce, to boot!)
In other words, don't look down your nose at those who got their degree in comparative literature or creative writing. They bring essential skills to their organizations, and they have a lot to teach others about being effective marketers.