What can marketers possibly learn from lawyers when it comes to producing compelling content?
Aren't lawyers notoriously terrible writers? Aren't they known for using Latin (prevaricate) when English (lie) will do?
Doesn't their love of fancy-pants big words and supposed precision, sometimes combined with a classical education, result in some horribly obtuse prose and obscure reference?
Generally, yes. But not always. In fact, businesses---which now must produce content as a cornerstone of their marketing---could learn a thing or two from Staten Island Civil Court Judge Philip S. Straniere's "unorthodox" judicial writing. During his 14 years on the bench, Judge Straniere has cited authorities like SpongeBob SquarePants, Laurel and Hardy, and Flip Wilson in his court rulings, according to the NY Times. He writes with authority but, at the same time, with dollops of pizazz.
"Judge Straniere is the bard of the Staten Island courts, offering, in all manner of disputes, homespun advice, original lyrics, puns, and, on occasion, withering sarcasm that can make a decision must-reading," William Glaberson of the Times writes.
Here are four lessons that marketers can take away from Judge Straniere.
1. The only thing that matters is the audience.
Judge Straniere decided early on that he would write a full decision in every case so that people would clearly comprehend why they won or lost. "He said his goal was to make his decisions understandable," the Times writes.
Lesson for marketers: You aren't creating content to please your client or impress your CEO or show off your own mastery of the subject. You are writing to please just one person: Your reader. (Or viewer. Or listener. Or what have you.) Remember the advice of former Guardian science editor Tim Radford: "The classic error in journalism is to overestimate what the reader knows and underestimate the reader's intelligence." It's also a common error in marketing.
2. Remember that one has to read your stuff.
Justice Charles Apotheker, an acting State Supreme Court justice in Rockland County, told the Times that whenever he comes across a Straniere ruling, "'I have to read it because I'm sure there will be some little twist or something that he wants to share that has very little to do with the decision.'" Such touches, Justice Apotheker said, set Judge Straniere "apart from run-of-the-mill judges, who can be 'just generally boring.'"
Lesson for marketers: The quality of your content matters far more than the quantity. Learn how to write great headlines. Make sure the first sentence you write is gripping. Write in a human, accessible voice. Have a point of view. Share the stories of your customers. Solve their problems. Have fun with what you are producing. And never, ever, shill your products; that's just boring.
3. English is better than Latin.
This is another gem of wisdom from newsrooms everywhere, and Judge Straniere, too, clearly understands it. He writes in common, everyday language. He writes in the language you hear in the break room---not the courtroom.
That doesn't mean he dumbs down the law; it just means that he speaks human, as C.C. Chapman and I write in Content Rules. He understands that the typical Latin lingo of the law world is often inaccessible and impenetrable.
Lesson for marketers: Lose the jargon, the buzzwords, the Frankenspeak, bloated words that suffer from "word obesity." Adopt English or short words over bloated or long ones. Rather than "ameliorate," try "improve." He's not an "individual," he's a "person." And instead of an "edifice," how about "building"? As my former journalism professor Charlie Ball used to say, quoting Strunk and White, "Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able." Another from Tim Radford: "No one will ever complain because you have made something too easy to understand."
4. A blog post (or article, or podcast, or video, and so on) should say only one big thing.
And you should know what that is before you start writing. Even better: Figure out an interesting way to say it, so you don't turn off your audience.
Judge Straniere obviously has a single judgment he's trying to impart, but he makes it a page-turner by tossing in cultural analogies and references to the likes of MAD magazine, Will Rogers, or The Miracle Worker.
Lesson for marketers: Are you finding the best way to capture your audience's attention? Are you clear about what you are trying to say? A good trick from journalism school is this: Try to express the gist of a piece of content in a single sentence. Doing so will help you focus what it's about and what your reader will take away from it.
And just like the judge's content, yours should have some fun. Have some passion for your subject. You have to care what you are writing about and how you are saying it. Because if you don't, nor will your audience. To quote blogger Johanna Hill of The Mercurial Wife, "Nobody cares until you start caring."
Here’s your chance to edit the editor: I tossed a few bloated words in this post. I’ll give away a copy of our new book Content Rules to the person who suggests an trimmer alternative to any of the Latinate, bloated words, or phrases I used. Leave your suggestion in the comments. I’ll be the final arbiter … err, judge … of the best example. (Be sure to include your email address, so I can contact you.)
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