Ann Handley is chief content officer at MarketingProfs, and co-author (with C.C. Chapman) of the best-selling book Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business. She's a frequent keynote speaker and writes for Entrepreneur.com and at LinkedIn and her own blog.
(She's also writing a new book!)
I invited Ann to Marketing Smarts to discuss what makes for great marketing writing, and how anyone—whether or not they are naturally talented—can become a better writer. (And also because she is my boss.)
Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:
When creating marketing content, make the customer the hero of your story (06:19): "Make your customer the hero of your story. In other words, don't make your brand the hero, but really put your customer into the company itself. Talk about everything you do through that customer lens. We know that as marketers, and the best content marketers are already doing that, but I don't think it's as natural as you might think it is, because there's a lot of content out there that's still very corporate-centric and not customer-centric."
Great writing focuses on the reader, not the writer (09:27): "The biggest thing is...really having a helping mentality to very specifically focus on the reader. To think almost relentlessly about the reader, and the reader's experience. I guess the exception there would be poets. Poets can write whatever the hell they want. All bets are off. You don't necessarily have to make yourself understandable, but...in a marketing context...great writing is perfectly clear. It has brevity. It respects the audience's time. It has clarity: it makes what you're trying to say crystal clear to the reader. It really focuses with tremendous empathy on that reader. It really delivers what the reader needs and not what the writer wants to say."
Stop putting so much pressure on yourself (14:41): "I think a lot of us have anxiety about writing.... A lot of marketers I talk to really do have a lot of anxiety about writing, usually from some trauma in their childhood. They had some teacher that told them they were a terrible writer, or they always felt like they were failing in some way. And so...they approach their desk to write or their laptop to write with a sense of going to the dentist and getting...a root canal or something really painful and prolonged. So, I think the biggest thing writers should stop doing is just to cut themselves some slack. There is no one way to write, and you can definitely be a better writer. I think that we need to shed some of these feelings that we have. Writing can be very fun and...wonderfully freeing.... In this world where words are our proxy, I think we need to get good at it."
Once and for all, use "use," do not utilize "utilize" (17:51): "You know I'm allergic to any word that has 'ize' on the end of it, so I'm just going with 'use.' Most of the time, you can use 'use.' There are specific situations where you can use 'utilize,' but anytime I hear somebody say that, it's a little like nails on the chalkboard to me.... Use 'use' if you can."
Ann and I talked about much more, including her earliest aspirations of becoming a "writter," and whether Mad Men character Peggy Olson would make a good content marketer, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!
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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.
Ann Handley, co-author of Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business. She is chief content officer at MarketingProfs.