How To Create Better Content – @annhandley

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Ann-Handley-PinterestWhether you are a good writer, or just think you are, creating marketing content for your business is no easy task. Ensuring that content is of the utmost quality can be downright daunting. It’s time to stop feeling like a deer in the headlights and start rethinking the way your business markets.

Communication with your audience is a privilege, so give them content that inspires engagement and truly serves the needs of your business. Understanding the writing process – whether it’s a blog or a simple tweet – and how to create a dialogue versus a monologue will serve your business well. Swapping places with your reader will give you a chance to see things from their perspective so that you’re better prepared to answer the questions that they want to know. Don’t just create more content, create better content.

Ann Handley is a content superstar. As the Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs, keynote speaker and author of two bestselling books, Ann proves that she knows a thing or two about creating smart, engaging, effective marketing content that helps make businesses successful.

Rich: Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of Marketing Profs, she’s a columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine, a LinkedIn influencer, a keynote speaker, a mom and a writer. She co-authored the bestselling book on content marketing called, Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business. And she now has a fairly new book out, the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide To Creating Ridiculously Good Content. She’s also one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram, where she gets more “likes” than any non-celebrity or non-teenager I know of. Ann, welcome to the show.

Ann: Thank you so much for that, that’s really funny. Thank you!

Rich: My pleasure, I love your stuff on Instagram. We’ll have a link to that as well. Today we’re talking about one of my favorite topics, and you and I were chatting quite a bit beforehand about this topic, but we’re going to talk about writing.

You have the book, Everybody Writes, you have Content Rules. So I work during my day job with a lot of small businesses and organizations, and I hear it both ways from my clients. Some say they can’t write, and some think they can – mistakenly, perhaps. Is there a litmus test to tell if you can write well enough for your business?

Ann: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there’s a litmus test, but I will say that I think that people tend to have a complicated relationship with writing. Just in line with what you were just saying, I think they do tend to self identify as a writer or not a writer. And as I talk about in Everybody Writes, very often both groups are wrong. I feel like there are some people that are over confident in their skills and some people are under confident in their skills.

The truth is, I think somewhere in the middle I think we are all capable of producing good writing, decent writing, and I think that’s true even if you are a small business. If you are a single marketer working as part of a larger team, I think we are all capable of better content.

But is there a litmus test? I have to really think about that. I mean, I think the biggest thing is you really have to want to do it and you have to understand why it’s important for you and for your business.

Rich: Alright. And just as you said that a couple things came to mind. One is, it sounds like it’s almost the reverse of the “Henry Ford rule”, which is whether you think you can’t or you think you can, you’re right. And for writing, apparently it’s the reverse of that. If you think you can, probably you’re a crap writer.

The other thing that I think everybody out there wants to hear is, you can get better. This is a skill and if you practice it and practice well, you can continually improve your writing.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the analogy that I’ve come to think about and align with writing is a little bit like – well, two things – one is bookkeeping. If everyone can balance their checkbook and do the basics that they need to get things together for your tax guy, everybody has a basic comfort for numbers because you need that to survive as adults. And I think that writing is the same way. Unlike bookkeeping, we tend to infuse it with this sort of loftiness and sense of artistry.

And certainly writing can be beautiful. I think there are clearly writers who are incredibly gifted and those people are novelists, they are essayists, they are journalists. But at a fundamental level I think we are all capable of producing really good writing that can really serve the needs of our business. And a whole lot better than a lot of the content that’s out there now. So that’s really why I wrote, Everybody Writes, it’s sort of my fundamental philosophy as relates to writing.

Rich: Right, and as I told you, I am most of the way through your book and I will just say that it is a very good book on how to become a better writer, with a lot of different types of advice and you’re coming at it from a lot of different angles.

Ann: Yeah, and I really tried to make it practical and actionable. Nothing drives me more nuts than when I close a book and go, “That was an awesome read, now what?” I really wanted to write something that was accessible to people who maybe don’t think of themselves as writers, and also make it accessible for people who think of themselves as writers but think that they want to get better.

So I really tried to give anybody of almost any skill level some sort of actionable takeaway. So based on feedback I’ve gotten so far, I think it’s been pretty positive, I think I’ve delivered that.

Rich: Awesome. Now I’m going to read the next questions I wrote verbatim, which I don’t usually do, but I want to read this to you and then you can tell me how much you cringed at the end of it and we can discuss it. The question is, when it comes to business writing, how do we know what to write about? What’s going to move the needle?

Ann: Oooh.

Rich: Now see, I know that you hate, “move the needle”, although it’s one of my favorite business sayings. So, feel free to answer the question or just crush my hopes and dreams on “moving the needle”.

Ann: Alright, well, I have to be honest and say that what bothered me more than “move the needle” was “when it comes to”. And by the way, the reason I don’t like, “move the needle” is because I feel like it’s one of those hackneyed phrases that a lot of businesses rely on to express a concept that I think they could express a little more creatively.

Rich: I’ll work on that for the next episode.

Ann: I don’t like, “when it comes to”, because you could simply just say “when” or “in”. So it’s a lot of words to express something that’s a fairly concise concept. But anyway…so, what was the original question again?

Rich: Well first of all, I feel like that student who writes the love letter to his english teacher and it comes back corrected with all the typos. I’m just throwing that out there.

Ann: I know. That’s so funny that you say that because I feel that people feel that way when they’re communicating with me, especially when I’m getting emails or articles for Marketing Prof, and I really don’t want people to feel that way. I don’t want to be this grammar person that everybody fears. I really want people to loosen up with their communication.

That really is my bottom line. I worry less about grammar stuff then I do about original thought or just getting more comfortable with tapping into your own writing voice. So I just want to put that out there because I hate to be thought of as somebody who’s really persnickety about grammar, because believe me, I am not at all.

Rich: Alright. Yes, Ms. Handley, I totally understand. In business writing, how do we know what to write about? Actually, I’m going to even go quicker, I’m just going to say, “How do we know what to write about?”

Ann: Yeah, it’s true. What do your customers want to know, what questions do they have? How can you help your customers? One of the big themes of Everybody Writes is, “What will your customers thank you for?” What content can you give to them that’s a kind of gift in the sense that it answers their questions and really helps them make decisions?

To me that really comes down to thinking about things from your customer’s point of view. And there’s a lot of lip service that’s paid to that concept, I talk to a lot of businesses all the time and they all say, “Well of course we think of things from our customers point of view.” But most businesses really don’t, they really do think of things from their corporate-centric point of view.

So in content, I think it’s really important to shift your mindset and really think about what can we give our customer that will help them. That’s the bottom line, I think that’s really what’s going to – in your vernacular – “move the needle” in business. That’s really what’s going to get traction with them. That’s going to resonate most, talking about them and their problems and their questions and then offering solutions to those issues.

Rich: Alright, well that makes a lot of sense. And I love the phrase, “What will your customers thank you for?” I think that’s really critical.I like it so much, I’m actually going to skip over the whole thing about “lip service” – talk about a hackneyed phrase – but anyways, we’re going to let that one go.

So, I know what I want to write about. Whether it’s hashtags or gluten free pizza or Spiderman – whatever it is that I’m ready to write about – I go to the page (WordPress, Evernote or a blank sheet in front of me), how do I get rid of that “deer in the headlights” look? (He says, afraid that he’s tripped over another hackneyed phrase)

Ann: The fear of the blank page. There’s a couple ways that you can think about it. I was surprised while doing research for this book the number of writers and marketers and business owners/entrepreneurs that I talked to who don’t start a first draft by writing, they start by dictating. I talked to a journalist friend here in Boston who does a lot of his first drafts in the car. He dictates into his iPhone and then later transcribes them and then that’s usually a first draft. And that surprised me because I thought of him as a “writer’s writer”, more of a print person than anything else. So I think there’s a number of ways to think about it, dictating is definitely a great way to think about it.

Another trick that I do all the time, actually, is I start something as an email. So rather than opening up a Word doc I’ll actually just fire up my inbox and I’ll just start something as an email, and it feels to me a little bit more personal if I’m writing an email to somebody versus getting a little confounded by the notion of this huge audience and represented by that blank page.

You can write it as a sort of letter. One of the things I talk about in the book is the number of folks who start a blog post or any bit of content as, “Dear mom” or “Hey sweetie” or “Hi honey”, something like that, being pretty conversational in your approach.

Those are just some tricks that I think can really help you. There’s also lots of little bits of technology out there, too, that can really help you do that. There’s lots of stripped down versions of content creation management systems that can help you if you get really distracted, for example. There’s all kinds of tricks and tools that you can use to do things, like shut off your internet for an hour so that you can focus on writing. I don’t need to do that, but I can imagine that might be useful if you find yourself constantly being distracted by what might be going on elsewhere on the worldwide web.

Rich: Right, although that’s tough if you’re actually writing about social media. Which is why those articles take me longer than anything. So dictating – definitely a good idea – I’ve done that myself actually sometimes using Google voice. I will just call in an idea for a topic or talk through it, and then it ends up in my inbox and it’s already been transcribed – poorly – but still transcribed. Or the email letter approach definitely works.

One thing you mentioned in your book that I liked – and I’ve done this for some articles and I’ve definitely done this for presentations I do – is just kind of writing an outline and then kind of filling in the blanks afterwards. I think that also becomes a little less intimidating for some people who may not be used to writing on a regular basis.

Ann: Yeah, that’s a good point. I do that all the time actually, because I think about it as a kind of grocery list. No one ever gets writer’s block when they’re writing “pork chops, kale, yogurt and eggs.” So I sort of approach it the same way to sort of create that scaffolding first, almost write a list of the main points that you want to make and then sort of fill it in from there.

One of the things that I talk about a lot in Everybody Writes, and I also found through research, is that there is no one way to write. No one ever does it the exact same way that somebody else does it. So I think a lot of it is through trial and error, figuring out what works for you. How do you create content best, what’s easiest for you? You’re not going to know that unless you give it a shot.

Rich: Yeah, and maybe try a few different ways. I know for me, personally, that I like my writing to sound like my spoken voice. And often I just find that after a first draft I read out loud, saying, “does this sound like Rich Brooks or not?” So I think people need to find their own way, but if you are concerned that you’re not a good writer, there are these basic steps that you can take to continually improve, like in anything else.

And along finding your route, you have this phrase in your book you call, “writing GPS”. Can you kind of explain that to us?

Ann: Yeah. So the “writing GPS” is really about drawing a map for yourself. Just like a GPS in your car will get you where you need to go, I think a writing GPs can serve that same purpose. One of the things that really gets in people’s way when they’re thinking about creating a bit of content or writing a blog post or whatever is that they don’t quite know where to start. And ironically I think the best place to start is where do you want to end up, what’s your goal. So that’s sort of your endpoint, that’s your home.

A lot of times what I do is I put that up at the top of the page and then I work backwards from there. So figuring out what is your goal and where do you want to end up and then reframing that, put your reader into it and really think through, “Why does my goal really matter to the reader? What can I create that will help them as well as help me?”

And then there’s other steps in the writing GPS, but it really comes down to thinking through what your end goal is and then reframing that GPS a little bit to work your reader into it. And there’s other things you can do, too, like finding data and examples to support the points that you’re making, really thinking through the organization a little bit. How is it best to communicate and then some basic things that we touched on a minute ago. Then just writing what I call the “ugly first draft” and letting it all hang out and just barfing it out, so to speak.

Don’t worry about grammar and full sentences. Don’t even worry about being coherent, just get down what you want to get down and then walk away and then come back to it in a couple hours or hopefully a day later. It takes me a day to sorta let something ferment in my own brain to produce something that’s better than what I left the day before. But give yourself a little bit of time with it.

So there’s a series of steps that I take you through in the book that I think ultimately can get you where you want to go and produce something that’s really solid and really good.

Rich: Yeah. And I think that’s what it is. A lot of what you’ve been saying and a lot of what’s in the book is about just starting with some systematic approaches, and not to depersonalize the writing experience, but kind of simplify it so anybody can take these steps to create content. We’re writing content that’s for our audience, we’re writing it kind of as if we’re talking to just one person.

You just mentioned one of my favorite things in the book which is the “ugly first draft”, no one’s going to see it, this is your bedhead. You just put it out there and then then – like you said – walk away, come back with a fresh set of eyes. Now when we come back, do you have any suggestions on how we can take this ugly first draft and kind of clean it up a little bit and make it a little bit more coherent or persuasive or better job explaining what we’re trying to explain.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. I mean, a big piece of that is just getting through the experience that you’re giving your reader, just thinking pretty critically about what it is that you’ve produced. So you’ve produced that ugly first draft and certainly you can go through and do some basic things. Clean up sentences, add punctuation and six the grammar. But I think more importantly you have to really look at it from what I call, “swapping places with your reader” and seeing things from their point of view.

Am I making my point clear? Is this leaving questions in the readers mind or am I being pretty specific with what I’m trying to communicate? So a big piece of taking that ugly first draft less horrid is really about swapping places with your reader and putting yourself in their mindset and then going back over the piece at that point. And just taking a second look at it again with that eye toward, “Can I make things better for the reader? What experience is this giving them?”

Stephen King has a wonderful line that says, “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open.” So what you’re doing after the ugly first draft is opening the door and really letting your reader in at least in your own head anyway, by giving you a sense of what is it that I’m creating for the reader. What kind of experience am I creating for them? Is this clear or is this just not clear?

Rich: Well, that brings up an interesting point in terms of we’ve written our first draft and we come back and edit it and we’re taking more time with it. Now it seems that everybody wants to publish and they want to publish immediately. We’re competing with so much other content out there, how much time should we be spending on a blog post? I mean, I think that a lot of people hear all this stuff and just want to write something and get it up there. What would you say if somebody kind of came to you with that feedback?

Ann: I think it really depends what it is. Sometimes you do want to get something up there if something is really time sensitive. But in my experience, those situations are pretty few and far between. I think you’re much better served as a business by being a little bit more thoughtful about what it is that you’re putting out there, and again, really thinking of things from your customers point of view.

Just using things like an editorial calendar, too, so some simple tools can really help you with that so it creates a little bit more order from the chaos. You’ll have a better idea of what and when you need to publish and you’ll know that a little ahead of time, which I think we all should be doing. I think it’s pulling back a little bit and thinking through what content you’re getting out there.

I love the fact that content is so much a part of marketing these days and publishing is a privilege. Being able to communicate with an audience is such a privilege, and for businesses I think being able to talk to our customers directly without going through PR or going through traditional publishing is such a gift. So I’m challenging companies to think about content while being a little bit more discerning. The world does not need more content, I think we need better content, and so I think that’s the mindset that publishers – in other words, businesses – needs to have.

Rich: Alright, so except for breaking news type websites, most of us take a deeper breath and spend a little bit more time on the research and the polishing of that product before you share it with the world. That seems to be what you’re saying.

Ann: Yeah! And if you’re business is some sort of breaking news site, clearly you need to hire the kind of people who are really speedy and really good at that kind of writing. I started my career in journalism, I worked for the Boston Globe for a number of years as well as lots of little small town newspapers, and I got pretty good at that as were the people I worked with. So hire those people if you are in that business, but that doesn’t describe most businesses out there.

Rich: Right, exactly. I think most businesses would benefit by producing less content but spending a little more time in rules of writing for the end user.

Ann: Yeah, exactly.

Rich: Most of what we’ve talked about today does seem to be – I wouldn’t exactly call it “longer form”, because I don’t even know what “longer form” on the internet is – but we’ve been talking about stuff that at least to me sounded more like blog posts, scripts for videos or something like that.

I know in the book you’ve got tactics for writing short pieces like tweets. Do you have some tips you can share with us today on writing better tweets or using hashtags better in social media?

Ann: Yeah. It’s funny that you brought up the hashtag section because that was the section that I almost didn’t put in because I was feeling like, “Do I need to talk about this, really?” Even my publisher questioned it. But I’ve been involved with Twitter for 7 years now, something like that. So for me I sort of grew up with hashtags and it feels very second nature to me. But I think they are confusing for somebody who comes into twitter midstream and everybody is using hashtags so it’s confusing. So I decided I’m going to kind of explain this a little bit.

So writing for Twitter I think the best thing to think about is creating dialogue and not monologue. A lot of tweets that I see really read like 140 character press releases. They’re super short, sort of broadcasts as opposed to really conversational tweets. Again, I think the idea of communicating with an audience is a privilege, so the idea is to engage with folks on Twitter, not just broadcasting but really thinking through how we connect with folks, how do we engage them a little bit more and not just broadcast our own headlines. I think that’s the real value of social media generally, and especially Twitter.

Rich: And I think with tweeting it’s the same thing as any of the other writing we’re talking about. At the beginning it seems very difficult and confusing and actually I think writing short bits of 140 characters is more challenging. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you become in the medium.

When my dad first started, I think his first tweet might have taken him about 7 months to write, because he doesn’t want it to be wrong. Meanwhile, I’ll knock out 20-30 tweets in a day knowing that only a fraction of people are even going to see it, and if they’re not that good they’ll disappear anyway. And then you have that one moment in time when you’re writing and because of your personality you write that one tweet that everybody sort of gloms onto because they resonate, and you really feel like you made that connection.

Ann: Yeah, exactly. And share a little bit about who you are. I think especially for businesses they’re trying to figure out, “What does she actually mean by engaging?” I think a good guideline there is to think of personalizing your Twitter account, or any social media account that you’re representing your business on and not making it personal. So it’s personalized, not personal. I think the distinction there is sharing a bit of the backstory, sharing a bit of an inside view of your company.

If you are in retail this time of year, just showing photos adnan example of what your warehouse looks like, something that really shows the behind the scenes a little bit does give a more personalized view of your business.

But don’t talk about things that your customers don’t care about. So maybe things like your kids, for example. I’m @marketingprofs on Twitter, I’m also @annhandley on Twitter, and what I share on @marketingprofs is a little bit different than what I share as @annhandley because @marketingprofs is the brand. I used to talk about my kids on there 5 or 6 years ago, but I don’t anymore, because in my mind nobody cares about that. I’m very marketing focused on there with an eye toward personalizing the Marketing Prof brand for our audience.

Rich: Yeah, I feel the same way when it comes to @therichbrooks and @flytenewmedia. We still want @flytenewmedia to be funny, but we want it to be more helpful and yeah, I’m not posting pictures if my kids or sharing any of those kinds of things.

Well Ann, this has been great. I am still working my way through your book. Even though you told me it was a quick read, obviously I’m not a quick reader. But I strongly recommend this.

If you are sitting there and you’re struggling with your writing or you want to become a better writer, you want to communicate with your audience, you want to come up with better ways to move the needle, then this book is definitely for you. Ann, where can we find more about you online?

Ann: Oh boy, you can find me at annhandley.com, you can find me at everybodywrites.com if you want to find out more about the book, or you can go to Google. I recently knocked Connecticut State Senator Marie Handley off the front page of Google because she’s out of office now. She stopped creating content so I moved in there.

Rich: Same thing happened to me when Rich Brooks the football coach retired. It took a little while and he still comes up in the search as often as I do, but the bottom line is I am slowly pushing him out of the interwebs.

Ann: Yeah, that’s a wonderful feeling, isn’t it?

Rich: Absolutely. It’s tough when you have a generic name like mine. Anyway, Ann, thank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Ann: Hey, thanks for having me, Rich, This was really fun, so thanks a bunch.

Sweet Links:

Find out more about the amazing Ann Handley!

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Read Ann’s books immediately. Do not pass “Go”. Do not collect $200.

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While you’re at it, go follow Rich on Twitter as well. (He likes to feel important!)

  • Gordon Diver

    Great chat Rich. You two really need to work on having some fun though 😉 Not only did I get great information and insights (I’ve read Everybody Writes), but had a few chuckles and an incessant smile (likely because Ann’s laugh is infectious). All the very best to you, your family and your team over the holidays.

    • Yes, Ann’s a real bore. Very tough to get anything out of her. 😉

      I’m glad the interview added something to what’s already a great read. Happy holidays to you too, my friend!

      • Gordon Diver

        Agreed! Thanks for the wishes.