Feeling burdened about writing a piece of content for your business? You’ve been assigned a topic, you open the document to begin, but instead, find yourself staring at the white screen. Wondering what to say? Oh, how you hate the blank page. You doubt yourself. Will the writing be good enough?
In the recesses of your mind, the dread of knowing that when you finish crafting the content and it’s approved for publishing, you will have to do it again later this month.
The demanding obligation of creating content is not going away.
So what can you do?
I recommend a book that may provide some relief from your writing angst: Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley. The text won’t do the writing for you — darn! — but what you’ll appreciate is the author understands your pain. The self-proclaimed “Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content” condenses helpful resources into an entertaining reference.
I think the book is a must-read for everyone involved in content creation.
But until you set aside some time to read it (along with cleaning out the refrigerator and organizing your desk drawer, yes, I know how much you love to do those tasks), let me share tips from the book that you can use in your next piece of content.
“Content is essentially everything your customer or prospect touches or interacts with …” Ann Handley
Handley writes the purpose of writing the book was to “wage the war on mediocre content.” Because, she says:
- “We have become a planet of publishers.”
- “Brevity and clarity matter more than ever.”
- “What matters now isn’t storytelling, what matters is telling the story well.”
“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
You and I, we’re both responsible for crafting more good content at our front door. If we practiced what the following formula preaches, we would make a dent in eliminating unworthy content, if not in the world, at least in our businesses and clients’ businesses.
Handley’s Handy Formula to Outwit Mediocre Content
Quality content is a result of high values of utility, inspiration, and empathy. If any one of the parts of the equation is subpar, then the sum of quality content diminishes.
Utility: Demonstrate Usefulness
Handley writes about thinking through the purpose of the content before you begin to write the first word. Utility means the content helps customers do something that matters to them – ease their pain, help shoulder the burden, help them make a decision, or solve a problem.
To get to the heart of usefulness, she suggests asking these questions:
“Why does this topic matter to your reader?”
“What’s in it for them?”
“Why should they care?”
“What’s the clear lesson or message you want them to take away?”
“What value do you offer them?”
To attain a clear message that focuses on the reader, she says, you can can ask: so what? And then answer the question with because (insert reason).
I want to share the Everybody Writes quality content formula to help marketing agency owners and team members improve their content.
Because there’s significant mediocre content in the world. The formula will help agencies improve content for their business as well as their clients.
Because there’s enough clutter on the internet, and agencies must create content that will be noticed by the right audience, or clients will leave.
Because when the content stands out, the right audience will be attracted and both readers and company will build a good relationship. Clients will be happy and want to continue working with the agency.
So you keep repeating the question and answer until you get to the clear idea.
Handley also talks about having a mindset of valuing your relationship with your audience, and that you put their needs first. A customer-centric content focus is the mantra.
She describes how having an “easy access to a publishing platform and a potential audience” is both a blessing and a curse. You and your clients all have the opportunity, but is the content worthy to publish?
Keeping the content tight means the writing has clarity, brevity, and utility.
When I work with clients who want to update their websites, the first issue they talk about is cutting out words. Shortening a block of text into three paragraphs containing two sentences each may fit a guideline, but will clarity improve? The words may need to change and not just the length.
It’s the difference between what a proofreader would suggest and a copywriter would prescribe.
- Brevity is putting your words on a reduced calorie diet – cutting fat, redundancy, and just respecting the reader’s time.
- Clarity is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the quality or state of being clear, lucidity.
- Useful is addressed, says Handley, when you continuously ask yourself, “Would the reader find this useful to know?”
A good example of utility is a website from a Midwestern city where I had lived several years ago. See how the content is focused on the visitor’s experience?
I realize hospitals are monolithic and complex organizations, and just going to the hospital can be confusing to navigate and to arrive at the right office.
When I go online to check out specialists on Atlantic Health System’s website, I’m disappointed about how I can’t find what I’m looking for. So I call the doctor’s office instead.
But I also have a doctor I see at Summit Medical Group and to me, the website is an example of a better user experience because of the simple menu and lots of whitespace.
Inspiration: Content Uses Data and Creativity
“Are you telling your story from your unique perspective, with a style that’s clearly you?” Ann Handley
Handley summarizes inspiration this way: “Inspiration means your content is inspired by data or it’s creatively inspired or both. Fresh, different, well-written, well-produced, nicely designed and it feels like it could only come from you.”
Do we review our content with those qualities in mind? Or is the content the same as everyone else’s?
She also explains how to “see content moments everywhere.” She describes seeing trends or events outside your industry in addition to in your industry and applying them to your content.
One tip is doing something unexpected to surprise visitors on your website, especially on the About Us page. A good example is what Mike Graham, owner, choose to do instead of writing a blog on his company’s website, Second Melody. Click Second Melody to reveal the surprise of his blog. I know Mike, but even if he was a stranger, I’d still want to become a subscriber. So I did.
Empathy: Swap Places with Your Reader
Handley stresses how important empathy is to fulfilling quality content. She has an empathy hack to help writers get into the customer mind-set: Use you more than us or we. On the website’s Home Page, for example, count how many times you use you, then count the number of times you use us or we. Make yous the winner.
Her book drills the premise of reviewing all of your content – everything including office door signage, building signage, website pages, brochures, email messages, customer support scripts, and even letterhead – from a perspective of the customer or prospect.
You can relax about your hang-up with how good the writing needs to be. Quality content does not mean writing with skill and expertise of your favorite esteemed author, she says. Empathy for your reader or audience is what matters.
“You should be the customer advocate,” Ann Handley
The empathy value in the formula means you focus on your customer and not what your client, the president, the manager or the boss wants. She writes about how many organizations, especially those with multiple points of view or layers of bureaucracy, tend to place other agendas above the interests of the reader.
The essential point: “The only people your content needs to please are your readers.”
I think empathy is like putting on a pair of glasses that transform your viewpoint into your customer’s point of view. Not rose-colored, but customer-colored.
When my daughters played dress up, I was fascinated how their walk, speech and behavior changed. Just by putting on the dress, crown, sparkly earrings and bracelet, and glittery shoes, they would alter their personas. They were no longer 5 year old girls. They became Cinderella and Snow White. So is your thought process when you’re writing with a customer mind-set.
“All good content puts the reader first,” Ann Handley
Speaking their language, using the words your audience is familiar with and uses is also important.
Another aid to get you in the empathic zone is asking questions.
She suggested the following prompts:
”What experience is this creating for the reader?”
“What questions might they have?”
“Am I making them work too hard to figure out what I am trying to say?”
Here’s the formula again:
Try this formula to combat the angst you may feel.
What questions do you ask that helps you be more focused on the reader?