How To Write Brilliantly Decent Blog Posts

In recent months, several colleagues have approached me asking for help to become better writers. Why do they think I’m qualified? Aside from writing dozens of papers, scripts, sales sheets, articles, ads and brochures for my employers, I also cannot resist editing whatever is put in front of me. It’s my catnip – and they know it.

Since I am fascinated by the act and art of writing (and inclined to share some hard-won knowledge), I’m responding by writing a blog post about writing blog posts for would-be blog writers. Very meta.

I’ve just completed 16 posts in my first four months at my new job, so let’s just say the topic is fresh in my head. While there are entire books on the subject, I’m going to keep it simple and cover four areas: topics, flow, mechanics, and polish.

Sensing a Topic

This one is both easy and hard to explain. I recently heard the author Pam Houston speak, and she described her writing as driven by small moments of resonating clarity (my words). These could be triggered by the sight of a bird in a meadow, the perfume of a spring blossom, or an odd expression on the face of a sales clerk. Her computer desktop is crowded with these mental notes, which she injects into her writing as appropriate.

Remarkably, I feel the same mental buzz when a topic is ripe for the writing. The sensation comes from a blend of knowing the topic, finding it fascinating, and acknowledging that I could commit an hour or two to sussing it out. I would wager that most writers probably feel the same burst of confidence, excitement and persistence that I do.

I recommend cultivating that radar ping of recognition. Look for it when you finish a project, give a talk, go somewhere new or meet a fascinating person. Is this something worth explaining? Would YOU want to read about it yourself? What value can you provide for the reader’s time?

If you’re still sensing the thrill of the idea, it’s likely a winner. Capture it ASAP and store it in a place where you can find it. Bring it out when you’re ready to write and then think about the flow of the piece.

Dictating the Flow

Flow is important. Awkward segues will lose your readers. Some recommendations:

  • Create an outline. If not on paper, then at least in your mind palace. Know where you’re starting and where you want to go. Then fill in the details.
  • Begin with a memorable opening. Capture their attention ASAP and let them know why they need to read straight through to the end. You can also reveal the path you’re about to take them on so they get a glimpse of the journey (check out the third paragraph from the top).
  • Start at a high level and dig down. I like the inverted pyramid favored by journalists, and even if you’re not partial to it, it can help you with your flow / structure.
  • Finish with a flourish. At the end, provide a good summary of what you want readers to remember. Or like a good comedian, you can end with a surprise reference. If you’re writing for work, always add a call to action (CTA) to continue engaging the reader.

Earn an A+ on Mechanics

Just like in school, mechanics are critical. Some tips:

  • Spelling counts. Read everything you write two more times. And if you’re not sure of the spelling (e.g., straight-forward vs. straightforward) or meaning (e.g., continuous vs. continual), just type your word in Google to get a proper answer.
  • People read with their eyes. So use section headers like I do in this blog. Bold sentences you care about. Use italics for emphasis. NEVER use underlines for emphasis because people will think that the words are linked.
  • Add a graphic when it makes sense. There are plenty of sites with Creative Commons or royalty free images you can use. I love Pexels and Unsplash. The image of the writer at the top is free from Wikipedia Commons.
  • Keep it short.

Add the Polish at the End

Now that you’ve scraped away at your first draft, it’s time to add the polish. Like the dental hygienist does, but less minty.

Most professional writers have an editor (or, in my case, a wife who happens to be an editor), but if you don’t have a sounding board, it’s not a huge deal. I recommend putting the post aside for a day or two and coming back in fresh. You can review your work more objectively when you’re past the initial passion.

I review the language and remove repeated words, unneeded clauses, and stale adjectives that take up space and add no extra value. Sometimes I even take out whole sentences. I always find mistakes, especially if I’ve been extra sloppy with cut and paste. I add any necessary keywords I want Google or readers to see. Then, at the end, I create the best title I can think of.

Perfection only leads to insanity

Well, that may not be true, but let’s acknowledge that a post will never be perfect. However, it can easily be funny, informative, and on deadline. Those are what really count.

Just promise me you won’t give up after the first try and that you’ll strive to improve with each post you publish. Take chances, be memorable, and be meta if you have to.

Endings and Beginnings

At the end of 2018, I was unemployed for a week. At the same time, over 800K of non-essential government employees were put out of work for an unknown amount of time. It was hard to relate: I had a choice, and they did not.

I’d actually made the decision to leave my job as a director of product marketing several weeks earlier, and I dawdled through December, taking advantage of the benefits and unlimited paid time off (PTO) that’s become a standard for the tech industry. I had been recruited to a new role at a tech services company, and for the first time in years, I was the one who initiated the breakup, despite mixed feelings.

Here are a few observations I want to record, before I move too far from the transition period and forget.

Do Not Compromise What You Want in Your Career

A few years prior to leaving my job, my friend Thomas left our marketing group. Rather than take a promotion to the head of marketing, he decided to step back and dive deeper into demand generation, his area of expertise. He stayed true to his career vision, saying no to a leadership role that provided a career boost but swerved away from his passions. I admire him for that.

When my role changed following an acquisition, I sensed the same disconcerting swerve. Like when you’re on a train that unexpectedly veers away from where you need to go because you missed the transfer. Knowing that I wanted to get back on course – and to rise in responsibility in product marketing – I decided to get off at the next station and transfer back to my original destination. While the first train had friendly passengers and an amazing snack car, I decided not to compromise for comfort. Not an easy choice.

No One Leaves a Good Boss

You hear this said quite often, and I estimate I see a LinkedIn post with the same sentiment at least weekly. My choice to move was also motivated by the departure of my former manager, a dynamic, experienced and supportive marketing leader. My new supervisor was adept at navigating company politics and deliverables but never showed interest in advancing the careers of the individuals she managed. She made it easier to leave.

The best leaders I have had are the ones that you work with, not for. They’re collaborative, focused on what’s best for the company and sensitive to the needs of their direct reports. At a minimum, I look for someone who is radically candid, has a sense of humor and perspective, is someone I can learn from and is a servant leader to her employees.

Close Out Strong

Recent research has shown that our perception of an experience, say as a consumer shopping in a supermarket, is malleable and that we more often put greater weight on  the end than the beginning. We may love how we’re greeted when we enter a post office, but if we’re in line for ten minutes, we will remember that wait foremost when asked about the quality of the service at that office.

I believe the same applies to work. More of your peers will remember you for how you finished up than for what you did in the months prior to leaving. So, despite advice to the contrary, I put in extra effort in my final weeks to finalize projects, organize the documentation and hand off work. The alternative – slacking off or leaving immediately – may sound appealing, but it’s hardly professional. I recommend this approach to everyone; it has served my reputation well.

Choose to Work with People You Respect

I interviewed with a number of companies last fall, from giant cloud services to ambitious startups. More than ever before, I listened to the tone of the leadership and took measure of the attitude of the employees. Is my direct manager inspiring? Has he been at the role long enough to have the respect of the organization? Are her reports energized and empowered to make important decisions? Can the company share examples of how it embraces the culture so proudly stated on their About Us web page? (For example, if they’re supposed to be humble, how does that manifest?)

I’m glad that I prioritized this aspect of the interview process. In one case, I had doubts about a new marketing leader, especially when he wanted me to provide him with hours of free research on his market. The company was sexy – growing fast in a hot market – but his vibe was off, and it was difficult to measure his status. By prioritizing character this time around, I ended up at an organization that has been an immediate fit, and I’m already far more productive than I imagined.

Take a Moment to Look Back Before Moving On

Unless you’re switching jobs every year (I know some marketers that do), I recommend savoring the transition. The exit interview, the final goodbyes (or not), turning off the company laptop and walking away. All of it.

When it comes to a new beginning, appreciate what you’ve left and acknowledge why you left, but also make sure to recognize what you loved (hopefully, it wasn’t all bad for you). I’ll miss my work colleagues the most, because they wanted to succeed as a team, and they made most every day enjoyable. When your bittersweet ending is “more sweet than bitter” (than you, Big Head Todd), it’s a rare pleasure.

Advice for Prospective Product Marketers

You never know what will happen at holiday parties, do you? In my case, it was a rather tame – but titillating, all the same – invitation to speak as a part of the University of Denver’s Writers@Work writing series. So last week, I was pleased to finally join the series and address around 15 students and a handful of professors on the topic of writing in product marketing.

I began with my own journey as a writer and explained what product marketers do, why the Denver tech scene is so damned hot, and what are the types of B2B writing you produce for sales, product, and marketing teams. I presented as many examples as I could reasonably fit into an hour, including a real lead gen campaign with ads, emails, eBooks, and sales scripts.

Before answering a few follow-up questions, I finished with practical advice for the would-be career writers. Here are the five tips I gave them to remember (when all else that I said was forgotten):

1. Writing is your Superpower

I explained that, of the roughly 285,000 individuals working in technology in the Denver metro area, probably less than a tenth of those were reasonably decent writers. “You have a gift,” I told the students. “Know that the ability to write in clear, concise and persuasive prose is in high demand in the tech industry.” World-changing technology means nothing if you cannot coherently write about how it will change the world.

2. Always know your audience

I had already spent time explaining the importance of buyer personas, and I reiterated that you must write content with the audience in mind. If you do not understand the needs, motivations and pains of your prospective customer, you cannot be an effective product marketer. As scary as it sounds, talk to customers, and whenever in doubt, return to them and ask what they think. True Voice of Customer will always trump your intuition.

3. Go deep, but don’t get lost

I estimate it takes a fairly smart marketer between 6 to 12 months to internalize their employer’s products, markets and messaging. By this I mean that you are creating authentic and compelling content and are no longer just parroting back what you’ve been taught by co-workers. I urged the students to stay long enough to reap the rewards of this internalization, rather than hop along to the next job every 8 to 10 months. I also warned of getting lost in senseless business drivel like “leverage” (always a noun, never a verb) and “scalability,” which come off as fakery and are a second-rate writer’s crutch.

4. Editing is your Secret Weapon

Just as important as writing in marketing is the ability to edit your colleagues’ work. I asked that the students consider taking a basic editing course, which hardly anyone offers these days. Learning to edit for grammar and meaning not only makes for more impactful content, it helps to reinforce the voice and style of the company’s brand. AND it definitely makes you a stronger writer. Behind the best writers in the world are the editors that help them perfect their art.

5. Build your tech toolset

Lastly, I reminded the students to invest time in learning the tools of the trade: Word, PowerPoint, InDesign, Photoshop, and basic HTML. In B2B product marketing, an early mastery of this toolset means that you can spend most of your time crafting the message instead of struggling with the technology you use to promote it. As with #4 above, you increase your value when your skills make everyone else in the company seem to write as well as you do.

Oh, My, Do I Ever Have Fernweh

Well, hello! It’s been too long since I dedicated time to the practice of writing and sharing my thoughts. It’s not meant as an excuse, but you should know that I have recently been struggling with a near-debilitating case of fernweh. Let me explain.

It all started at work last spring, when Billie introduced me to Leoh. To be clear, Billie is a person, and Leoh is an app. Perhaps THE BEST Chrome extension ever. It’s free and easy to download and install from the Google Chrome store. Once it’s up and running in your Chrome browser, Leoh will open each new tab with an image pulled from its archived trove of crisp pictures – or from your own pictures if you tell it to.

And that’s where the fernweh comes in. According to an NPR piece this spring, fernweh is a German word that is roughly translated as “farsickness.” It’s a longing like homesickness – but for a place you’ve never been.

Maybe you feel that way about an island or a country or a countryside: you’ve thought about it or heard about it or seen it up close. Yet while you’ve never been there, you feel a rise of emotion just thinking about it. When I watch the Lord of the Rings movies, I grow heartsick just thinking how much I want to go to New Zealand right then and there. Never been, but I feel like I have thanks to the amazing cinematography.

Leoh does this to me: Every. Single. Day. When I open that new browser tab, I am immediately transfixed and transported to a white sand beach or a sun-drenched mountainside or a cozy cabin nestled on a winding trail on a rocky mountainside far above an inviting beach. The noisy, open workspace fades from my awareness, and for several seconds, I stare, distracted, without the foggiest notion as to why I opened the new tab.

Just look at the example above. I can almost touch the flowers and feel the late-day breeze as I gaze down at the placid river. Maybe I’ve been hiking with my family, and we made it to a rise where we can stop and rest and take in the magnificent view. But the light is beginning to fade, and we need to get back to the picturesque inn where we’re staying for the night. Images are stories in Leoh.

Leoh hits me visually and emotionally. It’s a farsickness I never knew I had – until the photo pops up in front of me. Then, ever so slowly, I pull up from the mental graveyard spiral and get back to work, either typing in the URL or using the handy Leoh pulldown list of bookmarked sites.

Sadly, the archived images never tell you where the place exists, though occasional you get a hint on a sign and can try to search for it via Google maps. And if you don’t like an image, just hit refresh, and Leoh pulls up a new one. Over the past half year, I’ve gladly recommended Leoh to everyone I know.

But I don’t tell them about the fernweh. That’s for them to discover on their own.

5 Tips for Creating a Riveting Cover Letter

Recently, a friend looking for work wanted me to review his resume. He also asked, ” And what should I include in my cover letter?” Given I’d just finished hiring for two positions and had the luxury of reviewing a boatload of resumes and cover letters, I had a ready answer. I’ve distilled that advice here into five handy tips. I hope you will find them useful, whether in a job search or to score points if you’re looking at me as the hiring manager.

Tip #1 – Actually Write a Cover Letter

I know, seems self-evident. But you’d be surprised how many applicants do not submit a cover letter with their Curriculum Vitae. When I asked our senior talent manager why this was, he told me that it’s become the trend. I told him that’s like sending in the outline of a novel without the dialogue. He told me that it’s a “Millennial Thing.” I told him that Millennials aren’t the ones doing most of the hiring, that it’s the folks like me with twenty years of business who are, and that we like cover letters.

Over coffee, we agreed that he would strongly recommend applicants submit cover letters for jobs I needed filled. My process (and I know many others who agree) is to de-prioritize candidates who do not take the time to write a personal note about WHY he or she wants the job. Omitting a cover letter is a missed opportunity, the equivalent of saying, “Yeah, I’m not really that interested. I’ll just throw my resume at you and expect you to grok me.” Or not.

#2 – Make the Cover Letter Your Personal Story

Since I’m in marketing, I think of a cover letter as the opportunity for you to sell me on you. We’re all storytellers. How good are you? I want to hire the best.

The resume isn’t your story. It’s a litany of facts with no overt motivation. Sure, certain skills and time spent in specific roles will be table stakes for an interview. You can’t change that. But you can impress me by telling me why you’re better than the others and summarize what you’re passionate about doing. It’s your elevator pitch. Use memorable language, make me wonder or even make me laugh. Engage my interest and come across as a person worthy of an interview. The best ever resume will still not make a personal connection.

#3 – Address the Major Requirements

The best recent cover letters I’ve reviewed are those that aim right at the heart of the matter. The candidate selects the top three or four job requirements and explains how his or her experience matches each one. I’ve seen this done in a two-column table format (easy on the eyes) or in a bulleted list (takes up less space). I like this for two reasons:

  1. It short cuts my need to make these connections from the resume. You’ve just saved me time!
  2. It clearly shows that you are savvy to business, that you understand the priorities of the role and why you’re a great fit.

#4 – Show Me You’ve Done Your Research

Do you have any clue what my company does? Why what we sell matters to our customers? What is our long-term strategy? What is our messaging to the public?

It’s natural to do your research prior to an interview, but I would urge you to do a little sniffing out prior to submitting for a role. Then mention your fact finding (“It’s exciting to see how many acquisitions your company has made in the previous year…”) and let the hiring manager see your initiative right off.

#5 – Keep It Brief

I personally like to see no more that three or four paragraphs in a cover letter. Don’t tell me your entire story, don’t copy verbatim from your resume (I’ll read it next), and don’t waste my time with formalities (“I saw your posting on the Monster job board, and I wish to apply for the role, which is a perfect fit for my skills and past job experience based on the requirements for the position.”). I recommend writing out your cover letter and then cutting it in half (or by a third at least). Be pithy and direct.

BONUS TIP – Be Yourself

One of my recent hires sent me a PDF cover letter introduction that included images (see #5 above), addressed the major requirements (see #3 above), and added a little humor (see #2 above). I’m not saying do exactly this, but I will admit his creativity was clever, he played to his strengths, and caught my attention. The document immediately let me know who he was, that he was serious about the application and that he merited equally serious consideration. That’s a riveting cover letter.