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.

Five Tips to Help You Win that Marketing Award

During this weekend’s snow storm and with the help of a few carafes of coffee, I completed my fourth annual BMA B2 Awards volunteer judging stint. This got me to thinking that it would be helpful to share the collected insights with my fellow B2B marketers.

gavelAs a global awards program, the B2s recognize excellence and innovation in business-to-business (B2B) marketing efforts such as global brand strategy, customer marketing strategy, integrated marketing communications, new media strategy (like social), and successful new product and service launches. The whole effort takes me about 6-10 hours, depending on which of the 80+ categories I’m assigned and the number of total entries within those sections. This year, I judged in social and blogging categories, which were new to me.

Why do I love spending my off-work time judging these awards? Perhaps it’s genetic: I’m descended from a deep bench of judges and lawyers (the gavel above was my grandfather’s). More likely is the fact that I totally geek out on the insider exposure I get to the exceptional marketing efforts of a diverse group of businesses and organizations. I learn something positive from each entry, and you know who gets to review 20+ FREE case studies? I do.

My Five Recommendations For Presenting Your Nomination

Looking back over the past four years of B2s, I can recognize patterns in the entries – both helpful and harmful – that are worth noting. Since it’s fresh on my mind, I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on these trends and lay out five general tips for those who are considering nominating a marketing campaign, strategy or asset to any local (e.g., Colorado BMA’s Gold Key Awards) or global awards program.

#1 – Tell a Story to Remember

We marketers excel at telling stories, and judges prefer these over the dry recitation of facts. So why don’t more entries take this approach? While your judges are probably know-it-all marketers (like me), they are also human beings. They can be swayed by your charisma and by the riveting plot line of your B2B marketing drama. Er, I mean marketing project. We never have drama in our line of work.

Start writing your nomination early and take the time to be just as creative as you were on the marketing campaign or asset or person you’re nominating. You must stand apart from your competition: make the story memorable, project enthusiasm and character and don’t shy away from descriptive language. Does your entry answer some or all of these:

  • Why did this matter to the company?
  • What were your company / department struggles?
  • How many people were involved?
  • What obstacles did you encounter? (no campaign is seamless)
  • To what did you attribute your victory?
  • What do the results mean beyond just the metrics themselves?
  • Did this have wider, longer, or unexpected impact on the organization?

I also suggest gathering an outsider’s point of view. Sit down with your spouse or a non-marketing friend or three over coffee or a craft beer and tell them your story. Avoiding business jargon, describe what you did, why you did it and how you succeeded.

Note the questions your audience asks and what grabs their attention. Then practice saying what you want to write, so it’s more accessible. Give yourself time to reflect on your story as you read, exercise, or brush the dog. Make sure to incorporate all of these ideas into your draft entry. Then, when you’re ready, approach a tougher, marketing-savvy audience to make sure your story covers the salient, professional facts.

#2 – Frame It Out First to Keep on Point

Please, please, please: do not write your nomination while in the actual online (or paper) form on the day it’s due. You’ve just wasted your entry fee, and it leaves the false impression that you don’t really care. Of course, you care! Even if yours is an amazing entry, when it feels rushed or presents a weak narrative, it can’t defend itself against a well crafted and perhaps less deserving competitor. Rest assured that the lion’s share of all entries will be well written and yours must be, too.

So as soon as you decide to apply, take time to read the qualifications and questions. They usually follow a logical flow from objectives to results. Copy and paste them into a document and over the next week or two build out the outline / framework in Word, PowerPoint, stickies or whatever tool you find works best. Start writing as many notes into each section as you can. If you’re feeling disconnected from the details, host a brown bag with a few of your team members or the customer (if you’re an agency) to recapture the whole story.

Time dedicated to framing matters because your final nomination has to be brief, focused and complete. Some tips:

  • Start big and then edit fiercely.
  • Pay attention to the balance between the right kind of details and too much detail. If you’re not sure, enlist your biggest critic to review your draft.
  • Your overall summary should never be more than two paragraphs and should highlight the best aspects of the whole nomination.
  • Just like you do with your best marketing content, focus on readability (bullets are good, as are short paragraphs). Some judges may skim if they have 10-20 entries in the category.
  • And don’t repeat facts. I’ve seen entries that use the exact same words in multiple sections, despite that one calls for objectives and the other calls for execution details. It’s sloppy, boring and detracts from your story.
  • Don’t repeat facts. Really. Unless you do it for emphasis like I just did.
  • And make sure you have strong results / metrics that you tie back to your original objectives. For some awards, like branding, that can be a challenge, but you should still take extra time to focus on this section. Rest assured that hte judges will.

#3 – Use Visuals to Transport the Judge

Most of us are visual learners, and abstract campaigns do not inspire. They aren’t dull when you actually do them, so why reduce them for the awards? When the nomination form asks for uploads of examples, videos, URLs, or overviews, make the most of it. Show the judge the banner ads of which you are justifiably proud. Let them see the video that garnered a 35% email open and clickthrough rate. Give them examples of your humorous nurturing emails. Share openly, but only if you want to win.

Some of the best work I’ve seen so far was done by the agencies that are seasoned pros of the award circuit. Several have a standard format PPT-based PDF that repeats the entire story in stylish images and text. Granted, when the same agency submits four awards in your category, and all of them start to look the same, that tactic can work against itself. But still, if you move the judge with your words and then compliment those with a set of informative visuals, it’s the best possible differentiator. I am still saddened by otherwise interesting entries that ignore this critical asset.

#4 – Double-check Before You Hit Submit

This may seem like a minor point, but it’s always the smallest things that trip you up, especially if you’re running up against the deadline. For example, if you’re cutting and pasting from a document into an online form, make sure you’re pasting as plain text. Rich text like apostrophes will more often come across as unreadable symbols, and you may never even see this because it won’t have been translated to the final format until after you’ve submitted.

Readability and polish can count just as much as the content, and you don’t want to make the judge struggle to get your point. One entry that I saw just this year was dominated by all sorts of styles and fonts that made it into an unnecessary eye test. It also included about ten ghostly rectangles that I can only assume were images that could not be stored but were still defined in the underlying HTML coding.

You never know what you’ll get, so stay conservative. Remember that most of these online tools, while handy, lack adequate spell checking. If you type as well as I do, that’s going to be a problem. It pays to check your grammar prior to inputting your responses. If you have the time, get a colleague to review the final version.

#5 – Make Sure to Have Fun with It

Probably an obvious recommendation, but you’d be surprised how serious some of the entries can feel. You – the nominator – have probably been tasked with this job above and beyond your usual responsibilities. No time, few resources and the mandate to make this entry outshine all the others. So, no pressure.

I say relax. It’s just an award. Sure, that shiny piece of glass can justify marketing’s continued fanfare within the company, but let’s face it, you’re going to get more mileage out of the successful asset, campaign or person that you’re writing about in the first place. This is more like the final bound thesis than the oral exam you just aced. You’ve already done the hard work of actual marketing, so approach the award nomination process with some pleasure. Do your best and see what happens. The world smiles back when you smile first.

And bonus tip #6: Once you have written and submitted the nomination, create a second visual, company-friendly version. Post it on your intranet, share it with a list of inside influencers and managers or feature it in the internal newsletter. Let the rest of your business know the good work you’ve been doing!

 

I’m Alive, with Pictures to Prove It

Given that my last post was published in April (sorry!), I should first report that I am indeed happy, healthy, and getting about everything done in my life with the exception of regular blogging. So no, not trapped under a boulder, languishing in a minimum security prison, or holding a “bed-in” ala John and Yoko (which sounds rather fun, actually).

But it’s not that I haven’t been not thinking about blogging (catch the triple negative?). The proof: I’ve been using my handy camera – which doubles as a phone – to document all the various ideas and sights that trigger my “That Would make a Good Blog Subject” impulse. The best way to catch up with you, and clear the boards for new blog posts, is to present what I call…

“The 2015 Blog Posts That Should Have Been”

snow-may10

#1 – Why I Hate Spring Snow

IDEA: Though I normally love a peaceful springtime snowfall, the one on May 10 killed all my fruit tree blossoms and a couple of the trees as well. I rage at the skies.

domo

#2 – Domo Japanese Garden

IDEA: You’d never believe you were in Denver. Ignoring Yelp altogether and taking a chance on a restaurant can lead to an unforgettable dining experience.

halls

#3 – Hall’s Pep Talk Marketing Campaign

IDEA: I love this campaign. Each wrapper proffers cheerful phrases to make you feel better. Unexpectedly turns your state of mind – “I feel lousy” – on its head, so both throat and soul earn minty relief.

tidepooling

#4 – Tidal Pooling Is My favorite Sport

IDEA: I loved this picture from our trip to Monterrey. Looks like an abstract. 7:30 AM, the smell of the ocean, new discoveries on every beach, and nothing but time. The ingredients for a memorable holiday.

city-park

#5 – Denver Can Be Beautiful, Too

IDEA: Photographer John Fielder wants us to believe that all the natural beauty in our state exists outside of the cities, but this shot in City Park proves otherwise – to me.

ink-opening

#6 – ink! Wins Me Over Again

IDEA: No clue what happened here, but I am hard pressed to show you a better example of how to shrug off a launch fail with humor and honesty.

kuvo-pledge

#7 – Harnessing Technology for Your NPR Fund Drive

IDEA: I just loved that KUVO used the music information feed to tell me what to do and how to pledge during the fall fund drive. Exceedingly clever way to visually nudge those of us listening in the car.

threeguys

#8 – 25 Years Later

IDEA: We were all wearing black and looking natty at a friend’s 50th birthday party. We three college friends have known each other for half of her life. Makes you think.