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.

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.

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!