Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content by Ann Handley, is a real treat. At well over two-hundred pages, I really thought this book was going to be a slow, painful read. Instead, I was surprised to find a quick go-to reference guide to creating outstanding content.
This book is comprehensive; it covers everything from basic writing structure to the fundamentals of writing eye-catching headlines. Don’t think you need to know about headlines or blogging? Think again. Given the reality of the digital space we now occupy, being able to create amazing content is a necessity, not a choice.
If you have a website, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. And that means we are all writers. – Ann Handley
Everybody Writes? “But I can’t write!” you might declare. I hear ya, I really do. But Handley says that writing isn’t so much a talent as it is a skill.
Think about the first time you rode a bicycle. If you are anything like me, you found yourself falling off several times. And–if you are really like me–you found yourself smacking face-first into the pavement on more than one occasion (true story).
Writing is like riding a bike. You learn by doing. And yes, you will fall, perhaps repeatedly. The key is to get back up and keep pedaling. Luckily, the pavement of poor writing is probably less painful than the concrete variety (my nose is still crooked by the way).
So, why should you care about writing or content? Well, if you are in business or online, then you’re already a content creator. “Content is essentially everything your customer or prospect touches or interacts with–including your own online properties and webpages and the experience they offer, but also everything on any social channel (like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube, and so on).”
If you’re not actively–and intentionally– creating content that represents you, then someone else is.
It seems paradoxical, but crafting content that accurately reflects your “brand,” has, in some ways, more to do with your audience than it does with you.
Marketing starts by getting inside your customers’ heads and understanding how they think. It means starting with WHO. This is where creating a “buyer’s persona” comes in, and it requires pathological empathy.
A lot of people think they aren’t capable of empathy, but Handley says that “Empathy–like writing–isn’t a gift. It’s a discipline.”
Six Steps Towards Pathological Empathy
- Spend time with your customers or prospects. Spending time with your customers sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Watch how customers behave. See what problems they have.
- Understand their habitat. “Beyond putting together a focus group in an artificial setting or doing so-called user experience testing in a lab environment, arrange to visit people who use your content or products in their natural habitat…Talk with them in their homes, at their jobs’ watch them as they browse your site or use your app on mobile while waiting in line at the coffee shop.
- Be a natural skeptic. A powerful question is, Why? Why do you do things that way? Why do you feel that way?
- Ask why they do it. “Never assume that you know the answers to why your readers or the people who use your products do what they do… You might be great at using analytics systems to measure every nuance of a person’s behavior on your site or in your app. But analytics only tell us what people did, not why they did it. So ask. And then ask again. And keep asking until you understand the bigger picture of what people value and what they need from you.”
- Share story, not just stats. “A lot of companies build dashboards and monitors that they install all over the office that are filled with analytics data: How many concurrent users are on the site, the data throughput of the app, the number of transactions per hour, and so on.” But what about feedback from the people on your site or the people using your products? You can display that, too. And while you can build aggregate metrics around this feedback (sentiment, length, complaints per hour, etc.), it’s even more powerful to display people’s actual comments.
- Use a customer-centric POV. Replace I or we with you to shift the focus to the customer’s point of view. Then write (or rewrite) accordingly.
Company-centric: We offer accelerated application development.
Customer-centric: Deploy an app to cloud at lunch hour. And still have time to eat. (From the home page of Kinvey.com)
Tell How You’ll Change the World
What matters now isn’t storytelling; what matters is telling a true story well. – Ann Handley
Alright, so you understand the importance of content and have crafted a buyer’s persona using pathological empathy. The next step is to get people to care about your message. This is where storytelling comes in.
Stories create shared experiences between you and your customers. Storytelling is the ultimate brand differentiator. Great stories articulate how you create value for people in a relatable way.
Here are Handley’s ideas on what constitutes great storytelling:
- It’s true- Make truth the cornerstone of anything you create. It should feature real people, real situations, genuine emotions, and facts. As much as possible, it should show, not tell. It should explain-in terms people can relate to–how it adds value to the lives of your customers.
- It’s human- Even if you are a company that sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of actual people. By the way, whey you are writing about people, this is a good rule: be specific enough to be believable, and universal enough to be relevant.
- It’s original- Your story should offer a new, fresh perspective. What’s interesting about your company? Why is it important? Is it uniquely you? If you covered up your logo on your website or video or blog or any content you’ve produced, would people still recognize it as coming from you?
- It serves the customer- Your story might be about you, but is should always be told in the context of your customer’s life. The best content is the hero of your story.
- It tells a bigger story that’s aligned with a long-term business strategy.- Integrate your story with strategic goals. Show how you can change the world.
Where To Start
How do you cultivate great stories? Everybody Writes suggests asking yourself these questions:
- What is unique about our business
- What is interesting about how our business was founded? About the founder?
- What problem is our company trying to solve?
- What inspired our business?
- What aha! Moments has our company had?
- How has our business evolved?
- How do we feel about our business, our customers, ourselves?
- What’s an unobvious way to tell our story? Can we look to analogy instead of example?
- What do we consider normal and boring that other folks would think is cool?
- And most important: relay your vision. How will our company change the world?
Finding Your Voice
Everybody Writes puts a strong emphasis on crafting a unique “voice.” Voice is one way that you can position yourself in a crowded marketplace. It’s great to have stories, but stories need to have style.
What comes to mind when you think of Quentin Tarantino? You probably envision flashy, violent, stylistic action scenes. Turn on any Tarantino flick, and within a matter of seconds, you say to yourself, “Yep, this is Tarantino.”
Love him or hate him, Tarintino stands out. He has voice. (see video below)
Voice gives life and personality to content. It makes you, you. “In other words, consider your voice as a differentiator across all your customer-focused communications—your website, your mobile updates, and your 404 pages, among other things. But also in your store signage, your social presence, and anywhere else you’re trying to reach.”
How do you find “voice?” This is probably the hardest part to figure out, but Handley does a great job providing clues.
Create Ridiculously Good Content
I really enjoyed this book. The format of the book mirrors the principles that Handley espouses: it’s simple, well-structured, and it has voice.
This is the book you pick up when you need a quick go-to reference guide on writing and digital communication. It’s like an updated version of Skunk and White’s The Elements of Style for the digital age.
Important Lessons I Learned from Everybody Writes:
- Structure your thoughts before writing. My writing teachers in grade school told me this. I never really listened, though. They were right! Mapping out what you are trying to say before writing your first draft will save you time and help clarify your main thesis.
- Utility x Inspiration x Empathy= quality content. This is the formula that Handley provides, and I think it is a great way of understanding the mechanics of content creation. Writing should provide something for the readers—it must alleviate a pain point. Inspiration gives your brand voice and a connects you to your audience. Empathy helps you understand what content to create in the first place.
- Great content is a relational, co-creative process. Understanding your customers and how YOU are uniquely suited to address their pain points is a co-creative process. Content creation happens with the customer, not to them. It’s a conversation, not a monologue.
Everybody Writes is a must-have. Along with Made to Stick, Everybody Writes sits very, very close to my desk. I’d recommend it to anyone looking to improve their marketing and content creation knowledge.
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