One of the tips I hear most frequently for those just stepping into the world of content generation is to start by creating content for yourself. While I agree with the general sentiment (some of my favorite pieces have been written primarily for my own amusement) and think it can be a valuable jumping-off point, many of us are tasked in the course of our work to create content that gets someone to do something. In other words, we are attempting to, at the very least, get people to read, view or discuss our work.
Content that falls into this category could be designed to get someone to buy something, attend an event or become a member of an organization, and it could also mean content meant to get people to think we’re smart and/or knowledgeable. Oh, you mean like “thought leadership?” No, I don’t. That term has lost all its value due to abuse and overuse. In my experience, most content labeling itself as thought leadership is a sad copy of something better that has already been produced, and as such, is actually “thought following,” and a waste of everyone’s time.
Anyhoo, getting people to consume your work can be even more difficult than creating it in the first place, and there are few things more frustrating than spending a lot of time on a piece that nobody reads (thanks for reading this, by the way). If this has happened to you, it can be tempting to either just stop creating content at all or, if you are forced to keep creating it, to start phoning it in (i.e., “Well, we need a market commentary to send to clients. I’ll slap it together in five minutes and send it out as a Word Doc.”). While understandable, if you get into this funk, you start thinking of creating content as a chore and a box that requires checking, and my guess is that your work reflects it.
To help you avoid the strange unspoken agreement that we as content creators can sometimes make with our hypothetical readers (“This won’t be very good, but I know you won’t read it anyway”), I wanted to share three tips that I use to help myself write content that includes the assumption that someone might read it—bonus points if they get something out of it—and have a good time doing it.
1.) Write Like You Speak
How you distribute content matters quite a bit in terms of making sure your audience sees the content. Creating content that engages, however, starts with the writing and editing process. If your content is dry, boring, aloof or cookie-cutter, it doesn’t matter how great your distribution plan is—your readers will look elsewhere for what they need.
One thing that sets content that I enjoy reading apart from the rest of the noise is when I can feel like I know or have met the writer or creator upon finishing the piece. The tone and personality of content is an area that still seems to get short shrift behind sexier topics like SEO and headline writing (don’t judge me—I love this stuff), but it could not be more important. Your readers need the information you’re providing, but they also need to engage with the person offering it. For this reason, drawing your reader in often requires letting them know you on a more intimate level, which can mean:
- introducing vulnerability (i.e., “Here’s a mistake I made and what I learned from it”)
- tying personal stories to your main points
- adding jokes, sarcasm or other quirks of your personality throughout
- taking a stance and/or including your opinion and analysis of facts and data provided
Or, all of the above if it works for you. I’ve found that interspersing these more personal items into my pieces helps me write more effective content (through the lens of satisfying objectives), and perhaps more importantly, that they make it more fun to write. I’m a firm believer that, if you’re not having fun writing or creating content, your audience will have even less fun consuming it.
I think that some of the best compliments you can receive as a writer are that you “write like you talk/speak,” or that something you wrote “sounds like you.” Finding your style and committing to using the same core tone and personality in everything you write takes practice and a lot of repetition, but it’s well worth your time.
2.) Read It Out Loud
You’ve likely heard this one before—the reason I’m bringing it up again is that it truly does work. One of the most common questions I receive from content creators, especially those tasked with writing about or for the financial services industry, is how to maintain any level of personality or unique tone when the topics themselves are overly technically complex or just plain dull. This industry and profession present a great challenge in this respect, and while injecting some vitality into the desiccated husks of certain pieces of content is far from easy, I do think it is possible.
One way to check your work on this is, when you have a draft ready, to read it out loud first to yourself, then to someone else. The act of verbalizing your work can be useful in a variety of ways:
- First, it can help you practice and ultimately, master Tip #1 (writing like you speak).
- Second, it can help you identify the areas where you need to add some qualifiers to simplify and clarify certain thoughts. While I overuse it in my own writing, I am partial to using “in other words” in these instances, as it sounds more conversational and primes the reader for a simple way to understand a complex concept. ASIDE: I’ve had well-meaning people try to tell me that if I’d just explained myself more effectively in the prior sentence, I wouldn’t need to use “in other words.” I’ve found this to be false in many scenarios in financial services, as it’s often important to use the language of the industry in the first thought, as that’s what the reader is most likely to see in other materials. Your qualifying sentence is to help them understand the language in a different way.
- Third, it’s the best way I’ve found to ensure that content is conversational enough for your audience, and for the objective of the piece. If you’re writing an academic research paper or an instruction manual, you may not want or need to be very conversational, but if you’re writing a blog post, your audience is often expecting you to be talking directly to them. Reading aloud will help you identify the areas of your work that really lend themselves to a conversational style (i.e., something that you, or at least some human being, might actually say), and those that need some adjusting.
While you will likely be your own most valuable critic, finding someone who will be honest with you during a read-aloud session can be extremely useful as well. Sometimes, things sound better in our heads and coming out of our own mouths than they do to others, and you can avoid tripping yourself up by sharing it verbally with someone else before publishing.
3.) Edit, Don’t Sterilize
My last piece of advice on engaging writing is to remember that the small imperfections and quirks in your writing style are not necessarily bad things. I think some of these quirks make up an important part of anyone’s writing style, and not all of them should be eradicated through the editing process.
For example, guidelines like AP Style that provide excellent constructs to help us to be better and more consistent writers can also be limiting in certain cases. This is especially true when it comes to keeping pieces conversational, and I almost always err on the side of making pieces more readable over a take-no-prisoners adherence to style guidelines. Note: This is borderline unforgivable heresy to some people I know—Melissa, I hope you’re not reading this.
One of my favorite instances of this comes from the book Delivering Happiness, an autobiography by Zappos Founder Tony Hsieh. In the introduction to the book, Hsieh lets the reader know that he doesn’t consider himself a great writer, and that they might find his style jarring, but it was important to him that he delivered his thoughts in his own words.
True to his disclaimer, the book is not a work of classic literature by any stretch of the imagination. It is, however, my favorite autobiography, and the endearingly slapdash style of his writing is one of the main reasons why. I also love that he took a crack at writing the book himself instead of farming it out to a ghostwriter, as so many others have done.
You really feel that you know Tony Hsieh as you finish the book, and it’s primarily because he put pen to paper (or hands to keys) himself, sharing his unfiltered thoughts and failures so that the reader may learn some important lessons. It’s likely the same reason we sometimes like seeing shaky iPhone videos instead of studio-quality interviews—authenticity matters to all of us.
I’m not telling you to fire out a draft, then publish it immediately without any editing support. In general, the more smart people who look at your content before you publish it, the better your content will be. That said, don’t be afraid to gently push back on edits that change a thought in the way you wanted it delivered, remove a piece of your content that you think represents you and your style or sterilize a sentence that was meant to be more conversational. If you have the same people look at your work, over time, these discussions can help both you and those who are editing your work find that unique style that says, “Hey World, I’ve got something to say, and I’ve got a unique way in which to say it.”
Speaking of making content consumable, this piece is pretty long, so those who made it this far, I ‘preciate you. These tips have helped me, and I hope they help you wherever you may be on your content creation journey.
Dan Martin is the Director of Marketing for the Financial Planning Association, the principal professional organization for CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERTM (CFP®) professionals, educators, financial services professionals and students who seek advancement in a growing, dynamic profession. You can follow Dan on Twitter at @DanW_Martin and on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/danmartinmarketing.