Interview: Ann Handley Talks Useful, Inspiring, and Empathetic Content Marketing
Storytelling Innovator Series

Interview: Ann Handley Talks Useful, Inspiring, and Empathetic Content Marketing

Next week, Skyword hosts its inaugural Content Rising Summit, an event built to equip next-generation marketers with the skills and tools required for business transformation. This week, we’ll be highlighting some of our speakers from the event in our Innovator Series, giving you a glimpse into their presentations and, largely, what they’ve built their careers upon thus far.

First, I spoke with Ann Handley, a Wall Street Journal best-selling author, keynote speaker, and the world’s first Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs. Ann is keynoting our second day at Content Rising Summit, and she will provide attendees with the ingredients they need to build effective content programs. In this interview, we talk about the role of the modern-day writer in the marketing industry—and the best writing advice she ever received.

Question 1: Can you give a brief summary of what you’ll be speaking about at Content Rising Summit?

No. Well, I suppose I could, but wouldn’t that strip out any element of surprise?

I’m just kidding. I’ll be talking about what I see as the fundamental key to effective content marketing. The secret sauce of your content barbecue. The thing every brand needs, but often ignores.

My talk will be heavy on the “how-to,” actionable, and realistic. I want you to walk away feeling inspired to do something.

Q2: As more businesses turn to content marketing as a way to reach new and existing customers, writing ability has become a coveted commodity (again). How do you see the role of the writer evolving in business over the next 5 years?

Very often, the writer is brought in at the end of any Web project—whether that’s a Web development project, a piece of new content, or a new social program. They are handed a fully thought-out project packed with filler lorem ipsum . . . with the directive to fill in the blanks. It’s like a content MadLib, but less fun.

The most forward-thinking companies will have the writer in the room right from the start—to inform what gets built as well as to define “how, when, and where.” Writers have more of a voice, in other words.

Of course, this presupposes that writers embrace the idea that they are a creative force in the process and are prepared to represent the user, the reader, the customer, and the audience. You can’t have a voice in the process if you don’t fully grok the power, opportunity, and responsibility that come with it.

Does that sound a little too sanguine, with a side of Pollyanna? I don’t think so. Anyhow, this is my vision you asked about, right?

Q3: You’ve been pushing for quality over quantity in content marketing for a while now, but to some people, the term “quality” can be pretty vague. What makes a piece of (branded) writing great to you?

That’s true. “Quality” is a vague, amorphous thing because it shifts depending on what our audience values.

And therein lies the answer: “Quality content” is content your audience will thank you for. It’s content that is useful, inspired, and pathologically empathic to the needs of your audience.

Q4: At many enterprise organizations, internal content managers are working with in-house thought leaders to turn big ideas in marketable content. This is tough for several reasons: Sometimes the smartest people at an organization aren’t natural writers. What advice do you have for content managers who are trying to coach the C-suite on how to get their words down on “paper”?

Everybody Writes by Ann HandleyTry leaving the paper out of it, for now. Have the C-suite dictate their first draft instead of writing it by using tools like Rev or SpeechPad. In Part 6 of my book Everybody Writes, I offer suggestions as to how to transcribe it from spoken word to text and then shape what I call “The Ugly First Draft” (TUFD) into something more readable, useful, and audience-centric.

That reshaping is key, because it’s when you edit your work into something your audience will value. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open,” as Stephen King says.

Good, clear writing is really more about good, clear thinking than anything else. It’s about getting inside the head of your reader and respecting his or her needs and wants, as Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker says.

Q5: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?

Darn. I should’ve read through all of these questions before I started answering them. Because Stephen King’s advice above is something I think about each and every day.

Life is messy, complicated, and often confusing. But writers make it a little more accessible—no matter the subject. I live by something I learned in journalism school: “No one will complain that you make something too simple to understand.”

Follow the social chatter at Content Rising Summit next week by using the hashtag #ContentRisingSummit or visiting our Summit website.

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