A Symphonic Approach to Communication

I went to the Symphony last week for a lovely multi-media performance of  Peer Gynt.  It was conducted by the wonderful Michael Tilson Thomas and featured lush music by different composers interspersed with actors and singers telling the story of Peer Gynt and his trail of destruction, and eventual salvation through a good woman, of course. Overhead, beautiful films of wild Scandinavian landscapes, seascapes and industrial scenes were projected onto a kind of silvery mesh.

What struck me was how well the different pieces worked together. The music set the tone, the actors elaborated on the story and the video created moods, hinted at the passing of time and gave us insight into the motivation and emotions of the characters. None of it was repetitious, there was no borrowing of the actors words to project onto the video mesh and no heavy handed spelling out of the years at sea beyond the music and images. Each piece supported the others by being the best version of itself that it could be.

That’s how I’d like to see different communication or content pieces working. Each could stand alone but together they reflect different angles, expose different views and probably appeal to different audiences. The message remains the same but the expression of the message was varied and all the more interesting for that.  It’s probably a bit much to ask that white papers and case studies be as beautiful as Grieg’s music or the singing of the SF Symphony Chorus, but I’m definitely hooked on the idea of a whole that can be bigger than its parts.


On the virtues of a Mastermind group

Back in the summer at the Creative Freelancers Conference, one tip was repeated by numerous speakers and also by several of my fellow freelancers – get yourself an accountability group. I thought about it, recognized the value of it and ta-da, now I’m actually getting started on it.

I can’t claim the credit for the idea, that goes to the very wonderful Forrest Anderson (who really is the Nate Silver of communications research) who got the whole thing going. However, I can claim the good sense of recognizing that getting together regularly with three smart and funny entrepreneurs is going to have a huge impact on my business.

We’ve just got started but already I’m seeing the value in specific ways:

  1. My fellow Masterminders have suggested some new markets I could approach that are totally in line with where I want to take my business.
  2. I have a real problem with goal setting and planning. It’s not that I don’t want to but…ahem…I really don’t understand the process of going about it. I mean, I understand you set goals and take steps to try to achieve them but I didn’t really know practically what a goal should look like or how to use a plan to get there. I am delighted that two of the Masterminders are expert at this and extremely generous with their knowledge.
  3. I’m inspired by the group. Their commitment to their own businesses is making me re-examine and recommit to mine.

Plus, it’s a ton of fun.

Next step for us is the “Day of Planning”. We’ve carved out a whole day to work on our business plans.  A whole day. I think that this might be the year I actually create a plan that will help me guide and grow my business.

So, thank you to all those smart people in Boston in June. And for anybody hesitating over starting a group like ours, my advice is go for it – you won’t regret it.



Tailoring Content for Decision Makers

The Content Marketing Institute has just released its latest report B2B Content Marketing:2013 Benchmarks, Budgets and Trends – North America and it makes interesting reading.

The report outlines various stats including a projected increase in marketing budget spend on content marketing and the development of new channels including an appearance for gamification – the new kid on the block.

The part of the report that really interested me however, was the fact that 91% of the respondents said that they tailored their content in some way, with the overwhelming majority (71%) tailoring that content to the profile of the decision maker. First of all – what the heck are the other 9% doing? How is it even possible to write something without tailoring it to your audience, or the stage in the buying cycle or something, anything? What does that kind of content even look like?  But moving on, what does it mean to tailor to the profile of the decision maker?

In essence, what it means is understanding your audience and the purpose of your content. If you know who you’re writing to, and the action you want those people to take, then you’re half way there as a writer. By tailoring your content, you’re setting out to educate and persuade a particular audience and present yourself as a trustworthy educator and adviser to those people.

As a writer, my process would then look like this:

  • Who is making the decision?  – Have a discussion with the client about what customer profiles they have, what they hear from their customers, who they think really holds the power in the purchasing decision.
  • Research their issues – Ask the client for their perspective, check out online forums and groups on Linked In, Twitter, Facebook etc. to see what those people are talking about.
  • Answer their questions – How does the product solve the problems that the audience discusses, or what do we know that could help them with an issue (even if not directly related to a product – it goes to creating a context of problem solving.)
  • Use their language – what jargon do they use, how do they abbreviate things, what are common metaphors or idioms in this community? Always bear in mind the excellent advice of brilliant copywriter, Eugene Schwartz : “One hour a day, read. Read everything in the world except your business. Read junk. Very much junk. Read so that anything that interests you will stick in your memory. Just read, just read, just read… There is your audience. There is the language. There are the words that they use.”

Really, content marketing is about educating so you have to think about what your audience wants to learn or might enjoy learning, or at the very least, needs to learn.  And then you have to give that to them, over and over, in an engaging, entertaining, relevant way.

Well, I never said being a writer was easy….

5 Ways to Say No ( to the wrong clients)

I had a fun time chatting with Ilise Benun who heads up Marketing Mentor and runs the Creative Freelancer Conference that I went to earlier this year.  We talked about how to say no to clients that don’t fit with your business and you can hear the podcast of our conversation here.

The interesting thing for me about learning to say no, and turning down work that doesn’t fit my business model is that it seems to be setting up a virtuous circle. It’s really helped me to focus on what I do want, rather than taking jobs because I’m scared of what might happen otherwise.  I feel that I’m defining my positioning better and making conscious steps towards the business I want rather than drifting, which in turn makes me sound more confident when I’m talking to my right people.

It also means that I’m really focusing my work and building greater expertise in articles, case studies and white papers for technology companies. That doesn’t mean that it’s all I do – but it’s an easy way to explain to people what I can do for them.

All from one little word…


The Running Brief – Lessons I am Learning…

I have a client at the moment who is bursting with big ideas and full of enthusiasm. How wonderful, you think, just the kind of client we love. Well yes…and no.

The problem is that my client can’t make up her mind what she really wants. We’ve gone through numerous iterations of the content and each time it sparks a fresh new idea . Now we’re at risk of the content being stretched so far out of shape that it doesn’t do anything very well. It’s being asked to wear too many hats and carry too much weight. I know that, as the writer, it’s my responsibility to rein this in and let the poor content breathe and get to doing its job. However, I can’t quite convince the client of that …yet.

It takes me back to some tips I learned at the Creative Freelancer’s Conference in June about questions to ask in the first conversation with prospective clients. The questions are simple but the impact is profound:

  • Source – how did they learn about me
  • Need – what are you looking to accomplish? How are you addressing this now?
  • Timing – when’s your go-live date?
  • Decision process – are you deciding on price? Are you also talking to other writers?
  • Budget –
    • What budget do you have to work with?
    • Have funds been allocated?
    • Offer a ball park estimate ( and then shut up) : That sounds like it would be about $X

If I had asked these questions up front with this client ( alas, agreed to this before I went to the conference), I’d have understood that while the client was definitely excited to get started, there really wasn’t a concrete need or a go-live date to work to, and that I was stepping into something potentially troublesome and open-ended. So that would have been a red flag and I might have side-stepped my current dilemma!

Since I started using the questions on a more regular basis , I find that I’m much better able to sort out the serious clients from the excited-but-not-quite-ready-yet clients. Independent business is a long series of learning new things!

Speaking the client’s language

I attended a great Content Strategy MeetUp in San Francisco this week. The speaker was Melissa Rach of Brain Traffic and she was sharing with us the top ten things she’d learned about working with clients on content strategy projects over the last four years.

Brain Traffic have a great graphic that they use to demonstrate that a content strategy project encompasses four areas that have to be kept in balance to make sure content strategy pays off for clients – workflow, governance, the strategy and the substance or content itself. In itself, this is a good way to remind us that effective content can only be produced when a company pays attention to ownership and how and by whom that content will be created.

Moving on from that point, two things that Melissa talked about really struck me:

1. You have to get really precise around the language. The words “Content Strategy” mean different things, or raise different expectations in different people and it’s really important to make sure that client and consultant are on the same page.

For instance, Melissa’s view is that the “strategy” is not so much a plan, but actually more of a vision, a signpost to what the content needs to achieve for the business. Below that are tactical projects that move a company towards that vision but have specific shorter term and measurable goals. So when clients ask to see an example of “strategy”, they’re quite often really asking to see an outline of the projects that will move the company closer to that vision.

Understanding the potential for confusion around “strategy” and “plan” makes it a whole lot easier to talk to clients about the different phases of the project and to spell out the value of working with a content strategist.

2. We have to get a lot better at using numbers to demonstrate progress and the need for change. The effect on readers of informational content is traditionally hard to measure but trying to draw a line to customer behavior can be helpful.

Melissa gave an example of revising content on the homepage of a hotel’s booking site. If you can say, for instance, that by refining the content and focusing it on clients, you assume the hotel gets one more customer booking a room each week.

Then turning that into a cash number and providing the assumptions that allow a client to play with the figures, increasing the number of customers to two or five or whatever, provides reassurance to clients and gives something tangible to talk about.

Rating content according to its currency, usefulness, appropriateness to primary audience etc. can be one way to help clients understand what pieces of content need more attention.

The reason these two examples particularly stuck with me is that they demonstrate what I feel is a fundamental about the work that I do for clients and the way I want to do that work. I see writing and communications as a service to clients.

In Melissa’s talk, I was reminded that the role of content strategists and writers more generally, is to help clients better express their business values and meet their business goals. In order to do that most effectively, we have to understand people’s concerns and learn to talk in the language of business – even when that means reframing terms that we commonly use or demonstrating our value in numbers (not always the most natural approach for word nerds.)

It’s not about imposing something on a company, or providing content in a vacuum, it’s a totally immersive communications process and in order to be successful, it has to be a partnership between consultant and client. Which is just the way I like it.

What do Corporate Writing Clients Really Want? Hint – It’s Not About the Writing.

I see a lot of advice out there about landing big corporate clients but I haven’t seen any that talks about what happens after.  There’s a lot about finding those clients but not much about what they really need when you get right down to it.

The biggest thing to know is that you’re not working with a big corporate entity – you’re working with a person.

Yes, that person may have a huge budget and a high profile company on her mind but what I have found again and again is that customer service is what turns those companies into repeat customers.

Internal communications managers are busy. They’re trying to juggle a million projects, advising leadership on how to communicate effectively with employees, finding ways to encourage employees to provide input, planning events and meetings, providing strategic advice and tactful feedback, all against a backdrop of corporate change, politics and budget cuts.

What they need is someone who can help them out by confidently and competently taking something off the to do list. What that really means is that it doesn’t begin and end with the writing.

When you write something for a client in a large corporate, you need to be able to synthesize a ton of other material and ensure your piece fits into the overall landscape. You have to be able to offer constructive suggestions about how to tie things together more closely.  You also need to be aware that corporate work often involves a number of  approvals and being willing to follow up with different people and coordinating their suggestions can be a great help to a client.

On top of that, you  serve in the role of “outsider”  so often you’re in a perfect position to be able to (gently) point out where employees might feel they’re getting contradictory or partial messages and prod work towards better effectiveness.

So you provide real service not by being the most amazing writer in the world  but by listening, supporting and taking the initiative to move their projects forward in a constructive way.

And that’s the real secret.

When employees need to be heard

Flowering tree

Corporate reorganizations, mergers, big strategic announcements – these are the fun times for communicators when everyone wants our help and we can really show how communications matters.

But for many employees, these same events can cause disruption, anxiety, or be a signal to brush up the resume and start looking elsewhere. We all know that at such times it’s vital to keep communicating with employees, letting them know what’s going on, what’s going to happen, where they’ll be once the change has taken place.

But in the urge to communicate, are we forgetting the power of listening?

I was reminded of this by a Facebook update from Paul Matalucci, CEO of Wordwright Communications: “Today I prepared an agenda for 1:1 meetings that I will conduct with a client’s line managers. A wise colleague pointed out that given the scope of transformation underway at the site, managers would be better served by an opportunity to be heard rather than “informed.” So I’ve prepared a one-page handout of communication tips to leave behind. I’ll spend my 30 minutes asking questions.”

Often letting employees or managers ( or execs for that matter!) just talk about the issues and about their challenges and what they hope for provides a double benefit. The employee has the opportunity to raise issues and discuss obstacles, the communicator learns more about the audience and what they really need to hear.


Off to the Creative Freelancer Conference

I’ve never been to the Creative Freelancer Conference before, although I’ve definitely been tempted. So this year , I finally signed up and I’m off to Boston tomorrow.

As it happens, this couldn’t have come at a better time. After three years of constant work, mostly through referrals and networking, I’ve hit the “famine” part of the cycle and I’m looking for ways to boost my marketing efforts, new approaches and niches and just learning about the ways other freelancers smooth out the roller coaster. I’m particularly going to be interested in ways people find to market their services within companies without being douche-y or annoying.

I’ve also promised to recap what I learn for the Independent Communicators Roundtable group that I belong to. I know that’s going to change the way I pay attention and take notes and I’m convinced that having a public speaking commitment is one of the best prompts for active learning!


Good vs. Bad Curation

I have a Scoop.it account where I’m working on finding articles and interesting discussions about the use of content creation in employee communications. It’s not exactly a bustling field – I think about 99.9% of articles are variations on content marketing themes and using curation as a tool to influence and engage external audiences.

Still, there are some interesting things going on and today I scooped a great article from Beth Kanter where she skillfully reworks a graphic that compares the attributes of  “good” curation with those of “bad” curation. The graphic originally came from Ross Hudgen’s “Link Building by Imitation” deck (and referred to “Good Theft” and “Bad Theft”). With Beth’s revision, it’s a really useful graphic for reminding us of what we’re striving for, and what we’re trying to avoid with content curation!

Beth Kantor's "Good" vs "Bad" curation. This is a rework of a graphic that appeared originally in "Link Building by Imitation” by Ross Hudgens.

Beth also succinctly outlines the ongoing discussion about the value of curation and quotes both Robin Good ( an expert curator) and Guillaume DeCugis ( founder of Scoop.it) to illuminate the issue. The question about whether curation has a value or is simply the “theft” and republishing of other’s material is a lively one.

I have to agree with Robin Good when he draws the distinction between the value that is provided by those with good good curation skills versus those with a less well developed approach:  “You should NOT mix-up republishing, self-expression and easy-content-sharing with curation, because they are in fact at opposite extremes of the same spectrum.”

I agree. I think curation is really only of value when we can use it to join the dots for audiences, by broadening the story that we’re sharing and explaining exactly why we think a particular piece of content is worth sharing in the context of a specific audience’s needs. Otherwise it’s just re-posting anything and everything that crosses our virtual desk – and I don’t see any purpose or additional value in that.