The Formula for Creating Ridiculously Good Content: Q&A with Ann Handley

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Before Ann Handley became a globally-recognized speaker and content marketing guru, and well before she staked her claim as the world’s first Chief Content Officer, she was something much simpler: A writer. No fancy titles. No fluffy job description. No marketing metrics or analytics background. Just a writer.

“I was a business writer before it was cool to be a business writer,” Handley jokes. “I had other skills and interests, and I was certainly fascinated with building a business. But writing was — and is — my passion. And back when I got started, I was part of a small group of people who really valued that skill in the business world.”

Today, things have changed significantly — and Handley couldn’t be more excited about it.

“I kind of live by a Stephen King quote: ‘Write with the door closed; edit with the door open.’”

— Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs

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More Companies Are Leveraging Content

In a world fueled by content (be it a blog post, case study, video, or VC pitch deck), the value placed on writing has grown exponentially. As a result, more people are writing — either as a vocation or as part of their day jobs as sales reps, marketers, CEOs, etc. — and most B2B brands (86 percent according to MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute’s annual content marketing report) are leveraging content marketing.

The problem, however, is that the business world’s newfound love of writing isn’t exactly translating into the results many companies were hoping for. In fact, according to the MarketingProfs and CMI report, just 38 percent of B2B marketers say their organization’s use of content marketing is effective. Half say they struggle to consistently produce high-quality, engaging content.

So, Why Aren’t They Succeeding with It?

According to Handley, one big problem is that while more people are writing, not everyone is paying attention to how or why they write.

Ultimately, that’s why she decided to publish her newest book, Everybody Writes: Your Go-to-Guide to Ridiculously Good Content, which was recently named a Wall Street Journal bestseller. Below is a transcript from a recent call I had with Ann that offers a look behind her inspiration for the book, the difference she sees between writing and great writing, and, yes, her formula for ridiculously good content.

Let’s start with an easy one — was there a lightbulb moment that made you feel like you had to write this book?

AH: I wouldn’t say it was a lightbulb moment as much as it was a culmination of observations and experiences.

When I speak at conferences or meet with businesses, I’ll often start by asking how many people have writing in their job title. A few hands will go up. Then, I’ll ask how many people write as part of their jobs — that might include writing blog posts, publishing case studies, communicating with investors, etc. Suddenly, everyone’s hands go up.

The issue I’ve noticed, however, is that for the latter group, writing is often an afterthought. It’s something they have to do, not something they like or want to do. So, typically, they rush through it. As a result, they tend to overlook a few really critical components of writing: choosing words well, writing with brevity and style, and tying everything back to a core story. When those components are missing from writing — or any content — it just doesn’t resonate.

Is this book geared more toward writers, or toward people who write as part of their jobs?

I think it runs the gamut. Typically, and I’m guilty of this, professional writers form bad habits over time, or they neglect certain aspects of great writing — passion, economy, genuine empathy for the audience, etc. I think this book can help them by refocusing their energy on the things that really matter. This isn’t Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (a book I love, by the way), but I think it is a good refresher for professional writers.

That being said, I think this book will most help people who write as part of their jobs (sales reps, marketers, customer service folks, engineers, executives, etc.) — a group I like to call adult onset writers. For those folks, my hope is that the book does three things:

  • Motivates them to pay more attention to the words they use
  • Encourages them to have more fun with writing
  • And inspires them to create more engaging content

That last point is really important and it’s why the tone of this book is a little bit more fun and relaxed. I didn’t want to write another boring book about writing. There are plenty of those out there. I wanted to really drive home the importance of being authentic, fun, and engaging. And to do that, I had to walk the walk.

“Writing is often an afterthought… As a result, [people] tend to overlook a few really critical components of writing: choosing words well, writing with brevity and style, and tying everything back to a core story. When those components are missing from writing — or any content — it just doesn’t resonate.”

The Formula for Ridiculously Good Content

What exactly is the definition of “great” writing? What does it look and feel like?

That’s a great question. I think great writing isn’t what most people assume it is. It’s not about just creating perfectly structured sentences that follow every rule of grammar. That’s not to say that grammar or sentence structure isn’t important — they are. But great writing is more than that. It’s really the same thing as great marketing, or great product development, or great management. It’s about obsessively understanding who you’re creating something for, identifying what they care about, and assembling something in a way that makes those people more successful.

Here’s the formula for great content I use in the book:

Ann Handley formula for great writing

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If you think about that equation, you can’t create a quantifiable output if any of the inputs are zero. If your writing has zero inspiration, it will have zero impact. If it has zero utility or audience empathy, it will have zero impact. You have to see the world through your audience’s eyes and help them in some way. In my experience, the very best writers aren’t always the best pure writers. Instead, they’re the people who possess incredible focus and pathological empathy.

What advice or tips would you give to writers — both professional and non-professional — whose content might be missing the mark?

The first thing is to swap positions with your audience, put yourself in their shoes, and really explore what makes them tick.

From there, I think the next step is simple: Get your thoughts and ideas down on paper as quickly as possible. The best writing is rarely composed on the first pass. When I write, the real brilliance (if you want to call it that) comes from the first or second re-write. I kind of live by a Stephen King quote: “Write with the door closed; edit with the door open.” Once you get your ideas down on paper, you can always go back and edit them — preferably with the reader’s perspective in mind.

The other piece of advice I’d give is that it’s absolutely critical to create a documented content strategy. That’s the only way to acquire a very clear idea of why you’re creating something, who you’re trying to reach, what value you’re trying to create, and how it’s going to help.

“I think the biggest reason businesses struggle to consistently create engaging content is that they don’t have a strategy in place.”

Instead, content creation happens in fits of randomness with no real purpose or rhythm, no unique voice, and no editorial plan for how to fully leverage every piece of content.

Ultimately, that approach is a little bit like blindfolding someone, putting them in a pantry, and asking them to cook a meal from the random ingredients they fetch. They might be able to whip something together, but I doubt it’ll taste very good.

Get more tips for creating content that gets attention and converts in Ann’s new book Everybody Writes.

Learn How to Develop a Lean, Mean Content Marketing Machine

Photo by: Alejandro Escamilla

  • Precious advice, top to bottom. And by persistently pointing out how accidental writers/adult onset writers (love that) think and feel, Ann practices exactly what she preaches. She empathizes with the audience, your audience.

    Ann closes with a major exclamation on how vital it is to get a content marketing plan together, so I’ll offer a post I just completed on how to make that happen sans torture:

    Thanks OpenView for a great interview.

  • kayross

    Thanks for that – everything Ann Handley says is gold! And I’d like to offer an article I wrote, “What Makes a Piece of Writing “Good”?” (it’s specifically about non-fiction writing that has a marketing purpose).

  • Great input. I believe a couple critical points are worth noting. First, as more and more companies are investing in content generation, the competitiveness for the attention of the reader (quality), as well as the “talent” (which is significantly undervalued) will increase. Additionally, building and scaling your delivery method (i.e., process and procedure) will become increasing critical- using platforms such as NewsCred, Kapost and Content Launch. Talent and procedures, along with aforementioned tactics. Easier said than done.