Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.
What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?
I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.
“How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” someone will say.
“Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win,'” says another.
“The Art of War,” says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.
“How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women,” says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.
And I can spot the content marketers too.
“Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes!” someone will say.
“The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” says another.
“I don’t read books, I only read Copyblogger,” says a third.
But the writers — the good writers — will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.
Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)
Content marketers, as writers you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, you understand your product, or understanding big data, SEO, the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.
Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.
If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.
You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.
The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.
That all starts with reading.
Stop Reading Business Books
Content marketers — at least the writers — need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.
As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.
But. Don’t. Read. Business books.
This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.
That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.
So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of the techniques you see them doing.
This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.
This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.
It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.
And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have must read books and authors they recommend to everyone.
My friend, Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once,
Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words.
Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
What’s In Your Bookshelf?
There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.
There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.
And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)
But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.
Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.
Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.
Read Agatha Christie And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.
Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice doing them in your everyday writing — emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.
Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.
When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.
Content marketing is facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.
It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”
It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.