Understand the Hero’s Journey for Content Marketing

Let me tell you a story about a young man who is forced to live with relatives, because his father is an evil bastard bent on conquest and villainy. The young man was spirited away as a baby, and raised in secret. When he comes of age, the young man meets a mentor who helps him grow, gain new skills, and ultimately cause the downfall of the father, who frankly, had it coming.

What story am I talking about?

Could be Star Wars. That description fits Luke Skywalker to a T.

Could be Harry Potter. Take out the father references, and we’re looking at the exact same scenario. Also, there’s no blue milk.

Could be Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, the French swashbuckling story in which a young man joins a theater troupe and learns the art of fencing.

It could be the plot of Fool, Christopher Moore’s humor novel, about Pocket the fool from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

It could even be the story of Dodgeball. Peter La Fleur leaves his world as a gym-owning slacker, and gets thrust into a new world of Dodgeball. He meets a mentor who helps him to defeat his greatest enemy, and wins $5 million and Ben Stiller’s wife.

Movie makers and fiction authors call this storytelling structure The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell first called it the Monomyth in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

The Hero’s Journey usually takes 12 stages, and entire books can be written about it. I’ll try to do it in less than 1,000 words.

(Also, I’m using the word “Hero” and not “Hero/Heroine” intentionally. In the real world, it now refers to both men and women, while “heroine” is normally used in works of fiction. We’ve stopped using actress, comedienne, and manageress, and I think heroine is going that way as well.)

  1. Ordinary World. This is the Hero’s life before the story begins. They live on a farm, they live in a Hobbit hole, they’re a computer analyst. This makes us realize the Hero is like us.
  2. Call to Adventure. This is where the Hero’s life changes and they’re needed elsewhere. The secret message from Princess Leia, Harry’s letter from Hogwarts, Mulan’s father being drafted to fight the Huns compels them to move on.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The Hero may be eager to accept the quest, but they have fears they need to overcome. Luke was reluctant to leave until the Empire murdered his aunt and uncle. Mulan worried that she couldn’t pass as a man. Harry said, “But, Hagrid, I—I’m not a wizard!”
  4. Meeting the Mentor. Luke met Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry met Dumbledore, Mulan met Li Shang. They trained, received advice, and got a boost to their self-confidence. The Mentor made the Hero feel like they could handle the task before them.
  5. Cross the Threshold. The adventure begins! The Hero goes willingly or is thrust into battle, but they leave the Ordinary World and cross into their new one. Diana Prince leaves the beautiful sunny shores of Themyscira. Harry literally runs through the 9 3/4 platform wall.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Our Hero is challenged in a number of different ways from a number of different sides. It’s not the final battle, but it shows him or her who’s trustworthy, reliable, and helpful, and who’s an enemy. This is where the Hero’s skills or powers are tested, and we learn how they’ll react when in a stressful situation. Diana Prince fighting the Germans in London or Mulan’s training montage.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. George Lucas may have been a little too on the nose with this in Empire Strikes Back. During his training, Luke had a vision and went into an actual cave to fight Darth Vader. This is often an inner conflict the Hero has yet to face, and some of the original doubts may resurface.
  8. Ordeal. This is the most dangerous test our Hero must survive, whether physical or internal. Everything the Hero has learned is put to the test. Mulan fires the rocket that destroys the Hun army. Luke and Han blast the TIE fighters after they escape the Death Star. Wonder Woman fights Ludendorff at the German base. But this could even be a sort of death (or near death) for the Hero, and they are reborn stronger and with more power. The mentor may die here too. Luke lost Obi Wan, Diana lost Steve Trevor, and Peter La Fleur lost Patches O’Houlihan to half a ton of Irony.
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword). After defeating the enemy and overcoming their greatest challenge, they receive a reward. Sometimes it comes in the form of an object, new knowledge, or even reconciliation with an ally. However the Hero has unfinished business to attend to before the story is actually over.
  10. The Road Back. The Hero is ready to go back home, back to the Ordinary World, only he or she is not quite finished. Luke and his friends escaped, but the Death Star is still out there. Mulan destroyed the Huns, but Shan Yu still lives. Diana Prince kills Ludendorff, but Ares was still alive.
  11. Resurrection. This is the final battle. The Boss Battle. The most dangerous, fiercest fight of all. And the Hero learns this isn’t their fight, they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. Mulan has to save China, Luke has to save the Rebellion, and Peter has to save his crappy gym that smells kind of funny. In the end, they triumph, destroy the enemy, and are reborn. (Remember when Neo defeated the Agents at the end of The Matrix and got all better? Like that.)
  12. Return with the Elixir. This is often the Epilogue. The Hero returns to their Ordinary World (or some semblance of it). They have grown, learned many things, faced many dangers, and looks forward to getting back to the old life. Older, wiser, even a little sadder, but they’re happy to have done it. Like when Frodo and Sam returned to the Shire (read the book; the movie didn’t do this justice). Or when Mulan returned home. Or Dumbledore screwed Slytherin out of the House Cup and gave it to Gryffindor.

It’s important to remember that movies are not divided up into 12 equal segments that spend the same amount of time on each stage. Some stages are rushed through, others are simply skipped. For example, Harry’s statement to Hagrid, “But I’m not a wizard” was his one and only Refusal of the Call. He didn’t spend 15 minutes wrestling with the decision before continuing on. So if your content marketing stories don’t have all 12 steps, don’t worry about it.

In my next article, since this one broke 1,100 words, we’ll talk about how to use the Hero’s Journey in content marketing. It can serve as a structure to help guide customers to a buying decision.

Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Four Hacks to Writing Faster

The first time I was ever hired to write a press release, I charged $100 for an hour’s work.

The problem was, it only took me 20 minutes to write the thing.

I felt so guilty that I just sat and stared at my computer for the next 40 minutes, looking for errors, changing a word here and there, but mostly just making sure I worked the entire hour.

I finally realized — with five minutes remaining — that the client hadn’t hired me to work for an hour. They hired me because I had the ability to produce a press release in an hour or less.

I just never told them it took me 20 minutes.

It turns out, that’s pretty fast. I know people who take a few hours to write a press release. It takes them a few hours to write anything, in fact. They dread writing, they dread the blank page or the empty screen, and they don’t know how to fill it up.
A stopwatch is not necessarily going to help you write faster. Don't time yourself for a writing hack.
Copywriter extraordinaire Henneke Duistermaat recently wrote about 12 productivity hacks to help you write faster, which can help the non-writer and beginning writer snap out of the “I can’t do it!” funk and actually get some words down on the page.

(She also created a really cool sketch for her article, and I’m totally jealous.)

With tips like “write when groggy” and “slow down,” Henneke’s advice can help even the most resistant non-writers into passable scribblers.

But there are a few other writer-y things professional writers do so we can write much faster than non-writers. And if you want to speed up your writing time, here are four tips for writing faster for you to try.

1. Always put ideas in a notebook

If you don’t have one, get yourself a nice little notebook. Either a Moleskine or Field Notes. Something durable and simple, and small enough to fit into a pocket or purse.

Don’t get one of those gorgeous leather-bound things that looks like it came from Elvish Hobby Lobby. You’ll be too afraid to write in it, and it will be too clunky to carry around.

If you have an idea that pops into your head, write it down. It gets the idea out of your head so a new one can take its place. Otherwise, it will keep rattling around up there, and you’ll keep churning it around in your brain.

Don’t put it in your phone though. You need to go through the physical act of writing, because it helps us remember things better, which is going to help us with writer hack number 2.

Next, come up with three main points — write out full sentences — that you think would best explain this topic. If you can come up with more, write them down too. But make sure you have at least three.

2. Ponder your ideas

Okay, I stole this one. Henneke says to “take advantage of percolation.”

When you aren’t writing, your brain still continues thinking about your content. It’s called the diffuse mode of thinking—when you let your mind wander freely.

But I want you to do more than just letting your mind wander freely. You’re going to focus on this idea, you’re going to imagine yourself in different scenarios, and you’re going to work it and work it, like a baker kneading her dough.

Any time you can find time to concentrate, I want you to imagine and visualize the subject of your article/blog post/white paper/story. This percolation is actually where you’re going to do the real writing, creating and fleshing out your ideas. The act of putting it down on the computer is just typing; for now, you’re going to write in your head.

Whenever you’re going to drive somewhere, ride the train home, go for a run, putter around in the garage, or do yoga, look at your idea before you start. Open up your notebook, study your great idea and main points, and then ponder them as you’re running, driving, puttering, yoga-ing.

Really mull it over and grind it between your teeth. Use this non-computer time to come up with different thoughts, ideas, phrasing, and so on. As those ideas start to develop, that should lead you into hack number three.

3. Imagine yourself giving this as a talk

Picture yourself giving a talk on this subject to a roomful of people. (If it helps, imagine they’re adoring fans hanging on your every word.) What would you say? How would you explain this? You want to explain the subject logically, so it flows in a natural, easy-to-understand way. Think about a couple of stories you could add in there, and even a few jokes.

Do this visualization whenever you’ve got the time — driving, commuting, walking, in the shower, before you go to bed, and so on. This is more of Henneke’s percolating and it’s where your best writing is going to happen.

Finally, you’re ready for the last hack.

4. Write an email to your mom.

I always like to say, “If you’re writing about something difficult, put it an email to your mom.”

Seriously. Start out with, “Dear Mom, let me tell you something I learned today.”

Now, our moms love us, but they don’t quite get what they do. For the longest time, my mom knew I “sold things on the Internet,” but that’s about as far as she got. (And she was a financial aid consultant with PeopleSoft for a lot of years!)

So we have to explain things in language that our moms understand, and in a tone we would normally talk to our moms in. In other words, keep it simple AND CONVERSATIONAL, but don’t talk down to her.

(You remember what happened the last time you talked down to your mom, right?)

When you’re done explaining the topic to your mom, go back and delete that first line, “Dear Mom, let me tell you . . .” And there’s your blog post.

Do it this way, because it’s easier to write emails to the people we love and who love us. (Unless we’re writing about our relationships with those people. That’s hard. Save that for the holidays when the nieces and nephews won’t shut up, and everyone’s frustrated and half-drunk.)

In the end, the best way to start writing faster is to practice, practice, practice. Read a lot about your subject (books, not blog posts), and talk to people about the subject. Even the act of explaining your ideas will help you write them better, because you have to organize your thoughts just to explain them.

Photo credit: William Warby (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

A 25 Page Booklet is not a Book

Maybe I’m being elitist, but I’m getting annoyed at what people call “books” these days.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a so-called expert advise a room full of people to “slap together a short book to demonstrate your expertise on a topic.”

“It doesn’t actually need to be that long — 30, 40 pages tops. I churned mine out in a weekend,” one expert said a few years ago. He was giving a talk about how writing a book can get you speaking gigs and TV appearances.

As a real book author, this bothers me. It bothers me because it cheapens what I do. It turns the several hundred hours I’ve spent on my four co-authored books into a weekend errand you tackle between washing the car and getting a haircut.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I stayed up well past 3:00 am, writing until I fell asleep at my keyboard only to wake up and still be typing.
One does not simply "slap a book together"
But here’s this guy telling me you can just barf out a random assortment of words on any topic in a few hours, upload it to CreateSpace, and bada-boom bada-bing, you’ve got a book!

But my rant is not against self-published books. In fact, one of my books, The Owned Media Doctrine, is a self-published/traditionally-published hybrid of sorts. The others were published by Wiley and Que Biz-Tech (a Pearson imprint). And they’re all 250 pages and longer. So you’ll understand why I get annoyed when someone equates a 30 page weekend project with an actual book.

These stacks of paper aren’t books, they’re booklets. The -let comes from French and means diminutive or small. It’s literally a “little book.”

“If you run short of material, just bump the font size up to 13, set the line spacing to 1.5 lines, and bump the margins in a quarter of an inch,” said the guy. “I turned a 20 page book into a 35 page book that way,” he boasted. (I actually groaned out loud at that, and people looked at me funny.)

And punctuation and grammar? Don’t even get me started on punctuation and grammar! I’ve only ever heard one booklet advocate suggest getting someone to proofread the manuscript. The others recommend giving it one more read through on Sunday “with fresh eyes.” My books went through four read throughs before they were ever printed, and we’re still finding issues.

The whole reason for writing a book is to demonstrate your expertise on a topic. It implies that you have a depth and a breadth of knowledge that the average industry member does not. That you study and research more than the rest of the people in your field. (Whether you do or not is a different matter entirely.)

This is important if you ever want to get speaking gigs, especially paid ones. The idea is that you just wave your book in front of the conference organizer, and they’ll believe your expertise, and boom, you’re hired.

The problem is that 1) the minimum acceptable standard of what we call a “book” is slipping, and 2) our guy’s advice implies conference organizers are easily distracted by jangling car keys in front of them.

Booklets Play an Important Role

Look, these booklets might be fine for sharing with potential clients. You could even sell them for $.99 or $1.99. I know one guy who has made a decent living by writing ebooks and booklets about specific elite athletic techniques and selling them for $10 or $15.

He even goes so far as to break them out, chapter by chapter, and sells those for $.99 apiece. If you can do that, more power to you. This guy has a specialized piece of knowledge that, frankly, doesn’t need an entire 280 page book. It can be explained in a few thousand words with some pictures and diagrams. It doesn’t need to be any more than that.

There are booklets out there for launching a business, passing specific industry certifications, repairing appliances, cast iron cooking, and changing the oil in your car. There are short 15,000 word novellas and poetry booklets that take up 25 pages.

In the fiction world, these booklets are called chapbooks. Historically, those meant small pamphlets containing ballads or tracts, and they were sold by peddlers called “chapmen.” To modern creative writers, chapbooks are small paperback booklets usually containing poems or short stories.

And the chapbook authors are appropriately humble about their work. They recognize that this is a tiny work and not on the same level as a regular book. But they’ve also spent hours and hours on it, after spending years honing their craft to even start writing the book. It’s not something they “slapped together” one weekend either.

You Should Still Be Proud

Don’t get me wrong. What you’ve done is impressive, and you should be proud. You’ve strung together 4,000 – 5,000 words about an area you’re an expert in. I’ll bet 95% of the US population can’t say that. You have done something that only a few million people throughout history have ever done. And I’ll even say this qualifies you as a “writer.”

But that’s the first step. You’ve got a lot more knowledge rattling around in that great big brain of yours — at least another 55,000 words on that subject. You know about the history of your industry, the important issues of the day, the major themes, the political ramifications, and the tax implications.

You know the inside baseball, the little rules, the big problems, and what it all means for the beginner and expert in your industry. You could talk for hours and hours about the things you know and the things you’ve seen, and if we wrote it all down, we’d have 200 pages on the subject.

And that’s a book.

Your book should be thick. It should have heft. It should thunk when you drop it on your desk. It shouldn’t fit in your pocket. It’s the thing you’ll spend a few hundred hours on, wavering between pulling out your hair and setting your hair on fire. And when you’re done, it will be one of the proudest moments of your life, when you see that something you created occupies a physical space in the world, and will be around long after you’re gone.

If you want a real weekend project, write an outline of the book you’d like to read on your particular topic. Break it up into chapters (at least 12, no more than 16), sections, and sub-sections. And then write one sub-section for at least 1,000 words.

Then fill out the rest, one section and one day at a time. If you can write one section a day, at least 1,000 words per section, you should finish it in less than six months.

Then you’ll have a real book — something you can boast about and be proud of.

And I want a signed copy.

What Are You Best At?

I was at a networking luncheon recently where a sales trainer was giving a talk about how companies often race to the bottom when it comes to their pricing.

“Over 51 percent of customers say they buy on price first,” he said. “So what do salespeople do? They lower their price to grab the sale.” That means more than half your potential customers are not interested in whether you’re the best person for the job, they want you to be the cheapest.

“The problem,” a promotional products salesperson said to me later, “is that those clients will turn around and dump you for a dime.” She told me about a nonprofit she had been working with for five years, and she recently lost them in a carousel of marketing coordinators and the old “you have to get three proposals” shuffle.

Never mind she had given them decent pricing for the past five years. Never mind that she had bent over backward to meet frantic deadlines (thanks to their own bad planning), or made deliveries herself to ensure they had what they needed just in time for some event or other.

There was a new marketing coordinator she didn’t have a relationship with, and she was gone. (My friend is determined to win them back though, without compromising on price.)

That got me to thinking about how I do what I do, and why I charge what I charge. I started thinking about what I’m “best at.” Which of my skills are more defined and developed than any of my others. And which of those skills I can offer to potential clients as a premium and not a “me too” service.

For those of us in the service business, especially freelancers, the one thing we have to offer is our “Best At,” that thing we do better than anyone else.

If you can identify your Best At skills, you can work with the right clients all day, and never have to scrape bone for those price-focused clients. But if you focus on price because you can only offer the same general service as everyone else, you’re going to have a tough time finding lasting success and loyalty.

Freelancers, What’s Your ‘Best At’ Skill?

Paul D'Andrea shooting on location. One of the freelancers who has found his Best At skill.

Paul D’Andrea shooting on location.

For some freelancers, their Best At skill is photography, but not just photography. Their forte is art photography, or sports photography, or business headshots. For others, their Best At skill is accounting, but not just regular accounting. They specialize in small business accounting, or forensic accounting, or fast food franchise accounting.

If you can figure out what you’re Best At, you can define your niche. It’s not just your passion or that thing that speaker said at that seminar. It’s the thing that you can do better than anybody else, even if it’s just a tiny small difference from everyone else in your field. It’s the thing you practice and focus on, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep.

I’ve got a photographer friend whose top skill is shooting business headshots. He’s great at other photography, but very few people shoot business headshots as well as he does. As a result, he’s able to get work from area corporations and charge his professional rate. No one is trying to get him to drop his price in exchange for exposure. No one is telling him, “I have a digital camera that’s just as good.” No one is trying to nickel and dime him, asking for discounts in exchange for less work.

He has planted his flag on Headshot Hill and people are willing to pay his rate, because they know he’s the king of that hill.

Another friend specializes in long-form video with lots of visual effects. He’s hired by larger companies with larger budgets to produce long videos that tell their brand story. The companies that want someone to interview talking heads with an iPhone can’t afford him; the companies that can afford him want something more than talking heads and iMovie special effects. He’s planted his flag on his own hill, and people are willing to pay what he asks for, because he’s the king of that hill.

The Other 49%

Earlier, I mentioned that 51% of customers are focused on price first. That means a majority of your potential customers will throw you over just because they found a competitor that will do it for 5% less than you.

You don’t want these customers. Sure, they’re nice, because they’re a source of revenue, and we always need revenue. And if you need the work to feed your family, you should take every cheap client you can until you can find better ones.

But I’ve found that the price-driven customers will eke every little crumb out of your relationship, bleed you dry with feature creep, delayed payments, and demand the most attention while being the smallest portion of your revenue.

So don’t get attached to them, and never, ever try to build a business on being the lowest-priced vendor they’ve got. That just speeds you along the road to failure.

Instead, focus on the other 49% that care about craftsmanship and quality. Focus on the 49% that knows your work is going to be seen by the public, run their company, or make their lives easier.

If you’re an accountant, it’s your work that’s going to keep them out of trouble with the IRS and out of jail.

If you’re a digital marketer, it’s your work that’s going to drive their marketplace exposure and generate their revenue.

If you’re an IT professional, it’s your work that’s going to keep their network running and safe from cyber attacks.

These are jobs that should not be left to the lowest-priced provider. These are the people whose work can make or break a company. If clients buy these services on price, they’re going to get burned badly with damages and recovery costs that run 10 times as much money as they saved.

A couple months ago, a prospective client asked me to justify my pricing, given that some freelancers would write blog articles for only $5. So I shared my 20 year background, detailed my list of publications and the books I’ve co-authored, and explained my various specialties. I also pointed out that the $5 writers typically did not have a mastery of English, probably plagiarized or re-spun a lot of their work, and that she would spend so much time editing and rewriting their work, it would eat up all the money she had saved by buying the cheapest option.

And I stood firm on my price.

Of course, I never heard from her again, which was fine with me. I knew she would never be satisfied with my price unless I charged $4 per article. That’s the kind of customer I don’t need, and the kind I’ll never work for.

That’s because I know my Best At skill, and I work to get better at it every day. I read, I study, and I practice. I hone my Best At skills the same way a professional athlete works to keep in top shape for their job.

I don’t just want to be the best I can be, I want to be one of the best in my industry. That way, when someone comes to me and asks me to lower my price to be more in line with what less experienced writers are charging, I can say no.

Because I don’t want to be driven by price and spend my day chasing down client after client whose only concern is whether my writing is the cheapest they could find, with no concern of quality.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

Conflict Sells Solutions: How to Use Plot in Content Marketing

When we hear the word conflict, many people think that means arguing and shouting, disagreement and fighting. We’re taught that conflict is bad, and that we should avoid it.

But every good story has conflict, even if no one raises their voice in the entire book.

Conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s how we get things done. Entrepreneurs often create solutions to a problem because they’re in conflict with the status quo. They see a problem, they develop a solution to eliminate it. Or someone says they’re not allowed to develop a solution at work, so they quit and create their own solution.

Conflict creates opportunities. Every entrepreneur’s story is centered around conflict, and my favorite business stories are ones of disruption, where The Establishment tells the plucky young entrepreneur, “you can’t do that.” The plucky young entrepreneur ignores The Establishment, builds an establishment-shattering solution, makes a lot of money, and we get an exciting story out of it.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone" This is where plot and storytelling really inform content marketing.

Let me tell you a story!

In storytelling, conflict drives the story forward. Without conflict, you’ve just got two people sitting around, talking about nothing. Even Seinfeld, the show about nothing, had plenty of conflict in it. How else do you create an entire episode around whether soup is a meal?

What is Conflict in Storytelling?

Kurt Vonnegut said about writing stories, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

He meant that stories are born out of desire. Someone wants something, and the rest of the story is spent trying to get it. If you want a glass of water, you can get off the couch and get it. But there’s no real story in that.

The real story happens when something won’t let our character get the water. It could be simple, it could be complex, but our main character can’t get that thing he or she wants.

  • He just doesn’t want to.
  • The game’s on, the score is tied with 30 seconds remaining.
  • He weighs 900 pounds and hasn’t gotten off the couch since 2014.
  • She wants to go, but she’s been tied up by a villain in a top hat and curly mustache.
  • There are ninjas in the kitchen, protecting the sink.
  • The floor is hot lava.
  • Zombies.

Noted scifi author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) called this plot. She said:

Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion — that’s Plot.

In other words, you want a glass of water, but someone else wants to prevent you from getting it.

In my article on MacGuffins, the glass of water has become the MacGuffin. Remember, MacGuffin stories usually fall under either the “I have the thing/I’m going to take the thing” or “I’m going to steal the thing/I have to save the thing” construct.

Those dueling purposes is where Plot comes from. The good guy has something the bad guy wants, and they’re working at cross purposes. Those two irons will strike against each other, until KA-BLAM, we have an exciting ending to our story.

How Does Conflict Help Content Marketing?

In content marketing, you’re the protagonist, the problem is the antagonist. You’re the hero, the problem is the villain.

You want something (higher profits, more leads, lower turnover, lower downtime, fewer defects), but the villain is preventing you from achieving your goals.

Therein lies the plot. You want the thing, the villain wants to take the thing.

You want higher profits, the villain causes higher costs.

You want more leads, the villain breaks your website or creates crappy content.

You want fewer defects, the villain causes your machine to break down.

And the plot is those two irons striking together.

But it’s not enough for the irons to strike together. Something has to happen, there has to be a resolution to the problem.

Enter the mentor. (We’ll talk about the mentor another time, in an upcoming article on the Hero’s Journey.)

The mentor is the person who teaches the hero about the solution. The hero applies the solution to the problem, and wins the day. He or she slays the villain and ends the problem. There is much rejoicing, and prosperity spreads throughout the land.

This is why we have case studies, and why a well-written case study can do things that no brochure, special report, or white paper can ever do. For those of you who aren’t tossing the term “storytelling” around willy-nilly yet, case studies are your moment to shine.

Kelly was thirsty, she was parched. Her lips were dry and cracked because she was so thirsty. A tumbleweed tumbled in front of her cubicle. She desperately wanted a glass of water, and would have given anything to get it.

The problem was, the office kitchen had. . . KITCHEN NINJAS who had been blocking the kitchen water cooler for three days. People tried bringing water from home, but it was never enough. They tried moving the cooler, but Steve from Accounting was nearly run through. Things looked bleak.

Until Kelly ordered a bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! Ninja Spray from Whamco!

Just a few sprays from her bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! sent those ninjas packing! Now, everyone in the office can get water, and office morale has improved. Productivity is up by 30%, and sales have risen by 230% as well! And once Kelly was able to quench her Sahara-ish thirst, she was promoted to department manager!

Samurai vs Banana

He must really hate that banana!

This is the classic storyline that nearly all movies and stories follow. Anne wants something, Bob doesn’t want her to have it. Carl helps Anne find a magical object/enchanted sword/learn the power was within her all along. Anne vanquishes Bob, and gets that thing she wanted.

And it’s the same formula that good case studies follow. But in this case, there are no magical objects or enchanted swords. There are solutions or products that eliminate the problem, restore peace, and improve profits.

(Consultants, in these stories, you are the mentor. Your client is the hero. Your job is to create heroes, so write your case studies in a way that says “I can help you become the hero in your company.”)

Sometimes You Can Only Hint at Conflict

Of course, not everything you write is going to be/have a story. Sometimes you just have to engage in marketing speak, and remind readers of their own conflicts. Get them to imagine the problem, and think about the situations they’re often facing. Get them to think about the plot.

“Manufacturers often have to deal with high absenteeism during the holidays or special events, like the Super Bowl. What if you could reduce post-holiday absenteeism?”

or

“In a manufacturing operation, even a 2% spoilage rate can equal a 10% loss in profits; the industry average currently hovers around 3.5%. So what would a software system that prevented spoilage look like for your company?”

In those cases, we’re not telling a story so much as we’re reminding people of their stories. It’s a recap of a past conflict (or even a reminder of an ongoing conflict). The story doesn’t have to be told, because they’re living it. But with the right message, you can present yourself or your product/service as the solution to the problem, and get them to write your story in their head.

The foundation of all stories is Leigh Brackett’s plot: human desires, working at cross purposes, striking against each other, until there’s an explosion. If you can incorporate that idea into your case studies and your marketing copy, you will have mastered one of the most basic tenets of storytelling as content marketing.

Photo credit: David Schmittou in Beef & Board’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ (Used with permission)
733215 (Pixabay, CC0/Public Domain)

Good Writers Read Good Books

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.

My bookshelf at home. I've whittled my books down to favorite authors and books by friends.

My home bookshelf. I’ve had to limit my books to favorite authors and books by friends.

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.

Erik Deckers and Jay Baer at Blog Indiana 2012

Jay Baer and me. This dude’s a rockstar no matter what.

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.

Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org