Are marketing explainer articles over yet?

A vague number of years ago, maybe ten, somebody realised that instead of yelling at people to buy stuff online it would be much more pleasant to create helpful content.  So began the era of the explainer article. 

Broadly speaking, explainers are a helpful method of navigating through a sea of stuff. Complex political situation? Here’s a simple overview. Not sure what type of dog to get? Here’s some information to help you figure that out. Explainers swallow up all that internet fluff and barf it back up in a neat little pellet. 

Delightful. 

However. 

In the world of marketing and digital content, explainers are now everywhere. And – wow – are they relentlessly helpful. 5 ways to beat the algorithm! 5 tips to make your copy sparkle! 5 ways to grab your audience by the shoulders and shake them hard until they cry and buy ten thousand of whatever it is you’re selling!  

As a reader it’s hard to know which end is up. So many instructions – but which to follow? 

As a content creator I’m guilty as anyone else of pushing out the “value”. Problem is when it’s the same value everybody else is giving out. Does anyone really have anything new to add? How do we, as content creators, offer something different to the bland mass of general advice to a general audience? 

And how do readers stop themselves being blindsided by an internet of marketing “top tips” that threatens to become just as discombobulating as the topics it tries to explain? 

The simple answer? One size will never fit all.  Do your thing, your way. 

Writers – stop trying to appeal to everyone. It’s boring. 

Readers – the answers are in you, not in someone else’s step by step. Nobody ever got anywhere exciting by following somebody else’s plan (look what happened to Chester Copperpot). 

And if you think I just wrote an explainer article explaining why explainers are rubbish, you would be exactly right.  

Now excuse me, I’m off to write “5 ways to grab your audience by the shoulders and shake them hard until they cry and buy ten thousand of whatever it is you’re selling” because, now I’ve made up the title, that shit needs writing. 

 

I’m Penny, a copywriter and content strategist. I help businesses write words that make customers fall in love with their brand.

Want to read more? I am regularly introspective about freelancing on Instagram. Or follow me on Twitter for inane stuff like what my favourite pen is.

Picture credit Matthew Waring.

Can you take a compliment?

Last night a good friend, whose opinion I value greatly, paid me a big compliment on my work. ⁣⁣
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It’s not the first time she’s done it. She’s been doing it for a while. But although my ears hear it and my mouth says thank you every time, does it ever really go in? Does it permeate? Do I allow it to seep into me? ⁣⁣
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There is a wall there. ⁣⁣
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There is a “thank you very much for your gift, I’ll put that into a box and look at it again later”. ⁣⁣
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But I don’t. Not really. It never gets fully unpacked. ⁣⁣
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Today I thought for the first time about why that is. ⁣⁣
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Sometimes I do accept compliments – they’re usually from people I don’t know very well or people who don’t fully understand what I’m trying to do. ⁣⁣
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But when it comes from a place of real authenticity and feeling, from somebody who I know and whose own work I respect, it starts to get difficult. You can’t just fob it off with “ah they’re only saying that because they don’t get it”. Because they do get it. And that then becomes very real and very scary. ⁣⁣
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What kind of emotions would it have unleashed, if I had really sat in that compliment and thought about it properly? ⁣⁣
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I honestly don’t know. I might have cried. Big ugly snotty tears. ⁣⁣
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So sometimes it’s just easier not to. Sometimes accepting nice things makes you feel vulnerable in unexpected ways.⁣

It’s something I am resolving to get better at.⁣

How lovely it is to have the chance to receive these things. How good it would be to be able to own them completely.⁣
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Using the right words makes people take action.

I’m not about to go all political (well, not really), but there are some fundamental truths about communications in the digital age that have shown up in the recent European elections.

First truth – be concise.

Clarity is critical for engagement.

I read somewhere last week (brilliantly) that the modern audience consumes messaging like they constantly need to take a piss. This is spot on. If you can’t get your point across clearly in the first few seconds, you’ve lost your customer. They will scroll on.

As somebody who lives with small children and an easily distracted husband, I relate to this on a very real level. There is no time to dance around a subject if you want your audience to take action urgently, in a time of – well – crisis. If the oven is hot, the message is ‘stand back’.

Second truth – speak directly to your ideal customer.

If you don’t, you risk losing them completely.

In my early days of writing, this was a trap I fell into all the time. Trying to please everyone by speaking to everyone. It just doesn’t work. And as the world gets more overloaded with conflicting messaging, it will work less and less. You are not addressing the nation. You are one person speaking to another. Hone in on the people who share your values, speak directly to them, whisper into their ear, and you will engage them, powerfully.

The SNP weren’t afraid of alienating their leave voters with their ‘Scotland for Europe’ campaign. It was a masterclass in clear messaging. Here are our values, here are yours. It won them a 38% majority and annihilated the Tory and Labour vote.

Elsewhere, the Brexit party was a lesson in clear labeling for the disaffected. Even a four-month-old party with a morally dubious leader can mop up if the positioning is right.

These days we expect options tailored to our preferences. Fence-sitting just won’t cut it, we need to feel that our politicians share our values, that they will stand by us and fight for us (whether they will or not is another matter).

Don’t make those mistakes in your own marketing. Speak powerfully and authentically. Reach out and engage.

Stop trying to do your best writing!

Want to engage an audience?  Speak through your words.

Nobody wants to go onto a website and find heaps of overwritten copy that reads like a sixth form essay.  

That’s why we need to stop trying so hard to ‘write’, and start trying to speak through our words instead. 

Voice is a powerful connector. If you can speak directly to your ideal customer in a way that resonates, you’ve opened the door to a sale, a new customer or client.  

But how do we do that?  

For starters, we need to let go of the fusty old ideas we learned about writing in school. This is not an English class. This is the real world. These are your customers. 

Speak to them.

Know your voice.  

Businesses are as different as people are. Just like people, they use words in different ways.  

Some brands are so clearly defined that you can imagine them as real walking, talking human beings. You might dislike them, find them irritating, love them, trust them or feel a deep loyalty to them. That’s because these brands are characters designed to engage with their target audience.  

What does your business stand for? What are its values?

Who is it trying to reach, what does it want to say to them? How will it say it? 

If you can get these points pinned down and let them run through everything you do, you’ll have a verbal identity, verbal brand, or tone of voice. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a powerful tool for marketing. 

 

Now – stop trying to do your best writing! 

Once you’ve got a clearly defined brand voice, audience and message, the next bit should be easy. 

Stop thinking ‘I’m a writer, and now I’m writing. Look at my words, they are good words, I am trying hard!’ STOP IT. 

Be your brand. Think like it would think.

If you’re calm, straightforward and professional business, then embody those characteristics as you write. If you’re fizzy, fun and upbeat, let that come across in a conversational way.

It’s a bit like acting. Or writing a script. Every character has a voice. 

 

Audience is everything 

Now your brand is speaking through your words, get it to talk to another person.  

Your ideal customer.  

Feel that connection. Express your message directly to them, in a way they can relate to.  

Your audience needs to be right there, sitting opposite you as you type, just like you are for me right now. Hello! 

The more you write believing this, the more real it becomes for your audience, the more they will buy into your vision, your business, your dreams. 

That’s when audience turns into customer and – maybe most importantly of all – your community. 

 

Need some real, human words writing for your business? Or maybe you’d like a hand finding out what your values are and developing that into a tone of voice that works for you? That’s what I do! Let’s chat: penny@penthemighty.co.uk

Can ‘Better Call Saul’ cure your imposter syndrome?

My friend Jules gave me this mug about three years ago, because of our mutual obsession with the TV series ‘Better Call Saul’.

What she doesn’t know is that I use it as a mental pep talk whenever I start to wobble about my ability to do a job. I have my tea in my Saul mug. What would Saul Goodman do?

For those of you who don’t watch the show, Saul Goodman is the alter ego of lawyer Jimmy McGill. Jimmy is insecure, down on his luck, a perpetual loser who continually fails to make it in his profession because he doesn’t have the confidence to let his ingenuity shine. His emotional baggage holds him back. So he invents the Saul Goodman persona (“S’all good man!”) as an escape, a blag, a confidence trick. Saul is the Hyde to Jimmy’s Jekyll. And as soon as Jimmy becomes Saul, his fortunes begin to soar.

OK so he ends up in a criminal underworld and blah blah blah. But, a bit like the Fyre festival documentary, I look at these things and think… if these people can do it with just a little vision and confidence, surely somebody who actually has something great to offer can’t fail? What is holding us back? Only the fear that we can’t.

But we know we can.

We just need that little push of confidence to get to into a project. Once I’ve got my sleeves rolled up and I’m working, in that flow state, nothing can stop me. The fear rolls away and the ideas and excitement come flooding in. That’s the best place in the world to be.

So my trick is this. Do whatever you need to do to get into that sweet spot.

If that means being a little more Saul Goodman today, then do it.

Why are we so afraid of our own success?

Yesterday I spent an inspiring morning at Rudding Park with Quarterdeck learning how to be an inspirational leader. 

Honestly, I went along as a geek-out. I love the theory behind leadership and employee engagement.  Workplace culture fascinates me – the people psychology that sits behind it even more so. Six years working in internal communications will do that to you. 

I don’t consider myself to be a leader of anyone but my own good self these days, so I wasn’t expecting to have to do any soul-searching.  

Boy was I wrong about that. 

The skills you need to be a leader – to be able to motivate, to act with consistency, to listen (my goodness did we listen to each other), to have vision, to trust enough to step back. All things you need to work for yourself, to deal with clients, to be an excellent collaborator. 

The biggest takeaway for me was to be brave. Step up. Act more. Act bigger.  Show up to work and bring your best self, every single time. 

Why not? Why aren’t we all pushing ourselves just a little bit more every day? Because it’s easier, isn’t it. To think “oh I couldn’t do that”. Safer not to. Reassuring, actually, to tell ourselves the myths we’ve told ourselves – or have been told – for our entire lives. 

I’m not creative.  I’m not good with people. I’m disorganised. I’m not a sporty person so I don’t get on with exercise. I could write that book, but I don’t have time. 

Look. We can’t all do everything. That’s a fact. But if there’s one big dream you’ve got, and something holding you back from that thing… maybe it’s time to be the change. 

Just one step. Why not today? What are you really afraid of?  

What is my what?

I’m currently reading Emma Gannon’s ‘The Multi-Hyphen Method’ which explores the growing trend for ‘slashie’ careers – having multiple jobs or projects rolling simultaneously, rather than one job at a time. A portfolio career, but less briefcase-wielding than that sounds.

It’s nice to feel I’m part of a movement, instead of a person who can’t commit to doing one thing at a time. The book has also verbalised (although sadly fails to resolve) the issue of being unable to explain to your parents what the hell it is you do for a living, and the squinting and head-tilting that ensues. My favourite response so far has been from my dad (best imagined in a Black Country accent): “will it be alright though?”

I feel my multi-hyphen is more multi than most. I’ve had an immensely fulfilling working life so far, hopping from one thing to the next, following my heart rather than any sort of logical career path. I’ve made short films, I’ve worked in a drama script office, I’ve taught Pilates, helped women with their health and fitness, taught sports sessions for primary school children, I’ve lead a mass of gored-up zombies in a synchronised dance performance of Don’t Stop Me Now on the steps of Leeds Town Hall. I’ve worked in a press office, in internal communications, I’ve taught film-making undergrads at the Northern Film School how to nail their screenplay.

So what is my what right now?

I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the things I’ve done, and looking for ‘the golden thread’. The things I love that hold it all together.

Number one. Writing.

If I can’t write, I become unhappy. Whatever my work is, it needs to include words. Better yet – the telling of stories. I am obsessed with narrative structure, pace, plot, character. I am a pain in the arse to watch telly with. I am a forensic and enthusiastic analyst of everything you’re watching right now. I have opinions on all of it, and it’s best not to engage me in conversation on anything currently streaming if you want to get any work done today.

Number two. People.

Collaboration is huge for me. I am the opposite of an island. I like to be landlocked (maybe with a small stretch of coast to the south-east). Building networks and communities gives me energy, I love meeting people, finding out what makes them tick and being as useful as I can for them on that journey. I am a helper, a fixer, a “but have you thought about it like this”? A listener, a sounding board, a talker (so I’m told) of sense.

Number three. Engaging.

This is the top of the Penny hierarchy of needs. Creating something that makes a person laugh, cry, think, do. How good is it when you write or make something and you see the impact? You see the clicks go up, the emails start to open, the event starts booking, people start commenting, or your client reads your copy and says “this is exactly what I was looking for” (my first piece of feedback btw – I’m still glowing). Whether it’s getting people to move their bodies or move their minds, this is the dragon I’m always chasing.

These three things are my what. They are the umbrella that contains all my fun and chaos.

I don’t think I can condense all this into a soundbite that will satisfy anybody at a networking meeting, or a relative next time they ask. But I’m cool with the head-tilt.

And yes dad, I’m pretty sure it will be alright.

 

 

 

 

Is the digital world making poets of us all?

As copywriters, I think we create an oddball sort of poetry. It’s a funny little poet-esque dance we do, plucking out the right words and jiggling them into a pleasing order.

In fact, maybe we have more in common with poets than we think.

Check it out.
 

Avoid clichés

Do people really want to read the phrase ‘think outside the box’ or ‘once in a lifetime’ ever again? Be poet-like. Reach for the words that will take your readers by surprise with their power and originality.

 

Evoke, don’t emote

Ever read something that feels like the author is speaking directly to you? Like they’re inside your head?  Words that make us think, or even better, feel, are much more likely to make us act than when a message bores on in a self-indulgent way that fails to consider the reader at all. 

 

“The best words, in the best order”

That’s what Samuel Taylor Coleridge said about poetry, the old romantic. For me, this is about the line at which content churn ends and powerful, effective copywriting begins. Many years ago, when I was young and inexperienced, I wrote simply to fill space. I earned very little, and my soul was slowly eroded. Life is better when you write to please people, not just search engines. 

 

Use white space in a beautiful way

Remember Livejournal? That was peak massive-blocks-of-text writing and it was 15 years ago. Our browse-happy brains move too fast to stay on a line all the way to the end these days. Make it look digestible. Like word tapas.

 

Stay honest, stay authentic

I mean, not lying is pretty obvious. But being authentic is more nuanced than that. When you’re writing, keep hold of your humanity. Forget the great bonfire of the internet raging between us all; you’re still a person talking to another person.

 

Speak with rhythm

I love a short sentence, but sometimes I can’t help myself drifting into a long one. Learn from the poets and greatest writers of prose and use the beat to make it work. Keep it long, lazy and luscious. Or make it punch.

 

Make your reader feel something real and emotional

Robert Frost said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and a thought has found its words”. How perfect is that? There is nothing more satisfying than finding words for the intangible mess of feeling. If you can articulate the inarticulable, and put it in front of somebody in a way that captures them, well, that’s the cut-through. That’s copywriting. I mean poetry. I mean… both? 

 

What do you think? Can we can learn something about our own writing from poets? Or does the idea of high art and the digital world colliding give you the heebie-jeebies?  

Stepping off the cliff edge

Why go freelance? For me, there are a number of very good reasons.
I did it for flexibility, for my family, for my sanity, and the more I dig into what my business is and what I’m about, the more I realise I did it because I want to keep achieving. I want to get better at the things I love, I want to have impact, and I want to progress.

When I was very little, I went to an incredible primary school that was a utopia of pupil autonomy and ideas. If you finished your work, you could do whatever you liked. I lasered in – by lunchtime every day I’d finished everything. So my afternoons were spent setting up a school newspaper, fundraising and designing new art for the playground, making up plays, writing books, or just hanging out in the library with my friends ?

It was heaven on earth. Setting up projects, making things work, learning, failing, trying again. On my own terms (or collaboratively, when I could persuade my peers to join in). The only limit was my own imagination.

I was lucky. The eighties were great, weren’t they? All this, and we got Duran Duran too.

Freelancing comes with a lot more financial pressure and a lot more fear. But there’s a touch of that work hard/play hard vibe that I’m rediscovering. I’m remembering how to look for the horizon and stop staring at the ground. It feels exciting.

P.S. Finally got the @annieridout book – what a beauty ? Can’t wait to get stuck in.

[Cross-posted to @penthemighty]

Who is The Mighty Pen?

That would be me, Penny. I am a Yorkshire-dwelling mum of two who loves all things wordy, showing my feelings on my face (need to work on that), posh biscuits and dancing in the kitchen.

My best friend tells me I’m half saint, half sinner. Excellent listener, loyalty of a pitbull… but those times you go for coffee and it turns into wine? Normally my fault.

I used to be a TV script editor, then in-house copy/comms, now I’m embracing the freelance life. I’m a content fanatic, a lover of books, poems, pertinent gifs, microblogs and beautiful images.

Nice to see you here! I think we’re going to have fun .

[Cross-posted to @penthemighty]