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The Entrepreneur's Guide to Business Writing: 17 Proven Strategies for Content That Wins Customers

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What makes a successful writer? Author and content strategist Stephanie Mann shares her advice on how to create better business writing, from identifying the migraine to forgetting the writing rules that you were taught in high school. Stephanie contributes to the Huffington Post and Entrepreneur.com the topic of content strategy for entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit StephanieHMann.com.

Byron:             Welcome back everyone. I’m here with Stephanie. Stephanie, welcome.

Stephanie:    Hi. Thank you so much, Byron, great to be here.

Byron:             Yes, Indeed. We’re going to talk about your book, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Business Writing. 17 Proven Strategies for Content that Wins Customers.” So let’s zero in a little bit on the book itself. Are you talking more about…Tell us more about copywriting, for example, and conversions versus of strategies of writing in general and entrepreneurial guides to business writing and growing a business? Zero us in on the goals of the book and what you were trying to accomplish.

Stephanie:    Sure. So the real goal of the book is to step down and look at the fundamentals really of what goes into good business writing. Good solid business writing. And what are some of the major pitfalls that a lot of entrepreneurs or business owners make when they try to make that foray into writing for an audience of customers who want to buy their products? So the goal is really to get key strategies about how to avoid those pitfalls.

Byron:             Fantastic. Now we were talking earlier and I was noting to you that you’ve chosen to focus on entrepreneurs which is very brave of you. Entrepreneurs are busy people they don’t often know a lot about… They don’t have a deep understanding of content strategy, shall we say. They just want to get it done as fast, quickly as they can, they want a trusted source or somebody that either can create great content for them or get out of their way. Why focus on entrepreneurs? I’m curious about your interest there.

Stephanie:    Yeah. That’s a great question. Well, one of the things that I love about entrepreneurs is that they are experts in their field, whatever they do. And so they are an incredible source of inspiration and knowledge for writers who are working with them to pull that knowledge out and create great business content. And they also tend to have platforms, they tend to have audiences. A lot of them are very involved in social media. Even though they don’t necessarily think as themselves as writers per se, they have a lot of the good bone structure to become a writer. And as a writer myself, I love working with people like that because you just bring out their potential and you can really create some great content just by talking to them and interviewing them, getting their expertise and then putting it on paper.

Byron:             What can writers learn about managing the relationship with an entrepreneur from your book and working with them and maybe winning business from them and/or guiding them to great content and seeing results? What insights do you have to really tap into these entrepreneurs and putting that knowledge to work?

Stephanie:    Yeah. Well one of the things that I talk about in the book and I briefly just mentioned was interviewing the entrepreneur, that would be my biggest piece of advice for any writer, any freelancer, or any content strategist who’s working with entrepreneurs is to really utilize the fact that entrepreneurs love to talk about they do. They love to talk about what they’re experts at. And so even just a simple ten-minute interview can give you enough information to write three great blog posts for somebody who might be your client who’s an entrepreneur. One of the best ways I would say to connect with entrepreneurs and tap into that customer base if you’re a writer is to talk to them and not pigeon-hole them into maybe writing things themselves. Just utilizing that idea of interviewing them on the phone and then taking it from there.

Byron:             One of your points is to identify the migraine. I love that as a concept. Tell us a little bit about pain points and identifying them and how to put that to work.

Stephanie:    Yes. Sure. So the reason why I use the word “migraine” is important. It’s that we might have something like a little scratch or a bug bite, we’re not going to do a whole lot to remedy that. We’re not going to go running out to the pharmacy to spend a lot of money on a solution for those small things that bother us. But a migraine, we’ll do anything to get rid of. We’ll spend a lot of money on different treatment options, we’ll seek out different specialists and ask experts to help us with it. So that’s why I say find the migraine that the people in your audience, your target customers are facing every single day. Because if you can identify that and if you can speak to that, then they are going to want to work with you because you are representing a solution to something that’s causing them a lot of pain. And that goes for writing as well, business writing. You want to write about what’s wrong and how to fix what wrong. You don’t want to just write about what’s so great about what you do and what amazing benefits your product or service offers to your audience. You really want to focus on the challenge that people are facing.

Byron:             Another section that seems to be most helpful for your readers is a section about, “Forget What You Learned in High School.” Why are we teaching writing the wrong way, in your opinion?

Stephanie:    Yes. Another great question. The reason why I think a lot of high school teachers, and I don’t mean to pick on them, I loved my high school teachers and they influenced me a lot, is that most high-schoolers, when they're writing a formal essay, are far too casual about the way that they write. And so as a direct result of that, high school teaching has really just tipped over to the opposite end of the scale and they over reward formal writing. Because so few of their students get formal writing correct. They penalize conversational writing because in their eyes, either the teacher, it reflects a lack of effort and respect for the formal essay writing process. So that’s why when you think back to the things you taught in high school and stuff like contractions are bad, for example. So don’t say, “I’m,” say, “I am.” Don’t say “it’s,” say “it is” are other things that you think as formal writing like not starting a sentence with a preposition, that’s completely fine if they put ”but” as a start of a sentence, but we as writers in this day of age, we’re taught not to. And that’s the reason why it’s deeply ingrained in a lot of people who don’t write for a living in particular. They think back to what they learned in high school maybe that was their last English class they ever had because in college they went on and studied science or math.

Byron:             Can you imagine a day in the future of training and development and academics that we would have a business writing class in high school? Wouldn’t that be a fabulous idea? Why don’t we do that?

Stephanie:    I think that would be amazing and I think it’s something we really need and I’ll take it a step further, not just in high schools, but what about in the majority of colleges to have some prerequisite for actual writing that you can use in real life.

Byron:             We must find a way to make that happen. Stephanie, we’ll work on that later perhaps with some other people.

Stephanie:    Together, yeah.

Byron:             Can help. Maybe we can get all our writers and writer exes, tens of thousands of them to help us with this effort. Another interesting point you have is “Just Shoot for the Bullseye.” Tell us what you mean by that and how reader’s personas figure in the play, potentially even, the customer journey, if you will, which is really a big area that I’ve been looking at very closely lately.

Stephanie:    Yes. So when I talk about shooting for your bullseye, what I’m really saying is I want you to create like a reader’s persona. Which is the way I tell my clients to do it. So when you’re kind of shooting that arrow, you’re writing something, putting it out there. You don’t want just be heading toward a general huge target. You want to be pinpointed to the center of that target. And the only way to do that is to have an idea in mind of the type of person that you want to attract with what your writing. And so for example, I have my clients do a really great exercise where they actually write out a description, a detailed description of one person. And that one person encapsulates all of their readers. But it is just one person, with a real name, a real age, where they live, what they like to do, their gender, their profession, the level of education, whether their married or single, their income level, et cetera, you get the idea. And then every time they write something, I have them keep that person in mind. And that’s what I mean when I’m talking about a bullseye. So they have their bullseye in their mind as their writing and every time they write a blog post or an article or a piece of content for their website, they’re thinking to themselves, “Hmm, would my reader,” let’s say her name is Courtney, “Would Courtney respond well to this article and why or why not?” And use that as sort of a measurement device as to the success as to that piece of writing.

Byron:             Tell us about your foolproof editing strategies to “Clean, Professional Content Every Time You Write.” And by the way, I want everyone listening to agree to play this section back at least twice so we can hear your answer.

Stephanie:    So when I talk about a foolproof editing strategy, the most important thing first is to have an editing strategy at all. There are actually four key parts to this. The first one is “To Be Logical. The second one is, “To Edit for Your Bullseye,” which I just discussed. The third is, “To Know Your Own Rules.” And the fourth is, “To Proof Your Pudding,” I call it. So the first part of being logical, it’s about when your editing a piece of content that’s already been written, the first thing you want to do, the first step that you want to take is to have a logical flow of ideas. It’s a step that most people actually completely missed in the editing process, they’re so focused on, “Okay, I’m looking for typo’s, what did I misspell.” They totally forget to say, “Okay. Does this have a strong opening? Are the paragraphs that follow relevant?” And then, “Do I have an engaging call-to-action at the end?” Instead, you find a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs, in particular, go right into a haphazard way where they’re kind of spilling out of the expertise on the page without any core structure. And when I talk about your edit for your bullseye, it’s the same thing I said before, you go back through and you edit thinking is this vocabulary I’m using, is it correct for my bullseye for my reader who’s going to be benefitting from this? Am I writing this in a way that makes sense for that audience? And then the others you practice are, “Know Your Own Rules” and “Proof Your Pudding.” The “Know Your Own Rules” is to just simply know what things you tend to mess up. And you want to actually have a style sheet that you use and you keep at your desk for things that you know you frequently misspell, for words you know that you use either far too often, or you use it in the wrong way. We all have those things that we know trip ourselves up on and you want to just call attention to that. And then the “Proof Your Pudding,” is the final piece is to proofread, which so few people actually do. They just hit “Send.” They don’t have either a second person to give it look over or step away from it themselves for just a few hours and then come back and look at it with a fresh set of eyes. That is the most critical components of editing any type of writing.

Byron:             I’ve noticed on the subject of proofreading. I’ve noticed something fascinating and I wanted to ask you about this from a tech perspective. When I’m, say, writing Craig’s List job description add that I’m posting on Craig’s List, I’ll write the ad in their widget box and I’ll hit the submit button and I will present back to me the proof if you will. But there’s something psychological about that that all of a sudden I’m not… It’s not in the same box. I might have already proofed it in the widget box where I entered it, but now, it’s ready for the world. I’m looking at it through the world’s eyes or somebody that’s going to read it. Not my own eyes that was writing it. Do you feel that something that simple can actually help the proofreading process changing the perspective of the audience rather than a writer to the reader? And do you actually have to hit the “back” button? You have to go back to your editing to make any edits on it because it’s chiseled in a stone-like structure namely, the, “Please review before you submit it one more time.” Do you think that helps?

Stephanie:    Yeah, it has some urgency. No, yeah, I think that’s a great point and I like your example. I often tell people to print out what they write and that’s the best way to proof it in my personal experience and I also see the best results come from people who I work with when they print it out. Because like you said, it’s just that very powerful effect of changing the environment in which.., or the way in which you’re viewing the content that flips the switch on in your brain. And that’s the nature of proofreading. I once worked at a small newspaper where we had maybe seven people who cycled through each issue to proofread it and every single person would find glaring issues every time they read through it. And they went through seven different sets of eyes. So you really need to keep that in mind I believe when you write and when you edit. Is that nothing’s ever really perfect but the way to get it as close to perfect as possible is to proof everything that you do and do it in a way that works for you. So if you figure it out by printing it out makes you catch more errors, that’s what you should be doing every time.

Byron:             Let’s talk about ideation and the role a writer versus an entrepreneur in developing, engaging ideas that would engage their readers and keep them coming back for more. How do you advise entrepreneurs, for example, to think outside the box and let a professional help them with content creation and/or at least, ideation of ideas that would resonate well with readers? How do you bridge that gap between ideation and creation?

Stephanie:    Well, one of the things that I’ll say again, and I know I’ve mentioned this a couple of times is the power of the interview and I think that really comes into play when it comes to idea generation for any type of content with entrepreneurs. It is still one of the best ways to get ideas and to actually flush out entire pieces of content from just minutes of talking on the phone with an entrepreneur. Some of the other ways that I think are really important to connect with entrepreneurs on the level of the idea generation is to really encourage them to tap into their communities. So, like I said previously, a lot of our entrepreneurs are very involved with social media, they have followings already or they just have their kind of their finger on the pulse of whatever industry that they’re in, that’s their job. And so for them to really tap into that community in a way that helps it inform their idea generation for content is something they kind of need to be coaxed into doing. They’re not used to doing that. But once they are, it’s a very effective strategy. And some of the ways that they can do that is to watch what’s working in their industry, so to ask them to follow on social media and sign up for all the newsletters and subscribe to all of the email list of people who are really doing content well in their strategies so other entrepreneurs were just killing it at content strategy. And let those other people’s ideas influence and percolate ideas in their own mind and then come back to the writer they’re working with and say, “Hey, here are ten topics that I see circulating in my environment from colleagues, from friends who are in my industry, I want to write about these topics and then you hop on a phone call with them and you say, “Okay, let’s explore each one of these topics.” And create content based on it and interview them on those topics.

Byron:             How do you arrive at the right tone and style with an entrepreneur that almost doesn’t know what they want until they see it? Are you helping your customers develop that tone and style? Are you showing them examples of that? How do you work as content strategists with your own client base of entrepreneurs that very often don’t know what they want?

Stephanie:    Right. That’s a great question. So I always say that developing what I call, “your diva voice.” If you think about when you’re listening to the radio and Celine Dion comes on or Mariah Carrey comes on, you can recognize that voice immediately. That’s the kind of voice that entrepreneur needs to be able to develop and it’s really difficult because, like you said, a lot of them don’t know what their voice is because they don’t think of themselves as writers. So the way that I approach that is to first take a look at everything, if they have written blog posts, I like to take a look as a whole of what they’ve written and what they’ve published up to the point where I start working with them. That can really help me get a sense of where they’re at now in terms of tone and voice and where I think we need to go. And then I will have a framed discussion with them about it. I think that’s really important when you’re dealing with entrepreneurs is to be really upfront with them about, “Hey, here’s where you are now, here’s what you’re doing well, here’s what we can improve on together.” And then what I like to do is, once again, you got to trust the interview to get a sense of how the entrepreneur speaks and what their personality is like. And then I take pen to paper and I put finger to the keypad and I actually write up a sample blog post for the client and I do my best to combine their personality and the words they use and how they speak with what I’ve seen them previously produce in their own writing. So that I’m not putting my own spin entirely on their stuff, it’s still entirely uniquely theirs.

Byron:             And let’s talk about what you’ve learned from how they speak and how you apply that to the sample content you’re creating to them? How does that process happen?

Stephanie:    Yeah, that’s a good question. That is actually easier than you think. Because we all have just such distinct ways of speaking and it comes across in vocabulary a lot but also our natural tones whether we have a dry sense of humor or whether we are always kind of excited, or we speak with a quiet, kind of shy tone. It comes across within five minutes of talking with somebody. You can pick up on those things; I’d say adjectives are really where it all comes into play. It all comes together with people’s use of adjectives. If you’re talking to someone, I have one client who I love working with and he’s extremely enthusiastic. So he’s always using words like, “powerful” and “excellent,” and these are not words that maybe I would normally put into a piece of business content, but I do use them and make sure to put them strategically in all of his newsletters that I write because it’s the way he talks and I know he’s a consultant and he has these very close relationships with his clients and they know how he talks.

Byron:             Yeah.

Stephanie:    So when they see a newsletter and he’s not saying, “Oh, this is extraordinary, this is a fantastic way to improve XYZ.” They know that that’s not him writing and so that’s one example.

Byron:             We have the ability for customers at WriterAccess to add a voice message to an order they’re placing to a writer. Don’t you… It’s free by the way. They can do that freely and they’re instantly assigned a phone number and all they have to do is dial it and talk into. Can you offer some words of wisdom to hug to our customers as to why they should do that? And likewise, expand perhaps on why that would be such a great idea for writers to listen to that, to dive into a potential tone and voice strategy and expand upon how to do that?

Stephanie:    Oh, sure. Well, I think that’s first of all a great opportunity for someone to take up when trying to hire the right writer for what they want. And that’s because all writing begins and ends with a voice. It’s all we have. Without a voice, you just have words on a page. So what better way to make sure that you attract a writer who really gets you and is going to help you communicate your message in a way that sounds like you than to use your literal speaking voice to communicate with them the way you sound and the how you talk. We talk about in literary terms of voices like an author, individual recognizable the writing style, the use of punctuation, vocabulary, how you signal dialog on a page. These are all things we do when we speak. And so that’s a really powerful way to, within just a couple of minutes convey to someone the type of writing that you would require and that you would need to really sound like you.

Byron:             What would you do if you were the writer listening to those couple of minutes where you were learning about their voice? What would you do? What would you write down? What notes would you take?

Stephanie:    Yeah. That’s a great question. I would write down any words that strike you as adding color. Anything colorful that comes up. I was just giving the example of a client says things like, “Powerful.” Anytime you hear an adjective, I’d write it down. And I’d also write down overall tone. Is this person speaking loudly? Are they speaking softly? Is it someone who sounds very serious and formal? Is it someone that sounds like they’re having a friendly conversation? These are all things that are very easily discerned from just a couple of minutes of audio. Again, it’s one of the reasons why interviewing your clients is such an effective way to get information that you can then literally just convert into writing with just some great editing and stylistic change. So that’s what I would say.

Byron:             A few more tips from the book that you might share with us. What’s really working today in business writing? Are we trimming things down and making it simple? Are we starting to write like we chat on text? Heaven forbid! Where’s this all going with business writing?

Stephanie:    Yeah. Well, one of the things that I do talk a lot about and we touched upon is making sure that you’re not writing in too formal of a manner. And what I see working in business writing is a delicate balance between what you called the kind of writing as you speak or as you chat online, which we don’t want. And writing in a formal way that you learned to write in school. It’s in the middle of where we want to be and that’s the most successful bloggers, the most successful writers, the most successful non-fiction books are ones that readers of all backgrounds and all educational backgrounds can come to and read and they can relate to and understand, yet it still has that level of professionalism. And it doesn’t have errors, and there are no little shortcuts that we use when we’re InstaMessaging or when we’re Tweeting. And to have that separation between the too, yet walk that tightrope that makes engaging and not too formal, is really where the sweet spot is today for business writing.

Byron:             Stephanie, we’ve really learned a lot today. I want to thank you for being with us.

Stephanie:    Yeah, thank you so much. It’s my pleasure.

Byron:             Indeed. I have two final questions for you. Who would you like to get ahold of you and how can they get ahold of you?

Stephanie:    Oh. Well, I would like to hear from any entrepreneurs who need help either creating a content strategy or with any sort of writing whatsoever, books, blogs, newsletters, you name it. And the best way to get ahold of me is, just go over to my website which is: www.stephaniehmann.com.

Byron:             Thanks again for being with us today, Stephanie.

Stephanie:    Great. Thanks so much, Byron.

Byron:             You bet.

Stephanie:    Thanks for tuning in, everyone. We’ll see you next week.