good writing

[209] How to write great copy with John Espirian

When it comes to writing content for your business, it’s important to understand exactly who you are writing for and be able to speak their language.

In this episode, technical writer John Espirian shares practical tips on how to get tuned into your audience’s needs and write compelling content to help grow your business.

Here’s what you’ll learn in this episode:

  • John Espirian’s business story - how he became a technical copywriter and blogger
  • The questions you need to ask about your audience before you start writing
  • Some of the most common copywriting mistakes made by businesses - and how to avoid them
  • Why John thinks you are the best person to write content for your business
  • How to research the language your prospective customers use, by using LinkedIn, Facebook groups and industry forums
  • Practical ways of writing in a conversational tone - including using voice memos to create written content
  • Ideas on where to get inspiration for blog headlines
  • What to consider when it comes to keywords and the search engine optimisation (SEO) of your content
  • Why every piece of content you write should encourage an action

Key resources

Order the 2018 media diary or join the media diary owners’ club

The Soulful PR Studio

Your Year in PR - my media planning masterclass

Video of Soulful PR Live

Soulful PR for Starters

A PDF guide to navigating the podcast episodes

John Espirian’s website

John on Twitter

KW Finder

Keyword Tool.io

Answer the Public

Podcast Are you making this mistake with your about page? (episode 144)

Podcast SEO made simple with Martin Huntbach (episode 167)

Podcast Shut up and write with Stella Orange (episode 99)

Podcast How to tackle writer’s block (episode 172)

Podcast Six types of blog post you should be creating regularly (episode 134)

My blog post Why using big words can make you look stupid

Podcast How to quadruple your income through blogging with Kate McQuillan (episode 119)

Podcast How to use competitions in your marketing with Kate McQuillan (episode 191)

Livestream Katya’s website

Podcast How to use livestreaming to make money in your business with Livestream Katya (episode 103)

Podcast How to build raving fans through livestreaming (and why you need to) with Livestream Katya 195

Soulful PR Podcast Community on Facebook: chat about the show with Janet and other listeners

**MY BOOK ** Your Press Release Is Breaking My Heart (A Totally Unconventional Guide To Selling Your Story In The Media)

My FREE Soulful PR Facebook Community: tips & advice for promoting your business

Connect with me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook

What to do next

If you enjoyed today’s show, please share it using the social media buttons at the top of this page.

I’d also love it if you could take a few minutes to  leave an honest review and rating for the podcast on iTunes. I read every one personally and may even read yours out on the show.

And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, to get automatic updates every time a new episode goes live.

 

How to write exciting copy about boring things

A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a collection of research stories for a university’s 25th anniversary publication. The money was good, the deadlines manageable, but I hesitated about accepting.

Why? Because some of the research topics appealed to me: cyberstalking, why women cry at work and how Antarctic explorers develop resilience, for example. Others - like coral reef protection, smart meter technology and the cognitive processes involved in reading - didn’t really light me up. I'm not saying those topics aren't interesting full stop - I'm sure they're fascinating for some. It's just when a subject doesn’t inspire you personally, it can be more difficult to be creative.

I went for it in the end, but the experience was a reminder that good writing isn’t about talent (although a little natural flair does help). It’s about showing up and doing the work (even when you don’t feel like it) and finding the drama in every situation.

Here are my tips for writing interesting copy about topics that bore you:

1. Start with a story

Everyone loves stories.

And wherever there’s people, you’ll find drama and emotion - both vital for hooking readers in...and keeping them with you.

So whether you’re writing about smart meter technology or cyberstalking you’ll find people with real experiences who can bring your writing to life.

Take this article I wrote for the Guardian on cuts to further education funding for 16 to 18 year olds, for example:

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 22.22.32

Opening with an explanation of the proposed cuts would have been pretty dull. Telling a story - in this case with an ‘against the odds’ narrative - makes it instantly more compelling.

When I was researching this article about coral-reef preservation, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to bring the topic alive. So I asked the academic to describe to me the most dramatic moment in his research. His reply gave me the opening line of the piece:

All of a sudden, this enormous bang went off. I thought my tank had exploded or something. A bomb had been thrown into the water, over one of the coral reef sites we were monitoring. I look around and everything was dead: fish, corals...it was tragic,” says Professor James Crabbe, as he recalls a diving trip  in the Wakatobi National Park, a marine national park, south of Sulawesi island of Indonesia.

 

2. Paint pictures with words

Consider the difference between the following (from the example below):

‘He tried to escape from school.’

and

‘He started running out of the building and climbing over the surrounding walls.’

OR

‘His mother had to restrain him’

and

‘I found myself lying on top of him, trying to restrain him, while the teachers looked on in horror.’

In both cases,  the second is more compelling because it creates a visual image for the reader, rather than describing what happened.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 22.25.55

So if you want to engage with readers, show don’t tell.

3. Land your reader in the action

When I was writing about resilience in Antarctic explorers (a topic I found fascinating but knew wouldn’t necessarily be so for others) I used a common technique to draw readers into a narrative - landing them right in the action.

Imagine taking a 2000 mile journey across a treacherous landscape, in near permanent darkness, with temperatures dropping close to -90c. As well as the physical demands of skiing, climbing and transporting equipment in extreme weather conditions, there would be worries about loved ones back home, the pressures of living in a confined space with other people and boredom to contend with. So what motivates people to deliberately seek out challenging situations like this and how do they develop the resilience to cope?

You can do this in all sorts of ways, like using an imperative (or command) as I did:

Imagine.

(Phrases like ‘picture this’ or ‘stop what you’re doing’ can also work well).

You can even pose a question, as Cory Eridon does in this Hubspot post on how to write the most boring content of all time:

'You guys ready for a total snoozefest?' 

Or you can place them right in the scene, so they can picture events as they unfold. Like this:

 

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 22.27.13

Landing your reader right in the action is not only great for making complex topics accessible, it can also create a sense of immediacy that is compelling to readers - as in this story about hydro-electricity.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 22.28.06

The opening quote: "She's a thirsty bitch, but she'll keep you warm mind" draws in the reader (as do the personal reflections e.g. 'we traded the jeep for a Prius, dug a vegetable patch' and 'you can't type if your fingers are numb').

4. Circle back at the end

A good piece of writing should have a satisfying end. That doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending; it can be a question or interesting point for readers to ponder. But if you’ve opened with a tale, revisiting that story - or its characters - can create an effective ending.

Like the final paragraph of this article

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 22.29.22

5. Write knockout headlines

Around 80% of people will read a headline but only 20% of people will read what follows – so hooking your readers in with a great headline is vital. While there's no magic formula for headline writing (it's really about understanding your audience: what works for one group of readers could completely bomb with another) there are some techniques that seem to work with most. These are:

Questions

Want to place more opinion articles in the national press? Do these five things

Think you need to hire a PR company? Read this 

Chalk and cheese (putting unlikely ideas together)

What tackling my fear of water taught me about getting press coverage 

Numbers (especially if they're odd or a bit random)

49 words you should avoid in your press releases  (my most popular post, ever)

Want to get more press coverage? Try using these 9 influential words

The 'tease'

A simple strategy you're not using in your PR campaigns (go on, steal it) 

Time savers

Seven fifteen-minute-or less training ideas that will boost your press coverage

6. Don’t be serious or ‘corporate’

You may be writing for your website, company report or blog, but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring.

Don’t be afraid to show emotion - or as Neil Patel suggests in this excellent post on how to make your boring trade blog interesting - attitude, even.

Writing in the first person (that’s ‘I’ or ‘me’) can be very engaging. In fact using ‘we’ or ‘us’ not only sounds stuffy and corporate - it can actually distance you from your reader.

7. Create ‘little miracles’ 

I love this blog post from Alexandra Franzen, where she suggests writers shouldn't think about crafting blog posts, or product launch copy (or whatever it is they're writing). Instead they should create little miracles.

So think about the audience you're writing for, imagine what would feel like a miracle for them right now...then give them exactly that.

This could be:

- A story idea that is exactly right for a journalist's audience, will fill a hole in their page/schedule (and allow them to leave the office earlier)

- An 'about page' that shows how you can help  your site visitors (rather than boasting about how brilliant you are)

- An executive summary or company report that entertains readers rather than being something they just have to read for their job.

Franzen delves more deeply into the idea, but the takeaway message for me is this: write with the needs of your audience in mind - not your own - and you're far more likely to make a connection. Which is what great writing is all about.

 

Why it's good to be a copycat (plus five ideas you can steal from me)...

Please don’t steal my car. If you drive away with it, I won’t have it any more, which is a real hassle.

Please don’t steal my identity or my reputation either. Neither travels well, and all the time you’re using it, you’re degrading something that belongs to me.

But my ideas? Sure, yes, please, by all means, take them.

I have a confession to make: I stole that intro. All 59 words of it.

It came from this excellent article by Seth Godin on the Ted blog. I stole it because it makes exactly the point I wanted to make (only a little better).

And as I’m telling you I borrowed those words, and I’m not trying to pass them off as my own (albeit after the fact), that’s ok isn’t it? I mean, why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to?

But I still feel a bit guilty about it. Why? Because like most of us I’ve been conditioned to think I shouldn’t steal other peoples’ ideas (and definitely not their words). And although I’m probably a bit more comfortable about it than you are (more on that later), I can’t help feeling under pressure to keep coming up with new ideas.

In reality, though, I’m not sure there is such a thing as an original idea. Isn’t everything a reinvention of something someone’s already thought of? And is that necessarily a bad thing? After all, as Seth Godin puts it:

So I don’t feel too guilty about ripping off other peoples’ blog post titles. I’ll happily  admit I nabbed the idea for Why using big words can make you look stupid from Derek Halpern’s blog. I’ll also hold up my hands up and say I recently spent an afternoon looting from Sarah Von Bargen’s website after I discovered her brilliant small business blog.

And there’s more…

I completely ripped off the idea for my PR Bootcamp summer school from Nikki Elledge. But even though I adapted her idea to suit my audience, I still felt guilty. So I emailed her to tell her about my project...and she messaged me straight back to wish me luck (‘Go get ‘em Jan!’) and point out she didn’t invent Facebook courses.

And I regularly pilfer story ideas from other radio/TV - or completely different industries - and adapt them for my specialist area (education).

So does this make me lazy or unimaginative? Or does it save me time and free me up create things that are more original? I’d like to think it’s the latter. Don't get me wrong, I’m not saying you should steal peoples words; but helping yourself to their ideas, and making them your own…that’s fair game isn’t it?

So in the spirit of sharing, here’s five ‘copycat’ ideas you can steal from me:

1. I’ve created a spreadsheet where I record compelling headlines, email subject headers and blog and podcast titles I can steal for my own use.  When I’m in a hurry, I use Evernote’s web clipping tool or Pocket to save them till later.

2. I scan magazine racks for headlines that would make good blog post titles (or article ideas) and snap them on my iPhone.

3. I use FREE tools like this one to help me come up with blog post titles

4. I save email marketing copy (in fact any effective copy) that lands in my inbox...so I can adapt it for my own audience 

5. When I’m delivering training, I search for presentations on Slideshare or Pinterest that I can adapt for my own use

So do feel free to nab my ideas...and tell me what you think in the comments section below.

Why using big words can make you look stupid

I was doing an editing shift on a national when some copy dropped into my inbox from a regular columnist - not a professional writer, but a guy who could certainly string a sentence together. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph.

Why?

Because it was crammed with complex language,  jargon and obscure metaphors.

So I did what any busy editor would do – I rephrased it and sent it back to him to check.

I received the following email* in return:

Dear Janet,

I do not agree with your changes. Not only does the new version trivialise the subject matter, but you've taken out my joke, and quite frankly, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever written.

If you are not willing to run my version, I’m afraid I can’t consent to it being published.

XXXX

While we had to agree to disagree on his definition of 'funny,' after a series of grumpy emails, he agreed to my changes. But the episode was a reminder of one of the most common writing mistakes: unnecessary use of ‘big words'.

What's wrong with big words then?

Good writing is not about using the biggest, cleverest words you can think of. It’s about using language to communicate ideas in a clear, accessible way.  Which means choosing short, simple words - every time.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t adapt your writing to suit different audiences. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you should use more complex language in copy (or pitches or press releases) for broadsheet newspapers or 'highbrow' magazines.

Readers of upmarket publications are just as busy as everyone else. When they're reading their newspaper over breakfast or on their commute to work, they don't want an extract from a textbook - they want a quick snapshot of what's going on in the world. Use overcomplicated language and readers will soon lose interest in what you have to say.

Can big words really make you look stupid?

And as this research from Princetown University shows, using long words can make you seem less intelligent than those who stick with basic vocabulary. Participants in the study were shown samples of essays with varying levels of linguistic complexity (which is exactly the kind of phrase you should avoid, by the way). They rated the intelligence of authors who wrote essays in simpler language as higher than those who penned more complex works.

So if you find yourself using words and phrases like these (collected from the ‘press release’ folder in my inbox):

  • exponential
  • strategic direction
  • autonomy
  • pertinent
  • funding streams
  • collaboration
  • interventions
  • superfluous
  • provision
  • individuals  (I mean, what’s wrong with ‘people’?)

STOP!

Think again.

Ask yourself if there is a simpler word or phrase you can use.

And before you go, do take a minute to share with me any unnecessary big words you see people using. What words would you ban? What would you replace them with? Leave a comment in the box below...

*some details have been changed