John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch, and my guest today is Ann Handley. She is the Chief Content Officer for MarketingProfs. Also the co-author of “Content Rules.” I think I had she and C.C. on when that book came out, and she’s the author of a new book we’re going to talk about today called “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.” Ann, welcome back.
Ann Handley: Well, thank you John. I’m super excited to be here, so thanks for having me.
John Jantsch: So I’m going to start really early in the book. I’m going to start a sentence and you have to finish it, okay? You ready?
Ann Handley: Okay, I’m ready.
John Jantsch: “Spread your arms and hold your breath,” and?
Ann Handley: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
John Jantsch: Your dedication. You didn’t even know this probably, but your dedication is a line from a Guy Clark song, “Always Trust Your Cape.”
Ann Handley: Oh, I’m sorry.
John Jantsch: And the lead up to that, first mention of that in “Always Trust Your Cape” is “Spread your arms and hold your breath.”
Ann Handley: I can’t believe you knew that. This is like, I don’t think anybody knows that. I didn’t think anybody would. Yes, exactly. That is exactly from that. That’s an amazing song.
John Jantsch: I’m a music nut and so if you’re going to use music lyrics on me, you can expect I’m going to give you the history of the song or something.
Ann Handley: Oh, that’s awesome. I can’t believe I just blew that. Did you hear my stunned silence?
John Jantsch: Yeah, that was … We’re going to have to edit that out completely. All right, so no, you know it’s funny, though. Not everybody knows who writes books, but you write these books, sometimes two years pass before like you wrote the first chapter, and so sometimes I’ll get on and do an interview, and somebody will say, “On page three, you say this” and I’m scrambling like, “What did I say on page three?”
Ann Handley: “What did I say?” No, it’s funny. I mean, that Guy Clark song, that’s a seminal song in my son who I wrote the dedication to, in his childhood. Because he’s an artist, and he’s a little bit of a quirky personality, he especially was when he was a child, and so just that idea that always trust your cape, always trust your inner guide, your instincts, is just something that we’ve really talked to him about his whole life. That’s special.
John Jantsch: You know, the story that goes on in that song, too, of course, is he did not know he couldn’t fly and so he did, right?
Ann Handley: Right. I’m welling up just talking to you, John.
John Jantsch: Sorry, sorry.
Ann Handley: Because that is such an emotional thing for me. Ridiculous.
John Jantsch: Awesome. Okay. Well, I mean, let’s just talk more about the dedication, you know? People have to buy the book then. So, I would suspect, this would be for me, if I were to write a book about writing, I’m not sure I could hold myself to the standard that certainly people would start holding me to, but one of the things I really like in this book is you write early on, take away the stuffiness or the rules that we all sometimes feel constricted by. Was that obviously part of your intent, too, was to say, “Hey, this is a serious book. I’m on a mission from God,” because you say that several times as well, but it doesn’t all have to be eighth grade teacherish?
Ann Handley: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the whole idea that I think a lot of us have anxiety that we’ve carried over from our high school years or at least our school years somewhere along the way, and somewhere along the way we felt like there are two kinds of people. Those who can write and those who can’t. I think many of us have some anxiety about writing, and so what I tried to do was strip that away a little bit and let people know. I think we are all writers in this world, especially a social media content driven world, I think we are all writers, but more than that, I think that there’s a lot of fun that can come with writing. You can certainly learn a lot about yourself, your customers, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into writing.
I really wanted to deconstruct it and make it feel like it was something very doable, which is why I told that story early on about me going to a gym and doing a pushup for the first time in my life, which it’s a silly story but it’s a true story and it also has a lot of resonance, I think, for people who feel very awkward as writers. I think it’s inherently learnable and I think everybody can learn to be a better writer.
John Jantsch: Now, I know the answer to this but I still feel compelled to ask you this. In this Vine and Snapchat and YouTube world, does anybody really care about writing anymore?
Ann Handley: Yeah. I think so. I think it matters more than ever, really. I mean, I talk about this in the book quite a bit, but I think our writing matters more now. It doesn’t matter less. Because our words that we’re using really are our ambassadors. On your website, on your Twitter profile, on your Facebook page, on LinkedIn. Everywhere. The words you’re using are really your ambassador for yourself and for your business. I don’t think of writing as this ivory tower exercise. I think of writing as the everyday stuff of life, you know? It’s not just blog posts and eBooks and things that we typically associate with reading. I think it’s everything. It’s the words on our website, it’s our product descriptions, it’s our thank you page content. It’s everything.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I mean, one of the things you address a lot too is you don’t have to think of yourself as a writer or that that’s your profession, but the fact of the matter is you’re going to have to do it a bunch. I mean, it might just be writing two or three emails to start getting somebody interested in hiring you, and that could make the difference in whether or not you get hired, or how you get hired, or what you get hired to do.
Ann Handley: Sure, yeah. Exactly. I mean, we all are writing, we’re all trying to convince somebody of something. Whether it’s convincing somebody that you are the right solution to a problem that they have, that your business is the right answer, or whether it’s just a simple email to somebody. One of the things I talk a lot about in the book is really approaching any writer, or any writing that you do with a truly reader centric point of view. Really swapping places with your reader and thinking about what experience is this creating for them.
That’s helped me a lot as a writer, as a blogger, on all of my social content that I’m putting out there. Just really thinking about what effect is this having on the person? Am I wasting their time? Am I spending too much time on a setup at the beginning or can I just dive right into it? Just doing some really simple things to help you create a better experience for the people you’re trying to talk to.
John Jantsch: It’s funny. In one of my earlier books, an editor numerous times, and he was actually my favorite editor. I’ve had actually four different editors on my four-
Ann Handley: Wow.
John Jantsch: … books, but he was my favorite editor. He would quite often say, “Why are you doing so much throat clearing here?” The idea being that you’re talking about what you’re going to talk about. Just talk about it. I thought that was pretty interesting way to characterize that. But one of the things that I like about the book, quite frankly, is there are lots of short chapters. Was that your intent? Or, was that just a style decision on your part?
Ann Handley: Yeah, I mean definitely it was an intent. I like books that are very useful and that you can come away with a real sense of how to do something. So, I didn’t want to create this writing tomb that felt really heavy and felt really like, “Ugh, I could never get through this.” I didn’t want it to sit like a doorstep on somebody’s desk, you know? I wanted to create something that felt like you could pick it up, you could leaf through it, you could read a couple of chapters very quickly, very easily, and take away something. That’s my “how to” personality. That’s how MarketingProfs is geared. We’re very much about teaching people how to do things and not just why they should do things. That was very much by design.
But also, I mean, I think it goes along with what I was talking about when I was talking about my philosophy toward writing in general. I think it’s really important not to waste the time of your reader. You were mentioning your editor with your throat clearing, I talk about take a running start and then basically erase your tracks, right? It’s okay to do that sort of throat clearing warmup, but in the end, pair it down to the bare essentials. That’s what I tried to do in this book, as well.
John Jantsch: Well, and your writing is very funny. I think that really helps because you’re tackling grammar. I mean, oh boy. How boring could you be, right? Maybe, and it might help that I hear your bubbly little voice in my head when I’m reading, but I think people will really appreciate your somewhat dry and sarcastic style.
Ann Handley: I hope so. Either that or they get incredibly offended, but I hope they think it’s funny.
John Jantsch: Now, a drum that I’ve been beating for a number of years, and in fact it was even a subchapter in my last book called, “Why You Must Write,” and it is that, at least my contention is that I started out as somebody who wanted to write, but realized very quickly I wasn’t very … I just hadn’t been trained very well. I didn’t have a lot of experience. Apparently my grammar that I got in grade school didn’t hold or didn’t stick, but I continued to do it because I found that, again, part of it is I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to write, but I also found that it made me a better salesperson. It made me a better communicator in general.
I think it forced me to start thinking about things in different ways, and so I have this whole list … It made me a better public speaker. I have this whole list of things that I attribute to the fact that I’ve now written probably half a million words over the last few years.
Ann Handley: Yeah. That’s really interesting. Yeah, I think it’s absolutely true. I think strong writing is strong thinking. I think if you work on being a better writer, really what does that mean? That means that you are doing all kinds of things. From a psychological standpoint, but at the same time, you’re really making it extremely … You have a lot of empathy really for your audience. Whether that audience is somebody you’re trying to sell to or whether it’s somebody you are speaking to, you’re on stage delivering some sort of speech or presentation, or whether it’s the person who is reading the book that you just wrote.
I mean, I think ultimately what it does is it trains you to be very economic with the words you’re using, with a real sense of empathy for what they’re carrying, what messages they’re carrying to the people who are there to hear you.
John Jantsch: Let’s really get at the heart of why you wrote this book, and I’ve been giving it really all this positive spin, but there’s really a negative component to this book, and that is you were personally waging a war on mediocrity. That’s the part that I think is the sub-level part that people don’t pick up on right away. Tell me about that.
Ann Handley: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, that’s absolutely true. I mean, there’s a byproduct-
John Jantsch: So you are a snob? That’s what I’m really getting at.
Ann Handley: Oh, no. Not at all, no. I know you’re kidding because you know I’m me and you know I’m the furthest thing from that. No, I think that’s the … Mediocre content is the byproduct of our content marketing age. I mean, it used to be that writing and publishing was reserved for those chosen few who could afford a printing press and the distribution that went with it, but in a world where everybody is able to write and publish and email and create social media platforms, and everything. There’s a lot of noise out there, and there’s a lot of noise that’s poorly written, that’s incredibly useless, really, to the people that you’re trying to reach, that’s really clutter and is not valuable.
What I wanted to do was say, “Okay, let’s take a step back from this content marketing noise that’s out there right now and let’s go back to basics in a sense, and let’s look at how can we really improve the quality of what we’re doing?” My feeling is that in a world of democratized communication, which I think is wonderful. I mean, as somebody who’s been creating content for as long as I have, I love it, but at the same time, I feel like there’s also an imperative on all of us to really up our game. I take that very seriously. I really want those of us who have the power to embrace it as real power, real opportunity.
Don’t just publish anything because you can, but really take it seriously and try to create great experiences for our customers. Ultimately, published stuff that’s incredibly useful to them, and that is really inspired from not just a data sense, but also from a creative sense. Publishing things that are really good. In a way, it’s my personal charge, my personal mission to really just encourage and to try to get all of us to up our game. I include myself in here, too.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think that from a practical standpoint, I started blogging in 2003 and I think there were 12 or 13 other blogs, so people had to read what I wrote.
Ann Handley: Exactly, exactly.
John Jantsch: And now they don’t have to so much. There are millions and millions and millions of blogs, so I just think from a practical standpoint the stuff we want to read is the only stuff we’re going to have time to read anymore.
Ann Handley: Yeah, exactly.
John Jantsch: And I think that’s a big part of what you’re saying, as well.
Ann Handley: Exactly. I mean, that’s the other side of it. I mean, in a world where there is so much noise, you’ve really got to up your own game. Not only because you have a moral imperative to do so, but at the same time, you have a business imperative to do so.
John Jantsch: One of the things I’d love to hear your take on is I do believe that because we are so overwhelmed with content, a lot of it we feel compelled to at least consume in some fashion. I think that we certainly have shorter attention spans or don’t really feel like, “Okay, can I sit down and read that 2500 word piece?” And yet, that’s the stuff that I think in some cases is really the great stuff, but I think there’s also a real need to write much shorter content which I sometimes find is actually harder to do.
Ann Handley: Yeah, right. There’s that famous, was it Pascal quote? “I didn’t have time to write a shorter letter.”
John Jantsch: Yeah, exactly.
Ann Handley: It’s like that kind of thing. Yeah, but you know, I think what’s inherent with that-
John Jantsch: I always attributed that to Mark Twain. I thought that was Mark Twain.
Ann Handley: I think it was originally Pascal but I think Twain probably stole it from him, which was probably by him. I don’t know. You should probably look that up in case you link to it.
John Jantsch: I will, I will.
Ann Handley: Yeah, it’s definitely harder to write shorter, I think. I mean, I was not a great journalist because I had too much of a storyteller’s heart. I felt a need to give background on things and color and places that it really wasn’t appropriate. I was a terrible news reporter for that reason, so my editors when I used to work for the Boston Globe is where I started my career, they switched me pretty quickly over to features because I definitely had more of a storyteller’s heart, you know? I’m a much better storyteller than I am a news journalist, or news reporter.
But that said, I think that as content marketers, as marketers, as business owners, it is imperative that we think about brevity when we’re communicating with our customers, but that doesn’t mean that everything has to be 300 words or less. It doesn’t mean that you should never communicate with anything that’s bigger than an Instagram post or something silly like that. I think really what it means is that you only use the amount of words that you need to use to tell a story. That’s where I think the editing process is really important. There’s a lot of writers out there who I found through the course of doing research for this book who just they’ll write a blog post and they’ll just put it up.
I don’t do that and I’ve never done that, and it fills me with fear a little bit, because like to me, letting it steep and then ferment a bit, and the going back and looking at it from the reader’s point of view, swapping places with your readers like I talk about in the book, and really taking a critical eye to it. “Is this the best way that I said this? Am I wasting somebody’s time? Is every sentence earning its keep?” I think that’s a really important part of the process and I think that’s ultimately what’ll get you to something that’s really brief and useful.
John Jantsch: Well, as long as we’re quoting writers, my famous … My favorite, should say, Hemingway quote, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
Ann Handley: Yes, yes. I ended up doing drink coasters with that. Did I tell you that?
John Jantsch: No, no.
Ann Handley: Yeah, I did. Because we had that conversation out in Denver, yeah.
John Jantsch: Let’s dive into a couple of … I think we’ve maybe talked to death the setup of why people should be writing and why this book’s important, but I do want to spend a little time on some of the book parts. The way you’ve broken the book up I think is great and I’m not going to go chapter by chapter, but I’ll just throw a couple of my favorites out there at you. I think we probably talked about this, too, because I tell anybody who would listen, one of my favorite books is “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott.
Ann Handley: Oh yeah. Mine, too.
John Jantsch: She has an entire chapter, I’m going to ruin my PG rating, but I’m going to read it directly. It’s shitty first drafts, and you talk about that idea of ugly first drafts, and I know that’s been a very powerful thought for me where you just let it rip first. Don’t edit yourself. That’s the “write drunk” part. Get it down.
Ann Handley: Yes. Yeah, Mark Twain has a saying about that, too. No actually, it’s not Mark Twain, it’s Stephen King. Stephen King says, “Write with the door closed, edit with the door open.” I really like that whole idea. First, you’re writing with the door closed, in other words, you’re just writing for yourself. You’re producing that ugly first draft, like I call it in my book, or Anne Lamott’s shitty first draft. But then write with the door open, so that’s the point where you swap places with your reader, and think, as I was just saying, “What kind of experience is this creating for them? Am I using the right words here? Am I indulging myself a little too much and not thinking too much about the reader and what they’re getting out of it?”
Because ultimately, you want to communicate with real clarity and so if it lacks clarity, then that’s the point where you can get to it. But I think that first step, the ugly first draft step, just letting it rip as you said, I think it’s great if you just let yourself off the hook. Write badly, but at least you’re writing.
John Jantsch: Yeah, because … I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s so hard for me to get started that if I just start writing nonsense, I will eventually get around to what I’m supposed to be talking about, and I think that’s part of it.
Ann Handley: Yeah. One of my tricks, too, and I talk about this in the book, but writing it like a letter. There are a lot of writers who write like, “Dear mom,” for example, as a way to start. For me, it’s a lot easier for me to write an email or a letter than it is to write just to sit at a blank page. I talked to Michael Brenner who used to be at SAP, and is now at Newscred, and he writes all of his blog posts as emails. In part, because it just gives him a cleaner interface, so it doesn’t get [jugged 00:19:32] up with lots of stuff, but it’s also just a nice way to think about that, right? If you’re just writing an email to somebody, no one gets email block. You don’t get shopping list block, or you don’t get-
John Jantsch: That’s right.
Ann Handley: … you know, that kind of block. But writer’s block feels like something that people struggle with. I know it’s great to just take the writing out of it and just make a list or write an email, or something like that.
John Jantsch: I’m guessing you’ve got shoe boxes full of diaries that you’ve filled out. Those little key locks. Did you have brothers?
Ann Handley: I had one brother, yes.
John Jantsch: Yeah, okay, so he was probably constantly digging for that key lock.
Ann Handley: I’ll tell you a funny thing, actually. I only have one diary and I really struggle to fill it up. Because to me, I never liked the process of just writing for myself. I mean, now I have a Moleskine that I keep as a journal but mostly what I do is I write down, I just jot down ideas. But what I did do as a kid, because I wasn’t a kid who kept a diary, again, because it felt useless to write for myself. I always wanted an audience of some kind, so what I did is I took out, I applied for all these pen pals all around the world. I don’t know if you remember?
John Jantsch: Yes.
Ann Handley: But it used to be like it was hard to get a pen pal back then. I mean now it’s super easy.
John Jantsch: Plus it took three weeks to get your letter to them.
Ann Handley: Yeah, exactly. I had about, I don’t know, seven or eight pen pals all around the world, from the time that I was eight years old until I was about … I don’t know. Until I got interested in other things, but I used to just write to them all the time. Interestingly, when I wrote to them I was always a different person and I had a different name. I was a very odd child as you’re getting out of this story, but the idea is that I used to keep basically notebooks full of details about my life that I was communicating to my pen pals all around the world.
It was David in Australia, there was somebody in Malaysia. I had them all over the place. If you think about that, it’s sort of funny. It ties exactly into maybe what marketers have to do these days with buyer personas and keeping a style guide.
John Jantsch: Personalizing your communication, right.
Ann Handley: Yeah, it was kind of weird.
John Jantsch: That might be a fascinating book all by itself, is pulling that together. We’ll call it-
Ann Handley: Yeah, I actually still have the notebook. It’s with my-
John Jantsch: We’ll call it “Sybil.”
Ann Handley: Oh, geeze. It was crazy. I mean, basically what it did is it allowed me to write and have an audience and just-
John Jantsch: I mean, it’s so different than fiction writing, right?
Ann Handley: Right.
John Jantsch: Exactly.
Ann Handley: Exactly, and just try on different personalities and essentially fictionalizing my life. Yeah, that’s basically what I was doing. One time I was a twin, another one I had a family of nine. One time I lived on a horse farm. I mean, all this crazy stuff.
John Jantsch: That is awesome. That’s awesome. So there’s a whole section on grammar, obviously, and I’m just, I’m not going to go into it other than to point out my biggest sin, and I’ll bet you this is really high up there. Once you get passed the theirs and there’s and yours and you’res, active versus passive voice. Now, does that creep in because people just aren’t thinking about it, don’t know any better? Or, does that creep in because they lack confidence in what they’re actually writing?
Ann Handley: Yeah, I mean, it’s an interesting … I don’t know why people tend to use passive voice. I mean, if you don’t know, those of you who are listening to this, verbs in a sentence, they can either be active or they can be passive. So, passive voice means that something’s being done to something. So, it’s not wrong per se, but it tends to have a little bit of a stilted feel to it. I’m trying to remember the example in the book. I think it’s like, so passive voice would be, “The blog post was edited by a guy named John.” Active voice would be, “A guy named John edited the blog post.” It’s basically looking at where is the action happening? What is being done to something?
My feeling is that passive is generally something that you want to avoid. But it’s funny. The course of writing a book on writing, I’ve actually noticed that I tend to use passive voice quite a bit. It was sort of this moment of self-discovery that I realized like, “Wow, I do this a lot.” John, you shouldn’t feel bad that you do it, because I actually now edit that out of anything that I’m creating but I do tend to produce it, at least on the ugly first draft.
John Jantsch: Well I think sometimes it creeps into my writing when I feel like, “Well, I don’t want to tell you exactly what to do. I don’t want to demand that you do something. I want to give you some space,” and I think obviously that makes for weaker writing.
Ann Handley: Yeah. I think it does. It also makes it sound a little stilted and a little bit awkward, you know?
John Jantsch: Yeah.
Ann Handley: But I mean, I should say that I’ve been editing marketers, I’ve been editing business writers for about 25 years. First at ClickZ and now at MarketingProfs. I’m pretty familiar with some of the problems that tend to crop up time and again, so I’ve put this grammar section in here a little bit reluctantly, and I put it second on purpose because at first I started out. When I first had the book organized, I had grammar first, the first section. I was worried about that because I thought, “God,” you know? I imagined my reader opening up this book and reading it and then just hitting the grammar section and going, “Oh, my God, this is so boring.”
Grammar is not the most exciting thing but I put a little bit of grammar in this book to address the problems that I have seen repeated time and again over 25 years, and just to coach people through it. I don’t know.
John Jantsch: Well, it’s one of the reasons I think people really love “The Elements of Style,” which of course, nobody will ever buy again now because of your book, but it’s one of the reasons I think people love it. It’s not like every possible grammar mistake. It’s like, “Here are the biggies and here are the things that you need to avoid.” That’s why I love it. It’s like a list of eight things. “Okay, yeah, okay, right. I do that, I do that” and I think that that’s what you’ve done, too, is you’ve made that section very practical.
Ann Handley: Yeah, thanks. Don’t you reread the “The Elements of Style” every couple of years or so?
John Jantsch: Oh, yeah. All the time, yeah.
Ann Handley: Yeah. I do the same thing. I remember you and I talking about that once. Yeah, I mean, “The Elements of Style” is a fantastic book and it was completely, it got me through college for sure. At the same time, I mean, E. B. White, I was obsessed with him. I have been obsessed with him as an author for a long time, and I have great affection and affinity toward him. He’s in the epilogue of my book for that reason, because he’s just a fantastic writer and just somebody who … You know that question, “Who would you have dinner with?”
John Jantsch: Yeah.
Ann Handley: Dead or alive, it’s always E. B. White for me, because I just think he’s, I have such admiration for the guy and what he’s done. Yeah, but thank you. Very honored to hear that comparison, even in passing.
John Jantsch: So the last section of the book and for those of you that hung on this long, here’s the payoff, finally. Very practical stuff that marketers write, and I think that it’s great that you … I think everything could be implied to that point, but I think it’s great that you went landing pages, and email copy, so that anybody who was having trouble trying to figure out how to apply it could say, “Oh yeah, I do that for a living. Let me read that.”
Ann Handley: Yeah, yeah. That’s exactly right. I mean, honestly, you don’t really need this section. I could have lopped off part five completely, because everything in the previous three sections really does make you a stronger, more hailed writer, but at the same time, there are things that marketers tend to be charged with writing. Things like Facebook pages and LinkedIn profiles, and emails, and headlines, and homepages, and about us pages, all those things. I really wanted to give them a little bit of guidance about that. At least where to start, and anything that might be idiosyncratic to those particular tasks.
John Jantsch: So we’ve exhausted our time together today. I appreciate you stopping by and sharing your thoughts and wisdom. Where can people find more on the book? Obviously it’s available to be purchased anywhere and all the various formats we get books in these days, but anywhere else you want to send people to connect with you?
Ann Handley: Yeah, well certainly, yes, the book is on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or any bookseller of your choice. You can go to EverybodyWrites.com. There’s lots of other information there about where to buy, as well as a little bit more information about the book itself. Or, you can catch up with me at AnnHandley.com.
John Jantsch: Is there an audio version? Are you going to do an audio version?
Ann Handley: I don’t have one planned right now. I did the audio version for “Content Rules.” C.C. and I each read a chapter, so we alternated. It was a bit of a painful experience for me.
John Jantsch: Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
Ann Handley: I don’t know. Do you do your own audiobooks?
John Jantsch: I have done all of mine and it takes 14 to 16 hours each, in the studio. It’s tough.
Ann Handley: Well, you have a great radio voice. I don’t feel like I do have a particularly strong radio voice, especially when you stack me up against C.C. who has a fantastic radio voice.
John Jantsch: Very deep.
Ann Handley: I feel a little bit lacking in that department, so I don’t know. We haven’t actually talked about an audio version yet.
John Jantsch: Well, there are people I hear from all the time. There are people out there that that’s the only way they’ll consume a book, so that’s why I feel compelled to do it, but I will concur. It’s pretty tough week when I’ve done them in the past, because I can only focus on the page for about three hours. I break it up and do it over the course of an entire week. Well, Ann, thanks so much for joining me. I know that we’ve got a couple of times where we’re going to see each other out there on the road. Best of luck with the book. I think you’ve got a real winner.
Ann Handley: Hey, thank you so much, John. I really appreciate you having me on.