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Learning to Write for Clients – The Basics

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: January 30, 2017

[Note: this is a follow-up to my previous post on pitching]

From Pitch to Preparation

So, you have pitched and have been invited to write a piece for a trade magazine or even a newspaper. What do you do now?

 

Believe it or not, the first thing you should do is look at your pitch again. In that pitch, you should not only have written something that will convince a busy editor but you should also have left enough clues to yourself as to what and how you will write.

 

The best place to look is your three-sentence summary. In that tightly-packed paragraph, you should have left enough information for you to write a basic skeleton of your piece. This is exactly why I advise writing that paragraph according to the incredibly simple “context, problem, solution” structure.

 

Here is an example, adapted from two recent successful pitches:

 

Every business that wants to expand abroad needs interpreting. The problem is that it can be really hard to source excellent interpreters and even if they do find them, many business owners don’t know how to work with them effectively. For that reason, I would love to write a piece on how to source and work with interpreters to ensure that you always get a great return on investment.

 

That one paragraph gives the editor a great insight into how the final piece might look and, just as important, it gave me the outline of what I needed to cover and how. From that paragraph, I could jump straight into writing the pieces themselves, making sure that I wrote each one in ways that were especially attractive for that audience.

 

Remember your audience

This is where your research will pay off. For a piece I wrote for Flybe’s Flight Time magazine (using a slightly different pitch), my research told me that whatever I wrote about interpreting, I needed to drop in real-life (anonymised) stories and preferably some kind of numbered list. For Executive Secretary magazine, I knew I had to write it more like a step-by-step instruction manual with each decision explained.

 

With practice, you will realise that you can write articles covering very similar ground that look entirely different because they are aimed at different audiences. That is part of the skill of writing. While you should never duplicate content, you should have two or three key themes that you are known for that you can write about in a myriad of different ways. And that is why I would always advise practising somewhere safe first to gain experience of angling your content to different audiences.

 

How to edit your first draft

Once you have written your first draft, taking your article summary and research as a guide, put it all away for at least an hour. Go grab a coffee and check Facebook or do accounts or something. You need to find anything that will take your mind off it.

 

When you are ready, come back to the piece and reread it, looking for three specific things.

 

  • Is it written in a professional way, without any glaring typos, meandering paragraphs, repetitive phrasings and non-sequiturs?
  • Is it balanced? Does it give the right weight to the areas you want to emphasise and concentrate on the key things your readers need to know to use what you have written?
  • Have you dropped in at least some keywords that are used by your clients regularly?

In terms of key words, it is important to differentiate between SEO keywords (which are important as they get you more website hits) and article keywords (which are important because they demonstrate that you use the same terminology as your clients. I would always err on the site of prioritising the latter. Always write for humans first and you will find yourself benefiting anyway.

 

The last piece of the jigsaw

Once you have done that whole checking process at least twice, it is time to write a very short bio, giving your name, job and website and send the piece off. And with that, your job is done. For now…

The Danger of Single Example Learning

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 17, 2016

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At most events I have been to, I have observed the same pattern. The speakers who get the best reaction from the audience are the ones who speak from their own experience and tell great stories. As a professional speaker myself, I know that this is completely normal and there is a lot to be said for this approach. As a researcher and events professional, however, part of me wonders whether we might be setting ourselves up for a fall.

 

To understand the danger of learning from the experience of one person, we need to understand a very basic research concept. If you want to research a phenomenon, there are two broad approaches. The first is to look really deeply into one particular example.

 

The advantage of this approach is that you can draw a wealth of information and can uncover insights that would simply not be visible any other way. A really good example is that of a researcher friend of mine, Jiqing Dong, who looked at communication inside a single interpreting agency. The depth of her analysis is incredible and it offers some amazing food for thought.

 

The disadvantage of going deep is that you can never be sure that you have found something that is valid in any other situation. Sure, you might discover the secrets behind this single event drawing crowds of thousands but how do you know that those same secrets will work for you or anyone else?

 

An alternative approach is to look at several examples on a more superficial level. The classic example of this is a survey. Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn’t want ten minutes of your time to get responses on your social media habits, political affiliation, response to a website redesign or something else.

 

The advantage of going wide is precisely that, if you have done your work properly, your results will tell you something about general trends and principles that apply to a large number of cases. Researchers can and do generalise on the basis of representative surveys, which allows us to know things like the fact that the whole discussion over “what Millenials want” is a load of nonsense, as any generational differences we perceive are simply continuations of existing trends.

 

The disadvantage is, of course, that in drawing from many examples, you have to limit the amount of information you get about any one example and often, you also have to limit the range of responses. You might learn, for example, that your twitter posts get more clicks if they go out between 6 and 7pm but you won’t know what people were doing at that point or their emotional reaction to the post.

 

All this is a rather long way of saying that, if we fixate on the insights of one person and on their experience, we can fall into the trap of trying to extrapolate from their experience to our situation when the two are not at all linked. Sure, there might be a corporate conference company turning over £150 million per year but their techniques might not apply to a sole trader wedding planner.

 

Stories of “how I did it” are fun to hear and read but they might not actually give you anything more relevant to your work than a case of the warm fuzzies. Much better to gather a number of case studies of people in similar context from you and learn from a multitude of counsel. While no two examples are the same, the more we look for patterns and trends, the more we gain relevant insights into our own work