I was talking to a litigation lawyer recently who’d developed an excellent reputation in his area of expertise. After years of working at a downtown firm, he decided to go out on his own. He continued to service some of his clients, but had shifted the primary focus of his practice to mediation, and was looking to expand his client base in that area.
He told me about a market in the city that he believed could benefit from his mediation services. Not only did his rationale make sense to me, my instincts as a journalist told me he was onto something. Having spent many years freelancing for mainstream magazines and newspapers, my livelihood depended on my ability to do a lot more than simply write fluent sentences. I had to be able to spot story ideas, package them in a way that convinced editors of their timeliness and merit, substantiate my thinking with research and reporting that withstood editorial and legal scrutiny, and write originally and engagingly for a variety of audiences.
By utter coincidence, the previous night I’d read a story about a growing trend in the industry the lawyer was hoping to target. The story dramatically highlighted the need in that sector for a professional with his expertise. Since I knew that one story did not a market or trend make, I had questions. The more I probed, the more evidence he offered, and the more I became convinced his reasoning was sound. How, I wondered, did he intend to pursue the market?
He believed that to attract clients he had become known as an expert within that industry. He felt the best way to accomplish that goal was by attracting the notice of the people who would ultimately hire him, and the best way to do that was by writing thoughtful articles in the industry publications they read — content he could then share on social media. He hoped that once he’d established an expert presence in that world, mainstream journalists would seek him out for interviews, and he’d pitch those publications on ideas for articles and guest blog posts. If he succeeded in raising his profile sufficiently he might even wind up writing an expert advice column for one of them. But writing original, thought-provoking articles with depth and insight highlighting his experience, philosophy and point of view required a major investment of time, and time he did not have. What if I ghostwrote that content for him?
While I wasn’t an expert in the industry where he hoped to establish a beachhead, he knew I had the journalism skills to quickly find out what I didn’t know. He also knew I understood his work, values and the legal world. Instead of having to spend hours conceiving, researching and writing in-depth articles, he could convey his thoughts to me in a fifteen-minute phone call and I could take it from there.
Besides streamlining the process, collaborating with a journalist offered him other advantages: we know how to speak to a mainstream audience. Engaging it requires a different kind of writing than most people know how to do, including natural writers and those who publish in professional journals, which they usually find out when they try.
Engaging that audience also requires a different skill set than that of content providers. While content providers can package other people’s ideas to make them sound good, they don’t generally contribute ideas of their own. Journalists, on the other hand, bring their own ideas to the table. We’re also trained to listen deeply and ask probing questions, so we know how to draw rich material out of our clients and we often help them uncover surprising insights.
A few years ago I worked on a pitching guidebook for a global pitch consultant. Once I put his pitching process under the microscope, I found certain aspects of it confusing, so during our interviews I questioned him to gain a clearer understanding. Nobody had ever challenged him to think about his process in a deep way before, and initially he found my questions disconcerting. But the more I pressed, the more he found the experience bracing. By challenging him to examine his thinking more closely, I forced him to clarify it. The exercise not only made for a better book; it prompted him to refine his process, the way he communicated about it to his clients, and ultimately helped him improve the service he was offering them.