As business professionals, many of us face a real conundrum when it comes to telling our stories. On the one hand, we believe we have a distinctive offering and want the world to know about it; on the other, the idea of churning out breezy, derivative content to jack up our SEO numbers makes us queasy.
I had to grapple with this question recently when I pivoted in my career and switched from full-time journalist to ghostwriter. Virtually everything I read and heard from marketing experts hammered home the message that nobody reads anymore. My content had to be zippy, to the point, tip-focused, keyword-jammed, broken up with subheads and feature a clickbaity title, preferably one beginning with the words, “Five Easy Ways To…”
There was only one problem: whenever I consume a listicle or any content you can inhale in the time it takes to blow your nose (I used those verbs deliberately. I don’t consider the experience reading), I never think “wow, what’s this brand? I have to check it out.” I think I’m never going to get those ten seconds back.
If I was trying to market my unique expertise by sharing my insights with others, why would I create content that appeared to have come off an assembly line? If I claimed to know how to write stories that others would want to read, why would I write something I wouldn’t want to read myself? My instincts told me I had to find a way to create content that would help me rise above the noise, not simply add to it. But I understand the enormous pressure to bow to conventional wisdom. Whenever I sat down to write, I was confronted by that conflict.
My ambivalence about publishing content in staccato bursts got me thinking about the kind I do like to read. My attention span is just as fractured as everyone else’s, but if I come across insightful, engaging, long-form writing with a clear point of view on a topic that interests me (and the page design doesn’t put me off), not only will I take the time to read it, I’ll think about what I read. And if it truly makes an impression, I’ll share it with others. Why wouldn’t the same be true for my audience?
Let me tell you a story about the Toronto digital design firm Teehan+Lax. (Full disclosure: co-founder Jon Lax is my nephew.) Teehan+Lax launched in 2002 and garnered an international reputation. Clients included Bell, The Globe and Mail, Telus, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams (with whom the firm worked on the early design of the blogging platform Medium,) and Facebook who made the partners an offer. In 2015, they disbanded the company and, along with a handful of senior designers, headed for Menlo Park.
One reason T+L was so successful, besides the quality of its work, was its ability to carve out a unique identity for itself. One of the ways it did so was by publishing long, thoughtful, compulsively readable case studies on its website.
Digital marketer Josh Steimle wrote in Forbes that he used to believe website case studies should be short until he read T+L’s case study about how the firm had helped design Medium. The post was long. Really long. It took him 20 minutes to read. But he was riveted.
Steinle wondered what had prompted him to keep reading, besides the obvious motivations like a fascinating story, quality storytelling, and design. He asked co-founder Geoff Teehan to weigh in. Teehan said that he and Lax had asked themselves what they’d want to know about the project. In other words, they treated their audience, which included potential prospects, as their peers. “Realizing we were writing these for ourselves was the first big step. The second was to create a framework to tell great stories.” (If you want to tell great stories it helps to know someone with a journalism background. Lax had a degree in journalism, and early in his career had worked as a staff writer at Shift magazine.)
The moral of the story, at least for me, is that if you write thoughtfully and engagingly about something that interests you it will probably interest others — a principle that long served me well during my career as a freelance magazine writer. The other insight I gained trying to resolve this dilemma was that while you can immerse yourself in the research and listen to the marketing experts — and you should— at the end of the day you have to trust your instincts.
Ian Schrager, an entrepreneur I greatly admire who invented the boutique hotel concept and recently launched the Public Hotel in New York, echoes those sentiments: “Every other hotel company is obsessed with millennials,” he said. “You think Apple is obsessed with making phones for millennials? If something is good, it resonates with everybody.”
Now that’s advice I can get behind.