Why You Will Live or Die by Your Ability to Write “Content”


EH 8410P Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1954.  Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

EH 8410P
Ernest Hemingway, Cuba, 1954.
Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

In academic circles, publishing in peer reviewed journals is considered the indispensable route to becoming tenured.

In producing a paycheck, writing–and becoming “published” in the form of your correspondence, your business letters and emails, your marketing and advertising campaigns and your social footprint (articles, white papers, blogs, videos) is even more critical.

Once you’re tenured, you’re more or less locked in to your job for life. In business, every subsequent check you receive is dependent on your ability to communicate and persuade effectively. Or, you’re only as good as your last campaign.

As an art director or a video editor or janitor, you express yourself graphically, visually and in the results you achieve. (That’s a nice shiny floor, Joe, good work).

But if you’re a creative (and I’d argue that since we are all selling ourselves all the time, we had all better consider ourselves creatives) working for yourself or “the man,” and even if you’re account side…you’d better know how to write compelling, actionable content or be able to pay someone who can.

In this, the era of pull vs. push, engagement-oriented sales and marketing, there are tons of garbage diatribes with plenty of confusing jargon to contend with. Much of it is written by bloggers or hustlers trying to sell you their system of “tripling your conversion rate with these 9 subject lines” or “keeping your sales funnel full of premium customers who will beg you to buy” without you needing to do much in the way of selling.

A good pitch, a great blog, a complete and on-going content-built campaign are all built on three simple, immutable principles:

1. Keep the attention of your prospect or audience. If your letter, blog, email or even brilliant marketing book (especially a whole book!) doesn’t GRAB and HOLD the attention of the reader, you’re dead meat right out of the gate.

2. Engage, inspire, inform and entertain your prospect or audience. You’ve got ’em for now, but you’d better rub their feet, cook for them a gourmet meal in 5 minutes (or show them how to do so themselves) and make them want to read every last word of what you propose while leaving them wanting more.

3. Be the resource, fulfill the promise. Everything we do every day arguably consists of “selling” something…from the merits of beef vs. quinoa to your skeptical spouse or family, to yourself or your firm for the account, the contract or the job. Hyperbole is no better than bragging these days, even if, as they say, it’s true or you can back it up. Or, in the event you’re hawking Shamwows, maybe.

Everything, from your résumé to your strategic or creative brief, to your account analysis and recommendation and justification for budget MUST be as compelling, as reasonable and logical and as moving as an excruciatingly well-turned sentence from a Hemingway novel.

Go easy on the jargon and the hype. You don’t care to be spoon fed that tripe any more than your audience or prospect does.

So–how, or through the assistance of what how-to book or writing seminar–can you achieve this level of writing great content? From a classified ad to a complete campaign, Website or direct email program?

By reading great writing that grabs your attention, engages and inspires you to action and leaves you with a clear or implied call-to-action and emulating said writing. That means copying, to use plain English, in your own words. 

As Picasso famously said, it’s impossible to simply copy someone else’s work or technique–in doing so you inevitably flavor it with your own peculiarities.

That’s what makes YOU unique, of course. And practice. Lots and lots of practice. And testing. And refinement.

And consistency when you find a style that works for you.

This Story Made Me Sick, But in the End I Pulled Out My Credit Card


It was my last day in the Alaskan wilderness, and I knew there was a fiercely protective mother bear between my 3-person hiking party and our bush plane; we had seen her and two of her cubs, passing ahead of us on the narrow trail only 20 minutes earlier. We had hoped that brief encounter would be our only one.

It was not to be. I’d fallen maybe 50 yards behind my companions, taking my time and enjoying the warm, late afternoon sunshine. Suddenly, I heard the sharp sound of twigs snapping and leaves rustling to my right. I froze in my tracks and turned in the direction of the sound: there she was, not a stone’s throw away, firmly planted, panting and drooling with flared nostrils. Her eyes locked with mine.

The charge caught me by surprise. Instinctively, I unslung my rifle from my shoulder and began to raise it just as the grizzly reached me, snarling, rearing up, and looming above me so close I could see the yellow on her massive teeth. I had one chance at this close range, but a good one.

I squeezed the trigger, barrel pointed straight at the bear’s chest. There was a sickening click…

So: Curious to know what happened next? Would you like to keep reading to the end and find out all the–pardon the pun–grisly details?

Read on, it gets better.

And that, in essence, is my job as a writer and a marketer–to grab your attention, engage your senses and get you to commit to the book, brand or service I am representing. You can easily see from this naked example that the technique works, but there is also plenty of practical scientific research behind why such story telling works so well for today’s big brands. Especially in the demanding and crowded social media space that we’re all forced to function in.

It may just be the oxytocin, the same powerful chemical that bonds people together after intense lovemaking. According to Claremont Graduate University’s Prof. Paul Zak, who studies the effects of oxy (and who has drawn blood of those who watched or engaged in powerful, character-driven narratives first) the chemistry can even predict which TV commercial will pull best during the Superbowl.

It’s an expensive lesson to ignore. With an ever more important emphasis on creating compelling, on-going stories to differentiate our brand (or our clients’ brands) we likewise need talent who can keep powerful narratives coming day in and day out across deliverable channels–from :30 broadcast spots to brand blogs to well-placed PR.

Even a sixty second ‘elevator pitch’ for a venture investment or a movie project can benefit from one’s ability to tap into and grab the audience’s attention and leave an indelible impression behind…an impression that can separate your product or service (or even just you, yourself) from all the other voices clamoring for the sale, the contract or the job.

Does your proposal–or even your résumé–create an oxytocin-worthy result that showcases your strengths, burns you into your prospect’s psyche and gets you the callback you deserve?

Companies like Narativ, which charges companies from $6000 to $25,000 to learn how to connect through speeches and corporate training in story telling, has built a successful 20-year business on this science.

In my personal experience, I can attest to the efficacy of using a great yarn to bulk up your brand message as if it were on steroids.

Crime writer Mickey Spillane had the formula down cold. “Grab your reader’s attention from the opening paragraph of your book,” he advised, “and hold onto them until the very last word of the last chapter.”

Kind of like a grizzly bear with a rag doll of a human in her jaws.

Want to know more about how you can integrate powerful story telling into your brand? Have I got a story for you!

Tom Stevens is a writer who specialized in “content” when it was still called “copywriting.” If you want–or need–words that can spark revolutions or merely cause people to pull out their checkbooks or credit cards, call or write him before some third world despot has him kidnapped to write propaganda for their rotten regime. For more from Tom visit vonstipatz.com