I spent close to seven years in a marketing department on a content team as I wrote blog posts, ebooks, tweets, podcast episodes, magazine pieces, and slide decks among other things. Based on all that experience, I wanted to share some lessons I learned from my time there, and this is the first:
Try not to sound like an asshole when you’re writing
It seems obvious (and easy) on the face of it, but when you’re in the belly of a Silicon Valley beast, and you’re surrounded by fellow marketers and other company marketing departments are reaching out in hopes you write about them using all their favorite buzzwords and you also answer to higher-ups in marketing that want the whole team to help push the company’s go-to-marketing efforts, it’s not easy to hold your line. People will try to talk you into sounding like a jerk constantly.
Whenever I have to read a press release for a new thing and it’s breathlessly promoting some life-changing technology combined with the brilliant company behind it, I often find myself three paragraphs into it while still not sure exactly what the thing debuting even is. When that happens, I often think “the writer of this must be a real asshole to waste all my time without getting to the point.”
That’s what I mean when I say: don’t be a jerk and don’t write like one.
I joined a content team with opinions and experience. And even though I was on a marketing team, I know I detest most of the writing I see from other companies doing marketing.
There are a lot of things to dislike about it. I dislike reading things written for people in the industry that tend to exclude everyone else. I’m not a fan of jargon, corporate speak, or marketing phrases peppered all over announcements. I absolutely detest when anything sounds like an effusive press release written by the company about itself.
It’s a balancing act, but you should be able to write things you enjoy yourself that also help your readers, while simultaneously checking the boxes for getting your marketing message across.
First up, a real life example
About five years ago, Concur–the travel and expenses tracking app used widely in corporate america–decided to build an app that worked inside of Slack. Back then, you’d chat with their app by sending it a direct message, and it’d present you with forms to choose options from, then save the results and actually book your flights.
I looked forward to this app because I hated using Concur’s own web interface for any business flights I had to book at work. Concur’s web app felt like a government website built in the 1990s that barely functioned and took at least 5-10 minutes to login and accomplish a single task. Doing it faster in Slack seemed like a no-brainer.
Here’s a screenshot of an early beta, showing how you could book an entire flight inside of a Slack message with it.
Along with getting to test the beta of their app myself, the team sent me some of their own copy in a marketing brief about the new app.
I pulled out their opening statement and here’s what it said:
We leveraged the expertise of our Hipmunk team, who built the first and one of the most popular consumer travel chatbots in the industry and blended our corporate booking tool, Concur Travel. From there, we partnered with Slack, the fastest growing team collaboration hub, with over 8 million daily active users, to deliver a world-class assistant that enables Concur Travel bookings directly in Slack
Did you get all that? First things first, it opens by describing one of the acquisitions in their org chart. Does the reader need to know or do they even care which sub-team of people at Concur worked on an app? Do they need to learn this in the very first sentence?
The rest, to put it mildly, is a word salad of nonsense. The paragraph is three press releases on top of each other inside a trenchcoat. As a veteran reader of tech news, I spotted meaningful words in the last few bits of the closing sentence, which was: you can book travel inside of Slack.
(note: I don’t mean to trash the writer at Concur, I’ve been forced to turn in copy like this before and I’ve seen my own copy turn into this thanks to rounds of further edits that took place far above me so I don’t fault them for it)
So I ignored all their copy, and started fresh. I put the most important information at the top as I was dying to use this app to save myself some time, and I wanted to convey that to others.
Here’s the introductory paragraph I came up with:
Get where you’re going faster with Concur’s Travel Bot
It goes without saying that booking travel can be a hassle. You’ve got schedules to juggle, tons of flight options to sort through, all against the rapidly-approaching deadline of your trip. The ideal scenario is to get in, get flights, and get out in a hurry so you can get back to work.
And that’s exactly what Concur’s new Travel Bot can do.
I pushed the most important feature to the title itself and opened up by acknowledging that booking travel sucks, everywhere, but hopefully this can save you some headaches and time.
If I remember correctly, the team at Concur was surprised by the draft but let us go with this messaging on our own blog post and were pleased with the good reception it got in the tech press. I saw my own screenshots of the beta on The Verge, Bloomberg, and other news outfits.
How to do this yourself
A couple years ago, my team gained a couple of new hires, and to help welcome them into the fold I looked back on my years in the trenches and wrote a list of all the things people should do when joining a marketing writers team. Here they are.
1. Know thyself
Even though there are 8 billion people on this planet now, each and every one of us is different, and it’s important you figure out what you like, what you stand for, and what you believe on your way to better knowing who you are. As someone with decades of experience, it’s easier for me to know what projects I like to work on, to know what I bring to the table, and to know where I hope my work is headed, but even for young people just starting out, it helps to examine your experiences and background, and come up with areas you prefer to work in and projects you excel at completing.
It also helps your fellow teammates and your editors. If you can accurately describe yourself and your likes and your view on things, chances are you’ll be quicker to find a writing “beat” that fits you. Other writers on the team will know when to send a pitch or brief your way because they’ll also know your beat and editors will be quicker to assign you projects if they’re well versed in all the subjects you’re ready to write about.
2. Be yourself
Once you know yourself, it’s important to be yourself (and continue being yourself) so you donʼt fall prey to marketing trends or pressure from higher ups to copy things they saw somewhere else. It’s too easy to leave a meeting with a VP where everyone is all charged up about pushing new goals and objectives using today’s catchphrases while forgetting about your reader along the way.
Regular people are busy, have highly-tuned bullshit detectors, and don’t want to be jerked around. They don’t want to wade through a thousand flowery words about the dawn of a new era, they just want 100 words that actually describe what a new feature is or what new product your company is launching.
Be yourself and know yourself enough to push back when someone asks you to write empty marketing nonsense. If it’s not what you’d want to read, why write it?
3. Find something to love before you write
Whenever I started a new writing project at work, I would have a meeting with product managers or ping a few devs/designers that worked on it, and I’d test it out, talk to those behind it, and learn everything I could with the goal of finding something at the core of it that I loved about it. Once I’d find something to like in a thing, it’d make writing about it a hundred times easier.
So my next piece of advice is to honestly find at least one thing you love the most about a new announcement, or product feature, or event, or whatever you’re tasked with writing about. Find the thing that resonates and use that as the basis to share news about the topic.
Then ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you love most about new feature x?
- How would you tell your best friend about it? What would you say if they looked over your shoulder at your computer as you showed them something new?
- How will it save people time or hassle?
Once you’ve got answers to all those questions, write them down and make that the core of your piece.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean only writing about things you love, but instead to work extra hard to find something in anything to love, even if it’s a B2B industry whitepaper about AI automation (I once wrote a 40 page PDF about this and I would have never finished it if I didn’t find interesting apps I liked that I could write about).
Even for boring announcements about a boring subject—do your best to find at least one tendril of a thing you love about it, then start writing.
4. Think about how you can help a reader solve a problem
I always try to center the reader in my work. When I took on projects talking about another company’s new releases on my own company’s platform, or our own new feature launches, I got tremendous pressure to talk about how incredibly life-changing a new tiny feature was, or to parrot another company’s press release on how their latest innovation was a worldwide game changer.
Whenever the thought would cross my mind or a manager would ask that I move something in that direction, I’d think of all the empty phrases I’d been annoyed at reading before and I’d cut them out.
Then I’d think about the tech itself. If it was a new feature or a new app, I’d think about all the ways I’d want to use it, and how the new releases might make that easier for me, then I’d simply describe that to the reader.
5. A quick list of no-no phrases
We had an informal list of Things Not To Do on our team that we learned by doing it anyway and then seeing blowback. Every time we had a new employee join the team, they’d make one or two of these mistakes in their first piece. I even did it myself when I was new. They’re almost universal and you’ll see them in technology news all the time. Here they are:
“Weʼre really excited to announce…”
Everyone opens their pieces with this, and of course a company is happy to launch things but it is a meaningless phrase you will see constantly in new release announcements that doesn’t help anyone reading it. Of course a company is excited about their work, but aren’t they all?
So cut it out, because no one cares.
Also? Make it a game on your team where anytime someone spots it in the wild, they take a screenshot and share it inside your team’s watercooler chat. We used to find at least one instance every week in the press.
“At $Company_Name, we care deeply about…”
Don’t open a launch post with this phrase, because no one cares about what your company cares about. They just want information that will follow that hopefully helps them.
“Our whole team has worked hard on this…”
Again, another phrase you see constantly in tech marketing that no reader cares about reading or gets any information from. Cut it.
And finally: donʼt talk like a press release
Product briefs or marketing briefs often are written like press releases by others in your marketing organization and your editors may tell you to lean heavily on them for messaging, but they’re often filled with industry jargon and empty phrases, so instead, write about products and features in your own words.
Again, back to a simple question from above: How would you describe this new thing to one of your best friends over coffee when they ask what you’ve been up to lately? You wouldn’t say something “synergizes the enterprise purchasing decision funnel” (unless you hated your friend). You’d tell your friend how they could save five minutes of every day, each time they needed to run an app because the company behind it made it easier to use. So that’s what you write instead of a warmed-over press release.
5. Learn to sleep on edits and revisit the next day
The best editor I’ve ever had is my own set of fresh eyes. Whenever I write something substantial, I always build one overnight sleep into my schedule the day before it is due. The morning after you think you’re done with a big writing project is the best possible time to spot all the small typos and tone changes and big and small edits needed to make your piece really shine.
Deadlines can be short and managers often want a piece delivered by “end of day” but do your best to build in a good reason to submit it at say, 10AM the next day instead, because your work will improve with your fresh eyes and a fresh mind taking one final review of it before submission.
6. Focus your message
Marketing pieces tend to overpromise and underdeliver, so to avoid that, try to focus your message before you start writing a new piece.
Ask yourself whatʼs the most useful piece of information you need to share about a new feature, app, or idea. If there are half a dozen things, boil it down to the 1 or 2 most important worth sharing.
Use this as a lens to evaluate everything and make sure every paragraph supports the core message so you can cut things that are just filler. Remember that readers are busy, so donʼt waste their time.
Also, donʼt be afraid to kill a story (even if it’s late in the process) or scale it back (maybe something becomes a tweet instead of a big splashy blog post) if the utility doesnʼt outweigh the marketing push to broadcast it.
7. Ask for better product briefs further up the pipeline
I had a ton of projects that began with a messy multi-page product brief filled with buzzwords and jargon and empty phrases, written by another marketer or another company about the thing we were collaborating on. Often, I wouldn’t even be able to figure out what was being discussed or which aspects of it the company wanted to share most widely. Whenever that happened, I’d throw a meeting with people involved to pepper them with questions to get at the heart of what news we really wanted to share with the world.
With that in mind, when prepping a product brief for a content team, here are a few tips.
When a brief includes every terrible buzzword and phrasing used by sales teams, keep it clear to your team that they can sprinkle a word or two in if they’re vital and helpful, but buzzwordy phrases aren’t going to automatically end up in the final version just because a VP really loves a weird turn of phrase.
My biggest wish for every product team was that they made a new heading titled “The No Bullshit Section” that honestly broke down what all is included in a product release, like just 3-5 bullet points for internal use only by your content team. Imagine something under that heading that simply stated “This is a bot that sends notifications when changes are made to files in their app” instead of what you’d normally see, like “how two companies are going to connect the enterprise and reduce friction in your daily dashboards and team monitoring toolsets”
Better marketing briefs also start with a userʼs story. Specifically, how are we solving their problems? Then tell your readers all about it.
After years of working in a marketing team as a writer, I will now repeat my high points: put the reader first, think how they think, and outline your pieces accordingly. Use the reader as a lens to evaluate examples and as a guide for how you explain things. When writing an announcement post, think about how youʼd tell your non-industry friends about it.
It also helps to:
- Know your strengths so you can write to them
- Match your strengths with audience to find your beat
- Always find something to love in a thing
As a discerning, creative person, write stuff you’d want to read from other discerning people like you with taste. And never forget people are busy and don’t have time for bullshit.