You Don’t Need to Be an Expert at Writing to Write Great Content

Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

I stumbled across a blog post by Chris Riley a few weeks ago.

The main point of the post: experts shouldn’t be afraid to write what they know about and businesses shouldn’t be afraid to use content written by in-house experts. It’s a good post, check it out: Why Non-Writers Often Produce the Best Blog Content.

In-house experts are the motherload of content ideas for content marketers.

The reason?

As good as many professional writers are; they aren’t (usually) experts in what they’re writing about. Even when they are experts on the topic, they are still writers: they don’t actually DO what they’re writing about (usually).

For complex topics–I think of IT here because of my background–a working IT expert is going to be able to detail the important nuances of a topic better than a professional writer can, especially when it comes to how to and lessons learned information.  

What’s the simplest way to set up a firewall? Secrets to getting management to listen to your suggestions. Tips for doing A, B, and C with Technology X?

I can read about these issues and write intelligently about them. But I don’t feel them because I’ve never actually set up a firewall, pitched a solution to stone-faced bean counters, or done something I don’t even know enough to mention here.

In the mind of every professional is a hoard of knowledge. Knowledge that your customers would probably find valuable because it’s useful to them.

Chris is a good example of an expert writing about what he knows. I know Chris from my time as editor at AIIM. Chris was in a pseudo-marketing, pseudo product role (if I remember right) for document imaging software companies, ABBYY and then Artsyl.

I would use Chris as a resource and asked him to write a few articles and blog posts over the years. While his contributions needed to be restructured sometimes and needed some editorial smoothing, his knowledge of capture, particularly OCR, was on point.

Damn English Teachers

Raise your hand if you’re scared of writing because “you’ll do it wrong”?

Most of us have that one teacher who yammered on about NO PREPOSITIONS TO END A SENTENCE and NO STARTING A SENTENCE WITH AND OR BUT. Then there’s dependent and independent clauses and all the other grammar rules that cause many folk’s writing brain to come to a screeching halt before they even get started.

UG.

Look, grammar is important because they exist to ensure the words say what you want them to say. They’re the rules of the road–right turn on red, the person to your right goes first at a stop sign, use your blinker to indicate a turn, etc. Without them; chaos.

Don't be afraid to write because of typos

I’ve had many experts refuse to contribute because “they didn’t know how to write.” Thanks again, third grade English teachers and grammar hammers for scaring people shitless about a simple and even pleasurable thing to do. (That’s a bit too harsh, I love English teachers!) For a bit more on this, read Fear of Writing: The Typo and the Typo Pointer-Outer.

Hie Thee to the Experts!

If you’re in marketing, you should be doing everything in your power to gather content and ideas from the experts in your company. Appeal to their vanity, appeal to their better instincts, or simply beg and plead; but do what you can to get them to share what they know.

Chris was always willing to share. Partly because it was part of his job and partly because it was good for his career.

The flip side of Chris was Larry W. Larry had implemented a scanning department for a major insurance company. The solution he drove helped digitize formerly paper-based processes. There were automated workflows to route documents and a decreased reliance on filing cabinets to store documents (which helped with faster customer service as well as saved money). There were a few other benefits too that I don’t recall.

While Larry was kind enough to serve on an Editorial Council and share insights and as a judge for the scanner category at the AIIM trade show (where he would carry around a stack of mis-matched documents of different sizes and paper quality to see if he could get the scanners to choke) I could never get him to write anything.

I remember him saying once, “But what would I write about?”

I was like, dude, there’s stuff you’ve forgotten or that you just do that anyone beginning the process of rolling out a scanning implementation would kill to know.

So I created a list. Here it is in all it’s glory:

Tips for Larry W. [and for other users]

These are in no particular order; other than as they came to me.

  1. How do you prepare users for the change of adopting a new system?
  2. Follow on to the above: does how you manage change depend on the type of implementation?
  3. What are staffing suggestions for making sure documents are captured in a timely manner
  4. What’s keeping you up at night? You can use a post like this to sound out ideas for how you’re addressing an issue and solicit input from the community at large; a “hey, am I making any sense here” thing. This could be a recurring post theme, and change as your challenges change:
    1. Creating an RFP
    2. Staffing challenges
    3. Aligning technology with business goals
    4. Trying to understand how [X thing that my CEO just read about and now wants me to do] fits into how I support the business with technology
    5. Anything that is a challenge.
  5. Related to number 4: What’s your biggest information management challenge now? [could be a call for help/comment/discussion about how others have addressed this issue]
  6. Tips you can share with implementing/planning for any of the systems you’ve been involved in: capture/scanning, ECM, ?????
    1. Planning
    2. How to select the right technology tool
    3. How to get the right contract for you
    4. How to ensure you give the right team enough time to do it right
  7. Making the business case to executives/getting buy in
  8. Proving ROI (or times when you don’t/didn’t have to prove ROI)
  9. Any funny (either funny ha-ha or funny 10 years later with a rueful laugh) stories
  10. First thing you do when starting a new project that’s lead to success
  11. Biggest mistake you’ve ever made and what you learned from it
  12. Biggest success you ever had and what you learned from it.
  13. ??????

Thirteen is intentionally a question mark; there’s stuff you know as part of your job that I don’t even know enough to ask about. What do you take for granted that others might find useful and valuable?

I wrote that nearly a decade ago. I suspect anyone trying to get an imaging system operational (or most anything IT-related) would still find the answers to those questions valuable.

Make the Experts Comfy

Editors and content marketers can help an expert identify the right topic to write about and smooth out the English, but can never match the authenticity of real expertise.

Some people will just not write. Accept it (after repeated, polite, badgering). Then move on to other ways you can pull contributions from these folks. In no particular order, here’s a short list:

  1. Emphasize that you’ll clean up their language AND you’ll let them review (with a reasonable timeline) any changes you make before you publish anything.
  2. Are they more comfortable on video? Some people are talkers. Maybe someone isn’t willing to write anything, but will happily share tips, tricks, and lessons learned via video–either an interview or just recording on their computer.
  3. Same as above, but for podcasts (if you have one).
  4. Ask them questions. What shortcuts do you know? What do you wish you knew a year ago you know now? What’s the most important thing our customers need to know about widget X? Et cetera and et cetera. Keep your ears open and don’t be afraid of tangents. Tangents can lead to fascinating tidbits of knowledge neither of you would have ever thought of.
  5. Do an interview. Transcribe it and run as-is (edited for clarity). Or create content–tip sheets, blog posts, etc.–based on the conversation.
  6. Crowdsource. Ask multiple experts in your company to share one or two tips that you can then turn into a blog or asset. Do the same with ideas, ask everyone to give you one idea. Just an idea, not a blog post or anything else.
  7. There used to be a section in Readers’ Digest (might still be there, haven’t read it in years) called something like “A Day at Work”. Ask them about a favorite story about solving a customer problem. This is how I found out that rat’s actually do die in copy machines and people really do spill coffee into copiers from a copier technician.

Finally, be nice.

Always.

Firstly, being pleasant makes a better life than being unpleasant. Secondly (and more selfishly), being nice will make people want to help you more.

No one wants to help out the asshole in marketing who is rude, disrespectful of others’ time, and just wants to do his job. Everyone wants to help out the person who explains clearly what they’re looking for and is willing to hold your hand every step of the way.

Just WRITE, I’ll Edit

My opinion, everyone should learn to communicate effectively using the written word. Writing helps structure thinking and email and online collaboration platforms like Slack are often how we discuss what needs to get done. Hell, even texts are the written word and you need to make your point–even if you’re going overboard with abbreviations and emojis. And, of course, we need to arm ourselves for the social media wars! (Kidding, we should all step back from those–and I’m guilty too.)

With that out of the way, when it comes to marketing (or filtering content for an audience as an editor); it’s the job of the professional word peoples to get the words in the right order and spelled, punctuated, and grammared-up correctly.

I don’t need an expert to “know how to write,” which usually means they’re freaked out about grammar or structure or just not having anything to say.

I just need an expert to write what they know.

I can take it from there.

Getting actual experts to contribute is pure gold. I knew just enough about ECM (enterprise content management) to be dangerous, but you sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted me actually DOING anything I was writing/editing about. Likewise, I wrote some excellent content about copier tips and even some stuff on security. However, the blogs I pulled directly from the experts (copier service techs in this case) either as ideas or cajoled a few to write all performed better.

My expertise is what I’m doing now; pulling random ideas together into (fingers crossed) a coherent story that’s useful for the reader, not cleaning coffee residue from a copier’s innards or setting up a document imaging system..

Experts are, well, experts.

I know there’s a difference in my comfort level when I’m writing about marketing/editing than when I’m writing for a client.

And there is no way in hell I could have done a good job writing any of the ideas I had suggested to Larry. I could have interviewed him and either published a transcription or turned his ideas into a ghostwritten article, but that’s not quite the same as an expert taking the time to sit down and share what they know.

Again, beg, wheedle, whine, moan, bribe–do what you need to do to get your experts to share what they know.

Getting content from experts for your content marketing strategy is kinda like childbirth or pregnancy. It’s awkward and there’s going to be at least some mild discomfort, but there’s a bundle of joy at the end (well, at least that’s what all of us parents tell ourselves about parenthood–there’s a REAL bundle of joy when you create content from your in-house experts and your customers love it).


About the Author bryantduhon

Editor. Dad. Husband. Writer. Content marketer and strategist. Serial constructive procrastinator. Pizza eater. Beer drinker. Not always in that order.

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