Asking for a Friend
Annotated marketing career advice (with the occasional pun)
February 10, 2020
Got that nagging feeling that your emails are being ignored? Struggling to get clients, consumers or customers to respond? Bogged down by B2B jargon you just can’t seem to cut-through? Torn between dumbing down your content or leaving your readers confused?
If you’ve got a B2B marketing problem, if nobody else can help, then it’s about time you read the latest edition of Ann Handley’s exclusive advice column for The Sophisticated Marketer Quarterly magazine. It’s called Asking for a Friend. It’s designed for shy and retiring marketers to share their deepest and darkest content secrets, confidentially. And it’s filled with straight-talking ideas and solutions in a style you’ll find nowhere else.
Ann is the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Everybody Writes, the Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs and one of the pioneers of content marketing as we know it today. In other words, there’s nobody better to pour your B2B woes out to over a cup of virtual coffee. Pull up a chair, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders… and get ready to share:
To Infinity… and Respond!
Can’t Hurry Love asks (for a friend): I work in PR. How can I get journalists, clients, and (sometimes) my boss to respond to my email pitches?
Dear Hurried Love
We open 80% of what lands in our email inbox, yet we find just 59% of it to be useful, according to recent
research by Adobe, published by MarketingProfs. (Interestingly, we spend 209 minutes each day checking and sorting through our inboxes—a whopping 3½ hours!)
So maybe the question is not: How do we get people to respond? Maybe the question might be: How
can we make our emails more valuable? And how can we more clearly indicate the response we need?
Writing in email (and Slack messages and texts and quickhit memos) lends itself to being misinterpreted, misunderstood, misconstrued, ignored—more so than most writing.
Why? I have a few hunches:
Hunch #1: Email, messages, memos tend to be ambiguous because of their immediacy: Most of us dash off an email without a lot of forethought.
Hunch #2: Nuance is often impossible to convey. Sure, tossing in a winky emoji might help convey that you’re joking. But still, when you write like you talk (common advice I don’t agree with, by the way), what you can easily communicate face-to-face gets lost in writing.
Hunch #3: WE DON’T PAUSE BEFORE WE HIT THE SEND BUTTON. It’s so important, I’ve Shouty Capped it. Take a beat. Re-read.
So what’s the solution? Before you hit SEND: Read as the recipient. Swap places with your reader: Be a skeptic of your own words. Get out of your own head. Step into your reader’s. Read your email/Slack message/ text through his or her eyes—from the recipient’s point of view.
As you do so, ask yourself five simple questions:
1. Is my point clear?
2. Could I make this point more simply? (Am I making it too hard to figure out what I’m trying to say?)
3. Could I make this point in fewer words?
4. What question would I have after reading this?
5. What do I want the reader to do? (Nothing? Fine. But is the “FYI only” clear?)
Finally, make your Ask crazy-clear. One uber-practical suggestion is this: Use Action Words in your subject line. Instead of “Agenda for Tuesday”, use “PLEASE COMMENT: Agenda for Tuesday 1 PM meeting”.
Why? Tell your recipient what you need them to do. If they need to read and comment on an agenda before a Tuesday afternoon meeting, tell them. Otherwise, you risk them missing the crucial ask—at least until you send a frantic follow-up on Tuesday morning.
The Fun One at the Office asks (for a friend): We sell highly specialized and complex products. How can we make our B2B content less boring, jargon-filled, and technical?
Dear Fun One
According to author and psychologist Steven Pinker, the root cause of so much bad writing is “the Curse of Knowledge”: our difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know what we know.
That’s in part why jargon, buzzwords, and thick, dense, flat-out un-fun-to-read writing is so rampant in business. And that’s in part why the Curse of Knowledge is doubly a curse in marketing, because often writers have to translate subject-matter expert-speak.
Here are two antidotes to break the spell of the Curse of Knowledge in B2B marketing, with a goal of creating more engaging yet still-relevant content:
Antidote 1: Add back-up singers: a few words of explanation for big words, technical phrases and acronyms.
Why? So you use a word, jargon, or technical term some readers might not know. The solution isn’t always to NOT use that word, or to dumb the writing down.
Instead, add a few words around your phrase to support it, just like back-up vocals support a lead singer. Back-up singers make any vocalist stronger, more nuanced, and more powerful. So too these few extra, supporting words will give a technical word or jargon context—making it stronger, aiding reader understanding.
Here’s an example of great backing up from Mel Magazine:
“Ricki was released in the final phase of guide-dog training for having ‘hackles,’ or a sharkfin-like fur on the ridge of her back that sticks up and can be seen as a sign of aggression.”
Antidote 2: Be your reader’s wingman.
Why? Your job as a writer is to be a wingman, or advocate, for your reader. Translate cursed language into a simple, direct, forthright approach that elevates the reader’s knowledge—without making them feel stupid. Or confused by jargon.
Here’s an example from The New Yorker:
“The ‘marmorated’ in its name means ‘marbled,’ but ‘mottled’ is closer to the truth. Entomologists, who have a color palette as elaborate as Benjamin Moore’s, describe the underside of its body as ‘distinctly pale luteous’ and the topside as ‘generally brownish cinereous, but also greyish ochraceous, ochraceous, testaceous, or castaneous.’ To everyone else, it looks as dull brown as its own frass, the technical term for insect excrement.”
See how writer Kathryn Schulz beautifully interprets for the audience without making herself the center of the story? She says “to everyone else...” not “to me....”. The extract comes from a piece of writing I really enjoyed recently, about stink bugs no less. I enjoyed it so much, I wrote a full analysis of why it works so well.
It all goes to show: Your product might be technical. Your readers might be highly educated. But they’ll still appreciate your ability to produce readable, engaging marketing.
Get more Ann-tastic B2B marketing advice in her must-read fortnightly newsletter, which you can sign up for at annhandley.com/newsletter
You’ll find lots more irreverent, heartfelt insight in the latest issue of The Sophisticated Marketer Quarterly, from which this column comes. Give yourself a different perspective on B2B marketing and read online now.