Content Lessons from Literary Writers – 2

Rob Verschuren April 22, 2021
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‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

– Anton Tsjechov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) was a Russian writer of mainly short stories and plays. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest story writers ever and a major innovator of the genre.

Show — don’t tell

This article is not about the message but the packaging. More specifically, about the technical aspects of content writing. Chekhov’s quote is a poetic translation of the first lesson that writing teachers currently present to students worldwide: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader see, feel, hear, and smell for themselves. It is more convincing and authentic than simply naming things.

Stimulus > response

Another way of articulating this universal law of writing is in terms of stimulus and response. That may be more comfortable for marketers because this brings us into the field of communication psychology.

Content is written to evoke a particular response from the reader, and the way to do this is to administer the correct stimulus.

In other words, you do not state how great your proposition is, but you provide the reader with information from which they draw your conclusions.

Information is a broad term. Your website, the actions you take, your complaints handling, warranty conditions and the charities you support is, in short, everything you do on behalf of a brand. I limit myself to the small part that I have made my profession by writing words. How do you make the moonlight shine on broken glass simply using words?

Show what kind of person you are

My definition of content is information that builds a brand. For example, it must have to do with my background as a copywriter.

And what is a brand? The moment we start communicating with our target group, a brand becomes a person because only people can express themselves. The ‘brand person’ — be it a retail chain, an all-terrain vehicle, dog food, or maybe ourselves — has specific traits. Naturally, we think these are positive, and we would like our potential customers to see us positively as well. We are now able to create a fitting image for the brand, also known as advertising. We can also show our authentic sides, which become content.

Of course, the above is a simplification. There are more similarities than differences in advertising and content creation, but it is easy to confuse the two. To make your brand shine with content, you can apply specific literary techniques. What would Chekhov do if he were in your shoes?

First, we need to clarify which character traits our brand person has. Let’s choose three for this exercise which is more than enough for most brands.

Our brand is:

  • Friendly
  • Imaginative
  • Confident

These likeable traits and characteristics can help strike the right tone with the audience. They help infuse even the most factual texts with lively personality in two ways: as a source of inspiration and as a checklist.

We are friendly.

For inspiration, look for associations and synonyms such as welcoming, sympathetic, supportive, warm, ordinary.

Welcoming. How do we make people feel that they are welcome, that they belong? Talk to the reader if you are sitting at the table together. Avoid frequent brand names and vague terms such as “our company” and “the people”. Instead, use terms like “we” and “your/you” to evoke a sense of commitment.

Sympathetic. Show your empathy. Mention problems you have solved or can relate to with the reader. Discuss the times when you meant something to someone authentically.

Supportive. Think of examples of how you can help each other and how you have made things easier for our customers. Be helpful, give advice, and encourage feedback.

Warm. Bring warmth to your words. Write how you would talk to a friend or someone whose company you enjoy. Use humour, be lively and don’t bore the reader.

Casual. Avoid writing very formally and don’t overcomplicate with big words. Writing is a way of connecting with others, don’t bring in unnecessary hurdles.

We are imaginative.

Look for synonyms: visionary, creative, experimental, open to new ideas, on the front line.

Visionary. Keep your target audience in mind. What could be considered as ‘visionary’ to one reader group may not be to others. Adapt your topic to your audience and draw the reader into the story with an original, exciting headline.

Creative. How have you brought authentic innovations? What unusual solutions have you explored? These may be small or large contributions.

Experimental. When did you leave the beaten track, and what was the result? Why did it work? Inform readers that you have the flair to think “out of the box”.

Open to new ideas. This is something we all like to claim ourselves, but how true is it? The secret lies in how you express it. What new ideas inspire your brand and have brought it to where it is today?

On the front line. Think of big brands that have sprung up from scratch in recent decades and how they communicate in simple, direct language about their pioneering businesses. Are you able to write about your brand in the same way?

We are confident.

Associate with words such as competent, authoritative, and proud (of our achievements).

Competent. Share the experiences that prove your brand is qualified and skilled. If you can do something that others cannot and your talent significantly means something to the world, write about it.

Authoritative. This doesn’t mean we have to be pompous or toss around jargon and fancy words. It’s about showing that we know what we’re talking about, and we know what we are doing. We are the authority. Be specific about your expertise: how many years, what results, what awards, etc. Additionally, statements and reviews from others are even more effective than what we say about ourselves.

Proud. ‘Yes, we are proud of our achievements. Yes, this is exciting…’ Put emotion into your words. But never forget to substantiate your story with facts. A success story is not a beating but relevant information that we give about ourselves.

You can use any quality to make the light shine. Observe the traits of your brand personality as a source of inspiration and as a means of control. Associate to it and use them to check if your blog article, product description, Facebook post or white paper hits the right note. That helps you write the kind of content that builds a brand.

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