Be Yourself

Scream all you want, no one will find you in this abandoned lumber yard we’ve brought you to against your will,” he said menacingly…

That’s a line my friends and I used to repeat to each other in grad school (where I studied the craft of fiction, believe it or not) whenever we came upon an especially bad piece of writing.

It was one of those gag lines among friends to crack ourselves up – and it referenced an actual story in which an actual would-be writer tried to move along the action and exposition by putting those words into the mouth of his character (who had of course just kidnapped someone and brought them, wait for it, to an abandoned lumber yard against their will).

People don’t talk that way and so the story immediately lacks verisimilitude; there is no appearance of truth to it. And so as a reader you’re unable to suspend your disbelief and let the characters come alive in your imagination. That’s something a storyteller wants to avoid at all costs, like the moment in a movie theater when someone turns the light on or the film breaks in the middle of a climactic scene — “Oh, we’re actually just watching a movie.”

Stories only work when people are able to suspend disbelief. Put another way: your writing must be authentic, must in fact be infused throughout with authenticity.

(And besides, it’s just funny to say in a faux menacing yet incompetent voice: no one will find you in this abandoned lumber yard we’ve brought you to against your will…)

I muttered the line to myself earlier this week when I saw Greentarget’s excellent new infographic  (embedded below) on 5 Common Content Marketing Traps – specifically the third mistake in the list:

Compromising the authenticity of information with ‘sales speak’ that emphasizes leads over relationships.

You’ve probably seen this type of sales pitch more than you care to — I think it fairly pervasive in content marketing in the legal profession. Typically, it’s a line that jumps off the page of a blog post or update, something like (use deeply serious voice, please):

“This is the type of business formation challenge that requires the service of a gifted and experience business formation attorney. I should know, I am a gifted and experienced business formation attorney and I have solved this challenge for clients (who can call 800.555.7272 to reach me ) many times before.”

He said, humbly.

I exaggerate to make a point, of course, but the point still stands. (And this type of shift into sales speak happens subtly, across the board, more often that it should.)

People hire you for your expertise. Your expertise comes across best when you write with passion and authenticity about the matters you know best.

Readers who happen to be your clients are grateful when you are useful. Readers who aren’t your clients (but may be at some point) are most interested in solving their own problems. The best connection you can make with them is based on an authentic discussion of their legal issues at hand.

The label “content marketing” is interesting — two words that imply a balance between, well, information and advertising, helpfulness and promotion. It is a balance, indeed, but in order to work it must, must, must always favor the information side of things. That’s when the advertising side works best.

Put another way: your content marketing should shine a spotlight on your expertise. That’s what your competition is doing, and probably doing well. You need not shine a spotlight on your availability. The minute your reader thinks “This is an ad” you will have lost them.

It reminds me of that other rule in storytelling: show don’t tell. With a twist:

Don’t tell your readers you’re available (everyone already knows it). Just show them what you can do better than anyone else.