It was around 1990 and I was working in broadcast advertising for a large discount department store chain. I was in a recording studio casting voice-over talent for a series of television spots and needed a gruff CEO-type voice to personify a product.
I don’t recall the exact item, only that it had something to do with household cleaners. Why it required senior executive gravitas, I’m not sure. My best guess is a focus group revealed the influence of Mr. Clean and Brawny, leading the ad agency to conclude professionals that struggled with dirt and grime needed their own champion.
A who’s who of old-school talent – going back to the Golden Age of Radio – showed up to audition. In fact, the job went to Jackson Beck, the narrator who did the actual “strange visitor from another planet” opening that kicked off The Adventures of Superman – on radio.
He was close to 80 years old, nearly as wide as he was tall, but when he shuffled in the board engineer gasped. Unbeknownst to me, Jackson had a reputation.
I understood why the moment he spoke; the room shook, the building shook, I shook.
The script was on a stand in the booth, he asked a few questions, tape rolled (yes, I said tape) and he nailed it. I looked at the engineer, he looked at me. I clicked on my mic and said, “OK, Jackson, let’s do one more.”
He asked if he got the tone right? He did. Was the inflection good? Absolutely. Was the time on-target? It was perfect – he even left two-and-a-half seconds exactly for a closing tag.
“You don’t need another take,” he said as he walked out, making me feel as if I’d been reproached by God. I still can remember the engineer’s laughter and think often about the humbling lesson I learned.
It’s a process
The following seven tips will help facilitate content development between B2B technology companies and their marketing and public relations agencies.
The first is courtesy of Jackson who rightfully taught me that if you’re critiquing something, and feel it’s not right, you’re obligated to provide direction.
The goal is to advance quality and that means explaining what’s off or correcting it. A comment that reads “this needs work” isn’t enough. The writer isn’t an island, they are a hub. Everyone has to do their part and content flows from the subject matter expert (SME) to the c-suite to the agency co-worker tasked with a final typo check to ensure the “l” isn’t missing from “public.”
Spellcheck doesn’t catch everything - I once did read about a company going “pubic.”
Here are some other tips to consider:
- Form a relationship: Some content developers (writers) are more capable than others, and if they’re not, that quickly becomes apparent. If they have the proven chops and a track record, give it some time. The better they know a company, its executives and products, the better the content will be. Expect back and forth, more so at the beginning. That’s the type of exchange that refines messaging and creates a stronger voice.
- Provide access: Access to top executives and subject matter experts is essential to your story – that’s where the plot and passion is. As a writer becomes more familiar with your organization, they’ll develop content with much less and maybe even no assistance. But don’t let that become the norm. Sharing thought-leadership not only keeps you out front, when content is reviewed it can unearth internal differences on direction, clarify roadmaps and put everyone on the same page.
- It’s all material: You have a story to tell and want a writer to tell it. Provide the right materials to make a case, and if there are weak spots, the good ones will do research to tighten it up. On the other hand, try not to throw a dozen links and whitepapers at a writer and ask them to return a piece of content. Qualify your resource materials because you want them to focus on what’s most important, not waste hours (and your money) “boiling the ocean.”
- Open up: If you’re a top exec, SME or head of communications working with a writer, be transparent, break down walls, wave your freak flag – and let’s celebrate it. The notes or recordings aren’t going anywhere; non-disclosure agreements and an agency’s need to protect its reputation see to that. Plus, you’ll review anything before it sees the light of day. So, take chances, don’t be afraid of being wrong or looking foolish. It’s in those candid moments when quirks are revealed and passions are high that writers get attention-grabbing details. This is what people want to read. It makes you more relatable and human.
- Know the lanes: Jackson taught me something else, what nowadays is called staying in your lane. It’s not that he wouldn’t listen to my feedback, it’s just that I had nothing to offer at that moment that could have built upon the work of a real pro.
That, in a way, leads to the seventh tip, really, more of a confession.
B2B tech content developers are not technologists.
Yes, we may be quite familiar with a business market and specific space, even at a very deep level. But this is not a writer’s primary function. They deal with various companies and technologies. They follow a path of problem-goal-solution-results. They spread the pieces out and connect them so it tells a story in the strongest way possible for a particular purpose.
But we are not you.
Sometimes - and actually it’s more of a self-imposed agency or writer issue – there’s the expectation a content developer will know a technology and company inside-and-out. Make no mistake, a client should expect a level of understanding, but be open to all types of questions, as your audience will not know your technology offering inside and out, either.
What should be avoided is a writer routinely passing along high-level messaging a company executive, industry insider or early adopter will get, but the greater purchasing audience being targeted won’t.
Let’s have a two-way dialogue that addresses the questions and produces the answers necessary for the best content possible. That’s how to do the “write thing.” And in the words of another favorite announcer, Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double truth, Ruth.”
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