In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Ann Handley. Ann is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author focused on helping businesses worldwide escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, Chicago Public Radio, and the Financial Times. She’s the Principal at MarketingProfs and the author of Everybody Writes: Your New and Improved Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content 2nd Edition.
Finding your voice is essential to making ridiculously good content. In this episode, Ann Handley shares her best strategies, techniques, tips, and tools to refine, upgrade, and (most of all) inspire your own best content marketing.
Questions I ask Ann Handley:
- [2:30] Why did you feel called to write an updated version of your book?
- [6:26] What in the 8 years since your first book was released has changed the most about content?
- [13:33] How does somebody find their voice, and how do they use it well?
- [17:56] Would it be safe to say that if you are going to try to decide on a direction to go, the voice of the customer is always the best direction to go in?
- [19:30] Who would be your writing twin or someone that has a similar style as you?
- [24:38] What would E.B. White think of your advice?
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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Outbound Squad, formerly Blissful Prospecting, hosted by Jason Bay. It's brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network, the audio destination for business professionals. Jason Bay is a leading sales expert, and he talks with other leading sales experts to get you the information you need. I've recent episode, he talked about how much time you need to spend prospecting. Really, really eye opening. Check it out to listen to the outbound squad, wherever you get your podcasts. Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Ann Hanley. She's Wall Street Journal bestselling author focused on helping businesses worldwide escape marketing mediocrity to ignite tangible results. Her work has appeared in Entrepreneur, the Wall Street Journal, npr, Chicago Public Radio, and The Financial Times. She's also a principal co-founder at Marketing Props, and the author of Everybody Writes Your New And Improved Go-to Guide to Creating Ridiculously Content. Oh, that's the second addition. And welcome to the show. Thank
Ann Handley (01:17): You so much. Wow. That was a very, very long introduction, but I appreciate your
John Jantsch (01:22): Intro. Oh, and, and that, and that was half of all the brilliant things I could say about you. Hey, I listen to Weight, weight, don't Tell me, uh, frequently. That's Chicago Public Radio, isn't it?
Ann Handley (01:34): Yes, it is. Yeah. That wasn't the show that I was on, but yeah, no, it was a, I was on a political marketing show. They were, it was, they were looking at political campaigns and had me on as like a, a commentator. So, um,
John Jantsch (01:46): How do you, not political marketing, how, how do you use TikTok for political campaigns now?
Ann Handley (01:50): Oh, yeah, that's actually, yeah. Well, this TikTok it was video though, so
John Jantsch (01:54): There's that. Okay, so you were on for everybody writes the like old and unapproved version. Yeah. Um, and
Ann Handley (02:09): I'm gonna start calling it that old and unapproved version of the book. Oh, you have that one, the original. Oh, it's old and unapproved
John Jantsch (02:15):
Ann Handley (02:31): Yeah, it's, it's funny because I actually did get pushback from my publisher. Maybe not in the way that you think, but because she said, you know, this book, it's, it sold a hundred thousand copies. I mean, it's not nothing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, and she said, it's already, it still sells briskly. The book is eight years old, but it still is, you know, it still sells really well. She
John Jantsch (02:56): Said, I don't, and theoretically the comma still goes in the same place. Right? Yeah. I mean, it's like, nothing's changed.
Ann Handley (03:01): Yeah. And so she said, why do you wanna do this? And the reason why I wanted to do it was because there, I just wanted to update a few things in the book. There were some examples that were dated. There were some references that just don't really apply anymore. And so I thought, yeah, you know what? I, I kind of wanna just go through it. And I thought I would do the equivalent of, you know, running the vacuum around the pages and maybe just do a little light dusting, spray some for breeze so it smells nicer, smells fresher. That's what I thought I was going to do. And then I got into it and I started reading it and I thought, you know what, most importantly, John, my voice had changed. My voice had really changed as a writer over the past eight years. And my thinking had changed.
(03:47): So when I dug into it, I realized I didn't talk about a lot of things that I think are important now in marketing in 2022. So, things like email newsletters, things like understanding how to write a good speech description. You know, when you think, well, I'm not a speaker. Well, a lot of marketers are supporting executives who do give speeches. So how do you get them on the main stage? That kind of stuff. How to write with humor, thinking about how to write short form video, how to write captions, you know, all of that kind of stuff. Like, uh, photo captions, visuals. And so there's a lot of things that I just wasn't really on my radar eight years ago that I thought, I really wanna dig into it a little bit more. So as a result, what I thought was gonna be a light vacuum, some dusting and some ry spraying turned into, we're gonna take this right down to the studs and we're gonna rebuild it from the ground up.
(04:37): I added a bunch of new stuff to the book. That's why it says completely revised and expanded, because I added a bunch of pages, but I also cut a lot of things. I cut a lot of the boring stuff, is the way that I thought about it. Like, if I read it and I thought, God, who, who would read this? Like, if it put me to sleep, I was like, yeah, we're cutting that one right out. So for example, there's a whole section on readability in the old version, in the Old and Un Improved in your vernacular version. I cut that right out. Cause I was like, you know what? That's, you know, no one cares about that, so let's just get it right out. I moved a little bit of it, of it to the tools section at the end, but, but yeah. But more than that, I really wanted to give a, a fresher look at writing in 2022.
John Jantsch (05:22): Well, and, and let's face it, every author would benefit from, here's a whole bunch of my books. Everybody go read 'em and then come back and tell me what you think. Right.
Ann Handley (05:46): Yeah, yeah. It's true. Actually. I didn't really think about it in those terms, but yeah, you're absolutely right. You know, I mean, I've been out talking to marketers over the past eight years, and so I have a good sense of, you know, what, what they love about it, what they don't love about it. I had the benefit of that sort of ground research, I guess, but also looking at review sites like Good Reads and like Amazon, and, and trying to understand, you know, what works for people and what doesn't. Yeah. So all of that really helped too.
John Jantsch (06:12): So, I mean, on the surface, everybody writes, you know, sounds like a book about writing, and of course it is a book about writing, but you, because of your world of being in content and marketing, I mean, a lot of people that have purchased this book have purchased this as a content marketing book as well. So what in the eight years has changed the most about content marketing?
Ann Handley (06:36): Oh, that, wow, that's a big question. I think
John Jantsch (06:38): A lot. Oh, I got, I got bigger ones, so go ahead. Oh, wow. I
Ann Handley (06:40): Love this
John Jantsch (06:52): Previous, CC Chapman,
Ann Handley (06:53): Ccr, my Good Friend Cici. And, you know, we published that book at a time when content marketing was, was nascent. You know, it was kind of a thing that some people were doing, but not very consistently. Yeah. So four years later, when the, the old and unapproved version came out, it was at a point in time where 2014, where people were starting to take content marketing pretty seriously. It was starting to, to be embedded within an organization, but they were still trying to figure out, you know, well, how does it fit with, with marketing and where does it live within an organization? And so here, fast forward now to 2022, new book comes out, and I think that there's a lot of things that have changed operationally within organizations. But the most important thing, and, and really one of the, the driving factors behind the new edition is that, you know, writing content just to play the SEO game is right.
(07:47): Not gonna cut it anymore. Google has gotten very, very smart about figuring out whether something is valuable or not. And so they keep releasing updates that will surface the great stuff. So what does that mean? It puts new pressure on marketers and businesses generally to produce the kind of content that is actually going to be valuable to the people who are going to access it. So I think that's, that's one big thing. And so it puts new pressure on the kinds of stories that we tell and the way that we write to engage an audience. And, and when I say, right, I mean, it could be the way that we produce to engage an mm-hmm.
(08:35): Like not just to, you know, fill a pipeline full of, of, of leads to throw over, to, to nurture and eventually end up in sales, but to really tell a story in a way that is going to differentiate us and our products and our services. And so all of those things I think are very different in the new book book and, and why I talk about things like brand Voice in the new edition, I talk about things like storytelling. I did kind of mention both in the first edition, but in the second edition. Yeah. I really blew it up and, and talk about it a whole lot more.
John Jantsch (09:10): Yeah. I mean, you, you really can't get five pages into a marketing book these days, and they're not talking about storytelling because that, you know, and, and it's, it's interesting though, because I, 25 years ago, you know, I'd stand up in front of an audience and say, people want to hear your story. And businesses were like, no, they don't want to hear my story. They want to hear about the features of our product. And so, it's so funny now that people are tripping all over themselves, you know, to tell their story as the first point of connection or the first, first part of trust building. Mm-hmm.
Ann Handley (09:44):
(10:34): And I think that's one good thing. And I'm using good in like, air quotes, like good thing that came out of the, the pandemic. Because I think in a world where we are all, for the first time ever dealing with the same thing at the same time, this sort of global crisis, this global, yeah. Um, this global virus, I think that it, it did level the playing field, at least, it was a little bit and allowed us all to, you know, really just speak directly to one another. And I do see that, you know, there, there are elements of that that I think are, are, have remained, you know, here
John Jantsch (11:04): It is. Well, I thought you were gonna use, I thought when you started saying cliche, I thought you were gonna use the word authenticity and, you know, because that's something we used for about 10 years, right? And then one of the things I found happened was the pandemic actually called everybody's Bluff. Yeah.
Ann Handley (11:33): I know. I kind of, I have a love relationship with that word too, because it's like, what does that actually mean? But you're absolutely right. I do think that it did call everybody's bluff, didn't it?
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(12:38): That's dtm.world/workshop. So let's talk about voice. Mm-hmm.
Ann Handley (13:39): Lot of questions rolled into one. Yeah. No, I mean, I am a, a big, a big fan of brand voice or, you know, or just, just tone voice in general for a writer or for a creator or, or a communicator. And just to like, just to, to sort of set the stage for like, what is voice? Like, what does it mean, like voice is in writing it, it's how our writing sounds in the mind or in the brain of the reader. Like, that's, that's it. Like when I read David Seras, it's gonna be very different than when I read something by like Tina Faye, right? When I read Bossy Pants. So it's very, like, there are different voices. I hear their voices in my head. So that's what it means just in general. But when you think about it in a marketing context, like what does it mean in marketing?
(14:25): It, it basically are signals of your personality that you are sharing with your audience. So what signals are you sending to an audience when they read your white paper or when they read your blog post mm-hmm.
John Jantsch (15:10): Use synergy. Yeah. Use synergy as often as you can. Synergy
Ann Handley (15:13): Is, it'll circle back on that brand voice thing later,
(16:02): Like just allowing a little bit of personality to shine through. Because so often John, like the bar is super low, especially in the B2B space, at the B2B forum, at the marketing process, B2B forum, a couple of weeks ago, I, I shared this, this exact problem. I talked about this exact problem. I share the story of a scientific instrumentation company and, and how their brand voice is like extremely buttoned up. Like they sell, they sell devices to laboratories, right? And so their brand voice is extremely buttoned up. Like there's nothing discernible about it at all. Their product names have like H 1 27, 5 capital H small a like, you know, that's like how they name their products. And so it's like, what do you do with that? Um, and so I think that there's an opportunity there for some creative marketer in working within a scientific instrumentation company, and I'm using this as a proxy now. It's like, I think there's opportunity there for any one of us who are working with a, in a company to say, you know what? Our voice is really our chance to, to, to create a connection with our audience. Like, that's it. Like, it sounds highfalutin and literary, but it's not. It's actually just the ability to form trust and to fill film, to, to form that connection. That's what, that's what our personalities do as people, and that's what our voices do for our brands as well.
John Jantsch (17:25): And I think sometimes the real opportunity comes in like the company you just shared in doing something that they maybe the reader doesn't expect. Yeah, exactly. Because they've just been like bored to death for 10 years, and now it's like, wow, that I didn't see that coming. I think that's, that's the real opportunity. I mean, would it be, would you, would it be safe to say that if you are going to try to decide on a direction to go, that voice of customer is always the best voice?
Ann Handley (17:52): Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes I also think voice of,
John Jantsch (17:54): I mean, in
Ann Handley (17:55): Marketing, so yeah. Yeah, definitely in marketing. I mean, I think voice of the customer is important, especially when you wanna pull in like the language that they use. You know, that's, that's really important, right? But I also think that it's not just that, I also think it's about who you are as a brand and, and, and, right. Very often, like at a smaller company that'll come from the founder or, or the, or, or, or one of the founders, you know, it, it, it, and at a bigger company, I think it, it also will a, it's a conversation you need to have internally. Like, who are we as a company and how do we actually communicate in a way that is going to feel like a little bit more accessible to our audience? So yeah, pulling in the voice of the customer, I think is, um, is key.
(18:36): But I also think it's, it's, it's part of what it, there's an exercise in the book to, to sort of help you figure out what is your brand voice. Um, so yes, I was just thinking about when you said like, how do you find your brand voice? One of those questions and that knot of questions that you asked me. And I think, you know, just, just thinking through like, how is it that we want to be seen and what, you know, why didn't we get into this business? I offer you a whole series of questions to go through and, and what is it that excites us about it? Um, and also looking at, you know, like the people who founded your company, who are we? And, and like, what is our history and, and who are we as a, as a brand? I think all of that is plays into your voice as well.
John Jantsch (19:17): Let's talk a little bit about your style. Who would be, who would be your writing twin? So like writer out there that you think, I'm not asking you compare yourself to them necessarily, but that you write like them or you, you feel like your style is a little like them?
Ann Handley (19:32): I don't know that I have a writing twin per se. I have a, I have a writing mentor, I guess, of my own, who he has no idea that he is my writing mentor. And, and probably it would be, so it would just be such a weird thing to even, even for him to think about. But, so David Sedaris, I mentioned him a second ago, is probably the person who's who I, I aspire my writing to be close to, I won't say it's like, I, I don't like look at David and I think, oh, I'm gonna write just like him. But there are elements of the way that he talks about things, or the metaphors that he yeah. That he, that he ascribes in his writing that I'm like, you know, I've learned a lot from him. And so I think, I don't know, mentor is, is probably the good, a good word.
(20:17): Or maybe just like a, yeah, he's been like a silent coach. I shared this story not too long ago in a talk, but I, I talked about how over the past few years, like one of the reasons why my voice has changed is because you mentioned it a second ago, because I, I have the discipline now to sit down every two weeks and write that letter, that newsletter to 50,000 subscribers on my list now. So that I started that newsletter almost four years ago. And that, just the consistency of that over time. Yeah. And really thinking about how do I communicate with an audience in a way that feels very authentic, I guess, to use that word for me. Yeah, yeah, yeah. There you go. That's really helped me evolve my voice. So that's one way that I evolved my voice, but the second way.
(21:04): So just by practicing, like by mimicking and like, by seeing what works and what doesn't, what feels right and letting go a little bit too, and not, not like agonizing quite so much about, like, I felt like I would very often when I would publish something, like when I read my old blog post, for example, and maybe you've experienced this too. No. Like, I feel like tension, like I was so like careful and like kind of buttoned up and like, Ooh. Like I just, it's a little bit evident in the first edition too, the, that that that sort of like, that kind of vibe is like, I felt my anxiety a little bit. Like, like, oh God, people are gonna read this. Like, I felt that, like you maybe anybody else reading it wouldn't see it, but I saw it cuz I know myself now. Yeah, of course. Um,
John Jantsch (21:45): That's really, that's really interesting. I was just the opposite. Mine read like journal entries. Oh. I mean, it's like, I mean, I can't tell you how many emails I got from people in the early days, you know, pointing out my grammar
Ann Handley (22:08): Oh, that's funny.
John Jantsch (22:32): But you know, you wrote for Click. I mean, you wrote, when you wrote for click Z it was more like a media publication than what we then saw blog
Ann Handley (22:42): Become. Yes, yes, that is true. Yeah. It was much more like that. Yeah. And you know, I mean, my background is, is in journalism. Like, I worked in journalism for 10 years before I started, you know, before the internet happened. And so, so yeah, that is definitely my foundation now. I was just gonna say that, so two things that evolve my voice. One was, you know, to have that regular practice. I wasn't daily like you, but every two weeks it was, it's, you know, that's definitely helped me evolve my voice. The second thing though is I went through and read all of David Ceras work. I started right from the very beginning. I read his very first book of essays, which is published in the nineties, uh, 96 maybe. Something like that. I read that book and then I sequentially went through and read every single issue, sorry, every single book that he published, like in order. So I think he's published, I don't know, 15 books, something like that. 12, maybe not that many. But I went through and like in, in seeing how his vo voice evolved and noticing choices that he made. Like I read them as a writer, you know what I mean? Like, I went through and just mm-hmm.
John Jantsch (23:48): You started saying, why'd you make that choice here? I was curious, like,
Ann Handley (23:51): It's so funny that he compared his mother's Tan to toast. And I was like, that's like a funny way to think about it. And so, yeah, there's just some things that really it helped me rethink about how I like the ch by looking at the choices he made, it made me think about, you know, how I, how I evolve my own voice. So,
John Jantsch (24:12): And yet not a single FBO that shows up and everybody writes it's
Ann Handley (24:15): Truth. It's off brand
John Jantsch (24:17):
Ann Handley (24:20): Oh yeah, I've seen him like four times. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
John Jantsch (24:23): He's a handful. What would EB White think of your advice
Ann Handley (24:26): In this book? Oh my goodness. I was gonna say he was using on my other literary crush. I love his work. I just, I love his work so much. Yes. Oh my gosh. Actually, I just got a, a second edition, sorry, I just got the, a first edition of Charlotte's Web by a friend. She sent it to me for my birthday, which was like a week and a half ago. Oh my gosh. It's just like, it's so special to me. I've been, I've been like lusting after a first edition of Charlotte's Web by E White forever, because I've talked about this too, but it's like, not that it's not because it's, it's a fantastic children's book, which it is, but it's such a great parable for marketing. So anyway, so yeah, there's that. So what would I think, I don't know what he would think about it.
(25:08): I mean, I hope that he would like it. I name checked him a few times. Yeah. I mean, I think EB White is just a fantastically talented writer. I, because he can go between essays and New Yorker articles and children's books just seamlessly, you know, he wrote Charlotte's Web and he, he wrote Stuart Little, but he also wrote The Elements of Style, which I know you're a fan of style, right? Um, a writing book for, for the ages. And then he also, he, he, I mean, but really what he did is he wrote for The Atlantic Monthly for a long time, for Harpers and for, for the New Yorker. So,
John Jantsch (25:43): All right, so now the 800 pound elephant in the room, I thought you'd appreciate that mixed metaphor. It's, it's actually the 800 pound gorilla. An 800 pound elephant's, actually not that big. So,
Ann Handley (25:55): Is
John Jantsch (25:55): That a fact? What's that? No, I, I use that all the time. I heard somebody say, you know, let's talk about the 800 pound elephant in the room, and it's obviously the 800 pound gorilla or the elephant in the room. Right? Right. How big. But, so it's my favorite mix metaphor, 800
Ann Handley (26:09): Pound elephant. You're probably not that big. You're probably right.
John Jantsch (26:12): They're born about a thousand pounds
Ann Handley (26:30): My good 100%. No, they, it will not replace all writers. It will replace some mediocre writers. And that's again, another reason why I believe that using our opportunity to communicate with an audience in a way that is truly like that, that embodies our own voice and that truly could only come from us. Something I talk about in the book quite a bit is so important because, you know, AI I do think is increasingly going to creep into our writing. It already is. I mean, I, I use purposely on a daily basis, you know, it's, it's my little writing robot editor that sits on my shoulder through everything that I do. And so it's already starting
John Jantsch (27:12): To No, no more passive voice for you. Exactly.
Ann Handley (27:15): I love to just like, argue with it though. I just, I love to just flick it right away. Like, you know what? I made that choice on purpose. I do that all the time. It's highly, highly satisfying. Yeah, because, but that's the whole thing, right? It's like, yes, AI is going to creep into what we do. It's going to write first drafts for us, it's going to correct our grammar. And sometimes that's useful, but sometimes it's not. And so I think, you know, there are two ways that I think about. It's like, yeah, I love to just say, no, ai, this is exactly what I wanted to do as a writer, as a creator. This is what I wanna convey. So, you know, I don't take their suggestions and I love to just like, dismiss. It's just really satisfying. But I think the other way that, that it is going to affect us is like when they, when for example, if we're use an AI writing tool, we input some data and some coordinates and it spits out, it spits out the first draft of a blog post for us, I think it's, it's important that we then take that blog post and make it truly our own.
(28:11): So at our voice, at our personality, I think it will make writing faster for a lot of people, which I think is, it's good and bad, you know, I mean, I'm a realist about it. I don't think that it's not going to affect, I think it absolutely will affect us. But, you know, I have some, uh, I have some mixed thoughts or some mixed alliances, I guess, about how I feel about making writing more efficient. Like that's a big selling point for a lot of these AI tools and platforms. And I'm not so sure that we wanna be more efficient as writers. You know, it's like, I don't, I don't want somebody to build something for me and, and like talk about that, that they were able to do it fast. Like, I want somebody to take time and craft and care. Like that's my, that's what I want. So I think that's what I want us as creators to give ourselves permission to do that.
John Jantsch (29:03): Well, I, I think the message certainly for creators has to be that, you know, strategy is your superpower. I mean, there are, if you're competing with the people writing $10 blog posts, you're in trouble.
Ann Handley (29:52): Yeah. That's interesting. Yeah. Yeah. I, I think two really good examples of, of how it's gonna change things. But, but like even the ai writing tool platform executives, like the people who I've heard speak about it, like they've even said like, you can't put an AI writing tool in the hands of a non-writer and expect magic. Yeah. Like, it's not gonna happen. Like you've gotta have that Yeah. Basis, you know? So, you know, at least for now until, you know, they, they come for me and come for you, and then we're all, we're all working
John Jantsch (30:25):
Ann Handley (30:54): Yeah, so you can find [email protected] If you want to subscribe to my every other Sunday newsletter, which is one of the best things on the internet, it's at anne hanley.com/newsletter. You can also find me at Marketing Profs, uh, at marketing profs.com, or, and as you said, if I can find the book basically on Amazon or Barnes and Noble or bookshop.org, wherever you like to get your books.
John Jantsch (31:19): Awesome. Well, Ann, thanks for taking a moment to stop by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, and hopefully we will run into you again soon. One of these days out there on the road having me. Hey, and one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy, strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find it @ marketingassessment.co. Check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketingassessment.co. I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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