Since I left my day job a few years ago, I’ve worked with a number of corporate clients and advisors who have valuable information they want to publish for one reason or another. Their needs vary from conferences and Web sites to workshops and value-added programs to articles and books and newsletters, but our strategy is all the same: to create what my friend (and fellow IA columnist) Larry Chambers has coined as “Credibility Marketing.” That is, to increase business by establishing expertise in a specific niche.
Due to my publishing background and my editorial vantage point, I’m a huge fan of credibility marketing. Done well I’ve seen it used to build incredible businesses. Some of the best examples of this in our industry are John Bowen, Nick Murray, and Don Philips (who aren’t my clients), and Mark Tibergien (who is). To establish their expertise, the great ones like these and many others typically employ a combination of writing and speaking. Their writing usually drives subsequent speaking engagements (although in the case of Don Philips it was really his speaking that lead to writing). That would be the pattern for most wannabe gurus as well. For one thing, speaking to a crowd of 1,000 would be huge, while Investment Advisor magazine goes to 77,000 advisors every month.
There’s the rub, as it were. Most folks, even experts (often, especially experts) aren’t very good writers. Before you start getting defensive, keep reading. This isn’t a slam: there’s no reason why you should be a good writer. Granted, writing isn’t rocket science, but it is a skill that can be improved by practice, expert guidance, and studying what makes good writing good. I liken writing to financial planning itself: Can everyone do it for themselves? Sure. Should they? No, not unless they are willing to spend the time to acquire the requisite professional skills. That’s why most people can benefit from a financial advisor, and most advisors and business executives who want to publicize their “expertise” can benefit from working with a professional writer. (I realize I have a conflict of interest here, but in my defense, I’m not really looking for new clients, and it’s still good advice.)
I’m resigned to the fact that many of you, just like financial consumers, will ignore my advice and attempt to gain expert credibility by doing your own writing. Some of you truly want to become writers, either as a second career or in conjunction with your day job. I applaud your efforts, as long as you understand that actually making a living at this is labor intensive and about as likely as playing in the NBA. We can’t all be David Drucker, you know.
Others will do their own writing because they just don’t want to pay someone else to do it. To them, I’d suggest calculating the opportunity cost of writing versus doing something that you’re actually good at, such as working with clients. For most amateurs, writing even a short (2,000 word) article will take two to three days; while a professional writer who understands financial services and your business can talk to you for half an hour and write it in less than half a day. All I can say is that it’s your time. That goes for hiring the cheapest writer you can find, too: when done right, credibility marketing can explode your business. Done poorly, it’s just a waste of your money, and everyone’s time.
If, however, you still insist on doing your own writing, then out of sympathy to the editors who will have to clean up your mess to make it publishable, and to benefit readers everywhere–including me–here are seven principles to follow in making your writing stronger and your expertise more apparent to everyone.
Know why you are writing. Are you doing it for marketing purposes? Or do you just want to tell the world how great you are? Maybe you just feel you have something of value to say. Understanding why you are writing goes a long way toward dictating what form your writing will take. If you just want to stroke your ego, maybe you should rethink the whole writing thing. Sure it’s nice to have people read your stuff. But take it from me, most people aren’t all that interesting, and writing is just too much work to pound out pieces that nobody reads. If your writing is part of a marketing strategy (or just to help others), establish expertise by delivering valuable information to the readers. You can subtly refer to your business (“After working with hundreds of clients over many years . . .”), but no sales pitches, please. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to tell clients that if they just want to write about how great their firm is, take out an ad. No reputable editor in a good magazine will let you couch an ad as editorial copy.
Think about your readers. Articles or columns or books aren’t about you. They are about the readers. Editors want articles that people read, and people read because there is something in it for them. In our case, that “something” is going to be valuable information. Yes, some writers do make a career out of just being interesting. But trust me, you’re not J.K. Rowling, Dave Barry, or even Alan Abelson. So stick to good information. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be interesting. Indeed, my stint at Worth magazine taught me that it doesn’t matter how great your info is if no one reads it. So be as interesting as you can: use examples and personal anecdotes, move smoothly from one point to another, even try to make your story fun to read. But don’t forget the expertise.
Write as you would explain your subject orally to a group of folks who know nothing about it. Becoming an editor helped my writing because I got to see the mistakes that other writers make and different ways to fix them. But my biggest improvement came when I started doing a lot of speaking engagements. When you’re speaking to a live audience, all the writing mistakes–cumbersome language, lack of clarity, run-on sentences, poorly ordered or unconnected thoughts, pomposity–become quickly and embarrassingly apparent. Today, when I write, I’m still saying the words out loud to a crowd. Try it. It will keep your writing clean.
If you’re going to claim to be unique, make sure that you are. How many times have you had young mutual fund wholesalers tell you how their firms get an edge over the competition by doing “research,” looking at the “fundamentals,” and “visiting” company headquarters, and all the other things that virtually all of the other 10,000 fund managers do? Over the years, I heard plenty of that blather, as well as an equal number of planners telling me that their cookie cutter “niche” marketing strategy, “client-centered” approach, or “proprietary” technology was way cutting edge. There are many truly unique ideas out there, and everyone loves to hear about them. But just because you thought of it, doesn’t make it so. Before you claim to be an innovator and embarrass yourself and bore your readers and drive your editor to pull her hair out, do your homework and at least make sure some of your (honest) colleagues think it’s a pretty neat idea, too.
Research more, write less. There’s a hackneyed story (itself definitely a writing no-no) about Abe Lincoln that’s just too dead on here to not use: Allegedly, Mr. Lincoln once said that if given three days to cut down a tree, he’d spend 2 1?,,2 days sharpening his ax, and half a day chopping down the tree. Writing is like that. Nobody simply sits down at their computer and pours out great copy. Okay, maybe Norman Mailer and Bob Veres. But again, I know Bob Veres, and you, sir, are no …. For the rest of us, writing takes some preparation. The better prepared you are, the easier it is to write. So spend some time thinking about what you want to say, and how you want to say it.
I get many of my ideas on a long run or in the shower (I’m sure Freud would have plenty to say about that). I usually envision that I’m talking to an audience, and when it starts to come together, I go to my laptop and write it down. Usually if know where you want to go, and start in a good place, the article just flows.
Don’t try to say too much. If there’s one mistake that amateur writers make with great consistency, it’s trying to say too much for the space they have. A 2,000 word article is equivalent to a good 10-minute talk. That’s all. So you’re going to have to limit your subject to something you can tell someone in 10 minutes. Whoa, is right. We all know from painful experience what it’s like to sit through an hour speech that some jerk is trying to cram into his allotted 15 minutes. That’s not audience–or reader–friendly. Remember, the goal here is to give the readers something of value they can take away. To do that, you need to write something they can get their brains around in 10 minutes. (With books, you have more space, but since no one is going to read it in one sitting–trust me on this–you still face the same problem of breaking the content down into bite-size chunks.) To do this, you have to overcome the impulse to write everything you know in one article or even one book. Or even everything you know about technology for advisors, or the AMT. Instead, you have to satisfy yourself by giving the readers some important information in a way that they can get their brains around quickly and remember. The good news is that with practice, you’ll get pretty good at gauging how much info this is.
Don’t be afraid to take a position. The second biggest mistake amateurs make is being afraid of offending someone. You don’t have to be mean, or personal. Attacking the competition is also rarely a good idea. But as a writer, your obligation is to the readers, to tell them what you think, to give them the benefit of your expertise. Pulling your punches usually diminishes the power of your message and can set the readers to wonder whose side you’re on. Again, we’re not talking about Medal of Honor stuff here, but it does take some courage to be a writer. Which is another reason why amateurs can benefit from some professional help.
Bob Clark, a former editor-in-chief of this magazine, sagely surveys the advisory landscape from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He can be reached at email@example.com.