Why Experience is the Enemy of Corporate Writers

August 03, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Copywriting,Corporate Messaging,Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   15 Comments»

I’ve written dozens of Corporate Messaging Platforms for chemical, life sciences and biopharmaceutical companies. But I’m no scientist. I’ve created corporate messaging for electrical engineering firms. But I’m no engineer. And I’ve written about complex financial instruments for the world’s largest financial institutions. And I’m certainly not a mathematician or finance expert.

I’m not a scientist, engineer or math whiz. But it didn’t prevent me from winning this B2B copywriting work.

The point is: Deep knowledge of a particular industry is no substitute for being a strong messaging strategist. In fact, relying too heavily on industry experience can actually do more harm than good:

  1. Experience dilutes objectivity. You can know an industry so well that it shortcuts thoughtful decision making—not to mention creativity. (I’ve been guilty of this myself.)
  2. Objectivity yields right-angle thinking. It’s far easier for a third-party, outside observer to uncover an original, relevant and differentiated idea. Insiders are handicapped before they ever start to think, because their possibilities are clouded by baked-in assumptions.
  3. Strategy trumps knowledge. Industry experts know features and benefits inside and out. All important stuff. But, you can know too much—to the point where you can’t organize all that knowledge swirling inside your head into the most effective message.

You can learn the lingo of any industry. It’s far harder to learn (and follow) the discipline of messaging strategy. And then, the effective translation of messaging into copy that sells.

Clients don’t always understand this. Far too often, they believe that “having intimate knowledge” of their industry on a “granular level” means that the corporate writer can “hit the ground running.” Enough corporate speak, already. I think what a client really wants is the most effective corporate writing possible.

That means hiring a corporate writer who understands how to build a Corporate Messaging Platform first. And then, how to write effective copy based on it.

Beware, though. Once inside an organization, it’s easy for a corporate writer to become institutionalized. You’ll start to lose objectivity. That’s when it’s more important than ever to rely on the process and discipline of starting every effort with a messaging strategy. Doing so will help you resist the urge to work too fast, make too many assumptions—and not work a problem all the way through to the end. Where the simple answer always is.

Related Posts

There is no related post.

15 Comments for this entry

  • Jean-Claude Surprenant

    August 3rd, 2010 on 8:46 am

    I totally agree. Being an outsider to a company also helps seeing the issues from the recipient’s point of view, which is what corporate communications should be concerned with.

    Jean-Claude Surprenant

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 8:56 am

    Jean-Claude:

    You make an excellent point: Our job as corporate writers is to see the world from a customer’s point-of-view. Far easier to do that from the outside looking in (vs. the other way around).

    Andy

  • Laura Walsh

    August 3rd, 2010 on 10:00 am

    Andy:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    A lot of folks outside of the writing/communications discipline don’t understand that messaging is a science/art unto itself.

    I am constantly educating myself about, testing out new approaches and practicing the art of business writing across multiple media.

    Learning the lingo of a new industry is a cake walk compared to how much ongoing time and energy I devote to learning about human behavior and sharpening my skills as a writer and content marketing strategist.

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 10:01 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a new comment from the Communication Arts group on Linked In:

    “Absolutely. That’s why it’s important to bring in a freelancer from time to time to give your in-house writers some new perspectives on topics they live with day to day. This is effective, though, only if the company is open to new ideas.”

  • Scott Ferguson

    August 3rd, 2010 on 10:38 am

    Very well put Andy. I’ve used these same arguments many times when pitching to new clients. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a prospect say they want a writer who has tons of experience writing about their particular industry or product niche. I patiently explain the very points you make here in an attempt to position my relative inexperience as a PLUS. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. While these arguments make a lot of sense, particularly to us writers, it takes time to educate the copy buyers. As the CA commenter stated, they have to be open to new ideas.

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 10:45 am

    Scott,

    I agree: Educating copy buyers is as necessary as it is sometimes painful. To me, it’s about setting the client’s ‘comfort level’ to a higher standard: not just industry experience, but strategic messaging experience.

    When you can (delicately) balance the two, then you truly have a relevant point of differentiation.

    Andy

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 11:45 am

    Corporate Writer Insider Note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s eMarketing Association Network group:

    “Amen! Not to mention that, once inside an organization, a writer can drink the Kool Aide and start talking the corporate lingo. A writer friend of mine once compared it to belonging to a cult because nobody outside the inner group understands the secret code. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this happen over the years I’ve been in the business. But it’s hard for the folks inside to see it happening. One of the other advantages of hiring outside experts–provided the client actually listens to them!”

  • Valerie Navarro

    August 3rd, 2010 on 1:40 pm

    Isn’t it a paradox when writers (corporate or otherwise) use phrases like “Objectivity yields right-angle thinking” and then criticize others for, well, corporate speak?

    Isn’t it our job to write something interesting, or at the vary least to communicate ideas with clarity?

    I get your point. But being an outsider doesn’t provide immunity from the spread of corporate waffling.

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 3:13 pm

    Hi, Valerie,

    Your point is well taken. But I would argue that ‘objectivity’ and ‘right-angle thinking’ fall outside of corporate speak because both are so foreign to in-house, institutionalized marketers and writers.

    Andy

  • Pete Alexion

    August 3rd, 2010 on 3:16 pm

    Yes, lingo can be learned, but passion can’t be learned as easily.

    As copywriters, we’re expressing a solution to a problem that we’re either empathizing or sympathizing with. Big difference.

    For example, in my niche, which is agriculture, I can easily see a lack of passion in copy written by someone in a cubicle vs. a copywriter who’s intimately familiar with the subject matter. The former had used the correct lingo, but was unable to successfully relate the solution to me.

    I once saw two product descriptions for OB equipment and lube from two different companies. To me, it was clear that the writer never pulled a calf in the freezing rain at 2:00 AM, which, for some strange reason, is when most cows need assistance. The best description was written by someone who just may have pulled a calf, but too bad it was an inferior product.

    How is it possible that a copywriter from NYC could write copy for a bovine artificial insemination product company? Can you imagine how long it would take to explain why the left arm is gloved up to the shoulder and what it does?

    I’ve seen the same problem with graphic design that accompanied my copy. Gender of livestock can be ascertained by looking at the head. Yet graphic designers will insert a mare’s head when the product is a collection tube.

    Pete

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 3:52 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: This is an excellent perspective from a member of Linked In’s group, eMarketing Association Network:

    I read the article as intended to counter an objection like this: “We’re subject matter experts and you’re not, so why should we pay you to write about our business to our readers?” Though the article is good at responding to such objections, and I agree with it, I suggest that the objection is best dispensed with proactively, rather than reactively. I do that and have done so effectively for years.

    For example, I make statements such as, “I’d like to draw on the expert knowledge of your top people on an as-needed basis. I will bring to the project a non-expert perspective that enables me to ensure that non-experts have their information needs met understandably. Of course. I also have the interviewing, writing, and document testing expertise that the project requires. Your subject matter experts can remain focused on their own specialties while I do the wordsmithing for your readers.”

    The article at this link suggests why subject matter experts should not write materials meant to engender loyalty and referrals: http://www.articulate.ca/dontwriteyournewsletter.html

  • Andy Bartling

    August 3rd, 2010 on 4:10 pm

    Pete,

    You’re raising the most critical aspect of any messaging strategy: balancing logic with emotion.

    A NY cubicle writer might get the features and benefits right (logic), but making an emotional connection with the reader is a different all together.

    That’s why I never rely solely on written materials for background. I want to talk to the guy who’s pulled the calf at 2 am.

    It’s anecdotal research, to be sure. But no formal study I’ve ever seen can capture and convey emotion the way a voice can, when someone who’s ‘been there’ is telling his story.

  • Michael Leahy

    August 4th, 2010 on 10:21 am

    The older I get, the more I believe in being passionate. You do have to be knowledgeable about your subject, but don’t let the details dint the fire. Go deep, but bring back the really hot embers. People really can tell the difference, as Pete’s bovine example shows. Can we presume Pete has been there. It certainly sounds like it, and that’s what we need: credibility. It’s hard to fake that one!

  • Andy Bartling

    August 4th, 2010 on 10:38 am

    Michael,

    Where knowledge/logic and passion/emotion meet–that’s the essence of an effective brand position and messaging strategy.

    And you put it perfectly: This is where credibility comes from.

  • Andy Bartling

    August 6th, 2010 on 8:19 am

    Corporate Writer Insider Note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s Medical Marketing Network group:

    “All great points. But then with me, you’re speaking to the choir.

    Thanks for putting out the reminder.”