10 step guide to working with a freelance writer

Notebook that reads Field Notes on the front cover re freelance writer

(Hat tip to Derek Schille for the photo)

I have been working as a freelance writer for Articulate Marketing for about six months. In that time, I’ve learnt what to expect from a positive business relationship between a freelance writer and the person who hires a freelance writer.

1. Find the right freelance writer for your business

To find the writer best suited for your business, you can search online, post the opportunity or ask for recommendations. I live in the United States and connected with the writers at Articulate Marketing through the Bad Language blog. I liked what they had to say and how they said it. So when they posted the need for another writer, I applied. The advantage of the internet in looking for writers is that you aren’t limited to local talent, but can form relationships worldwide.

2. Understand the value of a writer’s portfolio

Take hiring a freelance writer as seriously as you would hiring an employee into your company. You want evidence of a freelancer’s writing skill, but you also want to know about their business acumen and associated knowledge. Find out what kind of work they do and what experience they bring to the table.

3. Know the importance of first impressions

Have a conversation with potential writers to find out if they are a good fit for your business. A freelance writer also needs to make sure they can meet your needs as a writer. A freelancer doesn’t just know how to write. They consider the logistics of a business relationship with your company and will have questions for you too.

4. Discuss ownership and fees

Before the first brief is sent, talk about ownership and fees to make sure both parties are in agreement. Ownership and fees can be touchy topics, but it helps to deal with them in a straightforward way.

5. Ask about editing

At Articulate Marketing, every piece gets peer reviewed. This is key. If you plan to hire a freelance writer, ask about editing. It’s to any freelance writer’s advantage (and yours) to have a second pair of eyes look at their writing.

6. Give access to tools

Determine what tools you will use for communication, assignments, submissions and billing. Then make sure the appropriate accounts are set up or access is given. I get my assignments through Basecamp, work in WordPress and do my billing through Freshbooks. These are all applications that Matthew and Clare introduced me to and they play a key role in working together.

7. Appoint a spokesperson

Anytime you have a remote worker, you want to make sure they aren’t getting conflicting instruction. I primarily communicate with Clare and she edits my work as well. I’ve noticed that when I hear from Matthew regarding a new assignment, Clare grows a little quiet. This gives me a definite point of contact for each assignment when I have questions or concerns. Make sure the writer knows who can answer what questions for each assignment.

8. Focus on writing a good brief

Every brief needs to contain certain elements. For client work, I get longer, more detailed briefs because there are certain elements that must be included. Other assignments have shorter briefs that discuss the main point, but leave it up to me as to how to get there. The questions that should be answered in a brief include:

  • What is the main point you are making or goal to achieve with the piece?
  • What resources does the writer need from you that they can’t find on their own?
  • What audience are you targeting?
  • Are there specific points to make or products to mention?
  • What is the final product? Blog? Whitepaper?
  • What is the word count?
  • When is the deadline?

9. Give feedback

A good freelance writer appreciates feedback whether positive or negative. As build a relationship with a writer, your comments help them become familiar with your needs and make it easier for them to meet your expectations.

10. Maintain the relationship

Communication is the key to any relationship, but it’s absolutely necessary in a remote relationship. Whether in small talk, giving assignments, providing feedback or handling billing, remember that your emails and communications become a freelance writer’s total impression of you. Clare and Matthew communicate well so that I am always happy to hear from them, good or bad.

Hiring a freelance writer is about the service they can provide to your company. Working with a freelance writer is about good communication. Put in the extra effort to make sure your freelance writer is invested in the goals that each assignment presents.

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15 advanced online tools for writers

Many multi-tools representing tools for writing

(Hat tip to Jim Pennucci for the photo)

A writer doesn’t just write. The business of writing means a writer must edit, attract clients, produce great content and create a final product while handling their finances and marketing. Here are a few specialised tools to help:

1. Draft. This editing tool tracks versions of your document to find earlier material from any point in your process. This comes with other features like collaborative editing and a productivity setting.

2. Pro Writing Aid. The program searches your text for weak words, overused words or clichés and generates various reports to let you know the quality of your writing.

3. Squarespace. This website builder provides a set of quality templates to make building your website simple. It serves as a paid alternative to WordPress, but boasts less maintenance and great customer service.

4. Hootsuite. Handling multiple social media platforms can be time consuming. Hootsuite can distribute a quality post to all of your platforms which ultimately saves time.

5. MailChimp. Direct marketing is important for a writer. MailChimp makes it incredibly simple to land your content and name in a client’s inbox.

6. Celtx. Geared toward screenwriters, Celtx enables you to write, edit and format a script. But it also takes you through to production with scheduling and blocking features. Final Draft serves as a top alternative.

7. InBound Writer. This program scores your content to let you know how it will perform on the web. You can make improvements until your rating is up to publishing standard.

8. Kippt. This tool prevents an overloaded Favorites Bar. You can bookmark sites and quality content then organise the content into lists.

9. Plagium. If you’re worried about other sites duplicating your work, this tool allows you to determine if your words are appearing elsewhere on the web.

10. Storify. This content curating tool was created by a media veteran. It’s geared toward turning content, information and social media into a comprehensive story.

11. SmartEdit. This tool is a ‘first pass’ editor for grammar and structure issues. It won’t replace another pair of human eyes, but it can help you ready pieces for an editor.

12. Bidsketch. This tool turns your proposals into professional, well-formatted documents which will save you time on technical writing projects or freelance bids. As a bonus, it can be integrated with Freshbooks invoicing.

13. Highrise. For writers, following up with clients is essential to acquiring future projects. A product from 37 Signals, Highrise helps writers manage their client relationships.

14. Marked. We talked about its counterpart, Ulysses, in the list of essential online tools for writers, but there are a lot of options for writers working with Markdown. Marked boasts a live preview as you type so you know how your final product will appear.

15. Pancake. Considered a management tool specifically for the freelancer, this application can handle all the business and management aspects of a freelancer’s job.

For writers working in specific fields, basic writing and productivity tools may help with the words, but for writers looking to produce a finished product, specialized tools can aid your business and get your work where you want it to be.

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Superbrands 2014 surprise results tell two different tech stories

technology handshake - superbrands and trust

If you know about brands, you’ll know Monday was an important day. The 24th February marked the announcement of the 2014 Superbrands UK results.

superbrands results tweet

Of course, there’s been plenty of chatter about British Airways making the number one spot, and the apparent loss of faith in technology companies, as Microsoft and Google dropped down the list and Apple slipped below Andrex of all things. But that’s just the consumer list, companies that sell B2C.

The Business Superbrands list tells a different story

The top spot for B2B brands went to Visa, and Mastercard grabbed number four. Well, yes, financial brands are going to matter to businesses. But what’s interesting is that Google, Apple, Microsoft and Samsung all made the top ten, suggesting while we might be wary about our personal emails or have frustrations about our wonky smartphone, businesses still have great faith in the importance and ability of tech companies.

The full top 20 are as follows:

1. Visa
2. Google
3. Apple
4. MasterCard
5. British Airways
6. Microsoft
7. BP
8. Samsung
9. Virgin Atlantic
10. Shell
11. Bosch
12. American Express
13. Rolls-Royce Group
14. FedEx
15. Royal Mail
16. PayPal
17. Barclaycard
18. BT
19. DHL
20. Caterpillar

Who says these tech guys are still trusted?

For those of you less familiar with the Superbrands list, the brands do not apply or pay to be considered. Instead the lists of brands operating in the UK are gathered from various sources from ‘sector reports to blogs’.

Once a shortlist is drawn up, each category is then voted on by two groups:

  • An independent expert council, different for each category. [Full disclosure, Matthew is on the expert council for Business Superbrands, but it is made clear on the Superbrands website that council members 'were not allowed to score brands with which they had a direct association or were in direct competition to'. So no special treatment for Articulate's tech clients.]
  • For the Consumer category, a nationally representative sample of 3,000 British adults are surveyed; and for the Business category 2,000 business professionals working within the UK private sector and with purchasing or managerial responsibility are similarly quizzed.

So why all the B2B love for tech companies?

I’m just speculating here, but I read a lot about the B2B tech industry (obviously, that’s what we do here at Articulate), and technology really does seem to be powering a cultural and organisational shift across multiple industries.

‘The mobile mind shift, digital disruption, and big data will all disrupt business models,’ argues Dan Bieler in CIO UK.

To remain competitive, or even to simply remain viable in the age of the consumer, businesses need to be able to trust tech giants to deliver the cross-platform, integrated, data-driven tools and services that they need to keep customers happy. And judging by those on the leading edge, these tech giants are delivering.

Notice, those tech guys in the top ten are the ones embracing and rolling out these cloud-powered, mobile technologies.

The most interesting story, however, will be if, as these new services and devices (rather than the old school licences and hardware) become more widely adopted and put more rigorously to the test by the business world, whether or not this trust will hold out.

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20 essential online tools for writers

online tools for writers

Every writer works differently, so not every online tool is a good fit for every writer. But there are plenty of options when it comes to online writing tools and resources. This list of 20 essential online tools for writers will get you started on curating your own set of preferred tools of the trade.

1. Clippings.me. This site allows you to create an online writer’s portfolio where you can display your work proudly.

2. Skype. This is a familiar tool, but necessary for interviews and client conversations.

3. Pear Note. This app records a conversation and syncs it with your notes. You can then pick a spot in your notes and play back the corresponding portion of the conversation.

4. Google Docs. While there are many options for online word processors, this is a favorite for collaboration.

5. Evernote. This application is also known for collaboration and is great for storing notes and research too.

6. Scrivener. Writers across the web swear by this software and claim that ‘all-in-one writing tool’ doesn’t do it justice.

7. Ulysses. This program is highly regarded for its ability to transfer plain text into beautiful content.

8. Write or Die. Trouble with productivity? This tool delivers consequences no writers want to face.

9. Ommwriter. This is a minimal writing app for distraction-free writing to get those words on the virtual page.

10. Cold Turkey. This program lets you lock yourself out of certain sites for a period of time to remove the temptation of procrastination.

11. F.lux. This nifty app, available on pretty much any platform, adjusts the brightness of your screen automatically to reduce the inevitable eyestrain of modern computer-based writing.

12. The Economist Style Guide. Whether you have a house style or not, this resource provides a good standard for writers.

13. Mellel. This online word processor is meant to handle long documents and large projects.

14. Hemingway. This app doesn’t just check readability, but rates your sentences so you know how to fix them.

15. Spundge. Allows you to curate your content by storing information for long running projects.

16. Scapple. This brainstorming tool allows you to easily map and track ideas.

17. Pomodoro.me. Try the Pomodoro Technique to boost your writing productivity.

18. Dragon Dictation. This application transfers your recorded voice into text. Record notes on the go.

19. Quora. Ask a thousand of your closest friends for help. There’s bound to be an expert on the subject in there somewhere.

20. Ted Talks. For inspiration and information, look to experts and innovators in every subject under the sun.

Whether a journalist, a novelist, a blogger or a freelance writer, every writer needs the right tools to get the job done. Find a combination of online tools and resources that suit you and get to work!

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Book review: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury portrait

(Hat tip to Devon Devereaux for the photo)

This is not so much a ‘how to’ book – ‘I selected the above title, quite obviously, for its shock value,’ notes Bradbury with characteristic candidness – as it is a book of musings about what it means to write and be a writer from the author of, most famously, Fahrenheit 451.

It collects a number of Bradbury’s essays and poems written over a period of 30 years and touches on why he became a writer, where he finds his ideas, the process of writing some of his books and, more generally, the joys of writing.

And that’s what’s so refreshing – his playful and boisterous approach. He writes about the pleasures of writing, rather than treating it like a hard slog, and he never takes himself too seriously:

Hot today, cool tomorrow. This afternoon, burn down the house. Tomorrow, pour cold critical water on the simmering coals. Time enough to think and cut and rewrite tomorrow. But today – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?

But that’s not to say he doesn’t have some wise words. Quite the opposite. The above quotation shows you don’t have to be entirely serious to offer good writing advice.

Here’s a selection of his best bits.

Bradbury’s wisdom

  • ‘if you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer […] For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.’
  • ‘in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses’
  • ‘From an ever-roaming curiosity in all the arts, from bad radio to good theatre, from nursery rhyme to symphony, from jungle compound to Kafka’s Castle, there is basic excellence to be winnowed out, truths found, kept, savoured, and used on some later day.’
  • ‘By living well, by observing as you live, by reading well and observing as you read, you have fed Your Most Original Self. By training yourself in writing, by repetitious exercise, imitation, good example, you have made a clean, well-lighted place to keep the Muse […] through training, you have relaxed yourself enough not to stare discourteously when inspiration comes into the room.’
  • ‘I came on the old and best ways of writing through ignorance and experiment […] I blundered into creativity’
  • ‘I’ve tried to teach my writing friends that there are two arts: number one, getting a thing done; and then, the second great art is learning how to cut it so you don’t kill it or hurt it in any way. When you start out life as a writer, you hate that job, but now that I’m older it’s turned into a wonderful game, and I love the challenge just as much as writing the original, because it’s a challenge. It’s an intellectual challenge to get a scalpel and cut the patient without killing.’
  • ‘As soon as things get difficult, I walk away. That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.’
  • ‘Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.’
  • ‘His [the writer’s] greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go.’
  • ‘Work, giving us experience, results in new confidence and eventually relaxation […] Suddenly, a natural rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.’
  • ‘if one works, one finally relaxes and stops thinking. True creation occurs then and only then.’

 Zen in the Art of Archery

The last couple of quotations betray the main inspiration of the book: German professor Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, which was responsible for bringing Zen to Europe after World War II.

The chief lesson in both books is that if you practise something enough it becomes effortless and unconscious; you enter a flow state.

You need to go to Zen for the answer to your problems. Zen, like all philosophies, followed but in the tracks of men who learned from instinct what was good for them. Every wood-turner, every sculptor worth his marble, and ballerina, practices what Zen preaches without having heard the word in all their lives.

The verdict

If you like Ray Bradbury’s writing and you’re looking to be inspired, this makes for an excellent read. He writes with an infectious energy that you can’t help but catch, which is a welcome change from the grave tone of many ‘how to’ writing books.

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Done is better than perfect

Poem depicting idea of done is better than perfect

Here rolls the sea
And even here
Lies the other shore
Waiting to be reached
Yes here
Is the everlasting present
Not distant
Not anywhere else

These words are engraved in the gatehouse at Dartington Hall, near where I grew up. They made a big impression on me and I remembered them last week when I read about Facebook’s motto ‘Done is better than perfect’ in Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In.

How many times do we let perfection get in the way? Here are some tips to help you avoid the problem:

  • Just write that first draft now. You can edit later.
  • Don’t wait for a website redesign. Improve your existing site now.
  • Action today is better than a plan for tomorrow.
  • Decisions, even suboptimal ones, are generally better than indecision.
  • Synthetic happiness is more satisfying than natural unhappiness.
  • If you stay at home, you know exactly what is going to happen but if you go out, anything could happen.
  • Ask him/her out. Get over your loss aversion. According to economist Tim Harford, the cost of rejection is much less than the potential gain of a successful date.
  • There is no correlation between the number of pages in your business plan and the likely success of your start-up.
  • Remember: non-existent code doesn’t crash.
  • Go with the 90 percent solution rather than double the length and cost of the project aiming for 100 percent.
  • And yes, done is better than perfect.

In many cases, you get 80 percent of the value from 20 percent of the work. Often, just showing up or getting started or doing something is enough. You’re closer to the other shore than you think.

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Writing tools: Skitch for screenshots

Screenshot from TurbineHQ.com captured using Skitch

For the longest time, I’ve been using the ‘Send to OneNote’ tool for making screenshots (it’s part of Microsoft OneNote). OneNote’s great but it’s a bit fiddly because it copies the screenshot to the clipboard and so I have to paste it somewhere before I can save it.

Now, I’ve discovered Skitch from the folk who make Evernote. It does some really cool things, as you can see from the screenshot I took of our Turbine application. Skitch is going to make my life easier in 2014:

  • Multi-platform. It works on Mac and PC – just one thing to learn on both my computers. Also available on iPhone and iPad.
  • The tools for the job. It’s easy to edit pictures, for example cropping or adding boxes, highlighting, arrows and more.
  • Pixel blur. There’s even a little tool to pixelate sensitive information in screenshots.
  • Save anywhere, fast. When you’re done editing, you can just drag and drop the file to other applications or to your hard disk.
  • Well-connected. You can also share it on social media site or upload it to Evernote with a single click.

One interesting observation: it’s shy. It hides its own interface when taking a screenshot which means that it is very hard to actually take a screenshot of Skitch itself.

It’s not a full-blown graphics editor but it’s much, much more efficient for routine screenshots than anything I’ve used before. Highly recommended.

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Perfect example of email content marketing

I’m looking at some personal finance programs and I just saw this pop-up screen in You Need a Budget.

You Need a Budget screenshot with email content marketing signup

There are several reasons why I think it’s a great role model for email content marketing:

  • The value to the reader is very clear. ‘Get control of your money’. Yes! That’s what I want to do.
  • The timing is right. I’m running the software for the second time so I’ve already done the registration and configuration stuff. It’s not hitting me at the same time as a lot of other setup chores.
  • It aligns with the YNAB’s objectives – the emails help you get the most out of their software so you’ll convert from a trial to paid version.
  • A clear, concise offer. ‘One email per day, for 9 days’. It’s kind of intimate but there’s no long term commitment.
  • You can’t beat the price. Anything that’s ‘free’ is good.
  • They’re relaxed, confident and friendly. ‘You’ll love it’. Yes, I did.
  • Good anti-objection messaging. I really like this: ‘We hate spam. You’ll only be sent the 9 emails. Nothing else.’
  • Strong CTA. The action button is clear about what it wants you to do and software handles missing or incorrect emails very nicely. (There are also ‘Close’ and ‘Remind me later’ buttons.)

I look forward to getting the emails and seeing whether they match up to the registration page. I’m not sure I could say that about most of the email that comes into my inbox.

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The secret to intoxicating content: personas

Masks representing personas

Buyer personas are all the rage right now in content marketing. Toby has covered the topic on this very blog.

And while I agree they can be extremely useful for planning your marketing campaigns, social media strategy and tone of voice guidelines, when it comes to writing intoxicating content, you need to dig a little deeper.

What are personas?

Let’s start with a cliche: Google defines ‘persona’ as,

The aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others.

Sometimes this can be an amplified version of something very natural and recognisable from someone’s personality. And sometimes it can be such an exaggerated version of a natural aspect that it almost disguises the original character it has originated from.

Joe Bunting describes it as the difference between Joni Mitchell and Lady Gaga.

To be bare or brash?

The former persona, ‘the Mitchell’ as I’ll call it, requires you to expose, very honestly, your weaknesses and the core of what makes you tick. It means choosing aspects of your character that people can relate to on an emotional and empathetic level, which basically means exposing your wounds.

The latter, ‘the Gaga’, is no less honest, despite appearances to the contrary. For this type of persona to be effective it has to be based on something that is natural to you, but something many people might consider outrageous or contraversial.

You then have to take that aspect and wear it with total confidence and unwavering honesty: you need some guts to pull this off.

Both types of persona are equally useful in writing because both expose vulnerability.

The value of vulnerability

Vulnerability is key to good writing and to effective content marketing because without vulnerability, you have no connection.

Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent the last decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame, explains this idea better than I ever could in her TedTalk:

To put it (very) simply, translated into copywriting terms, Brown’s argument means that:

  • Even in a sales brief, or an online product description, you need to be able to accept and acknowledge your readers’ vulnerabilities, reassure them that they are still worthy and capable, and be willing to accept your own (or your business’ own) vulnerabilities and retain your sense of worthiness if you want to develop a meaningful and constructive connection.

Relating to your reader’s persona

Creating, or rather unearthing your reader persona for a given project can certainly start with the outline of a buyer persona. Kelly Kautz writes on Copyblogger,

Instead of addressing a crowd, write as if you’re having a conversation with your favorite reader. If you’re not sure who that is, make up an imaginary friend.

She suggests, similarly to Toby, that you decide on their demographic information (although goodness knows why marital status is relevant, personally I’d leave that one out), challenges and pain points, influences, a typical work day and of course their goals.

You want to base this information on real buyers or readers you already have, it’s not just an exercise in imaginationAs Toby writes,

Crucially you want to tell a story, which means a focus on behaviours rather than just a list of speculative facts…it takes time and effort to properly research and flesh out buyer personas.

Done properly, a buyer persona can give you a great foundation for a business reader persona, but to write copy that will connect, you have to dig a little deeper, and get a little more intimate.

Get beneath your reader’s skin

We all wear a metaphorical mask to the office; we have our own buyer (or writer, or lawyer etc) persona, but when we read we have no reason to restrict ourselves to just that side of us, even if we are in the office while we are reading.

How someone reacts to content is based on aspects of their personality that they may not reveal at work and that therefore may not enter into a buyer persona. And that is the key difference between a buyer and a reader persona.

To achieve truly relatable, engaging and intoxicating content, you have to see beneath your buyer persona and start to think about aspects of their private, non-work personality that will inform how they connect with content.

Think about what uncertainties, vulnerabilities and worthiness would be included in their out-of-office persona, for example:

  • Who in their life do they listen to outside of work?
  • What sort of purchasing decisions do they make for themselves – ethical, trendy, local, cheap? What are their personal priorities?
  • What sort of mistakes might they be frightened of repeating? Especially at work – have they made bad decisions before?
  • Who in your life, that you know personally and know well, is most like who you are writing to? What can you incorporate from their identity?
  • What barriers do they put up? Brené Brown says we try to escape vulnerability and shame in different ways like numbing, seeking perfectionism, apportioning blame etc. We all do it, but how would your reader? And how can you respect and engage with that to try and get past it?

And who, exactly, are you?

Since personas can bring out the most intense or relatable aspects of a personality, it is also worth taking some time to think about your own writer persona.

This means leaning in to your own shortcomings or imperfections, and knowing you are still worthy of attention and love (including a reader’s love of what you have to say and how you say it).

This might seem daunting, but as Maria Bustillos argues, a writer can never really escape vulnerability. She writes on the New Yorker blog,

Writers are generally fated to commit the truest parts of themselves to the page, whether they choose to own their work in public or not. That is the ultimate vulnerability, and it is inescapable.

Or, what are you?

In business writing, of course, you can often be writing on behalf of a company or even a particular division or group of offerings. In that case, developing your writer persona for that project can mean taking a tone of voice document or brand guidelines (a commercial persona as it were) and thinking about how to integrate that with your own writer persona.

This might sound a bit abstract, so here’s an example.

Turbine, Articulate’s sister company, is an online HR application. It is aimed at small to medium enterprises. It does some things extremely well, but does not pretend to do everything. Turbine has more of a ‘Mitchell’ persona and the way we write on our blog reflects that:

This is what we’re trying to do with Turbine. It’s an affordable off-the-shelf way to do routine admin chores that works well for the majority of businesses.

My question for you is: are you letting ‘perfect’ get in the way of ‘good enough’? Stop wasting time and money seeking the perfect solution and upgrade to almost-perfect.

The writer(s) for Threadless, on the other had, take its commitment to promoting unknown artists and its unapologetic support of the weird and wacky to create more of a ‘Gaga’ writer persona:

We started printing on tees and then we realized tons of products make great canvases. We seek out these canvases, so you can continue to make and pick the best art. The weird art. The geeky art. The beautiful art. And every time you buy from us, you’re supporting great art too.

In both examples, the writer has followed what Brené Brown advocates: they have created a hybrid persona that displays courage by telling the story of who (or what) the product or brand is whole heatedly and embraces its imperfections. At the same time, the persona retains its worthiness: its imperfections are no reason not to read and connect with the content.

Brands are not people

Of course they’re not. But you can borrow from the more intimate idea of reader and writer personas in the non-commercial world to develop constructed personas that amalgamate real customers with ideal buyers, and your personal writer persona with a company or product persona.

And it’s with those creations that you can then write more powerful and intoxicating content, which ultimately builds better connections between everyone.

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