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Or “Hey Mr. PhD, You’re Writing a Blog Post, Not a Thesis”

One of the really rewarding things about having grown our agency largely on B2B clients over the last decade has been interacting with a lot of absolutely brilliant people that don’t often get a chance to talk about their passions to people outside their industry. The people who build consumer-facing products talk to lay people all day about why they’re awesome, but the engineers, scientists, consultants, and other types of subject matter experts who primarily service business accounts don’t often get to geek out about the things they love. One of our current clients, for example, makes custom valves for industrial chemical applications. It’s hard to fault someone reading that for thinking “Man, that’s got to be the most boring account ever!” But the CEO of the company is so animated and passionate and excited about their custom corrosion-resistant valve implementations that it’s hard not to get excited about it, too.

One of the really frustrating things about working with a lot of really smart geeks, though, is the slow realization that their sales and marketing content comes nowhere near to translating their passion to readers. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of the content these people produce is significantly below what even a junior copywriter could knock out. It’s often drab, lifeless, stilted, and offers no more insight than 5 minutes of browsing Google Search results would. These companies, full of talented and enthusiastic smartypants, often put out some of the most terrible content you’ll ever find. So today, we’re setting out on a journey to figure out why subject matter experts (SMEs) often put out such terrible content, and what you as a CEO/CMO/Marketing Manager/Agency can do to really bring out the fire that you KNOW is just under the surface.

1. Writing Is a Skill and Needs to Be Developed

A few years ago, we worked with a retained executive placement firm doing really awesome things in non-traditional placement. The CEO had an amazing ability to find high-performing talent and place them in positions that didn’t seem like an obvious fit, but that they would inevitably excel in. He didn’t come out of the womb thinking “I can take this VP of Engineering for an iPhone app, place him with a medical device company, and create an incredible new product.” He worked at it, for decades, refining his skill, practicing, learning from mentors. It was a process – a skill that he refined over the course of many years through repetition and improvement.

Writing is the same way, even though far too many people seem to not realize it. I’m not going to dig too deeply into why people seem to ignore that writing great content takes just as much practice as recruiting or chemical engineering, but they do. So when you see someone who is great at their job, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that they may not be the best writer. Good writing takes time and attention and practice and dedication. Great writing takes all that and the kind of practice you can only get if you spend 8 hours a day every day just writing. SMEs don’t have that kind of practice, and why should they? It’s not their job to produce great content. Their writing might be formal and stilted and inelegant because their objective is to get all the facts down, not create elegant prose.

2. Formal Writing Is Not the Same as Marketing Content

A typical PhD thesis is somewhere in the vicinity of 75,000 – 100,000 words. For all of you who went into marketing because you were promised there would be no math, that’s anywhere between 38 and 167 blog posts. For in-house marketers, that’s basically three years’ worth of content with one blog post being released per week. And that’s just the thesis! There’s all sorts of additional writing PhDs have to do, from lab and research notes, to published papers in journals. So clearly these people know how to write. Why, then, do PhDs (and MDs, and JDs, and engineers and scientists in general) write such god-awful web copy? If the average PhD student makes the average beat reporter look lazy when it comes to cranking out words, why do the words they crank out for your company blog inevitably lead to readers falling asleep halfway through the first paragraph?

People tend to forget that all writing isn’t “just writing”. Just like a scientist might have no issues delivering a talk on advances in gypsy moth genomic research, but struggles to make small talk at a dinner party. Writing for formal articles and papers is a completely different thing than writing short, informal pieces for a non-technical (or less technical) audience. The structure, pacing, grammar, and word choice is so far apart that it may as well be a different language. This also explains a lot of the defensiveness you might encounter when giving criticism to an SME about their content – in their minds, their content is great technical formal writing, so how can it possibly not be working?

3. Reputations and Careers are on the Line

As a writer, or a manager of writers, or just someone dealing with marketing, you might think that your professional reputation is on the line with every piece of content you put out. It’s not, really, since most people have no idea who you are and so little of our work is directly attributed to us on a wide scale. You’re just as likely to sign someone else’s name to that blog post you slaved over as your own, right? That’s not the case with a lot of SMEs. For many of them, every piece of writing they produce is directly tied to them and becomes part of their body of work that they will be judged on in the future. From authorship of articles in journals to their thesis and defense, to criticism and reviews, to blog posts and infographics. For a lot of people, this is literally everything they are in the workplace.

I am currently acting as a contract CMO for a biopharma company as they ramp up growth in preparation for an equity event. One of my key tasks, and the inspiration for this blog post, is managing a team of PhDs as they attempt to produce regular content. Some of the challenges in dealing with them are infuriating, but I get it. They come from a publish or perish environment where their job prospects, salaries, and reputations are directly tied to producing attributed content that is constantly under attack from people as smart as they are. So when they submit a blog post about something and it reads like a summary of the first page of Google results on that subject, it’s not because they don’t know what they’re talking about or because they don’t have any unique insights. It’s because if they cannot find a source to substantiate every single point they want to make, they will not make that point.

As a professional marketer, I have no problems giving my opinion to anyone that walks past. I don’t feel any twinge of guilt or fear at presenting guesses and inferences and suppositions forcefully. Hell, this whole article is me basically talking out of my ass about things I’ve noticed and why they are the way they are, with no research or citations or proof, but damnit if I don’t present it as god’s own truth. A scientist or engineer might have difficulty doing that, because the first decade of their professional training and careers they have been taught that if you cannot empirically prove it, you shouldn’t say it. There is a very real fear that if they make a strong statement that ends up being false, or even not entirely correct, somewhere down the line a doctoral committee will jump out of the bushes and beat them with a hard-bound copy of their thesis.

How to Move SMEs Forward in Writing Great Content

So what do you do about this? You can spend months putting them through a writing workshop, giving out practice and assignments, or you can have them start writing blog posts and provide feedback and hope they learn from it, but ultimately that’s going to result in a lot of disappointment and wasted time. Don’t force people to do something they’re not good at – you wouldn’t ask your lead engineer to learn accounting so they could do your books, right?

Instead, get them to give you the tools you (or a contracted writer) need to write their great content for them. I’ve found that providing an outline template and getting them to fill in just the critical bits (thesis, topic sentences and supporting points, facts and figures – along with explanations of what each piece means) and then writing the finished piece off of that (with plenty of time scheduled to ask follow-up questions) results in much better, more impactful writing than either forcing the SMEs to do it or asking a writer to go in blind. Teams built from specialists working together can make the most prosaic or technical subjects sound more exciting and engaging than asking people to do something they simply aren’t trained to do.

That’s the easiest solution – take it off their plate. I know not everyone has the luxury of bringing in writers, though. In that case, education becomes your main tool. It’s an arduous process, and basically requires undoing a lot of their professional training, or supplementing it with what seems like incredibly basic and facile education. That outline I put together for my team? It’s basically what we got on the first day of composition class as a freshman in High School. Remember? How to write expository essays? A lot of times, that’s how far back you have to go. Not because SMEs are stupid, but because they were smart enough to specialize in something that would make them money while we were sitting through World Literature 305: Poetry of the Near Asian Steppes. You will need to fill in the gaps in their content creation training to at least include:

  • Picking an engaging subject
  • Identifying a hook or angle
  • Crafting a title
  • Understanding the structure of an expository essay or opinion article
  • The basic differences between formal and informal writing
  • Not worrying about making strong statements, and the impermanence of the internet
  • Getting over their fear of rocking the boat or being provocative and insightful
  • Realizing that you don’t need a page of footnotes for a 600-word blog post

I will continue putting together training materials for my team, and making them available at S&G, and I hope you find some use for them. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you get great content out of SMEs, or what tools and trainings you think would be helpful in getting their brilliance to come through. Shoot us an email, or drop a comment after the article. Good luck!

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