Aretha 2

Lately I’ve been thinking about respect — and how to get more of it. Some colleagues and I have been working with a content manager at a consulting firm who keeps sending us blog posts written by her subject matter experts. She wants our help editing them. So, we work our magic and send it back, confident that we’ve saved the world from one more piece of jargon-riddled content lacking any sign of helpful advice beyond the blatantly obvious.

Then we’ll get an email back from the content manager saying our edits were too heavy handed. That the post no longer has the SME’s “voice,” and he won’t like how we’ve moved paragraphs around and fine-tuned the messaging. Could we please edit it again, this time with a lighter touch?

No, thank you.

Because here’s what I’ve learned about this situation. When an in-house writer, content manager, or marketer is resistant to taking a good edit back to an SME and explaining why it is better, that content manager is dealing with a larger problem: a lack of respect. The content manager either senses or knows the SME doesn’t appreciate the manager’s knowledge and training about what makes a good blog post. So, they’ve given up.

In some organizations, this lack of respect for the content marketing or editorial team is part of the culture. Leaders treat content people like order takers. Like clerks processing invoices. “Here’s an article I wrote. Please proofread it and post it on our website without any pushback.”

For the content team, this is painful. We are experts in writing. The SME is an expert on the topic. This should be a collaborative process in which we use our combined expertise to create compelling prose on an important issue. Yet all too often, it isn’t. And because the content team is considered a business cost center instead of a profit generator like the billable SMEs, the writers get the short end of the stick.

How do I know this? I’ve lived it. For eight years I wrote for lawyers at a global law firm. I was surrounded by other marketers and business development managers who would say, “But this is how the partner wanted it.” And I’d think, Yeah, but the writing is terrible.

Lawyers may be good at writing briefs and client memos, but when it came to things like news alerts, newsletters, and practice group descriptions — content that required engaging headlines and plain language — their writing skills didn’t translate. The material was often too long and filled with bloated phrases like “today’s ever-evolving regulatory landscape” that sounded important but didn’t say anything of substance.

Because of my long experience in journalism and some of the moxie I was born with, I’d rewrite the copy and go back to the partner and say, “What if we did it like this?” Then I’d explain why I made the changes I did.

Sometimes the partner could see my version was better, appreciated the explanation, and accepted my changes. Other times I got the pushback you’d expect. One time I was writing a report about a complicated topic for the firm’s employment group. When I got the draft back from the partner, he had scribbled, “The writing seems somewhat juvenile” across the top.

I nearly lost my mind when I read that. But when I was done breathing into a paper bag, I went back to that partner and asked him, “What about the wording of this sentence don’t you like? And what about this one?”

It turns out, he objected to my use of words like “no-brainer,” which he felt were too casual. As in, “At first glance, it might seem like signing a multilateral agreement is a no-brainer.” He wanted to change “no-brainer” to “innocuous.” I thought that wasn’t conversational enough. So, we settled on “harmless.”

We worked our way through the report until we had settled on wording we could both live with. In the end, it was a better article than it would have been if I hadn’t dared to question his feedback and he hadn’t had the willingness to listen to mine.

So, how do you establish a better rapport with the SMEs you work with? How do you get off on the right foot, one that moves you in the direction of mutual respect?

These are such tricky questions that I recently co-hosted a one-hour discussion group with other writers to explore the topic. Here are some tips we came up with for establishing credibility right up front:

  • State your credentials at the beginning of the meeting or conference call, name-dropping as appropriate. If you share their expertise, such as being a former lawyer or consultant, let them know (tactfully) you have that background and speak a common language.
  • Even better, have someone else, such as a colleague or the marketing person, introduce you with a summary of your credentials. Be sure to do the same for your team members.
  • Or send a LinkedIn invite to the SME before your first interview so they can read about your qualifications without your having to tell them.
  • Call yourself a “content developer” instead of a “writer” to let them know you are more than a stenographer.
  • Be prepared for the interview. Read their bios and any background materials so you know who they are and have good questions ready.
  • Look up previous articles they’ve written. Reference something from those articles to show you’ve done your homework.

The thing about respect is that everyone has different criteria for granting it. Some people will defer to you right away. Others won’t give up an inch of control until you’ve proven yourself. Some people will never respect you because their egos are too big.

So, do your job. Do it well. Ask questions. Be patient. Keep a supply of brown paper bags at your desk. And when times get hard and you need reassurance, put in your headphones and listen to Aretha belt it out.

Because you know you’ve got it.

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