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#94: Ann Handley [Voice] – How to make your voice a differentiator in your work

March 08, 2022

#94: Ann Handley [Voice] – How to make your voice a differentiator in your work
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Ann Handley is a writer, digital marketing pioneer, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author

Ann Handley is a writer, digital marketing pioneer, and author of the Wall Street Journal bestsellers Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content and co-author of Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business.

Her company, MarketingProfs, is a marketing training and education company with more than 600,000 subscribers. She is a LinkedIn Influencer with more than 420,000 followers on Twitter. She is consistently named one of the most influential marketers on social media.

In this episode, we’re exploring how Ann got into writing, how Ann thinks about the audience she is writing to, her unique metric for measuring the success of her newsletter, and how you can find and hone your own unique voice.

Learn more about Ann Handley

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Ann Handley  00:00

In this world, where you know, AI is increasingly going to be doing writing for us, like, what is the thing that is a differentiator? What is the thing that can set you apart and in my mind, it's not just what you say, but it's how you say it.


Jay Clouse  00:15

Welcome to Creative Elements, a show where we talk to your favorite creators and learn what it takes to make a living from your art and creativity. I'm your host, Jay Clouse. Let's start the show. Hello, my friend, welcome back to another episode of Creative Elements. I'm glad you're here, I'm glad we're back together once again. And I have to say, things in my business, Creative Companion have felt really good lately. I feel very fortunate. And there's no singular thing or metric that I can point to as to why things feel so good. It's actually more qualitative than quantitative. It just feels like more than ever before. I'm connecting with the people in my audience. I'm getting more replies to my emails, I'm getting more notes of appreciation. I'm seeing more tags on social media from listeners of this show. And thank you, by the way, if that's you, it just feels like now more than ever before. I'm in a groove of reaching the people that I want to reach in a way that's helping them. It feels like I have found my voice. And that's what we're here to talk about today. My guest is Anne Handley. And Handley is a writer, digital marketing pioneer in the Wall Street Journal Best Selling Author of Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and content rules, how to create killer blogs, podcasts, videos, ebooks, webinars and more that engage customers and ignite your business.


Ann Handley  01:52

So what made me want to become a writer was essentially growing up as a reader. I read tons of books when I was a kid, and I just loved the immersive feeling of that.


Jay Clouse  02:04

Ann's company, MarketingProfs is a marketing training and education company with more than 600,000 subscribers and Ann has more than 400,000 followers on Twitter alone. And she's a frequent public speaker talking about how businesses can avoid marketing mediocrity.


Ann Handley  02:22

So good morning, I love you. Thank you for showing up here. I was so worried that you know, kickoff day to 8 AM. Like, what? Who's gonna show up at 8 AM?  When I speak, I know immediately if I'm connecting with an audience.  So I felt like I had to bribe people a little bit as, well, we're worried about this 8 AM start time, which is why I titled the talk today, Challenge Your Marketing Assumptions and get a free copy, an intervention.  Humor is a very important part of that, people absorb information way better when they're having fun.


Jay Clouse  02:58

As accomplished as Ann clearly is as both a writer and a marketer, the reason I wanted to talk to Ann on the show is her voice.


Ursula  03:07

What I want from you is your voice.


Jay Clouse  03:11

No, I'm not talking about her literal voice in an auditory sense, although it is very pleasing, but in the sense of how she speaks and how she frames her ideas. Yes, auditorially but also in her writing. I'm a reader of Ann's newest project, her personal newsletter called Total Anarchy, which is also an incredible name. But what really sticks out about Ann's writing is how uniquely her it is. Every email she sends just feels like Ann and it feels like Ann and a warm, cozy blanket and a snowy cabin sort of way. She even has a PDF called How to Newsletter that is the most readable and enjoyable PDF that I've ever downloaded. I'll link to it in the show notes. That warm, cozy blanket and a snowy cabin feeling comes from her unique tone and voice. And it's such a tough thing to articulate or learn but she's truly mastered it, though she'll tell you that you never stop honing your voice.


Ann Handley  04:07

Part of the reason why I think that my voice has changed so much between the first edition of Everybody Writes in what will be the second edition of Everybody Writes, is because of my email newsletter because I have published it every other week and I have not broken the chain. And what I've done there is essentially honed my voice even more and made it stronger, made it a whole lot more me. It's made me more confident. It's made me a little bit more playful, like I'm testing the boundaries a little bit. And so all of that I think actually has made me a more playful communicator, much more so than I when I wrote the first edition of that book.


Jay Clouse  04:41

So in this episode, we're exploring how Ann got into writing, how she thinks about the audience she is writing to, her unique metric for measuring the success of her newsletter, and how you can find and hone your own unique voice. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. As you listen, you can find me on Twitter @jayclouse or on Instagram @creativeelements.fm, tag me, say hello, let me know that you're listening. And now let's talk to Ann.


Ann Handley  05:14

You know, my mom used to take me to the library once a week. And I just remember that that experience was so meaningful and so rich for me number one, because it was my chance to spend some like one on one time with my mom, but also just to be able to take out books for free. And I remember like the first time that I realized you didn't have to pay at the library. And I remember thinking this business model, it is not sustainable. What are these cities and towns gonna do? You know, like I fretted all the way home, how are they doing this? They're free, how are they doing this? But it was a really important experience for me as a kid. And that's why I wanted to become a writer that came to life a little bit for when I was eight years old, I started my very first newsletter. So what that was was a report of what was going on in the neighborhood. Like the neighbors across the street got a new mailbox of people a few doors down or flouting the leash laws. They did not have their dog on a leash that dog was just terrorizing the neighborhood. So I was part neighborhood reporter and part NARC, honestly.


Jay Clouse  06:25

Wow, how was that delivered?


Ann Handley  06:27

It was delivered to my dad, I wrote it longhand, my dad took it to work and xeroxed it on his company machine. So using company resources for my own my own gains, basically. And I rode around, the day rode on my bike and delivered it that way. And pretty much 100%, 100% deliverability, which, you know, is pretty impressive, honestly, based on current metrics, I'm guessing it was probably 100%. Open and read rate too. So why not? Let's just call it


Jay Clouse  06:57

super low.


Ann Handley  06:57

Yeah so that lasted for about a summer. And that was really my first experience of building an audience and connecting through my writing with, in this case, my neighbors. I mean, part of the reason why I did that is because when I was a kid, and I wanted to be a writer, and my mom bought me a diary, and I just thought like writing a diary to yourself about things that you already know, are just, it's was so boring to me, I just couldn't understand why this was fun, or why this was something that a writerly child was supposed to do. And so instead, I just decided, you know, I need an audience, I need to connect with people. I mean, which sounds weird, but totally true. And I just decided that I needed somebody to read what I was writing. And so that's where the newsletter idea came from.


Jay Clouse  07:40

And so as a kid, you're starting to write the newsletter, you're delivering this you decided you want to be a writer, did you assume that was going to be books? Or, you know, what was your career aspirations? It might not have been when your kid, might have been into high school or going into college.


Ann Handley  07:54

So yeah, I don't, not sure that I ever really thought about it. I just thought that, you know, well, if you're a writer, you write all the things, you know, you write magazines, you write, I didn't make a distinction, in other words, between somebody who wrote a book and somebody who wrote a letter, you know, or a marketing piece, which is just how my brain worked at the time, I guess. And so in my mind, I just knew I wanted to be a writer. And when I got to college, I started to study journalism because in my mind, that was the only way that I could actually make money as a writer, and I knew I wanted to be a writer. And again, the audience was important to me. And so to me, it felt like the easiest way to combine those two things, you know, into one path. So that's, that's the path I went down. The truth is, though, you know, so I got out of school, and I worked for a newspaper, initially, business publication, weekly business publication, which was fantastic. I eventually ended up going into Daily Journalism. And I worked for the Boston Globe for a number of years. But the truth is that I was sort of a terrible news reporter. I mean, despite my training in my neighborhood when I was eight, you know, you think I would have been prepared for this life. But I really wasn't, because what made me a bad newspaper reporter was the fact that I was always focused a lot on story and on people and on motivations. So for example, the Boston Globe sent me to cover a house fire once in a town of a few towns over from mine. So I showed up there and I supposed to just cover you know, a house fire you know, what happened and so the who, what, when, where, why, you know, what happened around this whole situation and just report are supposed to be just a couple of paragraphs in my, in the newspaper the next day. But instead I got there, and it turns out that these people lived in an antique house. And one of the, the husband and wife had come from Germany, they had family in Germany, and they had a lot of rare German books that they had on blankets, like drying out on the lawn, and when I stepped out of my car, I could smell what I thought was it smelled like the inside of a fast food restaurant it felt like french fries. And I thought what is that smell? Well, it turned out that it was actually the hide, that the cowhide, that was the books were bound with at the time because they were so old such antique books that that had kind of fried, you know, it had delivered this sort of tallow smell, I guess. It's so it was, that was what I ended up writing about, not just the smell, but about the fact that, you know, these couple had like, we're trying to save these books that had been fire damaged and water damaged. And I get back to the Globe and turned in my story. And my editors said, this is a great story. But that's not the story that we were out there to cover. And I was like, oh, oops. So anyway, I pretty quickly got switched to features after that, because it suited my storytelling heart a little bit better than the news reporting did.


Jay Clouse  10:52

I love that. I don't think I brought it up on the show before but in college, I almost got a degree in journalism before I kind of like panic switched into business. Yeah, I learned way more than I used today. In my time studying journalism, the internships that I had writing for papers that I did in the business college to be honest, the inverted pyramid style of writing just teaching you to revise. I want to zoom in here and talk a little bit about what I just mentioned, the inverted pyramid style of writing. In my college journalism classes, this was one of the first concepts I was taught. And honestly one of the most useful concepts that I still think about today. The inverted pyramid is a way to think about prioritizing information in your writing, it's fairly intuitive, just picture a pyramid, then turn it upside down, the widest part of the pyramid is at the top, and the pyramid itself is divided into three sections. The widest part at the top of the pyramid is filled with the most newsworthy information, the who, what, when, where, why, and how. Right off the bat, journalists are trained to get the most important information to the reader as quickly as possible. The middle of the pyramid is for important supporting details of the who, what, when, where, why, and how, if you want to understand more about the story, that's what the middle of the piece does. And then the bottom of the pyramid, the smallest chunk is for other general background information. Journalists are taught to write in an inverted pyramid style, because there are literal physical constraints to print journalism. As an editor works with layout to make sure the words actually fit on the pages of the newspaper, they often need to remove pieces of stories to make the layout work. It's kind of like a puzzle. And when everyone writes in the inverted pyramid style, editors know that they can remove the endings of stories, because that's the least necessary information to understanding the details of a story. This is fascinating to me, because it's not the way we're taught to create content online. Often we design our content to have open loops in the beginning, so that the consumer sticks around for longer periods of time, instead of giving them the payoff right up front, like traditional news reporting. This probably comes from a place of trying to hold attention and sell that attention through ads, more so than trying to serve the consumer the best way we can.  I know that's kind of not exactly what you're referring to with your more feature mentality here but I feel like that training is so strong, is so useful. And I almost wish some of that was like required education for people going to college.


Ann Handley  13:23

Yeah, I agree. The biggest takeaway for me, from my days, studying journalism is the relentless focus on the audience, right? So truly delivering value to the people you are writing to, and thinking about not just what the story is, but what do they need to know, like, what is the value that I need to provide to the reader on the other end of these words, right? So that to me, was the biggest training that I had. So aside from, you know, the the writing training, or the ability to write quickly, or the who, what, when, where, why, which we've now established, I completely blew, because I was always thinking about the story. But really thinking about why does the story matter to the people who are going to read this like that, to me was such valuable training. And in truly the thing that has carried me throughout my career, you know, as a journalist to start, but then also as a marketer, as well, where you always have to be thinking about why does this matter, right? Why does this matter to the person who is going to be reading this email or watching this campaign or any of it?


Jay Clouse  14:27

And deadlines too, the period of time where I was studying this, they just beat into your head, the importance of deadlines, where there's just never an option not to have some something ready for your editor before print time.


Ann Handley  14:39



Jay Clouse  14:39

And that's just carried through today too, even like when I make a promise to myself, for my readers, that's a deadline in my mind, and I'm going to deliver something, even if it's not exactly as good as I'd want it to be.


Ann Handley  14:49

Yes. 100% like the ability to ship that work is another thing that has really helped me in throughout my career, especially for somebody like me, and maybe you're like this too but I'm a hopeless tweaker. Like, if you give me the opportunity to change something, then I will change it. So at some point, I have to not allow myself that opportunity. So I have to be kind of strict with myself and say, alright, I am going to ship this work, whether it's done or not, it's going to be good enough at that point. That doesn't mean that I give myself a past to substandard work because it doesn't. But the ability to adhere that deadline and to really take it seriously, even if it's a deadline, I set for myself, I think that's been such an important lesson for me, such an important thing I learned in journalism school as well.


Jay Clouse  15:36

Over the last 20 years, I know lots of tactics and strategies for you know, how to drive use, how to drive clicks, things like that have changed. But I'm really curious from, from your vantage point, what are some of the constants? What are some of the things that have remained the same in terms of good writing that people actually want to read?


Ann Handley  15:56

So I think one thing that has remained constant is are you providing value to the person you seek to connect with? And when I say connect with, like and the person I don't mean, audience, I don't mean subscriber, I don't mean prospect, I don't mean lead. Think about that one person and are you answering questions for them? Are you easing their burden in any way? Are you helping them? That's what I think about constantly. And I think that's what is true of great writing. And I think it's true of great marketing as well, like, are you actually speaking directly to a person? Are you speaking in a way that's engaging? Are you telling them a story that they can see themselves in, like, all of that stuff, all those things that I learned in journalism school, apply to marketing, and I think it's so true for any marketing that we're doing, to think about, you know, what is the value that we're really, that we're really providing? And it seems so elemental, it seems so basic, that why am I even saying this? But the reality is, I see a lot of marketing out there that I think, ah, you know what, if they just didn't flip that last switch, you know, like, it's a solid idea. But why does it matter to me?


Jay Clouse  17:02

After a quick break, Ann and I talk about how she writes with her subscriber in mind, and later, we talk about how she measures the success of her newsletter, and how you can hone your unique voice. So stick around and we'll be right back.  Welcome back to my conversation with Ann Handley. Before the break, Ann was beginning to talk about her mindset for writing her newsletter Total Anarchy, and how she keeps her subscribers in mind, she made a point to call out that she thinks about the individual behind her subscriber numbers. I think about customer avatars a lot, especially since my conversation with Amy Landino, in Episode 10 of the show. So I asked Ann, how she actually thinks about those individuals? Does she use a customer avatar?


Ann Handley  17:47

It changes piece to piece based on who I'm thinking about, and who I am looking to connect with. So for example, if I'm, like if we're talking about my email newsletter, for example, you know, I write that every fortnight every other Sunday it mails, usually in that email newsletter, I'm thinking about one person who maybe asked me a question, or who I saw a comment that somebody made on social media, or maybe it was something that that, you know, that came through email to me or in a response to my email signup, or something, it's usually based on an actual question or an actual issue or problem that somebody on that list has. And sometimes that's sort of an amalgam of a couple of different questions, you know, that I'll sort of loop together. But I'm always thinking about one person who I tried to help. When I wrote my my last book, when I wrote, Everybody Writes, I thought about my next door neighbor, at the time, who had the, you know, was not in marketing, but it was given a lot of she was in business development. But she had a lot of marketing responsibilities at the nonprofit that she worked for. And so I thought about her and I thought about, you know, well, what does she really need to know about writing in a content marketing age? Like, what does she really need to be thinking about? So I thought about her almost exclusively throughout the book. So it really changes based on who the audience is. But I always try to think of an actual person because to me, it's not as useful or successful ultimately, if I'm not thinking about a real person, because I can't fake it. You know, I can't, I can't think about some like puppet who represents a amorphous audience like to me it has to be an actual person. And I don't know why but to me, it's just an easier thing for me to access if I think of an actual person who has nuance, who has thoughts and feelings, and ideas, and actual flesh, and actual bones, and actual blood.


Jay Clouse  19:48

I like that route. We've had people on the show here who talked about the you know, fictitious, but realistic avatars that they create to represent who they believe their audiences and that's always been challenging for because it's not a real person, whereas I like this approach of it can change piece to piece, but think about a very specific person in your life that you would say this to and how would you say it?


Ann Handley  20:11

Right, right, exactly. Yeah and to me, it keeps my voice conversational and loose and, and I was gonna use the word intimate. It's not really intimate. I'm trying to think of what the word would be. It's


Jay Clouse  20:22



Ann Handley  20:22

Yeah, personal. Yeah, exactly. Like it's not, it's not personal, it's personable. So it keeps my voice very accessible, I think from a reader standpoint, and that's what I want to maybe that's why I need to think about an actual person versus this sort of, you know, this, this kind of vague persona, like personas just really don't work for me.


Jay Clouse  20:43

How do you determine if something you want to write about is the right fit for the people you're writing to? Meaning, I'm sure there's some ideas you have that you could write about, but you say no, because it doesn't fit your audience or something like that. I'm interested to know, you know, how something passes your litmus test of this is worth sharing?


Ann Handley  21:03

Yeah, that's a great question. So there's a few things. First of all, whenever anybody signs up for it, I'm talking about my email newsletter here, because I think it's the easiest thing to talk about one, one aspect or one kind of writing that I do. But I also think that this email newsletter is a proxy for how I approach my writing more generally so let's just talk about that for now. But so when you sign up for my email newsletter, you'll get an auto generated response that will say, like, you know, hey, like, thank you for signing up, you're the newest subscriber. And then I asked two questions, you know, how did you find me and what do you hope to learn here? The people who sign up for my email list about 30% of them, actually, you know, just respond directly to that email or and I tell you exactly like, how do you give me this information to email me directly or respond to this email. So I'd say about 30, between 30% and 40%, on any given month, roughly, will respond to that email and tell me, and so that, to me, is enormously useful, because it tells me two things. Number one, you know, basically how they're finding out about me, which is incredibly useful for me, and secondly, how they perceive me and what they think I can teach them, which is very useful for me just in terms of knowing how my messaging is getting out there. Like if someone were to sign up for my list and say, well, I was kind of hoping that you could give me some dog training tips, because I just adopted a brand new golden retriever. And I'd be like, what am I doing wrong? You know, yes, I talk about my dog but this isn't, this isn't what I offer, right? And so it makes me it kind of gives me bumpers on a bowling lane, right? So I sort of know how my message is doing to see if it's hitting, you know, the pins that I needed to hit, so to speak. And so it helps me know the audience, it helps me develop content, it helps me hone my own messaging as well, like in terms of how I talk about myself, and the kind of work that I do and the kind of thing that I pursue. So that's the first thing. Second thing, though, is, is it interesting to me, because, you know, no great content was ever created at gunpoint, right? And so if it's obvious that I don't want to write about something, and that I'm just hating this, no matter how much I feel like the audience may be clamoring for it, I just don't want to write about it, then I just, it's just not going to happen, because it's not going to be good. So those are really the two metrics that I look at.


Jay Clouse  23:22

I've heard you speak about the newsletter, and I know it's somewhere north of 50,000 subscribers are in that ballpark, which is a big number. And so 30% to 40% of new subscribers responding to you every month is also a big number. How do you manage parsing that inbound? Do you have any practices or systems to help you do that? Because I'm guessing you're the type of person who does a lot of responses too.


Ann Handley  23:44

Yeah, yeah, I typically do. Like, I feel like if someone's gonna take the time to write back to me that even just a cursory like, thanks for letting me know, welcome. Like, that's usually what I'll what I'll do, but I always read them. And I try to respond as, as much as I can. I don't always it's not, I wouldn't say it's 100% but it's, you know, it's 95%. It's pretty close sometimes I just get super busy. Typically, what I do is I batch them, and I respond during my downtime. So you know, I'm just hanging around on a Thursday night and whatever everybody else wants to watch on, on Netflix is not anything I want to watch, like I'll do it then. So it's kind of during my downtime, essentially, is when I do it, it's nothing that I I tend to reserve my most rested work hours of my most what's the word when I have, you know, when I have my most my highest energy work hours, I tend to reserve my highest energy work hours for not doing that kind of work, unless I'm in procrastination mode but that's a whole other conversation.


Jay Clouse  24:43

Which I actually want to get to here a little bit. But I wanted to start with, you know, you mentioned the writing needs to be a value to the person that you're writing to. I'm curious how you think about how you position that value before somebody signs up, because I feel like the advice we get a lot of times now is very transactional and very, you know, almost so value dense that you lose some personality or some aspect of voice. Whereas when I read your writing, it's very quickly, markedly different in terms of how that value is delivered. Like I actually feel myself calming and slowing down by reading how you deliver this information versus your typical, like, how to that is straight to the point, let me give you you know, the the nuts and bolts.


Ann Handley  25:35

I appreciate that.


Jay Clouse  25:37

Do you think that the conventional advice is wrong in that, you know, we're missing the boat by not being more personable and talking about how our writing is different. And it's more fun, and it's more lighthearted. It isn't just the the how to nuts and bolts or is, is this an intentional choice on your part to say, I don't care about people who are trying to opt in for basic how to I'm trying to impact them differently.


Ann Handley  26:03

Yeah, so when I set out to start my own newsletter, I wanted to do a few things. And, you know, I've been in B2B marketing newsletters since 1997, which is a ridiculous year when I say that out loud, but it's true. It's 25 years ago, right? And I can measure it by my daughter, who is now she's turning 25 in two days. So it's a long time to be in publishing. And one of the things that I wanted to play with or test or challenge maybe is what you're talking about here, right, is the idea that it's not just what you say, but how you deliver the information like could that be a game changer? Like, could that be the thing that could differentiate? Because I think that in this world that we live in now, like, you know, here we are at the very beginning of 2022, you know, if you have a question, you can find an answer on the internet, right? There is no question that is unanswered on the internet, there is no rock that's unturned. And so in this world, where you know, AI is increasingly going to be doing writing for us, like what is the thing that is a differentiator? What is the thing that can set you apart, and in my mind, it's not just what you say, but it's how you say it. And if you carry that through, it's essentially the voice, right? It's the writing voice that you use. it's how you communicate with an audience. And it's how you are not just delivering helpful advice, but truly becoming like a voice that they can trust in a place that is so crowded and so busy. So that's really what I set out to do. And it's something that I haven't seen at the time. Anyway, I watched this three and a half years ago ish. And at the time, I thought, you know, I saw a lot of, of newsletters and a lot of content that was much more how to, and like I said, you know, I've been in this world for so long, it's exactly the how to is what we deliver it marketing props. That's what we delivered at ClickZ with my first company, so I really wanted to do something different with this list and with this approach, again, to test it, to play with it, to see like, could this work? Is this the thing that was like the primary experiment?


Jay Clouse  28:20

Talk to me about the results of that experiment. What are the responses that you're getting? And how does that differ from the typical response, you get to how to content?


Ann Handley  28:29

You know, for me, it's people feel seen. And it sounds I know, it sounds like so overblown, but it's 100% true. Every single time I publish a newsletter, I have this internal metric that I set for myself, it's called an open to write back rate, which is not a real email metric by the way, it's something that I made up completely. And what I hope is that of the thousands of people who are on my list, I want 100 people to write back to me, so I want them to open it and then feel so compelled by what they've read that they write back to me, because I want to know, like, what resonates. And I hope that they tell me in the email newsletter, what actually resonated because again, like, I know what the beginning why they signed up, I know at least 30% to 40% of the why they signed up and what they hope to learn. But I want a consistent feedback for what actually is resonating, what works for them, what doesn't work for them. Because I want to know what works in writing and what doesn't work in writing that helps me become a stronger writer and a better communicator. So if fewer than 100 people write back to me, then I feel like what happened? Like why did this not connect in a way that I wanted it to connect? You know, was it too dense? Was it too long? Was it I don't know, does it, what was the message was the constant like I tried to figure out what was it exactly. But if it's more than 100 people then I know okay, well this was a good one. What people say to me though, in those email newsletters is very often like I feel like you're writing just to me, and that to me is like though like I love that moment, right? Because that's what I want. I want people to feel like I'm speaking just to them. Because think about, like any good writing that you love, like any author that you love, any writer that you read, and you think God, it's like, yes, 100%. Like if somebody is saying something that I feel like, I've thought about or it feels like I could, I guess that's how I feel about it. You know, maybe I didn't articulate it that way before. But that's exactly it, isn't it? That's the moment that I love as a reader. And that's the moment that I hope to provide as a writer as well.


Jay Clouse  30:32

As you're, you know, trying to optimize for this write back rate. How explicitly are you focusing on call to actions for them to respond?


Ann Handley  30:42

Yeah, I don't, I don't at all.  No, I don't. I mean, every once in a while I have done that. But it feels like cheating a little bit. You know, I'll say, you know, hit reply and let me know. But I don't want to, I don't want to do that. Like, I don't want to make it overt because when I do that, it feels, I don't know, feels a little too needy. And I don't, that's not that's not the point, like I want people to, I won't be able to hit reply, because they can't not hit reply. I don't want them to hit reply, because there's an expectation, oh, I, you know, I love Ann you know, I should, she offer so much value, I really should do this, like, I don't want that, to factor into that open to write back rate at all.


Jay Clouse  30:44

You don't? So we're kind of contrasting this style versus more of a how to broadcast that's become more popular over the last few years, is the reason people don't take the approach you're describing now because it's harder, or because there is some negative trade off, they think they don't want like they're not going to get as many subscribers or they're not going to sell as much stuff. You know, there must be some reason why more people aren't taking this approach.


Ann Handley  31:50

You know, it's funny, I don't have to think about that. First of all, let me just say like, I think this approach is really helpful in an email newsletter, because the email is an inherently personal space, right? And what I mean by that is, if I were to write you, like, if you were on my list, and you get an email from me, you're opening it in your inbox, right? You're not you're in, it's just you and your phone, or you and your computer, looking at that content in your all by yourself, right? And so to me, that's like, that's a really, that's a moment where as a writer, I think is a really critical moment. And I've talked about this in the past, but so many people, so many brands think about that email newsletter, as a distribution strategy for other content. And they focus on the news piece of that word, they focus on what they want to say, or what they want to tell their audience about, or what they are trying to drive an action toward. But I think that in an email newsletter, specifically, and I'm not talking about email marketing as a tactic for brands, or for even for people for that, you know, I'm not talking about something that you're trying to sell like a straight up email marketing, I'm talking about an email newsletter, but an email newsletter, I think the focus should not be on the news, it should be on the letter, right, it should be on the second part of that word. Because the ability to connect directly with one person at one time in one inbox is an inherently personal environment, right? And so that, to me, is such a special place. And that's the place that I want to be as a marketer. And as a writer is just I am in your inbox. And, like, if you don't like the value that I'm delivering there, if you don't like me, if you don't like my words, you can unsubscribe and I can never darken your doorstep again. And I love that pressure on me as a writer, and you know, from a marketing standpoint as a marketer, too. I love the fact that somebody can unsubscribe and I can't show up there again, like, that's amazing. You're not trying to game an algorithm, you're just speaking directly with one person at one time, and that person is making the decision about whether they want to hear from you or not. So all that to say, to answer your question about, you know, why don't more people take this approach. If I were a creator, I would 100% take this approach, and in terms of connecting with the audience, because they will become your most loyal customers down the line, but to focus on the relationship to focus on building that relationship and that trust, yeah, 100%, that's why I do it. As a brand, though, for example, if I were working for a big company, like if I was at, I don't know, you know, almost like I don't know, Merck Pharmaceutical Company, like what I take this approach, I think that there is a hybrid to this, I think there's there is some elements of what I do that you can take and apply. Would it be as personal what I would be looking for something like an open to write back rate, if I were the chief marketing officer for Merck, probably not like I don't think that it translates 100% but I think that elements of what I do and how I approach it and things that I've tested there, I do think 100% work for brands and to give you like a really quick example of that, like look at what the New York Times has done with their daily newsletter that goes out in June of 2020, they completely transformed the way that they delivered the morning news rather than just having it come from the New York Times. It now comes from an actual person, a guy by the name of David Leonhard, who writes that email newsletter that goes out from the New York Times. So in other words, David is more or less the host, right, he's more or less the anchor for the news in the email newsletter. So that's an example I think, of taking a more personal approach. But for a brand, you know, so certainly the New York Times is trading on the brand's name of The New York Times. But they also recognize that they need to be more personal, right, personable in the inbox. And so that's why they have this email that comes from David even though it's a New York Times publication.


Jay Clouse  35:54

When we come back, Ann and I talk about how we make it known that our voice is a differentiator in our work, and how we can hone our voice to make it even stronger. Right after this.  Hey welcome back. One of the reasons I was excited to talk with Ann about voice is because I've personally been thinking about it a lot. The feedback I get from my own audience is that people really appreciate my voice as much as they appreciate the content itself. This is really validating, it makes me feel really good. But it's also really hard to convince someone who is just discovering you that they should follow you for your voice. Hey, subscribe to my email newsletter, because people tell me they like the way I write. It's just not that compelling as a selling point to a stranger. So I gave Ann example, if I wrote a newsletter about marketing, but my real differentiator was my voice and approach, how can I position that newsletter as something worth subscribing to?


Ann Handley  36:47

I think it does come down to your voice and what your take is on marketing, like I don't think you can launch anything, you know, an email newsletter or a website or a TikTok channel, and talk about marketing, like marketing is a vast subject. So what is it specifically that you love that you are an expert in that you want to be known for an expert in? And what is the, what does your audience need? So I think there are aspects of both of those, you know, what can you provide to a specific audience? And what do you love? And what do they need? So I think that's that to me, is basically the formula, but you can't think about, you know, like, I think it's important to hone that a little bit more. And to, to think very specifically about who you are, and what you're all about. I'm like, I'm hesitating, because I'm thinking about there's this great quote from Fred Buechner. I don't I don't know if you know his work but he says, the place you were called to is the place where your deep gladness in the world's deep hunger meets. And originally, it's, I think of that, that quote, as a more secular quote, I guess, because I think the actually, the original quote is something like the place, I think it's the place God calls you to, but I'm not a religious person. And so I think of it more in a secular sense that that the place that you are called to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet. And that's how I think about, you know, my take on marketing, I don't love all aspects of marketing, like, I'm not the rev ops person, you know, I'm not the person that's going to be in marketing operations or who's going to be teeing up, you know, email marketing campaigns, and loving every second of it. But what I do love about marketing is connecting with the audience, connecting with one person really thinking through, what is it that you offer to that person, I think I love writing and I love voice, and I love making marketing more accessible and elevating the entire experience. It's all of those things like, that's my expertise and that's the value that I think I can deliver. And I also feel confident that I can deliver that though, because I love it. Like because I think of the world through that lens. And so I would say to anybody who's thinking about launching any content, channel or content, anything, you know, what is it that you are truly, what is it that you truly love? Where is your deep gladness? And what is that deep hunger that you're satisfied?


Jay Clouse  39:25

Thinking out loud here, it seems like the approach is get specific about the type of value that you are trying to provide and call that out and say, this is what I'm going to do for you. But your voice, your style, your approach, that has to be more of a show not tell that's like how you explain the value that you're trying to bring to somebody.


Ann Handley  39:47

Yes, I think so. You know, the feedback that I get so often from people in addition to you know, I feel like you're you created this just for me or feel like you're writing this just for me. The other piece feedback that I tend to get is, you make it accessible, like I understand what you're talking about, you know, you don't sound like a, like a marketing walk. And you know, you could take any industry and insert it there, like you don't sound like a science wonk or, you know, you don't sound like a data wonk could be any of those things. I think that in so many industries and so many careers in so many verticals, like we got to get caught up in, in sounding a certain way. And we get, I guess, inspired in sometimes a negative way, right, by the world that we live in. And we're so caught up in that world, that I think it's sometimes can stunt our voices a little bit. And so just to challenge yourself and think, you know, what is it that I, what is my take on something and how I say it, I think really, it matters, you know, I think it's worth thinking that through.


Jay Clouse  40:49

In that same PDF, and I promised I was gonna get back to this, I'm excited to get back to it. Talk about your your eight hour writing process


Ann Handley  40:57



Jay Clouse  40:57

for your newsletters, and our number one is called paying your bills. Sounds an awful lot to me like procrastinating but I wanted to talk about that because I think it'll be a very liberating idea for people listening to this.


Ann Handley  41:09

Yeah, 100% it's procrastinating. It's also the way that I can really get things done, though, you know, those things that accumulate around the house that you just quite never get to. So you know, paying your bills, or, I don't know, changing the oil in my car, like something like that. I'm kidding. I actually have never changed oil in my life so I have no idea. But as an analogy, it holds, right? So all the annoying little things you never quite get to, yeah. As soon as I realized that, oh, Lord, I have a deadline looming, I better start doing something else immediately. So you know, I used to feel like I was failing myself a little bit, I used to think I'm letting myself down. Not my, like, I'm not even at the audience standpoint yet, right? It's really just about me, I used to feel like I was just letting myself down by not starting now. As soon as I embraced that procrastination approach as step one, it really just, it just freed me up because it just as soon as I incorporated as part of the process, it legitimized it, it normalized it and it made me feel like I don't have to feel bad about this, because this is just what I do. Because the other piece of that right is while I am paying bills or changing the oil in my car, or deciding to make something really complicated for dinner, or any of those things, like any other ways that I procrastinate in the back of my mind is bubbling this idea. And so I can't help but be quote, unquote, working on it, you know, at the same time that I think that I'm not working on it. And so that's freeing to me just number one, the seeing it as part of the process. But also number two, a lot of writing is prewriting, at least for me, and I think this is true of most writers as well. And so just allowing myself that that time has been just enormously helpful.


Jay Clouse  42:49

I love that, I love explicitly calling out that this is part of the process. I've had a similar experience with the show, actually, because after we get done recording here, I still have about five hours of editing to do to this episode, it comes down to literally just going through and re listening to this, which will probably happen weeks from now. So I will have forgotten a lot of what we talked about, then it's scripting, then it's recording. And I used to do just like a five hour marathon session to do all of that. But I found by breaking those into separate steps and doing the first pass, you know, edit of just moving things around and cutting things out. And then giving it a day, I just came up with so much more than I wanted to do creatively with the audio with the script. Because you're right, your mind just works on it in the background. So incorporating that into your process and having some of that whitespace I know you love the topic of whitespace I think it does so much.


Ann Handley  43:42

Yeah, in putting some distance between, you know, sort of the rough draft, which I guess like in your world, right, would be this conversation is kind of like the raw clay, right? It's the rough draft that you're going to revisit in a couple of weeks, when you decide that you're going to go ahead and you know, you've got a deadline to publish this particular episode, right? So putting some distance between the rough draft like to me not expecting myself to finish a piece in those eight, like those eight hours that I described. They're not like they're not sequential, right? It's like, I might do one an hour, one day and an hour, you know, the next Thursday, you know, so it doesn't happen that they're not back to back. And so I think just allowing yourself that time, you know, Neil Gaiman talks about writing a rough draft or a first draft and then leaving the room and then while you know, overnight, these magical you know, elves come in and rearrange everything. And when it comes back to it, he realizes exactly what needs to be done. And I have that, that same experience all the time, where I just sort of set it aside and then you come back to it. And it's like, oh, I see what I was trying to do here. And so it's kind of magical what happens overnight, you know, when you come back to something and you see oh, I see what I was doing or that I could have said this so much better, or this this piece that I thought or the sentence that I thought was so great yesterday, I realized now, you know belongs down here. So all of that I think I don't know what that is but it's it's a little bit of magic that happens. And that's my favorite part of writing. Honestly going back like the the rough, the first draft is horrible for me I just hate that hated, hated, hated so much. But going back to it, that's the moment where I think, oh, God, this is like that, to me is just the best part of writing. It's the part that really just I just love so much.


Jay Clouse  45:26

I love the focus we take in this conversation on injecting your voice and storytelling and your personality into your writing. For somebody who that is a new concept to who hasn't really expressed themselves in that way in their work, whether it's writing or whether it's YouTube or podcasting, do you have any advice or exercises to help them embrace that more and get better about really leaning into their own voice in their work?


Ann Handley  45:51

Yeah, the funny thing about voice is that you can't really work on it, right? Yes, you can't suddenly decide, you know what, I'm going to have a voice today. I think voice is something that develops over time. You know, it's something that evolves, it doesn't just drop into your lap, like out of nowhere. And I think that's part of the process, right, is to see how your voice evolves. You know, five years ago, I wrote Everybody Writes, it's a book that's geared toward businesses, helping them write in a more engaging, accessible way, you're, it's an intended for content marketers, essentially. But right now, I'm in the middle of writing a second addition to that. And when I have been going back now, over the chapters, I see how much my voice has changed and how much it has evolved, because I've done so much more writing, because I'm five years older, I mean, my, because my life experiences have continued to accumulate, like for all of those reasons, and I'm sharing this with you only because it's an indication of how your voice is constantly going to change and evolve over time. And so you've got to start somewhere, like when you first started, it may feel very awkward, it may feels like may feel like you're on a bike for the first time, and you completely forgot how to how to ride a bike if you knew how to ride a bike. But if you just keep pedaling, if you just keep going, then you're going to start to, you know, feel the momentum. And that momentum, I think is what will ultimately deliver your voice, it'll, you'll start to see, oh, I see this is like how I communicate, how I write, how I speak, you know, whatever the case may be. This is a few quick things that I do every single time before I publish anything. I always, always, always read it out loud. And yeah, you sound like a little bit of an idiot, like I'm in my office alone and I'm just reading out loud to myself. But I forced myself to do this. And I read it at a conversational pace, I don't rush through it. The reason why I do that is because I want to hear literally hear how it sounds like I want to hear how the word sound because in my head, it may sound a certain way. But then when I read it out loud, I thought was a little bit clunky, like or I really wouldn't say that or the way that this reads is just like, I need a break somewhere. This is like a long sentence so all of that plays into it. And so just reading it out loud, it helps enormously if it's something that you're publishing or something that you're writing. So that's the first thing. Second thing is and I kind of hinted at this a second ago, but do it consistently because again, it's not going to drop out of anywhere. It's like it's something that you're going to have to develop over time. It's a muscle essentially. And so the more that you are able to to exercise that voice, then the faster it'll develop and the stronger and more confident you'll be in that voice.


Jay Clouse  48:48

This was a really cozy feeling interview because Ann's voice makes you feel cozy, not just the voice you heard here in audio format, but the way she thinks and presents herself. I think she's totally right to call out the future of AI in creative work like writing. As technology gets better at things we need to lean into and cultivate the things that make us uniquely human, like our voice. If you want to learn more about and you can visit her website and sign up for her newsletter at Total Anarchy at annhandley.com. Links to that are in the show notes. Thanks to Ann for being on the show. Thank you to Emily Clouse for making the artwork for this episode. Thanks to Nathan Todhunter for mixing the show and Brian Skeel for creating our music. If you like this episode, you can tweet @jayclouse and let me know and if you really want to say thank you, please do please leave a review on Apple podcasts or Spotify. Thanks for listening and I'll talk to you next week.