How to Find Your Voice and Boldly Tell Your Story: Interview with Best-Selling Author Ann Handley

Written by:
Samantha Lile

Aug 08, 2017


Anybody with a basic education can write, but not everyone can write effectively. And with the every-increasing need for online content, effective writing has never been more important.

Master content officer and influencer Ann Handley understands this need better than most. For the past 20 years, she has helped to digitally build brands, beginning at a time when online marketing was barely emerging in the marketing universe.

Since those early days, Ann has written or co-written a variety of books and blogs to help budding writers and marketers learn to create effective blogs, videos, webinars and podcasts that engage readers, transforming them from curious consumers to loyal customers.

Her works include The Wall Street Journal bestseller "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 has also been a featured columnist for Entrepreneur, a member of LinkedIn’s influencer program and the chief content officer for MarketingProfs. Her work has been featured in popular publications such as HuffPost, Mashable and the American Express OPEN forum.

Because of her enormous popularity and expertise in the digital marketing stratosphere, Ann was an ideal choice for Visme’s "Ask Me Anything" series, and our readers apparently agreed. When we scoured the crowd for questions that readers most want to ask Ann, we received a tremendous response.

Following are the top questions asked by readers through Twitter, Survey Monkey and industry forums:


Ann Handley on Finding Your Voice

How can I create quality content to attract visitors to my site if I'm not a very good writer?

I say this with love in my heart: I’m completely rejecting your assertion here that you aren’t a very good writer.

Being a “good” writer simply means that you think of your audience first, and that you create content with the goal of providing real value for your audience. So the notion of being a “good writer” really means that you are a clear, non-indulgent communicator.

Remember the sage advice of longtime writing teacher Donald Murray, “The reader doesn't turn the page because of a hunger to applaud.”

Writers are made, not born. Anyone can learn to be a good, clear communicator.

Can anyone be a GREAT writer? No.

But GOOD? YES! That’s why the subtitle of my book Everybody Writes is “Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.”

You’ve got this.


How do you predict content marketing will change in the coming years?

First, “Content Marketing” becomes just “Marketing”—which is really what it’s always been, as the smartest companies have always known.

“Content marketing” isn’t a separate thing. “Content” isn’t a weird little experiment happening in the darkest corner of the Marketing department. Instead, it’s a full-fledged business practice that’s fully integrated into all the things marketing is charged with doing: creating awareness, selling products, maintaining customer relationships.

Second, the Machines take over, in the best possible way. The robots don’t take over Marketing itself as some people think—meaning that people like you and me end up alone, poor, and living in squalor in a fourth-floor walk-up tenement, eating ramen and dented canned goods, stealing our Netflix wifi from the bodega downstairs.

Instead, machines take over the optimizing, the analyzing, the reporting, the boring, the drudge, the data.

That means we can all get back to the reason we went into marketing in the first place: To do great and creative things.

To amplifying products and people and companies we believe in.

To tell stories worth telling.

To nurture and maintain customer relationships.

I, for one, can’t wait until the robots are (fully) here.

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What are your top three tips on how to successfully market your book today?

Recognize that being a successful writer (or any kind of artist or creator) means you are also in sales and marketing. You can’t segregate the two, as I once thought. Your publicist isn’t going to sell the book. Your publisher isn’t going to sell it, either. You are. (Full. Stop.)

Build your audience before you put a single pixel on a page. Have a social media following. Have an email database (or start one). Have a voice before you are an author.

Lead a squad. Your book has a particular point of view or unique key message that is central to your being (or it should).

RELATED: 3 Easy Steps to Finding Your Unique Brand Voice

Approach your marketing with that same kind of squad mentality: Lead a squad by speaking to only those people you wrote the book to ignite, and ignore the rest. The non-squad people might eventually latch on to your message. Or they might not. But without Squad Goals as a central goal of your marketing, no one will follow you.


How many blog posts should a company create per week?

I don’t think you should think about “how many” you should create this week. A better approach is to think about two things: 1) the goal of your site, and 2) your own budget, resources, capacity. For example: MarketingProfs publishes daily, because our goals are connected to being a number-one source of marketing insights and education for our audience of marketers in a crowded industry.

But were I a sole proprietor or consultant more focused on broader thought leadership, I’d probably update my own site once a week or so. I’d be less aggressive on publishing because my goals would be different.

There’s no one answer here, in other words. But whatever you decide, the key is to maintain the cadence you’ve committed to: Whether that’s once a day or once a week or once a month. Keep that appointment with your audience.


What steps should a budding writer take to build a following and turn a profit?

How to Build a Following: Have a point of view, and then express it in a way that creates value for the audience you are trying to reach. Ask yourself: Why should anyone care? Consistency is key here. (See the point above about keeping an appointment with your audience.)

How to Turn a Profit: One of the gifts that’s a byproduct of creating content is that you’ll know your audience better than anyone else, based on their behavior (Which posts do well? What content assets do they download?) and on your conversations (Why do they tell you they read your posts? What do they hope to learn from you?).

RELATED: 10 Content Marketing Growth Hacks to Drive Traffic to Your Blog

One of the tricks I use to match products with publishing is to listen to your audience: Let them tell you what they need from you. Let them tell you what offer they wish you had. Training? Physical products? Paid courses? An app?

Blog comments or social comments are a gold mine for this.


Who are your greatest personal and professional role models?

Anne Lamott. I learned a lot about tone of voice from Bird by Bird. She’s a hilarious writer, but she is also soulful and surprisingly sad at the same time.

EB White, because he had one foot in narrative nonfiction, one foot in fiction, and one foot in Maine, my second favorite state after Massachusetts. That makes him sound weirdly three-footed. But you catch my drift.

My Uncle Frank, an old-time newsroom guy who first put the idea in my 6-year-old head that I could be a writer.

Sean Gresh, a professor in my college communications class, who reinforced in me the truth that those who learn to write well will be successful at whatever they choose to do. (Bonus: We’re now connected on Twitter!)

Nena Groskind, my first boss at my first job a long time ago at Warren Publishing, for believing in me when I was a young idiot.

My mom and dad. The older I get I realize just how generously they gave me ambition, encouragement, my sense of self. Not to mention … you know, life itself. (LOL)


In your opinion, what are the greatest and most realistic dangers of losing net neutrality?

I’m philosophically opposed to introducing so-called “fast” and “slow” access lanes since to me they run counter to the spirit of the Internet.

Without net neutrality, I worry more specifically that small businesses, startups, and nonprofits will be hit the hardest, because broadband providers could offer faster speeds to those who pay, and slower access to those who don’t. Or those who can’t.

And from a consumer point of view, I also am allergic to the idea of a provider choosing or prioritizing content for me.


How should you write an article that is featured on a publication's front page?

Write something worth reading, and write it with a strong, recognizable tone of voice that inspires others to 1) vigorously agree with you or 2) vigorously disagree with you. Believe in what you write; don’t be controversial for the sake of controversy (especially important in #2).

For example, in 2014 my friend Mark Schaefer wrote a widely read piece about “content shock.”

He wasn’t the first to talk about how the abundance of content might be killing content marketing. He wasn’t the first to posit that content marketing isn’t a sustainable strategy long-term.

But Mark’s piece went nuts, because it has a strong point of view, a strong tone of voice, and his point was well-articulated and well-argued, even if you didn’t agree with him.


What are the main components of an effective content strategy?

Wow. This is a big question—I wrote a whole book about the first part of this question! But here goes: At its essence, a content strategy should have 1) goals; 2) story; 3) robust personas; and 4) sustainable processes in place to create, amplify, measure, iterate.

The most common mistake I see brands making is playing it too safe. Tell a bigger story. Have a bolder point of view and the bravery and guts to tell your story well.

I also see brands vastly discounting the importance of good writing and editing. Which is why I wrote another book on that one!

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How do you reconcile any friction between content creation and business goals?

That “friction,” if it exists, typically comes from the boss or CEO who doesn’t believe in the power of content to move a company forward. In that situation, you need to be the advocate within the organization. You need to educate the doubting boss or CEO or client. You need to host a lunch and learn. You need to forward articles. You need to communicate and articulate the power of content as a more effective way to ignite your audience, across every channel.

Quite often content doesn’t get the support it deserves because it’s misunderstood. It’s seen as a separate activity requiring separate funding.

It’s not.

And it doesn’t.


Your Turn

Is there an industry expert you’d like to see included in Visme’s AMA series? Let us know in the comments below!

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    About the Author

    Samantha Lile is a web content creator with a journalism and mass media degree from Missouri State University. She contributes news and feature articles to various web publications, such as the Huffington Post. Currently, she resides in the beautiful Ozarks with her husband, four dogs and two cats.

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