The Secret to Writing Brilliantly About a Boring Business

Last week, I asked if you had any questions about how to break into business writing. More than 100 comments later…I’d say the answer is yes!

Here’s one of the big ones I got:

“When you’re still starting out as a business writer and you’re not choosy about your clients, how do you keep your brain from being fried (creative brain cells gasping for breath) when you don’t like the products you’re marketing?”

This is one of the big fears writers have about business writing: It’s going to be boring, and it will kill my soul.

That’s exactly what I thought when I got my first job reporting on businesses. It was actually all hardware-store and lumberyard businesses.

Sound boring?

I thought, “I must be out of my mind. How will I psych up to write three articles a week, all about hardware stores?”

But you know what? It wasn’t boring at all. In fact, I did five full-time years of it and they went by in a blink.

I became totally fascinated by the world of business — the egos and personalities, the money, the new ideas and products, the successes and failures.

Business, I discovered, is one big soap opera.

And behind every business is a person with a story.

I’ve never yet run into a business that wasn’t interesting in its own way.

The founder had a passion or a dream. There’s a reason they started this business, and a reason it thrived and didn’t flounder and close up shop.

Find that story, and you’ll find out how to create compelling marketing pieces for that business that you enjoy writing, and that don’t make you feel you need to take a shower afterwards.

How boring was my first client?…

I got into business writing sorta accidentally (as several people on last week’s post also reported!).

Think this is how it often does happen…some friend owns a business, and they hear you’re a writer, and ask if you could make them a flier. Or a brochure. Or rewrite their product descriptions so they don’t suck. And the next thing you know…you’re a business writer.

My story: I called on a former source to just say thanks for being a great interview over the years, and to let him know I was now freelancing.

His startup supported call-center software that monitored the headphone jockeys and gave managers data to help improve their performance.

Zzzzz…er, where was I? No, seriously. That’s what they did.

He wanted me to ghost his blog, and write some advertorial articles for his website that would indicate, in a reportorial style, why their call-center software was the best solution.

I did not honestly know what a blog was at that point. I’d only written a couple advertorials before, quite a few years back.

Didn’t know a whole ton about tech, either. It wasn’t my regular beat.

But I did know a bit about the company, so I said, “Sure, I can do that!”

(Practice saying that. You’ll want to learn and use this phrase if you are breaking into business writing.)

The secret that made it interesting

To start up the blog, I fell back on my journalism training.

I began asking questions. Like:

  • Why did you start this company?
  • What were you doing before this?
  • How did you get into this industry?
  • What is the problem you solve for customers?
  • What does this product do that’s different or better than competitors’ products?
  • How has the company evolved since you started it?
  • What are the big issues in this industry, and what’s your opinion on them?
  • What does the company plan to do next?

In other words, I learned the story of who the founder was, why this company was born, where it was headed, where he was coming from, and why it was successful.

And darnit, if it wasn’t kinda fascinating!

The CEO used to do call-center management for a major entertainment organization…and saw room for improvement. So he left his comfy corporate job to leap into the risky world of startups. Why?

It turns out call-center managers have huge problems with incompetent call-center staffers.

If you’ve ever bought something from a catalog in your life, you’re probably not surprised.

Obnoxious and/or ill-informed call-center operators cost the call centers a small fortune in lost sales.

In other words, call centers are inefficient! And this startup’s program had the potential to help them make boatloads more money.

Now, my view of this assignment totally changed from writing about call-center software, to explaining to call-center managers how they could solve a problem and make more money…and why this company was the best one to help them.

Their solution was kind of clever and cool, once you delved into it.

I had learned to like the products I was marketing… because I understood the story.

It’s not just when you start out…

Since that first client, I’ve written about hot-sexy topics including surety bonds, divorce law, and the fine points of small business loans.

For years, I had to take any decent-paying writing gig I could get, just to pay the bills.

The secret is that I made each assignment interesting and fun, because I found the story.

And if I thought I couldn’t make it interesting, or what the company did made me gut-level uncomfortable, I didn’t take the gig.

If you’re wondering if you’ve got the chops to write for business, here’s all you really need to know:

If you can ask questions, listen, find the story, and tell it, you can do this. And your brain will not fry. I promise.

P.S. Congrats to Kate who won the free ticket to next week’s Break into Business Writing bootcamp in Freelance Writers Den! 

  1. Jennifer says:

    This is so helpful. I agree that sometimes the reason something isn’t interesting is that you don’t know enough about it – I’m sure it works the same way with people/relationships as well. I actually just read a wonderful book by Cal Newport called, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in your Quest to Find the Work You Love,” and he talks about how your feelings about a career path can change once you get better at it – your post adds another helpful angle in that sometimes you don’t know if something will be interesting or not because you don’t know enough about it yet.

  2. Karen Lange says:

    Thanks so much for this info! This does help give it a different spin.
    Karen Lange recently posted..Mistakes?

  3. Anne Grant says:

    The more I read about writing techniques,opportunities, and grammar, the more I realize I have a lot to learn and it makes me say dumb things to myself like,”See, you don’t know what you are doing…what makes you think you can do this?”
    Hearing that you started not even knowing what a blog was–well, that’s encouraging. It’s just a matter of leaning in towards it, being available and learning as I go.
    And saying “Sure, I can do that!”
    Anne Grant recently posted..Writertunities ~ Direction

    • Carol Tice says:

      Try it, you’ll like it! Realize that if a business THINKS you can do it — they see you get what they do, you use their product, you have life experience in their industry, or whatever — you probably can. ;-)

  4. Damien says:

    So true about finding the story behind all the dry facts. It’s great finding out about the people behind the business – their motivations and challenges. Even if sometimes they need a prod to really start telling their story. It’s also a lot of the off-hand stuff, the bits in between, that make up the glue for the rest of the story – turning a boring topic into a compelling narrative.
    Damien recently posted..How to Write a Case Study That Wins Hearts and Minds

    • Carol Tice says:

      Oh yeah. The common scenario is the business owner has no idea what his news IS. You really have to loosen them up and get them talking to unwind the threads of the interesting story that’s always, always there.

      I have interviewed 100s and 100s of business owners at this point, and I have never once come away and gone, “Well, that was a boring story!” The fact is the drive, creativity, pluck, toughness, it takes to build a successful business…there’s always something interesting behind the curtain, I find. Your job is to find it.

  5. Hi Carol. Follow your blog, and was on with Derek the other day. Wondering if you could share just one really good example of an advertorial that you have written, or you have come across?
    Thanks.
    Chuck

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Chuck — wish I had one handy! Most of mine I did for a trade pub I was writing for at the time, ages ago. I’m bummed to say I haven’t been able to find the ones I did for the client I describe here…at some point I think they took them down.

      But check magazines and newspapers you read for those articles that have the box and say “advertising” in little letters across the top. They’re very common…and you can take a look at how they’re built. Often they’re little different from a reportorial article, except they tell the company’s story in the exact way they want that casts them in the most flattering possible light. ;-) But the style is the same, which is the whole point, that they ‘feel’ like an article to the reader.

  6. Marylyn says:

    Absolutely inspirational! I think the fear of boredom is something all writers-for-hire share. And you’ve provided the perfect antidote. Thanks.

    Your readers may be interested in seeing a blog article I wrote about creativity in technical writing:

    http://mgenovesek.com/2012/02/24/creativity-in-technical-writing/

  7. Cathie Ericson says:

    As always, a great post. I agree 100% that it’s possible to make any topic interesting — and as you mentioned, I think it has to do with a natural curiosity. When people ask what clients I’m wrtiting for and I mention a hospital, an insulation manufacturer and a bank, they think “yawn” but I think “stories to tell” (and $!) — my job is to make each company interesting for their customers and prospects.

    This month I’ve been writing about ductless heat pumps. And guess what….they are a wonderful tool to help consumers save money on their energy bills and keep their homes more comfortable. And the HVAC professionals who sell them each have their own small business with an interesting back story of how the ductless heat pump offering is helping improve their own business.

    I won’t lie…sometimes I just want to write creatively and for that I maintain my own personal blog. But, one of the reasons I like working as a freelancer vs. for a company is that the variety keeps it fresh.

    The other point I wanted to underscore is the importance of being widely read. I am a voracious consumer of news and it provides a constant stream of ideas and appropriate trends, which makes me more valuable to my clients. “I read so you don’t have to” is what I tell them!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing those, um, fascinating topics you’re writing on! And showing how you find what’s interesting.

      I personally think meeting the challenge of solving these business marketing riddles really ups our writing skills. ;-)

      Love your motto! I too read sort of insanely widely. I just finally said “enough” and unsubscribed to a ton of stuff…but it’s still a lot of reading.

  8. Kate says:

    I’m so happy and excited that I got the free ticket. I didn’t think I had a chance with 99 other questions and just wanted to ask something that many writers were concerned about. Thanks Carol! :-)

    I’m mostly glad my question generated some valuable tips to help beginning writers like myself to get interested in projects they wouldn’t normally take on. Also, I was talking shop with another writer the other day and we started talking about our writing clients and were pretty soon were having a laugh at the weird projects we did. So writing about so called ‘boring’ stuff could actually be good dinner topics too.

    That and the delicious sushi certainly did not fry our brains ;)
    Kate recently posted..Caught Between Two Cultures – My Story, My Dilemma

    • Carol Tice says:

      Congrats, Kate!

      I have a friend who used to write a lot about refrigeration units for convenience stores, you know, the big freezers? I’ve also written about trends in shower curtains.

      I always feel sort of a thrill of accomplishment that I can write something readable and interesting on these arcane topics. I think it can be a real confidence-builder as a writer, too! If you can write this stuff, you really CAN writing anything.

  9. Pinar Tarhan says:

    At first the concept of business writing had sounded glamorous to me – until I realized business writing didn’t revolve around glamorous companies in fascinating industries. But it had never occurred to me try to make it fun myself. I’ll try and see if it can be for me too.
    Pinar Tarhan recently posted..7 Blogging Sins This Writer Commits (Un)Intentionally – and Why

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, it sometimes CAN revolve around glamorous companies in fascinating industries. The trick is we each think those are different companies and industries.

      And having worked as a legal secretary at a movie studio, let me tell you, the glamorous ones aren’t necessarily so fun after all.

  10. Taking time to learn about who the client is and what are the goals that they want to achieve before accepting the project was something I had to learn the hard way during the early part of my writing career. These days, I would ask some of the questions that you posted here to get an idea of what the writing project is about and if I will be able to hack it, so to speak.

    One thing that I noticed during my stint as a freelance writer is that not all clients are that forthcoming when you start asking these sort of questions for one reason or another. Any suggestions on how to go around this, Carol?
    Adeline Yuboco recently posted..[Interview] Chef Frank Roland Schmitt on Becoming a Chef

    • Carol Tice says:

      I say, “I can only make this as good as the information I’m given to work with…I need to know more about this to tell this story. Who else can I talk to about it?” Sometimes you do kind of have to beat it out of them…but you gotta keep going until you have what you need to write it.

  11. Mariko Deister says:

    When I was in high school, I went to my guidance counselor and asked her what I needed to do to get into a good college. I was probably in the 10th grade at the time. Instead of her telling me to step my game up and do better, she told me to do my best to get out of high school and find a local job in the small town I was from. I wanted to become an author, but I believed her that I wasn’t good enough. Although, I didn’t last long in the small town, I served in the Navy, was a reservation supervisor for a major airline, and a flight attendant. At the age of 35, I’m just now pursing my dream of becoming a writer and author. In order to win, sometimes we have to be told that we are going to fail. Never give up just because someone else doesn’t think you’re good enough. They have no idea what your potential may be, or they know exactly what your potential is and trying to deter you from reaching it.

  12. Marcie says:

    Dang it, Carol! You just gave me what I needed in this article. I have been trying to figure out what makes me different. I feel that I can turn anything into a story, even when most people don’t think so. Now, I just need a creative tagline for this part of my writing life. You’re a gem! Thanks.
    Marcie recently posted..My 62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block Crowdfunding Campaign Launched on Yesterday!

  13. I have a rather lucrative freelance gig developing email newsletters for a business that hosts and maintains website for RV dealers..

    When I was first approached about the job, I was bored just thinking about the topic!

    But I did exactly what your posts says to do. I love a story and I love to research. Made the work fun, which comes across in how I write about the topics.

    I also have to keep in mind the business I am freelance for, the RV dealers and RV owners, are all passionate about the topic! Just remembering that provides perspective as I develop their newsletters.
    Shelly Drymon recently posted..Creating Your Own Excitement With Content

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Shelly! If you ever think business is boring…just talk to the business owner.

      Hardware stores, boring right? But those guys get down to the store at 5 am and can’t wait for the customers to get there. They love it! When they retire, it lasts a year, and then they buy another hardware store. ;-) Have seen it happen more than once.

      All you have to do is talk to them and you’ll catch the enthusiasm, and then you can use it in what you write about them.

  1. [...] marketing emails for a client (due to a NDA- I cannot name the identity). And recently, I won a scholarship for a Business Writing course and a free month membership at the Writer’s Den in Carol Tice’s popular writing blog. [...]

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