The Secret to Writing Brilliantly About a Boring Business

Carol Tice

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! 

23 Comments

  1. Randolph Hoover

    Two words. Flowery words. Adjectives can always do wonders when it comes to writing and also proper interviewing skills (which actually is another term for preparing basing questions before the interview) can really help.

  2. Shelly Drymon

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      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.

  3. Marcie

    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.

  4. Mariko Deister

    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.

  5. Adeline Yuboco

    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?

    • Carol Tice

      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.

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