How to Write Compelling Content on a Subject You Know Nothing About

Jamie Shanks
Jamie Shanks

writing for hard topics

Four and a half years ago, our marketing team found ourselves in a position that many B2B marketers will find familiar. We had a gap: we didn’t have useful content that was aligned to our buyer’s journey (as beautifully illustrated by the Eloqua/Jess 3 Content grid).

We decided to start trying to fill this gap by developing as many white papers and articles as possible. We knew our company really understood the day-to-day challenges that our customers faced. What better way to prove it than to write some best practice content?

There were two ways to proceed. We could educate ourselves on our industry verticals (we had no personal industry experience to draw upon) and create as many marketing-led white papers as possible. Or we could ask subject matter experts within our organization – people with genuine experience in those fields – to write about what they knew.

A lot of people take the first option. There’s plenty of well-meaning advice that says you should submerge yourself in the research, really dig deep, and get to know your audience’s specific challenges.

I say this with respect: those people are dead wrong.

When you’re just starting out and trying to get traction, it’s absolutely the worst way to go. It’s too slow. You can’t build any momentum. Researching takes so long that you don’t spend enough of your time writing. And, most importantly, you’ll be writing about topics that your audience already understands. You’re not providing thought leadership, you’re writing about rudimentary concepts that your audience covered 15 years ago while they were still at University.

We chose option number two.

The problem, however, is that our internal subject matter experts were (and still are) the busiest people in the company. Asking them to write something and waiting for a couple of months for a response wasn’t going to cut it. None of them had the time to sit down and write. Most of them hated writing. It was too slow and wasn’t something they were comfortable doing.

We had to try something different.

We did, and it worked.

We wrote 40 white papers in two and a half years. These white papers became the core of our thought leadership content library and we engaged with prospects in a completely new way. We could now implement automated drip campaigns and nurture prospects much earlier in the sales cycle. It helped elevate the profile of our subject matter experts and establish us as a trusted source of best practice.

We cut down the development time for a paper from 10 weeks to 10 days.

You can do it, too. I’ll show you how.

Step One: Ask someone smarter than you for help, and get them to pick a topic

The first step is to get in touch with an internal subject matter expert and ask them to help you put together a paper that discusses a common problem in their field. If you can’t find someone internally, look outside your organization. There are always research institutions, trade associations and government bodies that are looking to shine a light on the important work that they’re doing.

Whoever you talk to, tell them it’ll only take 30 minutes. Literally ask them “HELP ME PUT TOGETHER A PAPER ABOUT A COMMON PROBLEM IN YOUR FIELD, IT’LL ONLY TAKE 30 MINUTES”. Use those words. Do not under any circumstances ask them to help you with a specific topic in mind. You can provide guidance around the theme, but let them decide on the specifics.

Understand: it’s all about momentum. Your job is to remove as much friction between the smart person’s brain (the one that knows more than you) and the written page.

That’s it.

You don’t have any insight, you don’t have any input. You want them to agree to help, and the easiest way to do that is to get them talking about a topic they feel they know something about, and assure them that it’s not going to take long. As soon as you specify a topic, it gives them the opportunity to say, “No, I don’t know anything about that.” That would be bad.

Now, I know you can do research. I know you can make a list of topics. I know that you can read blogs, journals, and magazines. I’m proud of you.

But none of that matters.

What you think you know doesn’t matter. You don’t decide the topic.

The less you know, the better (I’ll explain why later).

This isn’t about positioning YOU as a subject matter expert, it’s about building a body of work as quickly and as painlessly as possible. It’s about making other people look good. Your subject matter expert has been studying this stuff for years. Leverage their knowledge.

The first step is getting them to agree to help. Do it by making it easy to say yes.

Oh, and don’t do any research.

Step Two: Set up a phone interview that you can record

Once they say yes, arrange an interview. Book thirty minutes in their calendar for as soon as you can. Strike while the iron is hot.

Always interview over the phone, and always record it. I use WebEx, but if you don’t want to spend the money, you can record calls using Skype. It doesn’t really matter what tools you use, you just need to have a clear recording in a file format you can download.

Recording serves two functions: you can get a transcript made later and, more importantly, it frees you to actually focus on what the interviewee is saying. You need to be present, you need to listen, and you won’t be doing either of those things if you are furiously scribbling down quotes.

Also: don’t do any research.

Step Three: During the interview, focus on getting what you need

Before you do the interview, you have to understand what you want to get out of it. When writing a best-practice white paper, you can usually adhere to a standard structure. Something like this:

  • Introduction and statement of a problem that exists

  • Here is a mistake that people often make when trying to solve that problem

  • Here’s how to solve this problem

  • There are at least three different elements that work toward solving this problem

  • Conclusion

If you tick all of the boxes, you have a successful interview. Remember: once all the boxes are ticked, you can stop. It might not even take 30 minutes.

There are two ways to be sure that you get everything you need during the interview process. You can write out those bullet points, and then cross them off as soon as you hear answers to fill those sections. Or you can ask questions that lead the interviewee to fill those sections. I do both.

For example, let’s say your subject matter expert wants to talk about WordPress. You could ask questions like:

“What is the biggest problem that WordPress developers are having when creating new sites or maintaining old ones?” (statement of problem)

“What do people always do wrong that drives you crazy?” (common mistakes)

“What should people be doing instead?” (solution)

“How do you do that?” (different parts of the solution)

If they answer all of those in full, that’s enough for a paper.

Really listen to the answers. You need to focus for the full thirty minutes. Some people aren’t comfortable being interviewed and will talk in circles around the question. If you’re not listening properly, you may not even notice that they haven’t answered the question. Keep asking until you get the answer you need.

Have I mentioned that you don’t do any research? Here’s why. Without research, you have a beginner’s mind. You are free to ask both stupid and insightful questions. It removes you from the process – you won’t feel the need to interrupt and add your insight. You can just listen and learn. Remember: it’s about making them look good, you only need to get out the way.

Another nice side effect of the ‘no research’ rule is that you get your expert to talk in terms and phrasing that you understand (because you’re a dummy). When you’re working in complex or dense fields it will simplify your writing so that it can be understood by all levels of your audience.

Step Four: Get the recording transcribed

I use Upwork. Pick someone that is highly rated that isn’t super expensive. The transcription will take 24-36 hours. The best scenario? Hire someone in a different timezone than you so that they transcribe while you sleep. Saves you a whole work day.

If you don’t want to spend any money, transcribe it yourself. I did this for the first 10 papers or so, and it proved to be useful. It takes a while, but when you’re ghostwriting for someone, it helps to listen really carefully to their words and phrasing, and transcribing can help you get into that mindset.

Step Five: Read the transcript. Copy and paste, then edit. A lot.

Listen to the recording again while you read. This is the part where you need to be sure that you know your stuff. If, upon reflection, there are some sections that aren’t clear, now is the time to send that follow-up email to your expert for more information.

Go through the transcript and copy and paste all of the sections of the paper that fit into the structure that we discussed earlier. The writing will be bad, but that’s fine. Remember, it’s about momentum, and your biggest enemy is a blank sheet of paper. CTRL C and CTRL V, my friends.

Then the work really starts. Transform the paper from a loosely connected collection of quotes into well-written paragraphs and sentences. Remove repetition and develop themes. Turn it into a piece of writing. This, by far, takes the longest of any of the steps. Whenever possible, try to maintain the expert’s ‘voice’. Think of how they phrase things, and use the words they use. Remove yourself from the writing.

Repeat after me: it’s about making them look good.

Step Six: Send it for approval

Email the first draft to your expert and get them to fix all of the dumb mistakes you’ve made. Tell them that their name will be on the cover of the paper, and you want them to be proud of it.  Ask them to be critical. You want ruthless feedback. There will be concepts that you have over-simplified and ideas you have mangled. Get them to treat it like their own. You want them to tear it apart. You’ll have a much stronger second (and final) draft if they do.

Step Seven: Desktop publishing

Get a designer to do the layout. Make it look professional. Unless you have formal design training, pay someone else to do it. It’s worth the investment. Put the expert’s name and bio on the paper. Your name doesn’t go near it.

Step Eight: Upload it to Uberflip


It’s that simple. Eight steps and you’re done.

Apparently, thought leadership takes time. B2B marketers worry that it takes too long to create compelling content, and they don’t have sufficient knowledge.  Blog posts tell us that we need to do deep research to bring new levels of insight to our audience.

The truth is: it isn’t necessary. There is an easier way. One that is faster, creates better content, and actually teaches your audience something new.

I’m a B2B marketer at an environmental health and safety software company. To be good at my job, I don’t need to have a deep understanding of environmental health and safety, and I certainly don’t need to have a deep understanding of software development.

I need to have a deep understanding of marketing. I need to know how to write. I need to know how to listen to smart people that work in my company and make them look good.

It just so happens that, conveniently, by arranging weekly conversations with subject matter experts, I’ve learned a thing or two. I do know about environmental health and safety. Our content has gotten more sophisticated as my understanding has deepened. But they still talk to me about concepts that I have never heard, and we still get the paper done.

Don’t let your lack of knowledge stand in your way. Talk to people who are smarter than you. Write down what they say. Then talk to them some more. Write from the top of their knowledge, rather than the top of your own. Your customers and your prospects will thank you for it.

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