Addressing the Elephant In the Room: 6 Strategies for Writing About the Hard Stuff - Ann Handley

Addressing the Elephant In the Room: 6 Strategies for Writing About the Hard Stuff - Ann Handley

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How do you write about Difficult Topics?

How do you message to an audience about the Hard Stuff? At a time everything is wildly in flux for everyone literally everywhere?

If there were an awards show for Top Issues that have challenged all of us in Marketing and Communications these past few pandemicked years… I’d nominate “How to Message Hard Stuff When We Haven’t the Foggiest Idea What to Say” to take home the Golden Globe.

There is no one right way to message the Hard Stuff.

But I liked an approach I saw last week.

It comes in the form of a 125-word intro to an email from Kristina Halvorson, CEO of Brain Traffic, in Minneapolis.

I’m going to share it with you. Then let’s together break down what we can learn and lift from it after the dinkus…

(A dinkus is that three-asterisk thing right below this line.)

First an important point: Kristina is writing about Confab, her agency’s in-person event this May. She’s detailing how they will safely hold an event when sweet Cheez-Its who knows what Covid will feel like doing with itself then?

(Will Omicron decide to spawn Son of Omicron? Will it decide to stay here permanently? Buy a house in a leafier suburb? Will it start to pay taxes? Who really knows?)

So don’t read “event” and “Covid.” Instead, look at this message more broadly.

We can sub in almost any topic for “industry event.” We can sub in almost any elephant in for “Covid.”

Use this as a template for any customer-facing communication that requires a deft touch and empathy around a shifting topic.*

*(My Microsoft Word wants to change this to “shitting topic.” Part of me wants to let it lol.)

Below is part of an email Confab sent with the subject line:

Can’t see the image above? See the version posted on LinkedIn.

The three points Kristina offers for consideration are:

1. Refund policy: Will you get your money back if things change after you register?

3. A CTA to register, because Confab’s still gotta sell tickets

Here are 6 reasons I like her email as a model.

1. The subject line delivers on the promise.

“A personal note from Kristina” reads like it actually is from Kristina. She told me she wrote it at her kitchen table. You can tell.

So often we get emails from execs that claim to be “personal” but don’t read that way.

???? I call these kind of messages Hot Dog Messaging: Extruded through so many Messaging Machines that you can’t tell what it was originally made of. (Snouts? Intestines? Who knows?)

2. Does not ignore our collective reality. Look at this empathic, human, exhausted language:

“I can’t not talk about it.”

“No matter how we try to spin it…”

Maybe you can relate to this: You look at the sales/marketing communications teed up and a tiny bit of ourselves feels the disconnect between what’s going on in the world and what our marketing messaging says…?

Haven’t we all been inside Kristina’s Midwestern winter boots when she says, “I looked at everything ready to go out. And… ick.”

I’m paraphrasing. But that’s the vibe.

3. Even serious messages don’t have to feel like they’re written by a minister delivering a graveside eulogy.

I love Kristina’s playful image of the “Omicron-sized elephant in the room.”

4. No candy-coating. The best way to talk about Hard Things Policies is to be direct. Straight-talk clarity.

“If you can’t make it you will get a refund.” “Proof of vax or negative test. No exceptions.” “We will comply with government health guidelines.”

Simply stated. There you go. It is what it is.

5. Your own point of view. Conversations about vaccines and gatherings are difficult. But Confab wraps the requirements for attending the event as “for your consideration.”

You have a choice. Confab’s organizers have made theirs. Ball’s in your court.

6. Clear Call to Action. This email is, of course, a sales and marketing message with a clear CTA of “register now because…”

The CTA works only because it comes after the other stuff.

Context is everything. How differently would the message have played if Kristina had simply said, “Prices are going up! Can’t wait to see you in May!”

Your CTA should come after all your reader’s unasked questions have been answered.

I’m bolding that because it’s important. ^^

Kristina is a good friend. I’ve attended and spoken at Confab—an event for content strategists—3 times in the past 10 years. I’m not speaking this year, but if that’s your industry, these are your people!

But none of that really matters. The point is: It’s a great example of messaging and leadership—and trying to light the way forward through an Omi-murky stressful time.

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