Note: you can listen to this episode above or load it up in iTunes.

How to Use Your Writing to Build Relationships and Build Your Brand

Today’s episode is all about using your writing to build relationships and your brand. It’s a special interview with Beth Dunn, Product Editor-in-Chief at HubSpot. In today’s podcast episode, Beth shares really practical tips and strategies you can use for helping you sound more human in the way you write your blog content.

Beth Dunn, 10 Writing Tips to Help You Sound More Human, ProBlogger Podcast Episode

In This Episode

You can listen to today’s episode above or in iTunes or Stitcher (where we’d also LOVE to get your reviews on those platforms if you have a moment). In today’s episode:

  • Why every word you choose affects how you are perceived by others
  • 10 things you can do to make sure your writing portrays exactly what you want it to say
  • How to write to show that you are human
  • How to write to show that you are honest and trustworthy
  • How to make your readers excited
  • How to approach acronyms and formal language
  • How to make sure mistakes don’t slip through
  • Why a style guide can be so powerful in improving your writing
  • How to find an editor
  • How to tap into the power of pronouns
  • The power of imagining your reader in a really bad mood
  • How to convey humour without accidentally coming across as snarky or sarcastic

Further Reading and Resources for How to Use Your Writing to Build Relationships and Build Your Brand

How to be a writing god:

How to fix your writing:

More writing tips and resources from Beth:

You can connect with Beth and more of her writing at:

Full Transcript Expand to view full transcript Compress to smaller transcript view
Darren: Hi there. This is Darren Rowse. Welcome to episode 52 of the ProBlogger Podcast. Today, I’m conducting my very first interview of the ProBlogger Podcast, an interview with Beth Dunn, who’s the Product Editor-In-Chief at HubSpot. 

I came across Beth recently at the Inbound Conference at Boston where she gave a fantastic talk. The talk was titled Use Your Words. The idea of the talk, in short, was the words we use in our content really have the potential to grow or pull-down and destroy our brand. She gives you 10 tips during this particular podcast interview to help you come across in a way that builds your brand. We just talked in an episode recently on Building Your Brand. While a lot of us know a brand we want to build, we still don’t achieve building that brand through the words that we use. 

Hopefully, in today’s podcast, you’ll get some really practical tips that you can go away and apply, both in the creation of new content of your blog but also looking at the last post that you’ve written. You may actually want to go back and do some editing on some of those posts once you’ve listened to this particular episode. There are some really great practical takeaways for you.

You can find today’s show notes at where there is a whole heap of links and further reading based upon some of the stuff that Beth talks about in today’s interview.

Thanks for joining us, Beth. It’s so nice to finally be talking to you. 

Beth: Delighted. Thank you for inviting me. 

Darren: No problem. I think I first came across you earlier this year when I was invited to speak at the Inbound Conference which was run by HubSpot. I ran across a video from you speaking at HubSpot. Two videos, actually. One was called How to be a Writing God which grabbed my attention. The other one was How to Fix Your Writing, both of which grabbed my attention because I think I can do some fixing. I guess we all aspire to be a writing god of some kind. Both great videos. I will share links to them in today’s show notes.

As soon as I agreed to come Inbound this year, I thought, “I’m going to track down Beth and listen to what she’s got to say this year.” You did the search this year called Use Your Words, I think it was titled?

Beth: That’s right.

Darren: Can you give us a little bit of a premise of that talk? Just introduce us to the concept of what you’re talking about and why you chose that topic.

Beth: Sure. It’s the third in the series. I started talking at Inbound three years ago. I started at the beginning of the writing process. That first video that you spoke of, How to be a Writing God, is really how to get started with writing, how to establish discipline around writing, overcoming your fear of writing, and starting daily writing practice. It’s kind of inspirational and motivational.

The second one in the series, Fix Your Writing, was really about how to edit that lousy first draft that you come up with in those daily writing sessions. How to go just about taking it from a big ugly mess to something close to worthwhile. 

This one was really a bit more about the final polish. It actually grew out of a Wiki post that I wrote internally for HubSpot. I was asked to write a list of Beth Dunn’s top 10 rules for how to write in a HubSpotty way, I think was the original assignment. I came up with these 10 rules and they boiled down into what you saw in my talk.

Darren: What I loved about your talk, there were a lot of things I loved about it. I tweeted every point you made. They all got retweeted. The way you started off, you really resonate with me. You were talking about what I’ve talked about ProBlogger previously, how every tweet we do, every blogpost we do, all has the potential to either enhance our brand or pull down our brand. You took it to an even more micro level by talking about the actual words we use. Every single word you use has the potential to build your brand and to pull down your brand. Can you unpack that a little more for us?

Beth: Absolutely. As you’ve mentioned, I started off by talking about just simply learning how to say “please” and “thank you” when I was a child and asking for treats from my grandmother. Something as simple as not saying “please” can actually make people think that you’re the opposite of what you are or want to be seen as. As opposed to a nice child, they’ll think that you’re a greedy little jerk.

The same thing holds absolutely when you’re writing, posting online, blogging, writing web copy, microcopy for a product or an app. Every single word, whether or not you use punctuation and which kind of punctuation you involve in your writing, it all affects how you’re perceived. To radical degrees, I think, we underestimate how much of an impact it has on how we’re perceived by others.

Darren: I think it’s a real tension that bloggers feel. I know I’ve sat down many times to write a blog post. I almost started off by saying, “I don’t want to come across pompous. I don’t want to come across by being a know-it-all. I don’t want to be arrogant. I don’t want to be fake.” I sit down, I write it, then I reread it. I think I came across pompous, arrogant, and fake. It’s a real tension, like how we know what we don’t want to be, but we still come out that way. I think a lot of what you’ve talked about, these 10 things, you termed it as closing the gap between trying to portray what you want to portray.

Beth: Yeah. I think the part of the problem is we’ve all acquired these really bad habits that actually undermine our very efforts to come across the way we want to. You mentioned not wanting to sound pompous, conceited, and know-it-all. I think the very thing we tend to go towards to avoid something pompous is the very thing that makes us sound more pompous and conceited. It’s because that’s the way everybody writes on the web or everybody writes in business. Some of it just has to do with unlearning some bad habits.

Darren: Okay. Let’s get into some of these 10 things that you talked about, the 10 things to reinforce the brand that you’re trying to portray or the person you’re trying to portray. The first one that you’re talking about, “I want to convey that I’m human.” Can you talk a little bit about that and how we can come across as humans rather than robots?

Beth: Sure. It is probably the most common thing that I get asked to do because I edit the product copy at HubSpot. I’m in charge of the words that are in the software itself. Quite often, the copy that you get written by engineers tends to sound a little robotic. It’s getting handed to me and says, “Beth, I need you to make this sound more human.” What do they actually mean? They want to make it sound like it’s a human talking to another human being, that it’s not actually your computer talking to you. That goes for any web copy, too. 

The single most effective saying that I’ve discovered when you want to sound more human is simply to start using contractions in your writing to go through and puts together the words that naturally form contractions like “we are” into “we’re,” “you will” goes “you’ll.” It will sound 100% more human. It’s an amazing trick. It’s pretty much the first thing that I do with any piece of writing that needs to sound more conversational. 

You can argue that you may be thinking to yourself, “Well, if I’m writing something more formal like an apology or like a legal disclaimer or delivering bad news, I don’t want to follow this rule.” That’s exactly when you do want to follow that rule even moreso.

Darren: Definitely. Those are the times where someone will critic you for being too formal. I love the quote. I wrote it down on my notes, “Bash together words like you’re in a roller derby.”

Beth: I want people to watch the video so I don’t necessarily give away all of my best lines.

Darren: That’s good. Do you think there is a time where you could still keep some of that authority or some of that formalness? Can you think of a time where there is a case for that?

Beth: I think that when you want to come across as more formal and it’s a more formal setting, certainly there are times when it’s the right thing to do to not use contractions. There’s no question about that. None of these are hard and fast rules. There are other ways to come across as authoritative but I think have more to do with the length of sentences, cadence, and rhythm of sentences. Conversational tones just have a different rhythm and different word choice than formal writing does. You don’t have to go straight to the fanciest sounding words and the stilted formal language to get across the formality that you’re after.

Darren: Let’s move to number two. This is where you want to convey that you’re honest. This is something I know that a lot of bloggers who listen to ProBlogger want to sell something or they’re recommending a product that they might be affiliated for, they are honest but they want to convey that. Sometimes when you’re selling, there’s a bit of tension there. Any tips on that one?

Beth: Sure. This is kind of a subtle one than the first one. I alluded to it, just a second ago, that we go towards the biggest fanciest words that we can find in an attempt to sound more authoritative and like we know what we’re talking about. It actually has the opposite effect. We use words like “utilize” instead of “use” or “incentivize” instead of “motivate.” It was one of my old professor’s pet peeves. “Leverage” instead of “use.” I think 90% of the time, you can simply use “use.” This rule is just all about using simpler, shorter words. Simple, clear, easy to understand language actually does a big job of making you sound more honest and trustworthy. If you use the big fancy words, it seems like you’ve got something to hide. It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors.

Darren: I find it’s also really hard to read. It takes more brain power. I’m thinking here of a talk I went to recently at a corporate event. The person spoke in this corporatese, use all the […] words or they utilized the corporate […]. I almost feel like I need a translator. I got to the end of the session, I was just really tired. 

Beth: I think that’s maybe one reason why. Whenever you create more of a cognitive burden for your listeners or your readers, it has this subtle effect, whether or not it makes them perceive you as less honest, or somebody is like, “Man, I don’t have the time for this. I don’t have the energy to take in what you’re saying. I’m going to move on to the next thing.” None of those are the effects that we, as writers, want to create.

Darren: Great. We’re going to touch on some of these things a little bit more and some of the other ones as well. They all do connect a little bit. The third one is we want to convey that we’re exciting.

Beth: Mostly what I find is people are trying to convey that their product is exciting. Sometimes this has to do with being like, “I’m excited!” Usually, it’s because you want to make your readers excited about something that you’re excited about. You say, “This is exciting!” I just had to fix this at work, actually, just an hour ago. It’s hilarious. 

An exclamation mark is a tool we all reflexively reach for when we want to create excitement in the hearts of our readers. It generally does the opposite. It generally makes it seem like you’re overcompensating in some way. If you really need to use an exclamation mark or several exclamation marks, maybe the thing that you’re talking about isn’t actually all that exciting. 

Darren: Yeah. It’s interesting. I was just reading with my son this morning who’s 7. I was reading over some of the work that he’d done. There were exclamation marks at the end of every sentence. He’s obviously learned that if something exciting or something’s loud, he needs to insert that. But he’s overcompensating and I think so many people do that. It’s quite lazy in some way.

Beth: Yeah. I think it’s a really good sign when you start seeing exclamation marks in your writing, that it’s time to go back to your words. You’re placing an undue burden on your punctuation, basically. Punctuation isn’t built to convey that strong emotion. That’s what words are for. If there’s an exclamation mark in your writing and it’s too much, you probably need to strengthen the words that you’re using instead. In that sense, it’s a gift. It’s a good red flag to say, “Ah, I need to go back and do some editing here.”

Darren: That’s good. Does that translate to other punctuation? 

Beth: Well, let’s see. Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “The only thing that a semicolon shows is that you went to college.” I know some people have really strong opinions about not using semicolons. I think that you can make that argument as blogging, web copy, that sort of thing, that semicolons are going to be only used in a slightly more complex sentence structure that is probably necessary for that sort of reading. Again, it creates a stumbling block or makes your reader work just a little bit too hard. It’s probably something to avoid.

Darren: That’s great advice. Point number four was, we want to convey if it is helpful. 

Beth: This is pretty related to the earlier point about using simple, smaller words. There’s one particular pitfall that I think a lot of us fall into, especially in inbound marketing. It’s these acronyms that we love. If your writing is jam-packed with acronyms that you haven’t unpacked and you haven’t defined, you’re making assumptions about the people reading it.

Again, you’re making them work too hard. Quite possible, quite likely, in fact, that many of your readers have encountered these before. They just have to think about, “Oh yeah, what did that mean again?” CTA, ROI, those are common ones. We all have more complicated, complex insider ones that are more common in our work, whatever your field may be.

I would say, go through and make sure that you unpack and stretch out those acronyms, more often and earlier than you need to. It’s just more inclusive to your readers.

Darren: Is it okay to use an acronym once you’ve defined it? How do you deal with that?

Beth: Absolutely. I think the general rule is to always use it in a stretched-out non-acronym version the first time. According to the rule book, after that first mention, you can use it like when you say Call To Action and then put CTA in parentheses after it. Henceforth, you should know that when I say CTA, that’s what I mean.

Again, you might want to err on the side of caution and over-explaining things a bit especially if it’s something that you know (maybe) it’s your evergreen content that is going to get in front of a lot of eyeballs who will be fresh and new to your realm, to your domain, your field. They just started doing research in this area and it’s just not part of their vernacular yet. You might want to explain it the first few times. Spell it out the first few times as they go straight to the abbreviated version.

Darren: Sure. I was actually talking to a blogger about this the other day. I know a lot of our bloggers actually work for companies rather than blogging for themselves. They write in this more humanized way and they pass it on to their boss. They came back robotized all the jargon, the acronyms, and also that formal language. Do you have any tips for people who are working with that tension?

Beth: There are a number of resources on the web that will back-up your claim that a simpler, more straightforward language will get you better results. Maybe you just want to create a list of bookmarks. Basically, if you can just stand on your own two feet and say, “Well, this is the kind of language. This is what you’re paying me for after all. I’m the writer. This is my field. It’s not something that everybody can do, remember?” Even though everybody writes, this is a specialized skill. You have to say, “I know what I’m talking about here. This kind of writing is going to do the job that you wanted to do better. You got to trust me.”

Darren: That’s great. Point number five is one that I know a lot of bloggers are going to cringe at. That is where we want to come across as careful. It’s so easy to come across as the exact opposite with simple errors that could be picked up with a spellchecker or proofread.

Beth: I think a lot of us, especially if we write for a living, we think, “I’ll catch it. I’ll just proofread before I hit publish.” And we don’t. We don’t catch it. Maybe we’re using a word processing or CMS or something like that that either doesn’t have a spellchecker built-in or doesn’t have the most reliable spell check built-in or doesn’t know the unique words that you use in your field which is really common in inbound marketing or brand names. All these different things don’t get caught by spell-check.

The rule here is to spell check always, always, always. I have a system where I always keep my simple notepad document open on my desktop. At any time I’m writing something, before I send it off I copy and paste it over there. It’s got my dictionary baked into it based on our style guide. It’s going to catch everything. If there are any little squiggles, I catch it, fix it, and I paste it back into what I’m doing. 

A lot of what I work in doesn’t have a reliable spellchecker. Illustrator, Photoshop, or PowerPoint. You can’t count on those things. You can’t rely on your own proofreading skills, honestly. We all have to crank out so much writing at such a high rate these days. 

Darren: Do you have any tips for people on the proofreading? I know it doesn’t always catch everything but should you be reading it out loud or anything else?

Beth: If it’s something really important, I rely on my old proofreader trick. I used to proofread romance novels for a large publishing house in New York. (Yeah, I’m a freelance […]). The thing that I do with that is read it out loud. They also say, if you read it backward, it helps. It helps you catch it. That’s for spellings, specifically, if you’re trying to catch spellings. Otherwise, your eyes will skip over words and your brain will fill it in, but if you force yourself to make it harder for your brain to fill in things that aren’t actually there and read it backward out loud while looking at the words, make sure that they’re spelled right. You could catch a lot more.

Darren: I find that when I’m reading it to someone else, that’s where I catch them even more because even if I’m reading out loud to myself, I skip over things. But if there’s someone listening, I’m like, “Yeah.” That’s where it goes for me every time.

Beth: Totally. That’s also a great way to catch when you’re not sounding human. If you’ve read out loud to a friend and you’re using these big fancy words, they’re going to give you raised eyebrows. “Honestly? Are you really?” “No.”

Darren: Yeah. Particularly if I’m reading to Vanessa, my wife, who’s a lawyer, she catches all those things. I catch them way before she does.

Beth: Yeah. When you start to feel the blush creeping up your cheeks, you’re embarrassed. “Maybe I need to go back and take […].

Darren: That’s right. Point number six, we’re talking about style guides. This (I think) is something that a lot of bloggers probably could really do well to create. Can you talk to us a little bit about why a style guide? I’m also really interested to know what other essentials for a style guide.

Beth: Sure. Why a style guide? Simply because they’re very good resources that you may go to. Dictionaries that disagree on basic ideas of what’s correct. At a certain point, you just have to put a flag in the sand and say, “I’m going to use the Oxford comma,” or, “I’m not going to use the Oxford comma.” You just have to make a call on some of the stuff because it’s a perfectly good argumentation for one way or the other. And really, just consistency is what’s important.

If you look up a word in the dictionary, it may be relatively a neologism like “email,” you’ll come across versions that have the E capitalized, that have the hyphen between E and mail. These are perfectly respectable dictionaries. You have to choose a dictionary that’s just going to be your go-to source.

At HubSpot, we use Merriam-Webster partly because they have a great website that’s easy to search. You just go right to it and there you go. Just say, “This is going to be the dictionary of our choice.” You say, “This is going to be our main style guide. We follow the AP style guide.” Some people like Chicago but you just say, “This is what I’m using.” That’s enforced throughout your organization, they documented it. There’s no more argument. “Nope, this is what we’re doing.”

Darren: In a style guide, you’ve got stuff on capitalization, punctuation.

Beth: How you treat numbers. Do you spell out numerals up to the number 10? Actually write the word one, two, three, and after that, you use the numerals. Do you use a numeral at the beginning of a sentence? What about in headlines? How do you capitalize on things that are hyphenated? Personally, I have a lousy memory. I can’t keep all this stuff in my head. I go and reference our style guide all the time.

What I find the most valuable part of our style guide is what we call the list of commonly troublesome words. The AP has its own. In the field of inbound marketing, we’ve got all these quirky words and phrases. Either they don’t exist in the real world or we use them in a way that’s unique to us. We need to say, “Do you capitalize tweet? We capitalize Twitter because that’s a brand name but do you capitalize tweet? What about Facebook posts?” There are all these weird questions that arise in our industry. You just document them.

We’ve got our style guide in one big long page on our internal Wiki but we’ve externalized it for common use. You can download a version of it if you do a search for “HubSpot written style guide.” You can get it as a free download with instructions on how to customize it for your own needs, which is a great start because writing a style guide can be a pretty big mountain to climb.

Darren: Yes, for sure. I’ve got a link for that already on the show notes. If you want show notes, you can guys straight across to that. Things like the persona of your reader, would you include who’s the reader? Who’s voice do we write in? The tone of the writing?

Beth: Yeah. We’ve got a section on voice and tone. We got a section on how to change your tone for different personas and different types of writing, whether it’s an apology again or delivering bad news—all the different types of writing that you might find yourself having to do. Or simply blog posts aimed at a completely different audience, your executive blog that aimed at CEOs, maybe we’ll have some slightly different guidelines than the one that’s for more general use.

Darren: Obviously, it’s useful if you’ve got a multi-author blog or a team that’s working together and you want consistency across that team. For a single author blog, do you think there’s any sense in putting together something like this? 

Beth: I do. Again, if anybody has a bad memory as I do, I can’t ever remember one day to the next whether or not I said, “Oh, yeah. Reentry doesn’t have a hyphen.” It takes the cognitive load off of yourself to not have to remember all that stuff anymore with consistency being so important in how you’re perceived. Again, this is one of those inadvertent perception problems. If you’re inconsistent in your writing, people will catch it out. They will think that you’re less trustworthy. It really does affect how they perceive your character.

Darren: That’s right. One that we get caught up all the time because I’m in Australia, my audience is in America, we have a very international audience, the use of certain words, color, those types of words, we get critiqued all the time on social media for spelling it the wrong way. We just need to have consistency, I guess.

Beth: Spelling it the wrong way and also, you’re going to have some guidelines around, “Do I use terms like, ‘Oh, that’s really inside baseball or is that too much inside baseball?’” We’re careful about that at HubSpot because we’re an international company, too. We tend to be very fond of using sports metaphors. We need to learn some new sports metaphors, quite frankly.

Darren: Yeah, that’s all right. I can give you some cricket ones, but I’m not sure they’re going to fly.

Beth: That’d be great. I’d love to hear that.

Darren: We’re up to point seven here and this continues the style guide type of thing. It’s about getting someone else involved in the implementation of that style guide with an editor. Give us some thoughts on editors.

Beth: Going back to your earlier question about if this has worked for an individual, maybe, maybe not, but for a team, you really need to have somebody who is the designated gatekeeper of everything that gets published. This rule is to hire an editor without hesitation. Maybe that’s just taking a look at somebody on your team who’s already there. Somebody on your social circle who’s already there, who is already an editor by nature. “This is the person who’s always posting the rants about semicolons on Facebook. This is the person who already has an opinion on the Oxford comma.”

We all know these people. That’s your editor. You just invest them with the authority to say, “This doesn’t sound human. This doesn’t sound good. You need to revise this before you hit publish,” or, “I’m just going to double-check this against your style guide and make sure you’re following the rules you set out for yourself.” That’s what an editor does, hold you accountable. Everybody needs one.

Darren: Yeah. The question is, one-man-band or one-person-band, how do we find an editor if we are not a HubSpot or a large corporation?

Beth: We have a designated editor at the small non-profit that I used to work at which had four employees, two of whom were college-age interns. A small organization can still have an editor. Again, it’s somebody who’s already there, probably. If you’re a one-man-band, most writers that I know have a writing buddy. Somebody’s who’s simpatico in some way. It’s a reciprocal relationship. You just constantly pass things between each other.

I have somebody at HubSpot that I do. Even though I’m the final authority for a lot of people’s writing, I still need an editor. I have somebody that I always send my stuff to and say, “Can you please tell me where I’m wildly off-base here?” Maybe it’s a friend, maybe it’s a buddy, maybe it’s somebody you’re in a class together at some point. It’s someone you can rely on to call you on stuff.

Darren: That’s right. I think a lot of bloggers are in little support groups, Facebook groups, and that can be a really great place just to copy-paste what you’ve got. If it’s about to go live, give it a once over. It’s amazing what people pick up.

Beth: That’s right.

Darren: Okay. Number eight is, I want to convey that I care about you as my reader. How do we convey that compassion we have for our readers?

Beth: I think the way that we failed to do this, that goes unnoticed a lot of the time is we start off our sentences (just the way you and I have) by talking about we and I. This comes across web copy a lot when you say, “We’re super excited to announce this new feature.” “I can’t wait to tell you.” “We’ve been working really hard behind the scenes to bring you X.” All those emails, announcements, and web pages that start off like that, come across to the reader as incredibly self-centered. Every time I get an email that starts off with, “We’re so excited!” I literally say out loud, who cares? I don’t care about your emotional state. Tell me what it is that I want to know and why I should be excited or interested or alarmed. Maybe it’s a security breach. “We’re sorry to have to tell you.” Who cares? Tell me what I need to know.

This rule, the way I stated it is to check your pronouns. If you switch your pronouns from “I” and “We” to “You” and “You’re” you’re probably going to have to recast your entire sentence. What it will do in the process is it will put the spotlight on your reader to force you to actually state things in the terms that your reader will empathize with or will understand.

Darren: I’m so guilty of this one. I just start my sentence with an “I.” I don’t know. When you said this during the session, I immediately thought back to all the product announcements I’ve ever done. I kind of think of it when […] where it’s not me being excited about that thing or me feeling something else. I do generally feel excited, but I went straight home and rewrote a couple of things that I was about to publish. It really does change the tone of it. It completely changed the way it came across.

Beth: Sure, and I think that it goes without saying that you’re excited. You wouldn’t be launching something if you didn’t put your own name behind it, if you weren’t thrilled with it. That work is done. You’re already excited about it. Now, you have to convert somebody else. You have to focus on them instead.

Darren: Yeah. I think you can convey your own excitement with the words that you used to describe it as well. This is where you talked a lot earlier about letting your words do the heavy lifting. I think the choice of words is really important here.

Beth: That’s right.

Darren: I think this next point ties into this as well. It’s about imagining your reader or doing some roleplay.

Beth: Doing roleplay, yeah. This is one of my favorite things. Now you’re at the end of the writing process and you’re just about ready to hit publish or hit send. You’ve checked all your pronouns, you bashed together your words and the contractions. The last step, you sit there and read it out loud, imagining that you’re somebody else. Oftentimes, I’ll imagine that I’m the head of our company, Brian Halligan. I would imagine how he would respond. actually trying to physically imagine myself as him. Or imagine myself as one of my intended readers if not him. Usually, a customer or whoever your persona is.

The most useful way to go about doing this is to imagine somebody specific. Maybe you have a well-fleshed out persona, but if you actually can think of a person that you’ve interacted with, maybe did some research with, or just had a conversation with, and imagine that person on her lunch hour reading this. Read it out loud and imagine her emotional response to these words. 

One of the things I think about, too, are those people that you know who will always take something the wrong way. If there’s a double […] should be ferreted out, or a negative connotation that you didn’t intend. they’ll find it and take offense. Read it in that person’s tone of voice.

Darren: I think in your talk, you talked a little bit about imagining your reader in a really bad mood.

Beth: That’s right. Even if it’s not somebody who naturally takes offense, imagine that they just have the worst day of their life. They were late to work. They spilled coffee on their favorite white shirt. They get chewed up by their boss because they were late and they looked like a mess. Then, they sat down and opened up your email. How is your tone going to come across now? Writing doesn’t go out into a vacuum. It goes out to actual people who are having actual days, good and bad.

Darren: Yeah. I love this advice on a number of levels. One, I think my best post I’ve actually started was emails when I was writing to a specific person who wrote to me asking a question often with context around it of how they’re feeling about their problem or their question. I find that if I’m writing to that real person or imagining that person, I write with more empathy and compassion. 

People will often say to me, “I feel like you’re writing to me,” and I think it was because I was writing to someone specific. I think it does help you to write in a different tone if you’re imagining someone or having a bad day. You’re going to write in a more patient and more caring way.

Beth: Absolutely. You’re going to write in a patient and caring way. That’s a good thing to strive for in basically all of your writing. 

Darren: I think the other thing I try to imagine when I’m writing is how do I want them to feel when they’re finished reading as well. What place do I want them to get to with the thing that they’re reading? It’s imagining who they are, how they’re feeling, and how I want them to be.

Beth: And where you want to bring them, absolutely. Actually, if any of your listeners do go ahead and watch that first talk, How to be a Writing God, I had a goal like that. I don’t think I ever told anybody except the woman who helped me break those slides that my goal at the end of my talk is that people would want to carry me out on their shoulders chanting, “Write like crap,” which is going to be their rallying cry. “Write like crap every day.” A lot of people were tweeting it. I think it carried out of the room on their shoulders like, “Someday, we’ll shoot for that. It’s a stretch goal.”

Darren: We’re coming to the end here but we’ve got one more point. This one, again, I can already think of some bloggers who are going to react positively and negatively towards this point because they do it. They actually can do it well. You talked about, I want to convey that I’m hilarious with my writing. Unpack that one for us.

Beth: Sure. This is endemic on the Internet, unfortunately. Somehow, we’ve got to a point where sarcasm and snarkiness equal humor. It just isn’t. My stance on sarcasm is it is humor, but it’s humor performed for a third party. It’s humor performed in front of an audience. It’s not humor that’s shared between you and your reader—the person that you’re talking to or writing to. It’s inflicted on them. 

If you’re performing and you want to make somebody standing off to the side laugh, then good on you. But if you’re actually concerned about your audience, remember your reader feeling cared for, they’re included, and they’re part of your gang or whatever. I would shy away from sarcasm and snarkiness. It’s not helpful.

Darren: You think there is a place for humor and different types of humor?

Beth: Absolutely. I love humor. I do humor writing on a regular basis. I think that sarcasm and snarkiness, first of all, they’re just overdone. I think we’re all inured to them to a certain point as far as finding them funny. The humor was a little worn off because it’s just for swimming in a sea of snarkiness on the Internet. The humor’s worn off and all you’re left with is the meanness of spirit. It comes out of a certain meanness of the spirit, I think, in cynicism. I don’t think that cynicism is a place that you want to start from when you’re trying to win somebody over to your side or convince them or persuade them.

Darren: Also, if you’re trying to build a culture or a community around a blog, particularly, then you need to be really careful about that tone, snark, and sarcasm. It gets picked up and that’s how people react as well. That then gets blown out of proportion in comments, particularly. You set the culture for your blog. Your readers will respond to you in the way that you write.

Beth: Right. You set the tone and you set the ground rules. One of my favorite blogs—I call them that all the time—is Go Fug Yourself. It’s a red carpet celebrity fashion blog. You would think hearing, “Oh, it’s a celebrity fashion blog,” but it’s all about snark. What’s remarkable about it is it isn’t. That carries over into their comment section as well. It’s the most civil, well-behaved, and hilarious comment section community I ever come across. Yeah, it absolutely can be done.

Darren: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much, Beth. This has been a great chat. My first ever interview on a podcast. 

Beth: I’m honored.

Darren: I think I chose someone who is great. While I have a bit of a cold today, I was wondering how I was going to carry this. I didn’t need to. You’ve brought so much great, useful content for us today.

Beth: I’m just elated to have been asked. I really had such a great time talking with you today. Thank you so much.

Darren: No problem. Where can our listeners find more from you and connect with you?

Beth: Probably the best place to connect with me is on Twitter where I’m @bethdunn. I’m also on Instagram as @therealbethdunn. If you want to check out my blog where I do some more of my personal and long-form writings—essays and that sort of thing—that’s at

Darren: Great. We’ll have all those links in today’s show notes. I’ve actually found a few posts that relate to some of these points already. I’ll include those in the show notes, too, because there’s some further reading that you can do there. Thank you so much for chatting with us today, Beth. We’ll hopefully chat with you again soon and see another talk at inbound which continues the series.

Beth: Excellent. Looking forward to it. Thank you so much.

Darren: Wow. We covered some ground in that particular interview. I want to thank Beth again for the time that she generously put aside into agreeing to be interviewed today.

Before I go, I want to go just back up over those 10 points again just to reemphasize the things that Beth talked about. I think there are some really great nuggets in that.

Firstly, we want to convey that we’re humans. We get relieved of that formal stilted language and use more contractions in your writing. Instead of “you have,” use “you’ve.” Instead of “he would,” use “he’d.” Instead of “I will,” use “I’ll.”

Number two was to convey honesty by using shorter, simpler, clearer words, and not using those fancy words that make it seem like you may have something to hide that is hard to read.

Point number three ways to avoid using exclamation marks. Don’t use exclamation marks. Rely upon words to convey the emotion that you want to convey.

Number four was to avoid using jargon, especially acronyms. Tell those who don’t understand those words, that they don’t belong. It creates alienation.

Number five was to use a spellchecker. Mistakes make you look careless.

Number six was to use and create a style guide. It gives you a bar to raise your writing to every time and it brings consistency to your writing.

Number seven was to hire an editor to help you to implement that style guide, which again will save you significant pain in the long-term if you give that editor power to implement that style guide.

Number eight was to check your pronouns. Don’t lead with “I” or “We.” Instead, lead with “You” and “You’re.” It puts the spotlight upon your reader.

Number nine, before you hit publish, do some role play. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and see how they will read what you write. Imagine that reader in the worst possible mood. In a mood where they don’t have time for jokes and they’re having a bad day. It will help you to write with more empathy. Also, it will help you to write in a way that removes some of those objections that they have.

Lastly, don’t use snark in your writing. It has the cumulative effect of making your look like a bit of a jerk in some ways.

I loved the words that Beth actually finished her talk with. She actually said, “Just remember to be kind. Be kind. Be kind.” I think that’s great. In the writing that we create, we have the opportunity to really be kind to our readers.

I hope you feel like we’ve been kind to you today with some practical tips. I would encourage you to take some of these things and to go back over on some of the last posts that you’ve written. See where you can implement some of these things in the things you’ve written.

You might want to go to your About page. That’s a great place to go back and to apply some of these rules. Add some of those contractions, remove some of the jargon, and put yourself in the shoes of your readers. Those pages that people are reading every day on your blog, it’s really good to run through these kinds of filters and to apply some of these things. Also, of course, bring them to your future writing as well.

You can find today’s show notes at where I do have some links for you for some further reading, some of the things that Beth has written about previously, and also where you can connect with her. I hope you’ve enjoyed our first interview on the ProBlogger Podcast. Let us know in the comments how you found it. Hopefully, we’ll bring you some more of these in the future. We’ll chat with you in episode 53 of the ProBlogger Podcast.

How did you go with today’s episode?

What did you learn from today’s episode? Are you already using some of Beth’s strategies? Which ones will you try next? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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