Finding subject matter experts (SMEs) who have the time to contribute to content creation is often a huge challenge for content marketers. SMEs, especially executives, often have a lot more ideas than time. A good ghostwriter can help.
The key to ghost writing for a SME is to create a piece that sounds like their voice and is one they are proud to call their own. They need to feel like they would have written than piece if only they had the time. Here are a few tips I've discovered in my work:
#1 Use their words. Everyone has a different set of commonly used words. I use some words in daily speech that others might not, e.g., egregious. (I just like the way it sounds.) Some of the clients I write for might use that word; many would not. On the other hand, they favor terms that I don’t normally use. For example, where I might say “comprehensive,” they might use “holistic.”
#2 Imitate their humor (or not). If you’re going to use humor in the piece, it’s important to understand what they think is funny. Snarky doesn’t work for everyone. I favor irony, but not everyone is attuned to it. I also adore puns, but I usually leave those out of my professional work. There are some executives—and some corporate cultures—who believe humor isn’t appropriate in professional writing. When it comes to humor, you need to go with what fits their style.
#3 Use their spelling when appropriate. If you’re writing a bylined piece for a SME from another country, you’ll need to decide whether to use their spelling or the native spelling of the target audience. Sometimes, the client’s corporate guidelines will cover this, but just as often, it is an overlooked detail. Pieces that aren’t bylined, e.g., white papers, usually call for the spelling of the parent company or target audience. However, if it’s a blog post, I recommend using the native spelling of the author. It gives the piece a more personal feel. Same goes for bylined articles, but that’s more of a grey area that may be dictated by the publication’s guidelines.
#4 Know their style. As marketers, we know stories sell. However, not all SMEs are story tellers. If you’re going to write a bylined piece for a SME who is not a story-teller, it’s often better to stay away from drawn out stories.
#5 Know their background. I have another client that loves analogies. They are a joy to write for as I love them as well. Since I write for multiple executives at this firm, I study their personal backgrounds. LinkedIn can be very helpful for this, but if they haven’t posted any hobbies or interests, just ask. For some, I use sports analogies. Thankfully, I can find just about everything I need to know about a sport on the Internet. For another executive, I use a lot of cooking analogies. This client even lets me leverage my background as a history buff in their analogies.
#6 Study past efforts. If you’re lucky, your SME will have already written a few articles or blog posts. These can help you understand your SME’s style and what they think is important. They are also a good source of additional topics. I might review something the SME wrote and then send them a “what if we looked at it from this angle?” idea.
#7 Use their cadence. People speak with a distinct cadence, e.g., fast, haltingly, slow and steady, emphasizing certain words, etc. People write with a distinct cadence as well. For example, I have one SME that loves to use series in his writing. In fact, he often uses two series in a sentence. A, B, and C = D, E, and F. Thankfully, he’s worked with me long enough to trust me to simplify his somewhat complex style. I still use the series approach, but I use it sparingly and keep him away from multiple series in a sentence.
#8 Remember, it’s not about you. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer. You need to be confident in your writing; confident enough that you can also let go. Admittedly, this can be difficult as writers can be a bit nerdy when it comes to word usage, grammar, and punctuation. For example, “on-premises*” and “on-premise” mean two entirely different things, but one of my high-tech clients insists on using on-premise when he means on-premises. At the end of the day, if he wants to use on-premise, it’s his call. Most of his audience will never notice, and given how often the words are used interchangeably, it probably won’t be too long before we see a new synonym for on-premises in Merriam-Webster.
*For my fellow punctuation nerds, I know I’m using a hyphen when I shouldn’t, but what fun is life if you don’t break a few punctuation rules every now and then?