Content Marketing World: Colson Whitehead and the Craft of Writing

Sharmin Kent September 7, 2017

Colson Whitehead‘s appearance at Content Marketing World this year might seem like an odd fit.

His bibliography leans toward literary fiction, with each of his novels wildly different from its predecessors: the self-reflection of Sag Harbor, the clever zombies of Zone One, the magical realism/alternate historical Underground Railroad. Funny, chatty and sly, his talk this morning shined a bright light on how crafting a compelling story is the core of effective marketing.

Writing is Hard

Too few companies–and marketing departments–appreciate just how difficult it is to write well, consistently, and often. Whitehead began his professional career at the recently departed Village Voice, then landed an agent and wrote his first novel. Like any writer worth reading, Whitehead doesn’t take himself seriously–he quipped that the only reason he became a writer was so he could sit on his butt all day–but he was dedicated to learning the rules of writing through journalism.

Once he started his literary career, Whitehead was able to use what he learned through writing for newspapers to break those rules in fascinating ways. Effective marketing writers do the same: they take nearly impossibly large concepts and fit them into bite-sized stories that connect with people. It’s a skill that can make the difference between a prospect tuning out and becoming a customer.

The Best Ideas Need to Mature

Today’s marketing landscape moves at the speed of light, and churning out engaging content is still one of the most important and effective tactics for marketers. But some ideas may need to grow and mature before they’re revealed to audiences. Whitehead’s latest novel sprang from an idea he developed almost 20 years ago, but he wrote seven novels before tackling Underground Railroad. Brands with effective marketing earn the right to speak to their audiences, and the stories they tell must change and evolve with them. Telling the right story sometimes means waiting until an audience is ready for it.

The Story is Bigger Than You Are

For a novelist–whose personal life is often used as fuel for creating fantasies–it’s still important that he learns to separate himself from his work. But it’s especially critical that marketing writers learn how to dissociate themselves from the work they put out into the world. “The story should always be more important than you are,” Whitehead said during the interview portion of his talk. For marketers, that means prioritizing the brand story and the communities that can be built with that story. And if crafted well, that story won’t just build a connection between a brand and a customer–it builds a community that uses the brand story as its foundation.

Colson Whitehead’s work is sometimes reserved for classrooms and book clubs, but his message to the Content Marketing World audience was universal. Stories have power, and the people who write them must treat that power with care. For marketing writers, that means learning the rules, breaking them creatively, and improving their craft every day.

Featured image: Vimeo