01 May 2017

How Growing Up With a Writer (Inadvertently) Made Me a Marketer

 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the third in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
When we talked about inviting family in, I asked both my wife and my daughter if they were interested. Jenn runs my website and Barb, my wife (who declined) used to write ad copy for radio and still acts in several productions a year. Both are better writers than I am, and both are great sources for feedback when I'm stuck. So here's Jenn.
— Steve

by Jenn (Liskow) Waltner

My dad is author Steve Liskow.

When I was growing up, he was English teacher Mr. Liskow at a high school I didn't attend (and really, kids should NEVER have to go to a school where one of their parents teaches).

As a kid, I had no idea how my dad's likes, passions, and aptitudes would influence my own career path. Sure, the ceramic dinosaur collection he had as a boy made me want to be a paleontologist when other kids couldn't even SPELL the word, but then I discovered that science wasn't really my thing and decided I should come up with another plan.

"Content marketer" was totally not that plan.

Here's how it happened. I wanted to go to college for photojournalism, but the school that threw money at me to attend didn't have that major. I figured I'd go for two years, knock off a bunch of core classes and then transfer somewhere with the program I wanted.

I went in as an English major. I figured it was a common major that would transfer easily and I'd do well because I grew up reading voraciously. But more than that, I grew up understanding the different components of storytelling and connecting with an audience--largely thanks to my dad.

It never occurred to me that those skills could lead to a career.

I've been doing this stuff daily for the last two decades as a marketer, mostly for high tech software companies.

When I was little, my dad explained different forms of writing: fiction vs. nonfiction, short stories vs. novels, poetry vs. prose, sonnets vs. sestinas (which I love) vs. haiku vs. blank verse vs. all the other forms of poetry I have forgotten, scripts vs graphic novels...you get the point. When you write, at some point you have to choose your format. The same holds true for marketing. I have to identify the best vehicle for telling each story. Should it be an eBook, a webinar, a blog post, a video, an infographic? Something else entirely? How can I adapt the story to work in different formats?

Next question: who;s the best person to tell the story? I vividly recall my father reading me the opening pages of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to show me how the whole story can change depending on who tells it. In marketing, having a trustworthy narrator is crucial. I often get to decide whether a particular piece of content should come from an internal author or if it works better coming from a customer, analyst, or media partner. Understanding how the choice of narrator influences the audience's perception has proven invaluable in my career over the years.

If you've read any of my dad's work, you know he's a huge music fan. Listening to songs together helped me wrap my head around style. Led Zeppelin covering Willie Dixon, Aerosmith playing Yardbirds songs, the Cramps covering Jack Scott, everyone in the world doing Bob Dylan stuff...two artists may be playing the same song, but with entirely different results. As a marketer, I work to define a brand's particular style and bring it to life. Is this brand sassy or buttoned-up? A little bit country or a little bit rock and roll? It's a fun choice to make.

My father's affinity for Westerns and his experience directing stage plays also helped build my marketing chops. Think visual storytelling. It's not all about words. Go watch the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or better yet, the final gunfight). With no dialog, narrative, or subtitles for a good few minutes, the action and images let the audience know exactly what's going on.

With a theatrical production, the set and the costume choices give the audience critical information about the characters and the mood. I use visual storytelling in almost every piece of content I touch, whether it's choosing an image for a blog post, building a slide deck for sales, working with an agency to create a new product video, or teaming up with a designer to develop an infographic.

Discussions about bad writing and books that didn't work helped me just as much as conversations about books my dad and I both loved--seeing how a plot falls apart is a great lesson in user experience. My dad and I both hate books with deus ex machina endings that leave readers feeling cheated. With a little more planning, the writer could have injected pieces into the story that let the conclusion feel more natural--delivering a better reader experience.

So often simple changes--a scene in Chapter 3, a paragraph in Chapter 17, an extra line of dialog on page 243--can make those transitions easier for the reader. That's the essence of user experience--making things easier. User experience often guides my discussions with web developers, product engineers and graphic designers. Questions like "Can we make that text easier to read?" or "What happens if we move that button over here?" may seem trivial, but can make a huge difference for someone encountering a web page, trade show display or product welcome screen for the first time.

Finally, my dad's teaching background helped me learn how to coach other writers. When I edit, I don't just make changes--I mark up documents with comments so the writer can see what I changed and why. The "why" matters most--good writers learn from my comments and correct similar bits on their own future projects.

Despite my 20+ years as a marketer, I'm still learning my craft--often inadvertently--through discussions with my dad, the writer.

7 comments:

janice law said...

A fine post. English majors can do most anything!

R.T. Lawton said...

Jenn, interesting and very well written. Thanks for posting with SleuthSayers.

Jeff Baker said...

Yes! Very well done! Thanks for the post!

Leigh Lundin said...

Jenn, my family refused to have a television while we were kids, so my Dad also read to us adventure classics. No television can touch that.

I admire your approach to storytelling. Whoever first said women aren’t visual didn’t know what they were talking about.

Great article, Jenn. Thank you.

Leigh Lundin said...

By the way, I rarely care much for cover/remakes of songs, but I quite liked Don McLean’s version of Crying. Apparently Roy Orbison did too. In performances, he began singing the song in McLean’s style. Thus Orbison covered McLean who covered Orbison.

Barb Goffman said...

Love your comment about explaining why you make changes. Explanation can easily take a recipient from "Stet; I liked it the way it was" to "Oh, yes, now I see why that was a problem."

John Floyd said...

Great column, Jenn! Glad to have you with us.