A Relentlessly Helpful Professional

When I heard that John Espirian was writing a book, I’ll be honest, I was a bit torn.

I first met John on my very first day at my very first SfEP conference (now CIEP). I’d been editing for a while, but didn’t *feel* like an editor yet. I felt like a total imposter. I felt out of my depth and a bit like any minute someone was going to throw me out of the door for being a fake.

Then John came over to say hello and put me at ease.  He’s got an infectious smile and an attitude that’s relentlessly helpful no matter who you are.

See, it was there long before he made it part of his Content DNA.

My book pile is growing!

Just another content marketing book?

So, why was I a bit torn? Well, whenever I review a book (or anything for that matter) I’m totally honest. I don’t believe in bullshit (that’s part of my DNA), and I have a habit of telling it like it is. No matter who it is. Everyone gets treated the same with me, whether you’re the CEO of a multi-million-pound company or a lone-wolf first-time author. ‘Celebrities’ are just people, and, to me, everyone is just a person with feelings, successes and insecurities. Basically, and I hope he’ll forgive me for this, I was worried that it might be a bit … rubbish.

Not because I thought he’d write rubbish, but because lately I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that deals with business and written content. And it’s all the bloody same. It all tends to be by self-styled ‘experts’ who have found the secret to success and want to share it with you. Quick fixes that will bring in the bucks and make you irresistible to clients. Meh.

You buy the books, read the websites, try to implement the ‘tips’, then end up feeling overwhelmed as you try to sift through the filler and find the nuggets that will deliver on the promises.

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No, but it’s not a quick fix

For me, at least, Content DNA doesn’t pretend to give a quick fix. The contents are easy to implement and, importantly, they don’t have to be done all in one go for you to move forward. This book is full of common sense. There’s a 30-month mindset to get your head around. There is absolutely no overwhelm.

So as I head into the review let me make this point again … if you’re not prepared to listen to common sense, and if you want a quick fix NOW, this book probably isn’t for you. However, if you want to read a business book about content marketing that gives relentlessly helpful common sense, with a sense of humour, that will help you build your brand identity with confidence, then I reckon you can’t go wrong with a copy of Content DNA.

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A Quick Summary of Content DNA

  • There are 236 pages of content and an index at the back.
  • The book is nicely laid out, easy on the eye and easy to navigate. You can dip in and out when you need to.
  • Written with a nice tone of voice, this book isn’t preachy.
  • John guides you through what he’s done to create a recognisable brand through consistency and congruence, and shows you how you can do it too, whether it’s for your own personal brand or your company.
  • The book is packed full of no-nonsense, practical advice that covers everything from knowing how you want to be seen to knowing your clients and how to repurpose and republish your content.

‘Your brand must reflect the truth about who you are, what you stand for and what shape you want to portray to the world’

fiery heart

What I Liked About Content DNA

After reading some business books lately, this is a breath of fresh air. The last book that I read, with the Being Freelance online book club (which I won’t mention here), felt like I was reading a novel, written by a very preachy ‘expert’. It didn’t even finish it – it was too heavy and not at all inviting.

John’s book is written very much as he talks. It’s chatty, but not waffly, clear and easy to read. It’s a bit like having a mini John sitting on your shoulder talking to you.

But he also knows that not everyone has time to sit and read a book straight through, so every chapter begins with ‘the main takeaway’ that explains what the chapter is about. It’s a paragraph set apart from the body of the text, so if you need to dip in you know if you’ve hit the right chapter.

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A fresh, clean layout

I’m a sucker for a nice looking book. There has to be a good ratio of white space to text – this makes it easier on the eye and attractive to look at. John has obviously worked closely with Catherine Williams, his book designer, to create something that’s as attractive as it is informative. This book won’t give you eyestrain, the font is very easy to read, and the page has a nice, fresh, clean layout that I found appealing.

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With an index …

Having an index also gives John brownie points – if your book is good enough to be taken seriously, then it’s good enough to have a proper, workable index. As a trained indexer I can’t help but look at the back of the book, and the index, on the whole, works well. There are a couple of long strings in there that could probably have benefitted from a few more subheadings (for example LinkedIn and social media), but that’s major nit-picking on my part. No one other than an indexer would probably notice. I’m going to give a virtual ‘high five’ to the indexer – recognition where it’s due (indexing is not easy to do).

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It’s written by an expert – who doesn’t say he’s an expert

When you read the book, you’re being led through what can be a complex subject with ease and humility. John explains how he started, and how he arrived as a respected LinkedIn expert and technical writer. He dips into content marketing with quotes and examples by the likes of Mark Schaefer (author of KNOWN, The Content Code and Marketing Rebellion) and never talks down to the reader. In fact, John shies away from calling himself an expert, but by reading this book you know that’s exactly what he is

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Bite-sized chunks make for easy digestion

One of the joys of this book is that each chapter is just as long as it has to be, and moves logically on to the next. The chapters aren’t long, so they’re easy to read on the go if you don’t have much time, but they’re packed with helpful, actionable information. You can easily read a chapter in your lunch break.

‘A fancy catchphrase is useless if it has no relevance to what you do’

Useable, focussed exercises

This book doesn’t just tell you how to go about finding your Content DNA, it shows you. It’s packed with examples and little exercises to get you thinking about your business. I love the ‘Define your brand values’ chapter, because it’s short but powerful and the ‘Your tagline’ still has me thinking –it’s one part of my business I’ve never managed to sort out (‘Drinking all the coffee, so you don’t have to’ wouldn’t say much about what I do for my clients). The chapter on personas (or pen portraits) is also spot-on. I love getting back to my storytelling and creating my customer characters.

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This book gets you thinking

Unlike some business self-help books, this one doesn’t spoon-feed content. John guides you through what to do and what not to do, and shows what’s helpful and what isn’t. Probably because John’s a technical writer, he manages to make everything sound simple. He gets you thinking in ways that make it easy for you to implement your own DNA (the building blocks of your brand) into your business. He takes into account how to deal with social media, how to stay the same shape no matter where you are, so your clients and potential clients can spot you no matter where you pop up, and how to write good content.

‘Don’t assume that a couple of glossy marketing brochures mean you’ve created a brand’

You’ll read this book because you enjoy it, not because you have to

This is actually a book I wanted to read, and enjoyed reading. At no time did I think ‘Urgh, better get this book read then’. I wanted to see what John had to say next. It was like sitting down and having John talk you through it. It’s basically all killer and no filler.

sad face

What I Didn’t Like About Content DNA

The one thing I didn’t like about this book was that I couldn’t find anything wrong with it.

I know John in real life. He knows I wouldn’t give him an easy ride. If I found a flaw I would point it out (you’ll remember at the beginning I said I was worried that it might be a bit rubbish). Hell, even the interviews at the back of the book are worth reading. I suppose if you weren’t interested in the research he did for the book you might gloss over these interviews, but they give great insight into other experts – I especially liked the interview with Col Gray; I’ve been following his work for a while so I’m not surprised he helped with John’s rebrand.

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So, Should You Hand Over Your Hard-Earned Cash for this Book?

This is not a get-rich-quick book. If that’s what you want, this book is not for you.

If you want to use the information written down here, you’re going to have to put in some serious work. It will take time. You are going to have to really look at your business and the way you do business.

But …

If you’re looking to help your business stand out, learn about what makes you and your clients tick and want to learn to be consistent and congruent, then hell, yes, buy this book. I highly recommend it.

Content DNA gives you everything you need to set off on the right path. The book is based on the advice that John gives his clients, and I’ll tell you now, it would cost you a hell of a lot more than the price of this book to get a private consultation.

I can honestly say I loved this book. And I think it will become a go-to reference guide for people serious about building a great business that stays true to the core building blocks they’re going to create as a result of reading it.

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You can pick up your copy here, or ask your local bookshop.

Content DNA: Using consistency and congruence to be the same shape everywhere
by John Espirian


For transparency, I was kindly given a review copy for the purpose of this article.

10 quick ways to improve your business writing skills

simple points to improve your business writing skills

This week I was going to write about something completely different

It’s been a full-on week and I never quite got to write anything (hey, I’m only human, shit happens).

But Twitter threw me a curveball the other day that totally blew my mind (more about that later).

sara donaldson emoji mindblown

Now, I’ve been in the information business long enough to know that we can’t possibly know everything. We have to pick and choose our knowledge, which is why people tend to niche.

I know my stuff and you know yours.

Which is fundamental to business.

For instance, you may be an absolute genius on the bespoke hat scene but may not be confident in your writing, and I’m a brilliant writer but wouldn’t know where to start making a hat. So we make the perfect combination when we work together. You pay me to check out your brochures, website and marketing material (freeing up your time to make more gorgeous hats), and I make you look even more bloody marvellous than you already are (and I learn a little bit more about hats, so when we work together next we know each other and make it even more fabulous)

We can’t and shouldn’t know everything about everything.

I help businesses get their message across when they don’t know where to turn. I can edit and write for you but, honestly, it can be beneficial for you and your business if you to try to write something yourself if you have the time.

If you don’t have the time or inclination, get someone like me to do it for you (it will free up your time and allow you to do what you do best). But if you do have the time, there are ways you can help yourself write something for your business.

How to improve your business writing skills

  1. Make sure you know what you’re writing. Is it a web page, a flyer, brochure, an email, social media post? They’ll all need a different approach.
  2. Be clear about what you’re saying. Know in advance what you’re actually going to be writing about. Don’t waffle.
  3. Be clear about your audience. Who are you writing for? What is their level of knowledge of your business, product or industry? If in doubt use a persona and write for them in mind.
  4. Write a draft first. Don’t expect your first stab at it to be the finished article. Brainstorm on paper. Use bullet points and make sure you get everything down that you actually want to say. Then write it up properly using the bullet points as a guideline.
  5. Use the active rather than passive voice. For example, ‘it can be seen’ can be changed to ‘you can see’, ‘your requirements can be reviewed’ can be changed to ‘we will review your requirements’ and ‘we can be contacted on …’ can be changed to ‘contact us on …’
  6. Get rid of the dross. Seriously. If it’s not relevant, just get rid of it.
  7. Don’t write 15,000 words when 1,500 will do. There’s no need to pad your writing out just for the sake of it.
  8. Don’t use jargon unless you absolutely have to. If you’re writing for the general public don’t throw jargon at them – it will only either confuse them or hack them off. They will end up leaving your website, deleting your email or throwing your expensive brochure in the bin.
  9. Add a call to action. If you want your readers to do something, make it very clear what you want them to do. But don’t be cheesy about it. Don’t try and use clever wording, leave that to the experts.
  10. Proofread like a boss. Seriously. Proofread on screen. Change the font, font size and colour and proofread again. Print it off and proofread. Hire a proofreader. I cannot over emphasise the importance of proofreading your work.

If you follow these ten simple points you’re going to be able to improve your skills for those times when a professional writer, copyeditor or proofreader isn’t an option.

And what on Twitter got me in such a kerfuffle?

I found out about Aphantasia.

And realised that other people can actually see images in their heads.

If you have these head pictures it’s not news to you, but honestly I just found out that I’m actually a bit weird.

And I was a bit, ever so slightly bizarre, for me to find out that I can’t do what other people do.

Oh, well.

I did have a complete stranger come up to me today in the supermarket and say she ‘just had to tell me’ she ‘thought I was cool’ with my green hair and what I was wearing. Me. Cool. Ahh the poor deluded woman – but she did make my day 😊

Want to know more about Aphantasia? Here’s a rather good article (but I’d ignore the block test, that’s just stupid, I could do it with my eyes closed. oh, hang on, no I can’t!)

And this is the video that Twitter threw at me:

(c) AmyRightMeow
Go check out her other videos!

Oh, and my Call To Action?

If you haven’t got the time or inclination contact me and we’ll talk about your business writing needs and how I can help.

Personas for your business marketing (and a quick how-to or two)

You need to focus

They’re your perfect customer.

You want to talk to them.

You know it’s easier to talk to your one perfect customer than to talk to a whole room full of them, so it’s good to get the idea of Mr Perfect into your head. (I’m using Mister, but it could just as equally be Mrs, Miss, Ms or Mx.)

Knowing your ideal client also makes your information more relevant for your audience. Yes, I’m talking to you, the small business owner in the corner of the room who’s hiding from the rest of the folk because you feel like you’re an outsider. (By the way, you’re not an outsider, you’re perfectly fine.)

If you’ve done any kind of public speaking, you’ll know that in order to get your message across it can be good to concentrate on one person in the audience, right at the back so they don’t realise you’re focussing on them.

Basically, you want to get your message across to your perfect audience, but in order to do it you need a focus.

Personas are an important part of business planning. But they can be so much easier to create when you’re invested in them

You need a persona

In the business world, this perfect being is known as a persona, avatar, pen portrait or archetype, and it’s a big thing. Go look on Google (no, don’t bother, really, they’re everywhere) and you’ll see page after page of advice.

You’ll find downloadable sheets, images, cartoons and more advice than you can fling a stick at.

But I’ve found one problem with all this.

It’s bloody hard to imagine.

Yes, you know who your perfect customer should or could be, but how do you get that person in your head to feel like a real human being?

To create your perfect client persona, you need to dig deep into the kind of person you want to attract to your business. What are their likes, dislikes, things that make them go ‘meh’.

But sitting there with your pen, paper and business knowledge can still make it pretty difficult.

Two ways to build the perfect persona

I have two ways that you can figure out your own avatar that depends, really, on your aesthetic.

1. Use a D&D character sheet

The first is to use a D&D character sheet. Yes, that’s right. A Dungeons and Dragons character sheet.

Now, if you’ve never played D&D, or if you are one of those who pooh pooh it, perhaps it’s time to change your preconceptions. Dungeons and Dragons is not all about spotty, teenage boys in their parents’ basement, it’s a fabulous way to get your imagination working and is the perfect storytelling vehicle.

You can use it for creating a story around your persona, and could even, if you really wanted to, create D&D adventures that are business based. Less Dungeons & Dragons, more Shopping & Service Stories. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.

But do play D&D at least once in your life, your imagination will thank you for it.

D&D character who can help you build your persona

So, there’s idea number 1. Use a D&D sheet to create your persona. You’ll find them online. Use a basic level sheet and don’t worry about some of the attributes (don’t worry about hit points and how good your persona is with a battleaxe, unless you’re talking about the mother-in-law).

Note down on the sheet all the character points of your perfect customer. Get a real feel for them and allow the creativity to really get that persona on the page.

2. Use a photo of a real person

The problem with using a cartoon or no image at all, is that it can be difficult to imagine your perfect customer.

Meet Frederick.

Handsome isn’t he?

Now I know what you’re thinking. He’s a bit stiff. A bit old school.

Well he can’t help it, he was around in the 1860s.

Seriously though, Frederick can help you.

I like to take old photos to help me, but you could equally take a modern day photo to provide the inspiration. But for me, because I collect old photos, there’s a mystery to the people that helps me dig deeper into their character.

Take a good look at old Freddy. He’s a bit nervous, look at his eyes, he just isn’t comfortable in that studio. He’s been told to stand still, so that’s just what he’s doing. He’s not what you’d call a rebel.

But he’s artistic. His clothing is that of someone of a more artistic, less formal nature than many gentlemen of his time. So not rebellious, but with an artistic heart.

His hand is resting on a top hat, which may or may not be a prop. But it’s a symbol of status. He’s got a pocket watch, with the chain just peeping out of his waistcoat pocket. His shoes are shiney and his trousers are a fashionable houndstooth. He’s not short of a bob or two.

And the photo was taken at Bethnal Green Road in London – this chap’s a member of the artisanal class that lived in the area in the 1850s and 1860s. Perhaps he had this photo taken as he was on his way up in the world and he wanted to share his good fortune.

it’s easier to talk to your one perfect customer than to talk to a whole room full of them

Where does this help you with your persona?

Well, by taking a photo of a real person you don’t know you can really dig down. That’s why I like old photos, you can really build a story around them. Brendon Urie did it wonderfully in his song ‘Golden Days’ on the 2016 album ‘Death of a Bachelor’. Go listen to it if you haven’t. He’s an amazing storyteller with his music.

If I were to use Frederick as my persona, I would know that he’s uncomfortable in formal situations, he’s on his way up and wants his friends to know. He likes the fashion of his own people and is an artistic soul. His parents are both living, and he wants them also to see that he’s doing well.

His sister, Agatha, is married to the local butcher, and his younger brother is still at school. He lives in a fashionable area and works hard to have a decent, comfortable standard of living, with a reasonable amount of disposable income.

He went to a local fashionable photographer because he doesn’t want to scrimp on the things that are important to him. He loves a fine artisan beer, his favourite meal is a good old-fashioned steak and ale pie, and he will fight to the death for the knobbly aniseed jellies in a bag of liquorice allsorts.

I could go on and really get to the heart of this persona.

But can you see where I’m coming from?

Use these props to get it right

Personas are an important part of business planning. But they can be so much easier to create when you’re invested in them. A good old D&D sheet or an antique photo can be used as props that can really get your imagination flowing.

Why not give it a try and see how your ideal customers come to life the next time you write for them.