Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
April 3rd, 2019
One of my core beliefs is that being genuinely helpful to others can feel like you have a superpower.
What I mean by that is, as brands and thought leaders, if you go out of your way every single time to be as helpful as humanly possible, you can do anything. You can tell stories that genuinely move people. You can grow your business through content. You can become unforgettable.
What's funny, however, is that we've trained ourselves out of being helpful.
True helpfulness is a liability, right?
If we're "too helpful," we give away our "secret sauce." On top of that, being helpful takes too much time. So, we sign-off emails with sentiments like, "Let me know if you have any questions, I'm happy to help!"
But, more often than not, we don't mean it. And our promise of being "happy to help" is completely empty.
Instead, we mentally cross our fingers that there will be no questions, follow-ups, or requests for clarification, so we can move onto whatever more "important thing" is next on our to do list.
I know this because, as much as I hate to admit it, I catch myself on occasion hoping I'm not called upon to be helpful -- even (and especially) when I put myself out there to be helpful.
That's because even though science tells us there are quantifiable benefits to being helpful, we believe that to be helpful isn't profitable.
Yes, Helpfulness Is Profitable
As a word nerd, I've always found the idea that "helpful" and "profitable" are considered synonyms, but in the workplace, they are often considered to be mutually exclusive concepts.
Leaving aside that being helpful feels good -- in fact, the act of helpfulness activates the same part of the brain that gets stimulated by great food and, well, sex -- I believe that being helpful is a pathway to business profitability. And research backs me up.
For instance, Wharton professor Adam Grant has dedicated much of his career to uncovering what motivates workers. And one particular experiment of his yielded fascinating results. Grant studied a team of people whose purpose was to sell books over the phone as a fundraiser for scholarships. As part of the experiment, he had a student who directly benefited from the scholarship they were supporting through their efforts to talk with the people making those calls during a single 10-minute break.
One month later, they were spending almost double the amount of time on the phone and they had increased their sales by nearly 170%.
And that's just one example -- there are tons of studies that show how, feeling helpful and being genuinely helpful are profitable.
As I dug deeper, it made me reflect on that old saying:
"Our buyers only stop listening when we start selling."
Buyers stop listening to us when we stop helping them and we start helping ourselves.
So, when we're not being helpful, we're not only letting business opportunities walk out the door, we're also holding that door open for those opportunities to leave us with enthusiasm.
While that idea has traditionally been applied to more traditional "sales conversations" of the past, I see some of today's brands and thought leaders flipping that switch from helpful to not helpful online.
To show you what I mean, here are the three most common "helpfulness" infractions I see:
Websites that make it hard to actually consume the content you want -- with pop-ups, slideshows that reload a new page every single time, deceptive ads that look like buttons, and so on. (Oh, and to the person who invented loud video ads that only play 25 minutes after you've abandoned a page in a tab in your browser, you're a monster.)
Speakers who pull a bait-and-switch in their talks. You're there to learn but, as it turns out, they were there to help themselves out by selling to you instead of delivering on the promise of their talk write-up.
Content (written or visual) that makes the promise, "I'm going to help you solve your problem," and then fails to deliver. Either due to thinly veiled sales pitches being woven in, an obvious "phoning it in approach" by the author, or just a complete lack of alignment between what a content author wants to say about a topic and what their audience actually needs.
I am willing to bet many, many dollars that virtually all of you have been on the receiving end of each of these scenarios and thus are keenly aware of how absolutely infuriating it is to seek help from someone -- online, in person, etc. -- and they turn out to be liars who just want to seem like they're being helpful, when really, they just want to help themselves.
While I could spend a lot of time trying to unpack each of these three sins, I'm going to focus exclusively on the last one -- content -- for the purposes of today's discussion.
Where My "Happy to Help" Process Came From
What's funny about the process I'm about to share is that I've been using it for years -- but I didn't realize it was actually a process.
After telling her that the best content is the kind that's the most helpful, Carina asked me, "OK, so what does good content that's actually helpful look like? I have a client who wants specific tactics and direction."
To be honest, I've heard some form of this question a lot over the years:
"How much background do I need to include?"
"I don't know how to address this topic, what should I do?"
"Is this too long?"
"Is this too short?"
"Am I even writing about this correctly?"
"Is this any good?"
"I have a story I want to tell, but will anyone even care about it?"
"Does my audience even care about this?"
When Carina asked me that question, however, it clicked in my head that, as marketers and wannabe thought leaders, we (usually) have a good idea of what we should be talking about -- because we know what questions, problems, and issues our target audience is trying to address.
But we are tremendously insecure about how to address those questions, problems, and issues in our content.
We either don't know what to say, have too much to say, or don't want to give away the "secret sauce."
Or, more to the point, we either don't have a clear picture on how to be helpful or we don't want to be helpful.
Still, her question nagged at me, because my answer felt weak.
My response was a set of tactics -- not a broad principle that could guide people with their content or process-based framework someone could use over and over again for everything they ever create.
So, after months of experimentation and reflection, I have finally reverse-engineered the mental process I use to ensure every single piece of content I create communicates my genuine desire to be helpful, and the substance of what I produce is actually helpful
Because, in retrospect, I now see that when I fully embrace being helpful in my content -- and when I coach others to do the same -- the results have spoken for themselves. (But I'll get to the results later.)
OK, Here's My Helpful Content Grid & Instructions on How You Use It
Below is what the framework (the grid that is the physical documentation of my process) looks like:
Now, I bet a few of you are thinking, "Are you serious? After all that exposition, this is all you have to show me?"
I know, it looks very simple on its surface, but its simplicity is deceptive -- so, trust me when I say there is more to it than initially meets the eye.
Also, not only do I use this process, I've trained others at IMPACT to use this process and tell me they love it, because it helps them quickly orient themselves -- either mentally or in writing, depending on their preference -- before they outline something or start a first draft.
So, let's talk about how you use it.
What You Need to Know First
Before you can start using it, there are two things about this grid you need to understand.
First, being helpful isn't a single act that occurs in a vacuum.
Instead, true helpfulness lives at the intersection of having a true situational understanding of what someone is concerned about and why (their problem), and knowing exactly what you bring to the table that makes you qualified to help them and what.
Specifically, you need to give someone to make them feel as if you've solved their problem (your value).
Or, more simply:
Their Problem x Your Value = How You Help
Second, you should think of this tool like a COMPASS -- as I said before, it is not an outlining tool, although it will give you an idea of how you'll organize your thoughts ahead of an outline or a draft.
Instead, if you follow the directions below, you create a full roadmap for any piece of content you need to create in 20 minutes or less -- in fact, if you get really good at it, you can run yourself through the process in your head in about five minutes.
Here's How You Use It
So, the simple answer is you fill out each of those quadrants for anything you want to write about. There's no real mystery there.
However, you have to answer those four questions -- what, who, why, and how -- under those two columns (their problem and your value) in a very specific way.
Also, the order in which you answer those questions will depend on your starting point.
But first, we're going to look at each question individually and talk about what questions you're really answering for each.
How to Answer "What?"
The question here that you're answering is, "What are you talking about?"
Of the four, this is the question that will usually have the shortest answer, as it should be a completely one-dimensional descriptor of what you're talking about, completely free of editorializing or context.
To illustrate, here are the "whats" for actual articles and content we've published:
If you're on the receiving end of assignments from a predetermined content strategy, you may go into this process with this question having already been answered for you.
The important thing here is to keep your answer stripped and simple.
How to Answer "Who?"
My favorite part about this question is that you don't need buyer personas to answer it. In fact, I would advise against answering this question with a buyer persona, because you won't get the depth you need to use the grid successfully.
I say this because, fundamentally, a buyer persona is just a documented version of what you already know.
But more than that, they're generally broad in their descriptions of challenges and goals. So, when you use them, you feel like you've checked the box of "understanding" who your audience is for a particular piece of content, but you haven't really.
Anyway, with that diatribe out of the way, when you answer "Who?" you actually need to ask yourself the following questions:
Who is the person who is interested in this topic? What do they do? What level of responsibility do they have?
Why do they care about this topic? Is it a topic that's causing them pain, fear, or friction? Or is it a goal they want to accomplish? If it's a goal, why do they have that goal? Is it mandated or their own? Is their role or position causing friction or pressure around this topic; for example, they're a director getting leaned on by a VP or C-level executive to get answers or results?
OK, now that you know who they are and have a basic understanding of their motives and intentions are around a topic, what are they looking for from you -- in their words?
Your answer to "Who?" will really be three answers that answer the three sets of questions above.
And those answers are the context you'll need to address the topic -- your "what" -- in the most helpful way possible. Otherwise, you'll just be creating content about a topic from your own self-centered perspective of the universe.
How You Answer "Why?"
Generally speaking, you're just answering "why" you're qualified to talk about that specific topic ("what") to your defined audience ("who"), so you'll want to fill in this quadrant with:
She's got tons of experience in doing the job she now hires for.
Also, in her role as IMPACT's VP of Services, she's conducted hundreds of interviews.
As a result, she's got tons of success stories, but also horror stories about hires they thought would work out but didn't.
In fact, she's only able to talk about this "what" -- how to identify the great employees -- because those bad experiences informed how she (along with others at IMPACT) uncovered that "secret ingredient" all of our great hires possess and adapted our processes to identify those candidates who have it... and those who don't.
Your way shouldn't be some cookie cutter resume or your job title. It should be thoughtfully tailored to the "what" and "who" of your content.
Finally, How You Answer "How?"
Even though I'm about to share with you the two different orders in which you fill this grid out, "how" always comes last.
By the time you answer this question, you know:
What you're talking about.
Who from your audience cares about what you're talking about, why they care about it, and what they want.
Why you're uniquely qualified to help that specific person with the particular goals/fears/problems/questions they have about that topic.
So, when you are answering "How?" what you're really answering is:
"Using what I know about why I am qualified to address this topic, how, specifically, do I need to help this person with their topic, so they feel like they got what they came for?"
Sometimes, this answer is very simple, like, "I will teach them how to do X thing, with examples and in-depth overview of each step."
Other times, however, you may need to push a little deeper.
To show you what I mean, let's go back to the article I shared above from Brie. Her "how" answer was:
I will explain my background and be radically honest about the fact that we only learned what that #1 indicator of a successful hire is by making mistakes.
I will share exactly what those mistakes were and what we learned from them.
I will share how we identified that #1 indicator.
I will share how we updated our hiring processes to proactively identify that indicator.
I will then provide guidance on how other companies can screen for this indicator in their own hiring processes in a way that is flexible to their individual needs.
And for my content style guide how-to playbook... I fell down a rabbit hole. Because the more I dug into what I needed to cover, I realized how much I need to cover in order to thoroughly answer the question of how to build a content style guide.
So, here is how my thought process played out as I was answering my "how":
I will explain what content style is and why it matters to brands.
Which means I should also explain what it looks like when you don't have style.
I will explain what a content style guide is.
Next, I will talk about the three core components of a style guide -- voice, tone, and style.
I will also explain what a content style guide isn't, because it's often confused with a brand's messaging strategy.
Then I need to show an example of a style guide for context.
But since there is no "one right way" to do a style guide, I need to show multiple examples and explain why they each work.
Then I'll need to talk about how to create one. Which means I need to walk them through every step of the content style guide workshop I created.
Oh no, which means I need to give them the presentation deck... and all the worksheets for each of the exercises. Sigh, and then instructions on how to use them.
Also, since I know from experience how... "fiesty" participants can get about the rules of the workshop, I need to tell them all of the objections they'll potentially get from participants and how to handle each of those objections.
Hm, and since some of these folks probably haven't facilitated a workshop before, I'll need to give the general facilitation tips.
(At this point, I paused for panicked dry-heaving, before I continued.)
OK, now I need to teach them how to synthesize everything they got from the workshop, so they can develop their voice and tone.
Then I need to teach them about the different editorial style guides that exist that will inform the "style" paint that should be applied to their voice and tone -- basically, the rules for grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, and so on.
Sigh, but I can't just end it here. I need to explain how to roll it out.
And then how to enforce the rules of the style guide.
Finally, the last question they probably have is how often they should update their style guide, if at all.
Given how "definitive" that guide was supposed to be, the "how" portion of this exercise took on a life of its own.
This is an extreme example, but I share it to demonstrate a point.
"How" you will help someone through your content has to be defined the needs and wants of your audience -- how they define success and being helpful. Not you.
A lot of times, it'll be pretty straightforward.
But, if my experience shows you anything, it can sometimes feel like you pulled on a thread and started unraveling a sweater.
I'll admit, after going through that process, I felt so drained. Because, in order to be helpful, I had to give away what some might consider my "secret sauce" and then some.
My gut said it was the right thing to do -- that's how I was going to actually be helpful.
Thankfully, shortly after I published that magnum opus on creating a content style guide, someone in IMPACT Elite shared this post with our 4,500+ members:
Since then, I've received emails from others expressing similar thoughts, and I can't tell you how good that feels. To know you've genuinely made someone's life easier or empowered them to do their job better.
And, as of today, that number is $329,000+ in revenue generated (and climbing) -- well over a quarter of a million dollars.
The 2 Different Ways to Use the Grid
Finally, the order in which you answer those four questions will be determined by your starting point:
You have a chosen topic ("what") already.
You have a story you want to tell about an experience ("why") that teaches a personal lesson.
You have neither.
If you have your "what" or you have neither a "what" or a "why," here's the order you use:
If you have a story to put in your "why," here's the order you'll use:
For the story track, you may also want to take a quick peek back at the WHY section one more time for refinement, but only if you feel it's necessary.
Often, people who are in thought leadership type roles will follow the secondary track, because they have stories they need to dig into to determine its contextual relevance.
This is the track Brie used for her super popular Being Nice at Work (& as a Leader) Doesn't Hold You Back article. She had a story -- where she was called nice -- and it took some digging to figure out exactly what she was talking about, who she was telling this story to and what they needed from her (in their words), and so on.
How to Make My "Happy to Help" Content Grid Work for You
See? I told you there was more to that little grid than meets the eye. The best part is you can use this mental (or written) compass exercise for anything -- a blog article, a content pillar, a webinar, a talk you're giving, etc.
Of course, now you might be thinking:
"I do not have the energy to go through this process every single time!"
Yes, you do.
Think about how much easier writing that outline or first draft of your blog article, talk, or presentation will be if you already have this roadmap created for what you're covering?
Moreover, going through this process will it get easier (and faster) with time, and your effort will pay off because this process will ensure that you're genuinely helping people.
And the more you show how helpful you are, the more people will trust you. And the more people trust you and come to rely on you. And the more they'll remember you. And come back to you. And buy from you. And recommend you to others.
And... and... and...
Soon, you'll see the benefit of being helpful, so when you say you're "happy to help," you'll really mean it. Because it'll feel a bit like magic.
Isn't that crazy? Who knew how powerful simply being helpful could be?