How to edit your own writing (Part I)

In my work helping clients craft messaging to drive growth, I do a lot of editing. My clients are founders, small business owners, and leaders who write all the time. They’re good at what they do.

But time and time again, I catch things in their work. Once we’ve make small changes, it gets 10x better.

Your work probably involves writing, whether you think it does or not. You might write for your website, newsletter, Twitter, Facebook, Keynote decks, and sales pitches. And if you’re technical, you’re still writing Slack DMs, texts, and plenty of work emails.

All of these forms of writing require skill. You need to get your message across in a way that makes sense for your audience, platform, and outcome. Unfortunately, beyond the basics of grammar and punctuation, as professionals we’re not taught the nuances of how to be persuasive with our words.

My private coaching clients have a direct line to me in situations when framing a message can really move the needle. We edit and polish, remove the anxiety about what to say (and how to say it), and get it shipped.

But not everyone has someone they can turn to for high-stakes messaging. I’ve said before that you should be your own mentor. I think you should be your own editor too.

In this post, I want to start off with WHY it’s a worth your time to learn how to edit your own writing.

1. It’s not "just" writing. It’s how you advance your agenda and sell your ideas.

Have you ever done a group project? Then you know the person who presents gets all the credit.

It’s incredibly frustrating and unfair, but it’s true. The teacher and class can’t help but associate the speaker with the one who must have led the project.

If you don’t know the game being played, it’s hard to win the game.

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Wes Kao
To drive growth, focus on increasing desire—not just decreasing friction

As a marketer, salesperson, UX designer, or product leader, part of your job is to reduce the friction involved if someone wants to buy something from you.

For example:

  • Make the button bigger

  • Use brighter colors

  • Write shorter copy

  • Put everything on the homepage above the fold

  • Add the call-to-action button everywhere on the website

  • Send reminder emails about the sale

  • Use monetary incentives, e.g. discounts, bundles, promotions, and reverse promotions ("The price goes up next month!”)

The underlying assumption is, “If I make this easier (or cheaper) for you, you’ll eventually want it.”

But this logic is fundamentally flawed.

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Wes Kao
Activation energy and why it matters for product launches

If you mix diluted hydrochloric acid with carefully measured strips of magnesium, you’ll get hydrogen...

You need a certain amount of each chemical though. If you don’t, the reaction won’t happen. You’ll get silence.

Activation energy is a term I learned from my friend Yuki, a biochemist who grows meat from cell cultures in Petri dishes. It’s “the minimum quantity of energy needed in order to undergo a specified reaction.”

Many projects take a level of activation energy before you start to see feedback—negative or positive. Maybe you’re an inch away from seeing a result, maybe you are a mile away…

So what can you do?

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Wes Kao
Be your own mentor

No one is coming to save you.

[Cue panic and running around in circles.]

I remember the first time I realized no one knew the right answer. It was simultaneously alarming and liberating.

Heck, I sat ten feet away from the most famous marketer in the world.

One day, we were discussing growth strategies. He stopped and said, “Wes, you should decide. I don’t have the answer. If I did, I’d just tell you."

Up until then, I thought our usual rigorous line of questioning was his way of teaching me to have a stronger point of view. Kind of like the Socratic method, if Socrates were a battle-hardened Navy SEAL in Special Ops.

“Oh God,” I thought. “If he didn’t have the right answers, who would? What hope do any of us have?”

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Wes Kao
People don't trust their own judgment

Why do people buy bestselling books?

Why are there laugh tracks in sitcoms?

Why are we suspicious of restaurants that are empty?

All of the above are examples of when we look around to see what people around us are doing…. To help us decide what we should do.

We feel pressure to fit in with our peers, to do the right thing that is expected of people like us. This means taking social cues from others, and using those social cues to give context to what we think is cool (or not).

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Wes Kao
Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget.

"Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." - Vice President Joe Biden's dad

Most people like us agree on a lot of things. For example:

“Climate change is bad. We need to do something.”

“We care about company culture. It's important to help our employees level up so we can stay competitive.”

“Innovation is crucial. We want to be a market leader, and that means taking risks.”

But, interestingly, the minute you present a solution that will save the environment, improve culture, or prompt innovation... Everyone is suddenly nowhere to be found. It’s crickets and tumbleweed.

Or more often, it’s a response like this: “Yes, we love your idea. It’s just not the right time."

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Wes Kao
Why the best technology doesn't always win [Future Tech podcast]

I meet so many smart, talented non-marketers who still believe their idea should sell itself. I'll break it to you now: no idea ever sells itself. You just don't see the leader behind-the-scenes working hard to make their idea seem to spread "organically."

The host of the Future Tech podcast, Richard Jacobs, interviewed me about why the best innovation doesn't always win. We discussed why technical leaders–scientists, engineers, researchers, innovators–need to embrace storytelling.

It can be frustrating to not only need an incredible product, but also need to do the hard work of helping people understand why it matters. For all the times you scratched your head wondering why a competitor was getting attention even though their product wasn't anything special... I hope you're starting to see that having a great product isn't enough anymore.

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Wes Kao
“What will I tell my boss?”: Why leaders should understand the worldview of bureaucrats

“This is policy.”

When someone cites policy on you, it’s hard to push back. It’s a strong frame because the person uttering these three little words has the power of an entire organization behind them. Who are you, a mere mortal, to challenge policy?

Never mind if the policy doesn’t make sense in your situation. Policy is policy.

What can you do? When you’re trying to do something new, you might have to deal with the most dreadful kind of person: a bureaucrat.

Shaking things up threatens the bureaucrat's safety, security, and equilibrium

Why do you have to deal with bureaucrats? To get anything of significance done, you usually need people to give you money, give you support, or give you their word not to block you.

Many of these people have comfortable positions at established organizations. They don’t benefit AT ALL from shaking things up. Literally shaking things up would probably be the worst thing that could happen to their current situation.

For example, why aren’t the executives at Mercedes Benz, Ford, or BMW panicking about electric vehicles eating their market share? If you use the lens of a bureaucrat, it’s easy to see why they aren’t eager to take action.

A Vice President at BMW has a great salary and title, and just needs to maintain the status quo. If they rocked the boat, it’s 100% downside and 0% upside. They’re going to retire within five years... so if they spent that time working on electric vehicles, some hotshot new VP is going to get all the credit when the work comes to fruition years later.

If the VP at BMW just stays the course, they’ll continue to reap the benefits of the status they’ve already earned. Why risk that for an idea that might not work?

One of my clients won a competition and received a prize award, but it came with a lot of strings attached. We tried every tactic to get power back. But in the end, the bureaucratic frame was too strong. The prize organizers were risk averse and each person didn’t want to get in trouble with their boss.

You must remember this: A bureaucrat doesn’t care about good results, investing in a long-term solution, or the ROI of your product.

They only care about keeping their job and not getting in trouble.

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Wes Kao
Assume your reader will skim, not read

If you are pitching ANYTHING–getting funding, getting a meeting with a decision maker, getting picked to win an RFP…

You should assume that your audience is skimming your note. When your memo arrives, most people are busy doing something else.

They are feeling dull, distracted, or cranky. They are scrolling through their phone. They have 15 browser tabs open and running late.

Mostly, their lives were fine before you arrived (and will be fine after you leave).

You can’t assume you have someone’s undivided attention. Why does this matter? You can write differently with people who already love you. But if your decision maker is distracted, you’re dealing with a different level of initial interest. This shapes the CONTENT of what you should include in your note.

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Wes Kao
Make Maps, Don't Just Follow Them [Accidental Creative podcast]

I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Accidental Creative podcast hosted by bestselling author Todd Henry.

Our conversation is relevant if you're a creative, people manager, founder, intrapreneur, or change agent building something new.

On the episode, we dive deeper into:

+ How to embrace map-making as your core mode of operation
+ How to present your ideas so that others can receive them
+ Why it’s important to have a “spiky” point of view

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Wes Kao