What did you want to be when you grew up?
For me, the answer to that question was always “writer.” But as a kid, I didn’t think very far past that label. I didn’t know what careers were available. There are plenty of aspiring writers in elementary schools, but I doubt many third-graders are dreaming of careers in marketing.
When you grow up, you realize that there are a lot of different career paths for people with strong writing skills. Not all writers are New York Times bestselling authors or reporters with bylines on the front page.
Enter marketing. As the publishing landscape has changed over the past 20 years, more and more journalists are making the jump out of traditional journalism and into brand marketing. We’re lucky to get to work with a lot of them, both on our team at Rep Cap and at client companies.
One of those razor-sharp reporters-turned-marketers is Chris Winters. Chris got a degree in journalism and started his career as a reporter. Nearly two decades later, he’s run a digital marketing agency, worked for a Fortune 300 communications team and learned the ropes of SEO, brand marketing and internal communications.
In this interview, he explains why storytelling is at the heart of any great writing career — no matter what your business card says.
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I was an avid reader from a young age. At a book fair, I got a copy of “The Guinness Book of World Records.” I remember turning to the page with the world record for writing the most books and earning the least money (no kidding). The entry included a picture of the record holder, an emaciated, middle-aged man in a crumpled white shirt sitting at a cheap card table laden with dog-eared paperbacks. He looked like the weight of the world (and all of those books) had crushed him. For many years, despite having a strong affinity for the written word and a natural knack for turning a clever phrase, I ran from the notion of becoming a writer; writers were starving, sad beings. It was only after my stint in the U.S. Army and a few years rolling through life (and numerous jobs), that it suddenly occurred to me that I could make a living writing — without being a starving novelist.
Tell me about your career path in writing. You started out as a reporter. Why did you leave journalism?
To be honest, not much of that was planned. I was a pretty good reporter, and yet was having difficulty finding a stable job with any kind of job security. When I was finishing college, I got hired by a paper and it went out of business the day after I graduated.
Then I was on a team that started a new publication in Pensacola, Fla., called The Real Paper. We were getting to a point where our advertising revenue was starting to become profitable, and then 9/11 happened and our advertising dried up. Three months later, we were out of business, so I was looking for another job.
I looked around at that point and I said to myself, "I’ve got to stop reacting to what's happening in my field and figure out how I can use these skill sets I've developed to make a reasonable living and do something that’s still meaningful." That was the first time I got proactive and looked out ahead at the way the world was changing. I saw that social media was going to pretty dramatically impact journalism. I already knew that daily papers and newspapers of record were splitting up and getting bought off and going out of business.
So, I made a choice. I said, "I'm going to try to develop my skill sets to move into a different part of the writing field." It was an epiphany for me — I realized that if I was good at the writing process, I could apply that process to other career paths.
You’ve had to be pretty scrappy in your career. You even took a job in a call center for two years to move into the company’s marketing department. What advice do you have for other writers who are trying to find their dream job?
In that call center job, on day one I had an eye toward my end goal. I knew I wanted to pivot my career away from journalism and move toward a broader communications track. I applied for six or eight different positions over two years and finally I got an interview with the director, who gave me my position at the corporate headquarters.
She asked me, "What are your career plans? What are you hopes and aspirations?" And I said, "At this point, if the company can't figure out I can do more than answer the phone, they might not be smart enough for me to keep working for." And she laughed, and she gave me the job.
I knew what direction I wanted to take my career, and I went for it.
What have you learned about writing as your career has progressed?
My career has been all about telling stories. I learned the nuts and bolts of telling a story in preparation for my journalism career. Then, when I started working in corporate communications, I learned how to use storytelling to support my organization's advancement. When I worked as a digital marketing specialist at an agency, I learned how to use storytelling to build revenue for my clients.
I realized that storytelling remains storytelling across the gamut of writing. And that the value it brings to journalism equates to the value it brings to corporate communications and advancing your organization's interests, and that further equates to the value it brings to growing revenue for your company.
And the core elements are pretty standard: Less is more. Always use fewer words rather than more words when you can.
As a writer, you have to focus on the elements that make really great writing. I’m looking at a copy of Strunk & White on my desk right now. If you carry that book around with you as a writer — it doesn't matter whether you're sitting at a news desk or corporate communications desk or a digital marketing desk — if you follow its tenets in all that you do, you're going to be ahead of the class in most cases. Across all the places I've worked in my career, nothing has challenged that.
Marketing gets a bad rap sometimes. People don’t think about “stories” when they think about industries like public utilities or insurance. How do you find the stories?
One of my mentors at a newspaper once told me, “Nobody cares about a story until it walks through your front door.”
That means you have to spend a lot of time figuring out who your audience is. The very next question you should ask is, “What do they care about?” If you’re asking yourself that question every day, it’s going to lead you to the answers, and to the people in your organization who can give you the raw materials for your story.
So, for example, in insurance, there might be a major piece of legislation happening, but your audience doesn’t really care what’s happening on Capitol Hill. What they do care about is that next week when they get paid, instead of having $100 left after they pay their bills, they’ll only have $75. Suddenly, it becomes very real to them. And that’s what you have to look for, things that are concrete in people’s lives.
When my team at Starmount Insurance was setting our strategy for 2018, we asked, “How does Starmount Insurance affect people’s lives?” The answers are, “It’s easy to get, once you have it it’s easy to use and it makes your life better.” So those are the three fundamental messages that unite our marketing this year. If you want to write a compelling story, you have to know what your audience cares about.
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