Learn to Write Like a Spy or Die Trying: What the CIA Can Teach Us About Content Marketing

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Even the CIA knows the value of well-crafted communications to educate and inform (if not entertain). When I stumbled upon the student version of the CIA-style manual, I couldn’t help but want to learn how this esteemed organization trains its analysts to write. After all, if it’s good enough for Jack Ryan, it has to be good, right?

It turns out, the CIA’s style manual is a wealth of helpful info that’s relevant to content marketers. The Analyst’s Style Manual, published in 2008 by Mercyhurst College Institute for Intelligence Studies Press, and developed from the CIA Writing Manual, thoroughly covers writing essentials like capitalization, grammar, and punctuation (it’s excellent info if you need a refresher!). Then the guide takes it a step further, providing instruction on effective written communication.

When you’re writing a report for the head of the CIA, you had better know how to get your point across quickly and accurately.

Whether you’re a special agent or a content marketer, you’ll find these tips helpful.

The CIA’s Rules for Effective Intelligence Writing

Put Your Main Point Up Front

The guide advocates the BLUF (bottom line up front) approach. Use a clear, descriptive title. Get to point early and place key points in the first two paragraphs.

Content Marketing Takeaway: Help the reader make decisions fast. Give readers a preview of what your article covers so they can decide whether or your content provides the value they are seeking.

Write Short Paragraphs

Help readers understand the information presented by using short, well-organized paragraphs that hold the reader’s interest. Paragraphs should be no more than six lines and should be structured to include the main idea and supporting facts, then conclude with an analysis.

Content Marketing Takeaway: Structure paragraphs to support an idea. Use lists to help keep facts and supporting data organized.

Use Active Voice

Passive voice drags down your writing. Active voice makes your writing sound more alive and interesting. Put the subject and what they are doing up front. Here are some examples from the manual:

Put the doer up front: Passive: The report was submitted by Jones. Active: Jones submitted the report.

Drop part of the verb: Passive: The meeting was held at the hotel. Active: The meeting was at the hotel.

Change the verb: Passive: He will be required to attend. Active: He will have to attend.

Content Marketing Takeaway: Avoid using “was,” “were,” and “will be” followed by a verb ending in d, t, or n. Those are the biggest passive voice offenders and the easiest to detect.

Use Short, Conventional Words

Aligned with using active voice is the use of short words. Strive for a conversational, light tone that keeps the reader engaged. Avoid vague words and legalese. If there is a short word synonym for a long word, use it. (Why write “civilian residence” when “home” will do?)

Content Marketing Takeaway: Avoid jargon and SAT-level vocabulary words that send readers to Google to search for their meaning. Such words turn off readers and do the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish, which is to build trust with your audience.

Write Short Sentences

Keep sentences to around 12 words maximum. If you can say the sentence aloud in one breath, you’re on the right track. Edit out about 30% of the words from your first draft, removing unnecessary words or phrases that don’t add meaning.

Consider these examples:

  • “make a decision” vs. “decide”
  • “His actions are not behaviors I condone.” vs. “I don’t condone his behavior.”
  • “There are many followers on his social channels.” vs. “He has many followers.”

Content Marketing Takeaway: Ever forget what you read by the time you get to the end of a sentence? Don’t make your reader work so hard. Short sentences flow better and give the reader time to process what they’ve read before moving onto the next idea.

Be Correct, Credible, and Complete

Errors cause distraction and distrust. Readers will question your credibility if your writing is full of mistakes or is missing source citations.

Content Marketing Takeaway: Use grammar and writing tools to check your work. Check facts and include links to sources. Have someone proofread and edit your writing before you hit “Publish.”

What the CIA Can Teach Us About Content Marketing

Although their audiences and subject matter are vastly different, CIA analysts and content marketers have something in common. We both aim to communicate effectively with our readers, sharing helpful information from which people can learn and make decisions.

Guidelines for effective writing are universal ~ be concise, get to the point quickly, and make it easy for readers to understand.

And, edit, edit, edit.

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