‘Who?’ is the one question that will make your content positively swoonworthy

Reading Time: 9 minutes



“What do you mean, ‘who’?”

“Who are you talking to?”

“Oh, which buyer persona? I think we call it CEO Steve or something…”

“No no, forget that, who are you talking to? Describe them to me.”

“Well, they’re a business leader and uh, they have big goals they want to hit.”

“Right, OK, that’s table stakes, though. Try this. Close your eyes and imagine this person has come up to you on the street and asked you the question you’re answering in your content. Did they run up to you or walk up to you?

I have some version of this conversation at least three times per week when I’m coaching people on content creation; whether it’s a blog post, a video, or something else they’re working on, it doesn’t matter. It almost begins the same way. If someone is new to me kicking over content rocks in their brain, I usually get a chuckle when I ask them to close their eyes.

But when they see I’m not joking, they finally cave. (They all do, muahaha.)

And what follows out of that conversation is the pure magic? that differentiates solid pieces of content from those super engaging, sticky (in the not-gross way) content pieces that make your audience fall in love with you.

Here’s why — the most important question you will ever ask yourself when you sit down to write a piece of content does not include any of the following:

  1. What am I going to write about?
  2. How should I position that argument?
  3. What examples should I include?
  4. How should I start this f*$%king thing?

Don’t get me wrong. Those are all important questions you should (and will) ask yourself while you’re writing. But the first question you must always ask yourself when you sit down at your keyboard, typewriter, or morse code box will be the same exact question no matter who you are, what you’re writing about, what industry you’re in or what your Starbucks order is.

“Who is asking me for help?”

Whenever someone goes to the Great Google Machine to type in a search query that will — fingers crossed! — bring them to your virtual content doorstep, they have reached a moment where they need help.

They need help answering a question.

They need help solving a problem.

They need help filling in a knowledge gap.

Which means they have reached some sort of barrier they can’t get around, under, over or through without intervention, without someone else’s assistance.

Now, typically, when we sit down to write, we see the question or topic in front of us and go into some sort of autopilot mode. We know the answer. We know the solution. We talk about it all the time. It’s our bread and butter, right?

We know what questions a company should ask before hiring an agency.

We know how much a wedding photographer costs and why.

We know what the best project management software options are on the market.

We know the most important metrics our ideal buyers should be tracking.

And on, and on.

We are ready to Demonstrate Our Expertise™ and Showcase Our Value™ and Prove Our ROI Potential™ and all of that other Synergy™ nonsense. But before we rush off to launch our “Look how smart (I am/we are)!” parades, we should be slowing down and asking:


Don’t assume you know the answer. Because if you mentally probe yourself in a very specific way — a way I’m about to share with you — you will utterly transform how you view your audience and how you position your content in such a way that you will become irresistible to the people you’re trying to reach.

And here’s why.

Why “Who?” is so freaking important

About seven years ago, when I still lived in my hometown of Washington, D.C. — the epicenter of political nonsense and my repeatedly smashed sports team dreams — I was sitting at a table at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle (one of my favorite spots in town), waiting for a friend of mine to show up for brunch.

Being the patient gal that I was, by the time she arrived 15 minutes late, I was two mimosas deep. Look, vitamin C intake is important, OK?

When she arrived, however, she was clearly distraught.

“Uh oh,” I thought to myself. I leaned forward about to ask how she was doing, when she blurted out:

“Why are men such garbage human beings?”

Ugh, in that moment, I realized exactly what had happened. The total unworthy dink she had been dating had screwed up somehow, again. And she was asking that question now, but very soon after this, the conversation would devolve in a manner that would include her asking (unfairly) what had she done wrong, what was wrong with her, blah blah blah.

Instead of responding immediately with something like, “Because there’s only one Keanu Reeves, unfortunately,” I processed what I already knew. I took a breath. I looked her over once to see she had already been crying, which tipped me off that I should tread carefully.

Then, I asked her what happened.

This is the precise kind of situational awareness you need to have about your audience every single time you sit down to write or step in front of a camera to film a video. You need to understand who they are and why they are coming to you in that precise moment with that question.

We are so mindful of this stuff when someone is standing right in front of us, asking us for help. But, understandably, when we’re simply trying to bang out a piece of content for ourselves, our clients, or our brand, we forget to do that.

Instead of a distraught human being sitting in front of us with a Bloody Mary in one hand and a lemon poppyseed muffin in the other, we have words. Soulless words arranged in the form of a question or a specific topic that we’re supposed to create content about.

That’s why I tell someone to close their eyes. To imagine this person is coming up to them on the street, or sitting down in front of them at a coffee shop to ask their question.

It’s not (just) a power play. I want them to see the human being they’re trying to reach so desperately in full-view, because that’s the only way they will be able to:

  1. Determine what tone and emotional approach they should take.
  2. Understand what they shouldn’t do, in terms of positioning.
  3. Get a pulse for what they definitely need to include or how they need to relate.

Yes, answering “Who?” can really tell you all of that. But only if you answer who in a specific way.

How to answer “Who?” the right way

Whenever you’re asking yourself “Who?” you need to ask yourself the following series of questions:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. When are they asking this question and why? Why in this specific moment?
  3. If they were in front of you right now, how would they be acting?
  4. Are they feeling any sort of pressure right now? From above, below, at a peer-level, or a combination?
  5. If it’s about a goal, is it their goal? Or were they given this goal?
  6. Fill in the blank:
    1. “I feel __________ because _______________________.” 
    2. “I feel __________ because _______________________.” 
    3. “I feel __________ because _______________________.”
  7. Based on their answers, what do they need from you emotionally?
  8. Also, what shouldn’t you do?

To make your lives easier, I’ve made this into a worksheet you can copy and start using immediately. (It’s not gated behind a form, just click on the image below and you’ll be taken right to it.)

For example, recently I took someone through this exercise when they needed to write about article that answered the question, “What is a content strategy?”

On its face, it sounds pretty straightforward and, eh, kind of one-dimensional, right?

Well, here are the answers that came out of this exercise when I sat down with this particular subject matter expert. (What follows are her answers to these questions.)

  1. Who is this person?
    This is someone who is a marketer, but probably at a lower level. Maybe they’re entry level, but I doubt that. They likely have at least a little bit of experience under their belt, although they’re still pretty green.
  2. When are they asking this question and why? Why in this specific moment?
    Oh gosh, now that I think about, I know exactly when they’re asking and why. They’ve probably been publishing content for a little bit (or they’re preparing to), and they’re feeling pretty OK about what they’re doing. Heck, there’s a good chance they’ve seen some traffic gains or and other types of positive results.

    Or they might just be getting started in their new role. They’re putting together their content calendars, they’ve been doing some brainstorming sessions, and they’re feeling like they’re getting their feet under them.

    Then, one day, their boss knocks on their door and says, “Hey, can I get a content strategy for what you’re doing?” And that’s where it all starts. They’ve been asked for the strategy behind what they’re doing (or what they plan to do) and they’re not sure where to start.
  3. If they were in front of you right now, how would they be acting?
    Honestly, if they are anything like I was when I got asked that question — because I definitely went through that — they’re super stressed and knocked a little off of their game. They’re being asked for a document they know their boss believes they already know how to produce. But they don’t, otherwise they wouldn’t be searching for that question.

    There’s also a good chance they’re a little confused. Isn’t the content calendar they’ve already created enough? Is that not the strategy? Or is it? On top of that, they’re anxious. Especially if they’ve already been producing content for a little while. If they’re getting this question, that means someone is looking for a strategy from them because (in their mind) their work is under scrutiny for some reason.

    And yeah, if we were on the street, they wouldn’t be walking or running. They’d be doing that weird thing where they’re clearly stressed, but they’re not trying to show it. They’d be power-walking with a thin smile on their face. You know what I mean? They’re trying to project everything is fine, they’ve got it under control… and everything is not fine, and they are not in control.
  4. Are they feeling any sort of pressure right now? From above, below, at a peer-level, or a combination?
    Oh, 100% they’re feeling pressure from above. They want to deliver. They need to deliver. This isn’t someone asking for an email printout. This is a higher-up wanting them to deliver a comprehensive strategy document they don’t know how to make.

    Moreover, they may feel as if their job is on the line, or at least there’s a chance their boss may lose faith in them, their work, or whatever strategy they have in motion.
  5. If it’s about a goal, is it their goal? Or were they given this goal?
    This isn’t a goal, so much as it’s something they have to complete. But still, yes. They have a goal to complete a content strategy, but this is a goal that was given to them. So, they have to get it right. And they have to get it right the first time.
  6. Fill in the blank:
    1. “I feel stressed because I’m not sure what the heck a content strategy looks like, and I should already know.”
    2. “I feel confused because… well, is a content calendar not the same thing as a strategy? What did i miss? Should I have already figured this out?” 
    3. “I feel really concerned because I am now wondering if I am being asked this because I did something wrong or I need to prove something.”
  7. Based on their answers, what do they need from you emotionally?
    Beyond giving them the answer to their question, I need to be kind here and display a clear understanding of where they are and why. Bottom line, I need to show empathy. And I also need to be relatable, too, so they can feel better about where they’re at. Because where they’re at right now is a pretty lonely spot. I know this, because (again), I’ve been there.
  8. Also, what shouldn’t you do?
    I need to not be rushed. I need to be thorough. I can’t cut corners. Most of all, I can’t make them feel stupid for not knowing the answer. Because, honestly, what they don’t realize is that a content strategy deliverable is different depending on who they ask.

Just look at all of that insane amount of detail and information she came up with, simply by taking the time to answer “Who?” the right way.

As soon as we got done with my audience-focused interrogation, I could see the gears in her noodle spinning. She had stories could tell that would be a great introduction. She felt more confident in her ability to write like a human being and be conversational and relatable. She knew exactly what posture and tone she needed to strike to be successful.

All because she stopped, took a breath, closed her eyes, and purposefully focused on finding the human behind the question.

Now, it’s your turn

The next time you sit down to create a piece of content, I want you to take 10 minutes and fill out my audience planning worksheet.

Now, once you jot down what your specific content topic or question is, I want you to close your eyes and imagine this person is coming up to you on the street. You see them approaching. They ask you that question you’re going to answer in your blog or your video. The question you already know the answer to.

But first, before you rush to write your answer down, I want you to stop. I want you to look at them. Then, tell me this:

Did they run up to you or walk up to you?

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