Why I went back to pen and paper


I spend a good chunk of my time on the phone. I reckon this is critical for any content marketer. There’s loads of information banging around in people’s heads, and a conversation is the best way to extract it. On any given day, I might be interviewing a client’s customer for a case study, talking to a subject matter expert to pull out technical details for a white paper, or brainstorming ideas with a client for future work.

Over the past couple weeks, I noticed that these conversations were not going as well as they usually do. It was nothing terrible, and I was still getting the information I needed, but I noticed that I just wasn’t connecting with people to the extent that I usually do. Pauses were a bit longer, there were more “ums” and “ahs,” and I had to work just a bit harder.

I didn’t really think anything of it. Everyone goes through ebbs and flows, and I figured I was in an ebb (or a flow - I’m not sure which one is good and which is bad), and things would turn around soon. As it turned out, the situation was a lot more simple than that.

Little change, big impact

I always take notes when I’m having conversations like this. For years, I did this with a pen and paper, scrawling things down at a blistering pace as I talked to people about whatever bit of content we were working on. Not long ago, I made a change, and started typing my notes instead. I figured that’d be easier - I can type faster than I can write, so I could get more information down.

A few days ago, I was talking to someone for a case study, typing away as a guy spoke to me about a project he had worked on. About halfway through, he answered a question, I paused for a second while I typed, saying “sorry, just give me a second - I’m typing your answer.”

His response: “yes, I can hear that!”

That’s when I realised what my problem had been - I type really fast, on a not-very-fancy keyboard. It makes a hell of a racket. Since I talk on the phone with ear bud headphones, the microphone is maybe 20 centimeters from the keyboard. That pounding of my typing must be incredibly distracting.

I was lucky enough to realise this halfway through the call, because I could test my new theory immediately. I switched back to my trusty notepad and went straight back to scrawling notes. The difference was immediate, and significant - it was like night and day. Our conversation immediately became less stilted, more natural, and it became easier to get content out of his brain and into a case study.

I think this was about more than just the distraction of the noise. I think the typing also acts as a cue. If people can hear me typing, they can assume that I’m interested in what they’re saying. Conversely, if they hear the typing stop, that may hit their confidence, which in turn makes it harder to engage. This subtle influence has a big impact, because you can get the best information out of people when they feel comfortable and confident talking to you. It’s also just a more pleasant conversation when everyone’s feeling good about themselves.

Forced efficiency

There’s another advantage to using a pen: you have to really think about what you’re writing. If you’re typing, you can pretty much just transcribe what the person’s saying. This is handy for grabbing every detail, but that’s not actually as useful as it sounds, because content isn’t really about transcribing. Rather, my role is to find the most interesting or relevant information, and communicate that to whoever your audience is. This means a lot of judgement calls about what to put in, what to take out, and what kind of relative priority different bits of information should have.

When I write with a pen, I have to be constantly making these judgement calls on the fly. Not only does this keep my brain more engaged, it also helps me ask followup questions that direct the conversation to where I need it to go - rather than just asking a set of questions and writing down the answers. This makes my job easier further down the track.

High five for low tech

So, while we live in a high-tech world, there’s still a lot of room for low-tech tools. A pen and a piece of paper (or a notebook if you’re fancy) is one of my favourites. It helps me connect with people, keeps my brain engaged, and ensures that I get the information I need to produce solid content for my clients. Not bad for $3 or so.

Image credit: Rostislav Kralik via publicdomainpictures.net