Episode 293: Writing for Humans and Robots

Show Summary

Rob Cairns talks to Maddy Osman about her book Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style.

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Show Highlights:

  1. Why writing for humans and search engines matters.
  2. A style guide for your writing is necessary.
  3. What matters more SEO or the human eye.
  4. How this book will make your writing better.

Show Notes

Rob Cairns here. And today I’m here with an author. I love authors and I want to talk about Maddy Osmond’s book Writing for Humans and Robots. How are you today, Maddy?

I’m doing great. It’s end of the day and we’re we’re finishing out strong with the podcast. So happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Oh my pleasure and thank you for agreeing to come on. Are you saying you before we went to? This is probably one of the best writing books I have ever read, so that’s that, says a lot. And thank you for doing it.

Yeah, I thank you for being such a great supporter. I’d I I was telling you before we recorded that it’s it’s really such a compliment. I think any author to to hear that somebody liked what you created. You know, even even if you can see that like it’s selling and things are happening to just get that feedback is is is life changing.

It sure is.

I know you spent. Some time in the WordPress space and I always like to ask people what do WordPress origin story is. So how do you know?

I love that.

Is there a good story Maddie?

Yeah, yeah, I think I think just like anybody else. You know you tried a bunch of different things and and nothing’s quite that perfect fit. So I was in college and it was my first sort of non grocery store college job. You know almost an adult job but within the confines of still being. Student and UM, I was working as a web designer at my school’s department of Student Life Department and so we worked with a lot of like student organizations. And like the bookstore and different like events on campus and creating their web presence and any other marketing. Materials around that, and so we we actually used a content management system called SILVERSTRIPE, which is, I guess like Australian based and we liked it because it was kind of like basic PHP and you could generate like a front end. You know, place where we could pass it off to somebody in a student org who had no idea what web design is or how to code or anything like that, and they could easily change certain variables that we would find and so that worked for a lot of what we did. But we like to experiment with different content management systems. Have also played around with Drupal. I think we might have built a website with Joomla at one point and so we had one of our student organizations that needed a new website came in and they said, well, we really want to use WordPress at least for the blog. Component, and so that was my first experience. Even just playing around with WordPress and I just loved how intuitive it was, at least to me as a website designer. You know, going in with the perspective of having tried a lot. Of other tools. And you know how? How customizable it was. I think those things, really. Stood out to me and and really sensed that project. I haven’t turned back.

Oh, that’s amazing. So let’s jump into the book I. I think as I said, you did a really good job and I want to highlight right off the top one of the things you talked about in the. Is consistency and consistency in your writing consistency in your layouts and consistency in what you do? How important is that?

I mean it’s everything and I think it’s sometimes it’s like do as I say, not as I do because I think when it comes to like a marketing agency like we’re so good at everybody else’s content that sometimes ours falls to the wayside and that is something that I I talk to my team about all the time, like. You know, it’s really important that that we follow that we practice what we preach, but consistency. I think even just from a Google perspective, if you’re just considering wanting to rank high in relevant search, you know, assuming that you’ve done everything right to get there. It’s it’s important because Google. They’re looking for consistency. They’re looking for. Timely updates and so if you’re publishing calendars all over the place. Then to that, it’s almost like a a distrusting factor for Google and it’s it’s hard to quantify exactly like what is consistency. How does Google process that? But I think it’s pretty safe to say that if you’re publishing, for example once a week and and you’re consistently doing that, that you have enough content to do that. You have a good. System process around that, then then that is a positive signal to Google.

Yeah, I would agree. I think in marketing consistency is a big deal. And then the other thing I’m kind of working at Chapter 8 right now, and this one’s a bane on my side. So you know where I’m going is guiding for using images and online content, and I want to preface this by saying before we even get into the guidelines. Be really careful about the images people use. People have a tendency they get on the Internet. They do a search, they download an image, they throw it on their website and then they get a phone call from Getty Images. Had this happened to clients and they called me and said what do I do? And I say if there were a couple of 1000 bucks, give it to him now. And they said, but I don’t wanna give it to. Him, I said you want to end up in court.


And we’re talking that whole issue, of course around copyright. So what are some of the keys around the images and what do you suggest?

Sure, I mean, I think first of all, if there’s ever a question as to whether that image is something that you can legally use, I think the best thing that you can do is try to reach out to the creator, which you might assume is where you found the image, but you might need to dig deeper than that and do something like a reverse image. Search to try to track down, you know, the the very original source where it came from. But anyway, just the idea that that you’re reaching out. You’re asking questions and also that you’re providing a proper source when you use that image. I think even when we’re using, say, for example stock photos, which is not something that we typically do but. If it’s if. It’s some sort of asset that comes from, you know, like a marketplace or something like that. We have our writers include the original source of the image, whether that makes it to the final published document or not. It’s important that we have that as kind of like a receipt, really. In case the client comes to us and says says where did you get this image? We can easily tell based on our documentation, and so I think that’s one big thing. Another thing just kind of going back to the book itself is just the idea of different types of licensing, and so there are a lot of images that you can use that are fine to use for, like any sort of personal project you have. But once it becomes. A business purpose once it, once it needs to be commercially licensed, then certain images, maybe even half of the ones that you have access to or whatever, just in terms of like your own searches and and coming across things they may no longer be usable to you because of that space. Licensing factor so part of it is, you know, ask if you don’t know kind of. Do your research to track down an original source. As you would. With like a. Statistic but also just understanding different types of licensing and if you are using an image correctly, even if you have access to it for one purpose. But you really need it for a different purpose.

No, I I so. Hardly agree, and what I would even add is if you’re a retail store or you’re in that business, maybe use your own images and I’ll give you an example that have a client who’s got a jewelry store. Good friend of mine in the Toronto area and it so happens he’s a professional photographer by trade. Before he got into the. Very business and many, many years ago I said to him, don’t you stock photos? You’re a photographer. Shoot her. And it’s a good chance to show off what they have in the store. A good chance to show off work, but it also is more more.

No, I think that’s such a great point is to like, create your own stock photos, like maybe hire a photographer for a day and just try to anticipate what your content needs are ongoing. You know both? Maybe you plan to update your website in general, so you need some new hero images, feature images, things like that. But also you know. Blog content that you would tend to work on and so. For me, something that would be a stock photo for my brand might be like images of street art, because that’s kind of the branding that the blacksmith follows our logo, just our kind of look and feel, and so it’s like whenever I’m on a trip or something I’m looking for, you know, something that that fits that aesthetic and. Yeah, I, I think that there no matter what your business is, you could create your own stock file thinking towards the future or even planning an editorial calendar and working backwards from that. I I think that’s such a great idea.

The street art angle is really interesting because I have a good friend of mine. His Twitter handle is at graffiti, BMX, cop and. What he does his name is Scott Mills. He used to be the social media guy for Toronto police and he’s very much involved in the graffiti community trying to get kids not to to do street art and not to do Lambo graffiti all over the place. So I just I just find that tie. In so interesting so.

That’s why.

Let’s jump in the style sheets. I I had ignored style sheets for a long long time and then I took a contract. Ohh probably about eight or nine years ago where I did e-mail work, but I actually worked in a communications department and so I was kind of doing a marketing role, but under a comms manner and. We talked a lot. About style sheets. Why are style sheets? Important for a business?

It’s important whether you’re just working for yourself. If if you’re creating it for you, but it’s especially important if you’re going to be working with somebody else, and the idea is that you are kind of taking some time to think about your brand, to think about the things that are important in terms of your brand. Defining, say, for example, tone of voice. You know sharing any other relevant details about. For example, you know, do you use sentence case or title case and headings and it it comes back to the idea of consistency your. Thing sort of, the the foundation for how you want any content that represents your brand to look and feel and and to read. And by doing that then you can create consistency across every piece of content you create. And it’s it’s really supposed to be a time saver. I would say. Is taking that idea of like do we do sentence case or title case? I could certainly go back and look at like the last blog I wrote for the blog Smith. Or you know, five posts back, but without having to find that rule, there may actually be an inconsistency between looking at the most recent one, looking at, you know. Five previous to that. And so not having that rule defined, it it kind of just gets in your own way. But even if you were consistent without having the document, it’s still an effort to have to open it up to, you know, look for an example to take note of that and then to go back into your writing without sort of establishing a rule that you can use from here on out, that’s. Easily referenceable. Well, I think when it comes to writing in general, creating content really just like creating anything, it’s really easy to get distracted during that process and it takes you away from just getting finished. And So what I try to do it with anything in our writing process that I’m asking people on my team to follow is like, where can I cut out distractions and I think the. Style Guide helps to facilitate that.

Yeah, I would agree. Should you be writing for humans or you should be writing for robots or you should be writing for both?

I personally think that you can write for both and I think that the way that you do that is by first starting with the human and and really holding the humans needs highest higher than a robots because at the end of the day it’s the human that can actually buy from you. You know they’re the ones that you’re creating this. Content for if your goal is to sell something or or even you know just to get eyes on something. Thing, and so the robot their their role is to facilitate getting you to the right human. So when I talk about robots and in my book specifically, I’m mostly talking about search engine spiders. Although a lot of the things we talk about in terms of descriptiveness, like using descriptiveness to help. Or robot find you to to help understand content. You know that can be applied to other types of robots or search as well, and so. So yeah, I think it really starts with the human and then you tie in the robot. As long as you’re not putting the human out to tie that robot in and so. Yeah, at at the end of the day, the humans most important and I think that that even Google. Founding principles or or documentation would support that, because Google has always said you know, right for the human first content is king. You know whatever sort of try saying has has derived from their own documentation, but it, but it’s. True and the. Way that they’ve evolved their. Algorithm is in line with that.

No, I I would agree. I’ve always argued you could write for both and a lot of people say you can’t I I strongly disagree on that. Chapter 4 in the book you talk about web content readability, and I think this is a real biggie. A lot of people write good stuff, but they don’t format it well. And by the way, if to me formatting even includes things like font sizes.


It’s a good app.

I I have a pet peeve with font sizes, we’re all getting older. I don’t know. I’m 55 Maddie. In this regard. And my eyes are what they used to be, and I actually prefer to use a bit bigger font than the standard 12 inch. What’s your feeling? Font sizes and formatting text.

Yeah, I mean, I think the point you’re making. Is that we will all we will all. Access the Internet in different ways throughout our lives. One thing is like, yeah, we age and so that’s just one thing to consider, but you have to also consider people who have other access issues. Like if they’re blind. If they, if they have an injury that makes it harder to use a mouse. If they’re hands broken or something, there’s all these different things that affect that reader experience that that content experience in general, and so it is important to be considering that as, as you build really like the design. Where the content lives, and I think that my background in in website design back in college and freelancing a little bit afterwards has helped me to to see like the full picture of. It’s not just about the design, it’s not just about the words on the design, it’s about how they work together to create a great experience. And I think. Beyond these different types of access issues that may have nothing to do with your. Product there are. Also, access issues that could have to do with your product. Like if you’re marketing say. To, for example, to somebody who’s. Mind then your content is going to have to be accessible to that person as a rule and not as an afterthought. So yeah, I mean I don’t. I don’t know that I have any specific guidelines for how big font size should be, but certainly it should be big enough for you know, whoever you anticipate is going to be on your website. Like like the average person or even somebody to like the fringes of that. You should be planning for for people with different types of access levels and and maybe having like a tool that adjusts it, for example.

So well said, what do you think about tools like Grammarly and things like that? Do you think they help? Do you think they give a false sense of security? How’s your feeling?

I think it’s both. So we we. Grammarly, I’ll I’ll preface this by saying that every writer and editor on my team has a premium Grammarly subscription and one of the reasons is so that we can essentially have the writers do their own basic self edits so that we’re not kind of wasting time on the proper spelling of, you know. The word that has been misspelled. But I think what we use Grammarly for and where I think it really shines is it has this style guide feature where you can go in and say. For example, we’re writing about WordPress and as you and I know, WordPress has a capital P as many other people don’t necessarily seem to care about. They’ll write it with the load.

One of my biggest. Pet peeves is. The capital.

I mean it just. It sticks out like a sore thumb once you realize what the proper way to do it is. As with as with many other things within specific industries, another one of my favorite examples is HubSpot because so many people spell it with a lower case S it’s actually a capital S. And and so things like that things where it’s like. Well, that’s the word that’s going to come up. Probably way more than once. We can add to Grammarly style guide and then what happens just like any other Grammarly editing suggestion where it’s kind of like a pop up to the side of your editor that you’re writing in. You can you can create basically custom pop-ups that say oh you spelled WordPress with a lowercase P. Why don’t you change it to this? Because that’s the right way to do it, and you can even add like a little explainer for why the rule is the way it is. And that’s what I love about Grammarly.

So true, and you mention words, it gets even more confusing with American and Canadian spelling centers, but differently there’s. So I’m forever adding words in the Grammarly and saying no, it’s just the Canadian spelling. I’m Canadian. I like the Canadian way and that’s.

I got.

The way it.

Is right, it’s just SEO basics which you spend unlucky. Chapter 13. I and and I I I don’t subscribe to that theory. I should tell you I wore 13 on a hockey jersey for many many years. So there there you go. The biggest problem I think with SEO basics is people don’t do the keyword research for they get to write.

Yeah, and I think part of it too. Is is what we were talking about before the idea of writing for humans and robots, and some people just being like no. I’m gonna write for only the human and it’s like. We’re not by doing keyword research. You’re not like taking away from that, right? Like you’re adding to it.

Yeah, so true. And then you spent a large portion talking about one of my favorite things, CTA’s calls to action, and I’m glad you did because I think before we even get to the writing part, I don’t think web designers use enough CTA’s on their website. And and they forget the purpose of a website is to generate traffic which leads to sales.


And if you don’t have a call to action, how do you generate that traffic?

Right? Yeah, and I think 2. You know it’s especially as a web designer. You’re preoccupied with thinking about. Well, how can I show off all my coding skills? You know how can I create something that’s beautiful and I think that aesthetics play into things, but maybe not to the same level that the average web developer is thinking about. When they’re, you know, for example, creating a website for themselves because at the end of the day, sometimes honestly, some of the, like most simple landing pages or sales pages or whatever where. Like I have, I have one for example that I built on paper form just because I wanted something that I could display stuff on. Not have to think too much about the design, but that could also take payments. You know, every time that I share the resource that’s living on those pages like it sells new. It’s like a digital products. It sells like. New digital downloads. Every time that I sell it, and it’s like it’s just so simple it I haven’t, I haven’t overthought it. I’ve I’ve underthought it, but it still works and so. Thinking about thinking about that and and the idea of like clear calls to action. It’s like going to whatever you create content web pages designs. You have to have that end goal in mind before you start, because it’s going to affect how you put it together.

No, no question and I would also suggest that people should personalize those CTA’s like things like submit really well like watch your verbiage like. Get my free get my free resource now you know like personalize them a little bit and I think they they have a better.


Click through if you actually personalize them, then make them generic personally, but.

Totally, yeah, like think through what the end result of what that person wants and that should be the button. Like if I’m selling a resource like like, I’m just thinking back to that example of what I have on paper form one of them’s like a content brief template and so it’s like you know. Maybe the CTA is something about like, you know, being more prepared for your next piece of your next like content project or something like. Get the resources you need to you know. Kick **** at your next content project. Something like that, but that like ties it to the end goal.

So one of. My favorite questions, which she didn’t cover in the book, but I can ask it anyway because you bought. And I made a decision in my business 3 1/2 years ago. I wasn’t blogging anymore. I mean not for clients for me, and I jumped into this world of podcasting, so that’s fine, which I which I actually do show notes for, but a little different. So I’ve got. Is bugging dead in these days and I asked that question because. You might remember Darren Rose, Pro Blogger, who’s been around for a long, long time, and when I started, oh, 10 or 11 years ago, Darren had the 30 day blog challenge. Write a blog every day. But everybody was bogging madly then. Is it or does it still have value?

Oh yeah.

I think that it’s just change mediums maybe, and I think I think what it comes down to when you’re creating content is to consider first of all, like everybody has a different way of learning. Your audience might have a primary way of learning that you can kind of lean into, but I. Think if you. If you just take the average population, some people are visual learners. Some people can read it and learn. It some people need it kind of need like a mentor to walk them through things. Some people like to use their hands to understand the you know like there’s all these different intelligences and there’s all these different learning styles. And so I think that you know when we’re creating content for our clients, part of it is is thinking about. Wall, could we potentially like repurpose this into another medium? Or how can we represent like a few different mediums within this piece of content and it’s things like? Like you know, for example, maybe we’ll embed a YouTube video that it doesn’t have to be ours necessarily, but it explains the concept that maybe. It doesn’t make sense to. Fully get into in this written piece of content or another way that I always think about. This is like statistics. It’s hard for me to read, for example, a comparative stat. And be able to to understand that I’m I’m not a super math brained person to begin with, so that’s already kind of working against me. But if I see a visual. That’s like a you know bar chart or like a pie graph or something that’s that’s representing that written statistic in a way that my mind. To make sense of it, then then that particular piece of a piece of content has so much more impact on me than if I were to like you know, skim over that statistic and and kind of just be like, OK, whatever like continue to go through the article because I just didn’t really understand.

Now I I agree with you and and thanks for a great explanation. If somebody wanted to improve their writing, what’s the top three things you would tell them to do Maddie?

Well, I think. They should take a page out of your book and try to read a. Book once a week. Or at least maybe once a month, but just to get into a practice of reading because. I think that and I’m very similar to you. I try to read a book a week. It’s a little bit all over the place this year, but for the past several years I’ve done that and what I try to do, especially if I’m using like my Kindle, for example, because I don’t really like to mark up a print copy of a book. But if I’m using my Kindle, I’ll highlight. Every word I don’t know turns of phrase that are you know, especially delicious that I want to savor and think on later. And I guess just anything that that makes me think you know that that gives me something to think about. So I think that’s that’s one really major thing is to to read, but also like to kind of take. Notes while you. Read not anything major, but yeah, just like things that you want to investigate later.

I see that.

I would say #2 would probably be to find like a mentor and or somebody that you could kind of trade off sharing feedback on each other’s work. Just somebody who’s outside of your own head your own bias, your own personal bias. This it can be really easy to get stuck in your own world in your own box, so having somebody who can give you some you know good feedback and who’s not worried about offending you would be a second really solid thing to do. And then I think the last thing is is to just right and to. Maybe find like some prompts you know if if you. If you’re having trouble like one thing that I do that. I think anybody could do. And I don’t do it consistently and I I should because consistency makes everything better. But morning pages, which is a concept from the book the Artist Way which had a huge impact on me in terms of sort of like manufacturing creativity when I’m not feeling creative. But the idea behind morning pages. Is that you spend the first part of your day before you like. Jump into any projects before you jump into work and you just like, right? You just kind of like journal like. Any thoughts that are on your mind. Anything that’s like holding you back. And the idea is that you’re kind of confronting your inner sense or by by just writing and acknowledging what you’re thinking. So I think that’s. One great way that you can cultivate.

Writing and journaling has so many other benefits besides improving your writing, like getting your thoughts out, writing for yourself. Working on frustrations, it’s good for the Headspace journal, probably for about 21 years or so, give or take every day, all day. I used to do it on paper and I’ve now believe or not moved to a Google doc just because my phone is in my pocket.

I do too.

And if I’m out and about and I wanna add to that journal, I can add it while I’m running around. It’s like and by the way, my journal is not for anybody’s consumption. My partner keeps saying, can I read that now? My mom says. No, because you don’t want anything.

Right you you don’t want anybody to censor you, including yourself, which is why it should be kept private. You could take snippets. From it, if it feels relevant.

To share.

With others, but I would keep it. I agree that it should be a private thing and. And I agree that it can be a tool that that goes that has benefits to you that goes so far beyond writing. I’ll, I’ll give you a couple of prompts that I put in. Line that might be helpful. One of them is what AM? I excited about today so just kind. Of sets the mood. Up nicely. What am I grateful for so that I can practice gratitude and and recognize you know, the things in my life that that have gone really well? And I also do like what am I worried about? That’s something I added. And recently, just so that I could get it out of my head. You know, put.

That’s a great idea from a mental health standpoint.

It somewhere.

That’s like amazing and it’s funny you talk about some of the stuff you’re sharing, and in my journal we did a date night the. Night and I wrote a piece of my journal how did the date night make me feel? You know things like that, right? It’s just it’s not all negativity, it’s. Just a conference.

Oh no, not at.

All negativities, maybe even the minority of it. It’s just it’s just getting your thoughts out and and sort of making sense of them, I think.

Yeah, so true Maddy, this has been absolutely wonderful. If somebody wants to get a hold of your house the best. To reach out.

Sure, I would say check out https://www.theblogsmith.com/ if you’re interested in any sort of helper mentoring around content. I’m super active on Twitter at @MaddyOsman is my handle and then yeah, if you if you liked what we talked about today. Check out my book on Amazon. It’s called writing for humans and robots and new roles. Content style and it is a best seller in the SEO category.

Yeah I do. I’ve I’ve actually already purchased four extra copies for gifts, so that’s how much I think it’s important. And and I I love what you’ve done and what I’ll tell you is you’re very approachable on Twitter, so anybody who’s worried about reaching out to magic? She does get back to you and and it’s always wonderful to talk to you. Maddy thank you very much and you have yourself a great day.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now my pleasure, thank you.


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