Valerie Khoo

A word with … Valerie Khoo

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

The former accountant spends a lot of her time and energy helping budding writers.

The Australian Writers’ Centre is often cited as one of the best exponents of content marketing in this country. Founder and CEO Valerie Khoo has created a website, blog, podcast (So You Want to be a Writer, with Allison Tait) and short writing courses that have helped aspiring writers reach their personal goals since 2005. She is a regular corporate speaker and author of Power Stories: The 8 Stories You Must Tell to Build an Epic Business. The former accountant and features writer is proud of her achievements and delights in sharing her knowledge with others.

Brand Tales: Why did you want to teach people how to write rather than just doing it yourself?

Khoo: I’m really passionate about writing. I found that a lot of people developed their interest in writing later in life – to do it on the side or as a career change. I came across so many people who wanted to find out more about the steps that they needed to take to become a writer, or if it was possible for them to make the transition when they’d already had some other profession. I think I had an empathy with what they were going through because I did it. I had to go to so many different places to get the information and resources I needed to find what I wanted to know about the writing world, so I wanted to create an organisation that could do that all under one roof with professionalism, consistency and quality.

BT: Are many of those enrolled in your writing courses doing it for business purposes?

Khoo: Yes, definitely. We get a lot of marketers, PRs, people who are in the communications space who want to either refresh their skills or who didn’t actually feel they got a grounding in those skills when they studied. I don’t know why. And we’ve had so many people give us the feedback that they have found our courses to be more practical than what they studied at university.

BT: Do you fear the emphasis on having good writing skills has slipped in recent times?

Khoo: It’s not that I fear it, I know it. I see it every day. There’s evidence of a real decline in professional writing skills. I’m shocked when I see high-end advertisements for some of the most expensive or biggest brands, they’ve got prime-time television, and they don’t make any sense or have spelling mistakes. You see it often in documents, reports, where things are just not expressed in a very clear way. I think some organisations are starting to realise they need to put their teams through training to make sure they have that grounding.

BT: Do you have a pet peeve? Is there one particular thing that makes your skin crawl?

Khoo: When people don’t get to the point or write sentences that don’t make sense.

BT: Do you have a business philosophy?

Khoo: To reach for excellence in everything we do, to always operate with a level of professionalism that some people find unexpected, and to always be friendly, warm and helpful.

BT: What persuaded you to get into content marketing with your blog?

Khoo: I think it was the desire to be helpful. When you’re talking to someone over the phone or via email, you’re only talking to one person. That’s fine, but I know that if they’ve got that question, 100 or maybe 1000 other people have the same question. So once we started getting those questions more than once, I realised a great way to put that information out there was to put it online.

“Penning your own business book is a great example of content marketing on steroids.”Valerie Khoo

BT: Do you have a preferred method of communicating?

Khoo: I enjoy writing and podcasting. They exercise completely different parts of your brain and you approach them in a completely different way. I really like the variety and I know different things resonate with different people as well. Some people will only listen to the podcast and won’t ever read the blog because that’s what they like or that’s the way they are. Part of it is to reach different markets, but part of it is just because I enjoy the variety. I enjoy the other things that I do, whether they are podcasts or videos or blogs or Facebook Live. It has to keep me interested to create the content.

BT: Do you think people need to be proficient using a channel before they start creating content, or should they just hop in and work it out as they go along?

Khoo: I think they should just jump in but not to publish unless it’s fantastic. The only way you’re going to learn is to do it, as opposed to just practising in front of the microphone. Actually create the real thing but then listen to it again, or play it to a very honest friend. I’ve got one of those. She’ll just screw her face up if it’s not right. But don’t throw it into the world just because you’ve created it. You want to release something that you’re proud of and is at the level of quality you expect of your organisation or yourself.

BT: What are the prospects for branded content and content marketing in Australia?

Khoo: Extremely bright. One of the things people have been talking about is all of the redundancies in print media and how [journalists] were going to get jobs. So many organisations now have their own content department. They have realised they want a dedicated site that’s purely [useful and relevant] content and so many of those former journalists are employed in those content departments.

BT: What challenges do you think former journalists face working for a corporation rather than a news organisation?

Khoo: The ones who embrace that it’s a different form of publishing and understand the nuances are going to thrive. Investigative journalists who want to break stories need to stick with news; they’re not necessarily going to find satisfaction in the content marketing world. There are those who are happy to adapt and those who don’t want to. And there’s a place for both.

BT: Why are corporations embracing the concept of storytelling?

Khoo: I think it’s in response to technology. We all embraced new spreadsheets. We all embraced big data. We all embraced infographics. We all embraced pie charts and graphs, because they were so much easier to produce than ever before. So many corporate presentations, so many ads, so much of the messaging in the business world were underpinned and showcased in the form of data. I think people forgot that it’s the story beneath the data that is the more powerful thing. It’s the story that is memorable – not your pie chart.

BT: Have you noticed any specific trends in Australia?

Khoo: I’m seeing a lot of business books being written and published. For those people who want to be thought leaders or who are branding themselves as experts in their field, penning your own business book is a great example of content marketing on steroids. For many of those people, it’s a great door-opener and a “business card” that people are unlikely to throw away. It also provides them with credibility that helps them get quoted in the media or get speaking gigs at conferences.

Links & references

Australian Writers’ Centre website

Brand Tales’ Q&A with writer Jonathan Crossfield

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