With an enviable career that has taken her around the world, Jane Nicholls is a humble, curious and well-respected journalist. She spent 20 years at Time Inc. and has worked with various reputable publications such as The Australian, Medium Rare’s Qantas and QantasLink Spirit magazines, Fairfax and The Global Mail.
When she’s not travelling or uncovering stories for organisations such as GE and CSIRO, she shares her 30-plus years experience with ADMA IQ students in the Copywriting for Content Marketing course, which she created and delivers with her best friend and fellow journalist Natalie Filatoff.
We caught up with Jane to learn more about her amazing journey so far in the land of journalism and storytelling – and picked up some fantastic insider tips along the way.
1. How did you get into journalism?
First I wanted to be Enid Blyton. But once I discovered there was such a thing as a journalist at about seven or eight, I just want to be a journalist. I loved newspapers and magazines in particular.
I finished my HSC and I had set up work experience at a magazine company (it no longer exists like most of them). It was meant to be for three weeks, starting a few days after my last exam. I never left.
The editor threw me in the deep end in the first week, saying, “So, you want to be a journalist? OK, go do a story on this.” She gave me two small features to write. They started paying me the first week and offered me a job as an editorial assistant on the magazine. It’s where I met Natalie Filatoff. Together we created ADMA IQ’s Copywriting for Content Marketing course in 2015 and we’ve been teaching it ever since.
I have been very lucky. I had a lot of incredible mentors early on in my career and was given a lot of opportunities.
2. You worked at Time Inc. for 20 years. What were the biggest lessons you learned from those two decades?
The importance of nitty-gritty reporting was really drilled into us from day one at Time Inc. Asking everything, from your mother’s occupation to your pet’s name, even if they don’t make it into the story, really informs your understanding of the subject. Throwing in one of those details might then bring the story alive in a way that superficial reporting never could.
Curiosity is another thing. We tell our ADMA IQ students, you have a licence to be nosy when you’re creating content. So use it, because you never know what you’re going to unearth.
Respecting your audience and subjects is another lesson I walked away with. You were never allowed to talk down to your audience or to be snarky about your subjects. Unfortunately, it’s very common in journalism across the board these days. Be more generous, don’t be snide and never talk down to your audience.
3. What excites you about content marketing today?
Nat and I both prefer to call it brand journalism, rather than content marketing. It’s an untapped opportunity for organisations, because there’s a lot of content marketing out there. But if you approach it from a much more traditional journalistic storytelling point of view, you’re making it much more engaging. Your audience will be more likely to consume and enjoy consuming it, because they don’t feel like they’re being sold to – they feel like they’re actually getting something in return. This automatically elevates your content. And you can still absolutely get brand messages across.
As a writer, content marketing gives me the opportunity to switch on my curiosity and turn what clients say is a “dry and boring” topic into an interesting story.
4. What are your tips for turning ‘dry and boring’ into ‘interesting and engaging’?
Try to understand what the product is. If I’m about to do a story on an area that I’m not familiar with, one of my research methods is to find podcasts on that topic. Most likely there’s also a lot of written content on it, but in either a super clichéd or very jargonistic, and dense way. When people talk about a subject in podcasts, it brings it to life for me, and I find that helpful.
Unpack what you’ve learned, and think how would this be used? What does it do? Try to imagine yourself as somebody using the service or tool.
5. You teach the Copywriting for Content Marketing IQ course with Natalie Filatoff. What’s your favourite part of the course?
Nat and I created the course together and we teach it as a team. It’s great fun for us, because we’re so close and have known each other since we were in our late teens.
Fundamentally, we have very similar values but we have different approaches, so we play off each other during the day. We both bring a journalistic approach to our content creation for clients – that’s what we want to help the people who take our course do, too. We want to show them how their stories could be told, however mundane they think their subject matter is. There are a lot of exercises around that.
It’s always a really supportive classroom environment. We always end the day feeling we’ve learned from each other, and from our students, because people are very generous in sharing their own stories.
6. What are the top three criteria for great content?
1. Engage me with a story.
Think about my needs (me being the audience) not your brand’s. Then I think the rest will follow and you will arrive at a story that is engaging. We always say to people in the class, “What’s the first thing you would tell about this ‘thing’ to a friend, if you met them for a drink after work?” That’s possibly the angle for your story.
2. A content piece should always have a purpose.
Your story should inform, entertain or reassure depending on the purpose. Make sure it achieves its original purpose.
3. Make it interesting
Don’t make it sound like a media release, or let it lapse into passive language. We bang on and on about that.
7. Walk us through a typical day in the life of Jane Nicholls.
Living in New York for four years really made me appreciate nature, and lately I’ve had this fascination for bird life. So my favourite way to start the day is a deep-water aqua class in my local outdoor pool – exercising as the sun rises, watching kookaburras and butcherbirds, magpies and the much-maligned ibises…Then I’ll do some research for work, listen to podcasts while walking my dog and do interviews as they come up. And writing, of course (though my husband accuses me of using weekends to catch up on that!).
I am lucky that I still travel a bit for work. In June I went to Zambia and I just came back from France, both for travel stories for The Australian. I’m off to Germany in late October for a week to do a couple of stories for Zeiss, the famous German optical company.
I’m curious what strategies a 173-year-old legacy company is deploying to keep self-disrupting innovation alive and – as a lifelong wearer of glasses – what developments are happening with optical equipment and vision care in this age of endless screens. I love interviewing scientists and technologists, so I really can’t wait.
Jane will be back just in time to deliver the first Copywriting for Content Marketing Course in Brisbane on 30 October. Book your seat now, so you don’t miss out.