Editorial & Feature Writing
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"Jerry Gregory can tell you how suddenly you can die," begins one of the first feature stories Mike Smith ever wrote for pay.

"It was a cold-hearted November morning on the southwestern Iowa hog operation, he was running behind and a rain the night before had frozen up the feed in the botton of a bin. Reluctant to take a ball-peen hammer to the base of the still-shining metal, Gregory sent one of his workers for a pipe to push the feed down from the top. The worker climbed up and tried an 8-foot pipe. It would not reach the bridged feed. So Gregory decided he'd do the job himself."

Off the pipe rack, he pulled a 21-foot piece of half-inch galvanized pipe, leaned it against the bin and scrambled easily to the top. He knelt over the opening. Reaching behind, he took a firm grip and start bringing up the pipe, hand over hand.

Foot by foot, he wrestled it up over himself, balancing it like a steel straw against the 45 mph wind, bit by bit until the tip swayed within six inches of the power line overhead.

"De te fabula," wrote the ancient Roman poet Horace: "The story is you." The art of well-narrated human drama draws us close--not simply to entertain, but to explain, to help us understand on a deeper level, to define who we are. It's what poet Emily Dickinson was trying to tell us when she advised, "Tell the truth but tell it slant." Strip away the bells and whistles of technology, and engaging content remains engaging storytelling. It must captivate, engage, hold close, and keep that audience member rapt to the end, as author Annie Dillard put it, "control the tension of the audience's longing." As does the story of Iowa's Gregory:

At that instant the galvanized conduit snaked to within a half foot of the wire. The electricity pulsed along by 8,000 volts chose air and pipe over the wire overhead as the path of lesser resisistance in its endless quest for the soil. It leapt.

In a fraction of a breath, a blue-white flash poured through the air gap with a sharp crack. It raced down the pipe, into Gregory's right palm, down arm, torso, legs, through both knees, the bin and finally into the ground. Current driven relentless by the voltage behind it piled up at the points of low conductivity--the flesh of his hands and knees--where the energy lost to resistance changed suddenly from electricity into heat, arc welding his arm to the pipe and his knees to the bin.

The burning muscle poured myoglobin, large oxidizing molecules, into his blood stream, where it would eventually lodge in and overwhelm the delicate filtering tubules of his kidneys and, without treatment, destroy them. Power multiplied 800,000 times over his nervous system's normal impulses blazed violently across nerve endings, like a generating station's output attempting to squeeze through a household extension cord.

Muscles confused the increased power with normal neural impulses and clenched and unclenched once every sixtieth of a second in rhythm with the alternating current of the powerplant miles away. His body curled slowly around the pipe he was no longer capable of releasing. The power dazed his heart's normal impulses until the vital organ froze in place. Jerry Gregory had died.

In an industry that is coming to understand the branding power of content message quality over quantity, it’s clear why those brands should want the best ag journalists at their disposal. As the hunger grows for truly valuable content, the premium earned by marketers who can consistently create excellent content will grow. The good news is that talented, capable and experienced free agents still roam the countryside, ready to apply the rules of storytelling to your message. Those are:

  • Create characters. The difference between great art and weak melodrama, according to one of the 20th century American masters of the form, novelist John Gardner, lies in how well a story's characters are developed--how fully they "stand before us with a wonderful clarity, such continuous clarity that nothing they do strikes us as improbable behavior for just that character...." What's that have to do with your marketing content? People don't care about things; they care about people, real and fictional. Unless your content successfully captures that character, the good guys and bad guys of any market drama that customers can immediately relate to, those customers will lose interest in favor of a better story somewhere else.
  • Focus on setting. Setting counts in ag content storytelling at two levels. On the surface, it's the best place to blow your credibility by missing a small, critical detail that tips readers off you're simply posing as farm-savvy. But it functions at a deeper level, too. In a market where people are so intimately tied with their time and place--where they jelously guard the culture in agri-culture--the skill to artfully place your content within a richly communicated setting adds realism that breathes life into that all-important character-building. Only then does your story come to life.
  • Explore the native conflicts. You remember Freshman English: Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self--it all applies, even when telling a story about the most mundane industry-wide problems. Life is struggle, and artful storytelling is the process of documenting that struggle. Find how your solution presents itself as hero leading a pack of lesser heroes in pursuit of vanquishing the problem, and you've found your engaging story.
  • Give them a happy ending. Billions of dollars, millions of life stories and the quest to feed and clothe the world means the stakes are high in your agricultural drama. People who follow you into that vast human drama want to know the end will be bright and the ending happy--not to be confused with trite and forced, which is what makes the naked sales pitch the most depressing story of all.

Wielded deftly, those narrative tools can bring even the most disinterested reader to the end of your message, just as they have once again here, about an incident that's years old, about a man you never met:

And, even as the realization of what was happening formed in his conscious mind, as he tried to call out in pain and found he could not, even as he heard the worker cry out somewhere miles below him, gravity was mercifully taking control of his powerless body. It pulled him off balance and broke the killing connection with the far-off power station. Unconsciousness began seeping in as he watched the edge of the bin pass by his face; the pipe toppled, the worker screamed, and Gregory fell.

When he hit the frozen Iowa ground, the weight of his limp body crashing down upon itself crushed four vertebrae. The hard clay split a 6-inch gash in his head. And the abrupt collision jolted alive again Jerry Gregory's frozen heart."

 Find out more about how to make your story irresistable.


Click for a sample
Whether writing directly to farmers and veterinarians or writing about their issues to other audiences, Mike Smith continues to live by the rule that consumers still turn to good writing when they're looking for traits like trustworthiness, relevance, permanence and personalized insight.

Want to be taken serious in the market? Be serious

Some of Mike Smith's best writing you've read over the years is words not his own. Under someone else's byline, he has applied writing and editing skills artfully in service of building the brand of marketers, associations and individuasl by using a trained editor's ear to improve their words without burying the character of their voice.

Need help with your words? Turn here

Journalism design pioneer Jan White once said the best content is that which always pleasantly surprises your audience with more than they expected. Mike Smith has lived a rural career by that philosophy, as was the case with the rich, artful tone of this simple copy for an AGCO combine line.

Not afraid to dream in diesel

Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. That's the attitude that has kept Mike Smith's words, like this excerpt from the online magazine he founded, Truth in Food, fresh across changes in time and media.

When only the right word will do


Step 1: Choose your audience

Picked your Audience?

Ag marketers use print magazines at a rate nearly two-thirds higher than the average marketer, with just under seven in 10 saying they still make use of magazines in some way. Why? Fewer and fewer farmers every year taking a larger and larger market share means today's ag customer requires a long-duration sales cycle emphasizing after-sale nurturing and focus on long-term customer value. Targeting the existing customer base makes print content a natural customer-retention tool.
Step 2: Set objectives

Defined your Objectives?

This is not your father's marketing communication. It's not even your older sister's. Custom content, print or digital, in today's market has to answer to a tall order when it comes to performance standards: Strategically concepted, flawlessly targeted, carefully executed and fully held to results controls.
Step 3: Hire Mike Smith

Hire the Best

Once you have the audience and objectives and you need the inspired mechanic to put his hands on the job and execute from the beginning concept to the final ROI evaluation and all points in between, call. With decades of content experience, I am your content marketing advocate not afraid to get dirt under his fingernails.
Need that content project turned around now?
Click here to send me an RFP

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Shawnee, KS 66226

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