Book review – Content DNA by John Espirian

Sara Donaldson

Northern Editorial

A relentlessly helpful professional

When I heard that John Espirian was writing a book, I’ll be honest, I was a bit torn.

I first met John on my very first day at my very first Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference (now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading). I’d been editing for a while, but didn’t feel like an editor yet. I felt like a total imposter.

I felt out of my depth and a bit like any minute someone was going to throw me out of the door for being a fake.

Then John came over to say hello and put me at ease.  He’s got an infectious smile and an attitude that’s relentlessly helpful no matter who you are.
See, it was there long before he made it part of his Content DNA.

Just another content marketing book?

So, why was I a bit torn? Well, whenever I review a book (or anything for that matter) I’m totally honest. I don’t believe in bullshit (that’s part of my DNA), and I have a habit of telling it like it is. No matter who it is.

Everyone gets treated the same with me, whether you’re the CEO of a multi-million-pound company or a lone-wolf first-time author. ‘Celebrities’ are just people, and, to me, everyone is just a person with feelings, successes and insecurities.

Basically, and I hope he’ll forgive me for this, I was worried that it might be a bit … rubbish.

Not because I thought he’d write rubbish but because lately, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff that deals with business and written content. And it’s all the bloody same. It all tends to be by self-styled ‘experts’ who have found the secret to success and want to share it with you.

Quick fixes that will bring in the bucks and make you irresistible to clients. Meh.

You buy the books, read the websites, try to implement the ‘tips’, then end up feeling overwhelmed as you try to sift through the filler and find the nuggets that will deliver on the promises.

No, but it’s not a quick fix

For me, at least, Content DNA doesn’t pretend to give a quick fix. The contents are easy to implement and, importantly, they don’t have to be done all in one go for you to move forward. This book is full of common sense.

There’s a 30-month mindset to get your head around. There is absolutely no overwhelm.

So as I head into the review let me make this point again … if you’re not prepared to listen to common sense, and if you want a quick fix NOW, this book probably isn’t for you.

However, if you want to read a business book about content marketing that gives relentlessly helpful common sense, with a sense of humour, that will help you build your brand identity with confidence, then I reckon you can’t go wrong with a copy of Content DNA.

A quick summary of content DNA

  • There are 236 pages of content and an index at the back. The book is nicely laid out, easy on the eye and easy to navigate. You can dip in and out when you need to.
  • Written with a nice tone of voice, this book isn’t preachy.
  • John guides you through what he’s done to create a recognisable brand through consistency and congruence and shows you how you can do it too, whether it’s for your personal brand or your company.
  • The book is packed full of no-nonsense, practical advice that covers everything from knowing how you want to be seen to knowing your clients and how to repurpose and republish your content.

    Your brand must reflect the truth about who you are, what you stand for and what shape you want to portray to the world

What I liked about content DNA

After reading some business books lately, this is a breath of fresh air. The last book that I read, with the Being Freelance online book club (which I won’t mention here), felt like I was reading a novel, written by a very preachy ‘expert’.

I didn’t even finish it – it was too heavy and not at all inviting.

John’s book is written very much as he talks. It’s chatty, but not waffly, clear and easy to read. It’s a bit like having a mini John sitting on your shoulder talking to you.

But he also knows that not everyone has time to sit and read a book straight through, so every chapter begins with ‘the main takeaway’ that explains what the chapter is about. It’s a paragraph set apart from the body of the text, so if you need to dip in you know if you’ve hit the right chapter.

A fresh, clean layout

I’m a sucker for a nice looking book. There has to be a good ratio of white space to text – this makes it easier on the eye and attractive to look at. John has obviously worked closely with Catherine Williams, his book designer, to create something that’s as attractive as it is informative.

This book won’t give you eyestrain, the font is very easy to read, and the page has a nice, fresh, clean layout that I found appealing.

With an index

Having an index also gives John brownie points – if your book is good enough to be taken seriously, then it’s good enough to have a proper, workable index.

As a trained indexer I can’t help but look at the back of the book, and the index, on the whole, works well. There are a couple of long strings in there that could probably have benefitted from a few more subheadings (for example LinkedIn and social media), but that’s major nit-picking on my part.

No-one other than an indexer would probably notice. I’m going to give a virtual ‘high five’ to the indexer – recognition where it’s due (indexing is not easy to do).

It’s written by an expert – who doesn’t say he’s an expert

When you read the book, you’re being led through what can be a complex subject with ease and humility.

John explains how he started, and how he arrived as a respected LinkedIn expert and technical writer. He dips into content marketing with quotes and examples by the likes of Mark Schaefer (author of KNOWNThe Content Code and Marketing Rebellion) and never talks down to the reader.

In fact, John shies away from calling himself an expert, but by reading this book you know that’s exactly what he is

Bite-sized chunks make for easy digestion

One of the joys of this book is that each chapter is just as long as it has to be, and moves logically on to the next.

The chapters aren’t long, so they’re easy to read on the go if you don’t have much time, but they’re packed with helpful, actionable information. You can easily read a chapter in your lunch break.

A fancy catchphrase is useless if it has no relevance to what you do

Useable, focussed exercises

This book doesn’t just tell you how to go about finding your Content DNA, it shows you. It’s packed with examples and little exercises to get you thinking about your business.

I love the ‘Define your brand values’ chapter because it’s short but powerful and the ‘Your tagline’ still has me thinking –it’s one part of my business I’ve never managed to sort out (‘Drinking all the coffee, so you don’t have to’ wouldn’t say much about what I do for my clients).

The chapter on personas (or pen portraits) is also spot-on. I love getting back to my storytelling and creating my customer characters.

This book gets you thinking

Unlike some business self-help books, this one doesn’t spoon-feed content. John guides you through what to do and what not to do, and shows what’s helpful and what isn’t.

Probably because John’s a technical writer, he manages to make everything sound simple. He gets you thinking in ways that make it easy for you to implement your DNA (the building blocks of your brand) into your business.

He takes into account how to deal with social media, how to stay the same shape no matter where you are, so your clients and potential clients can spot you no matter where you pop up, and how to write good content.

Don’t assume that a couple of glossy marketing brochures mean you’ve created a brand

You’ll read this book because you enjoy it, not because you have to

This is a book I wanted to read, and enjoyed reading. At no time did I think ‘Urgh, better get this book read then’. I wanted to see what John had to say next. It was like sitting down and having John talk you through it. It’s all killer and no filler.

What I didn’t like about Content DNA

The one thing I didn’t like about this book was that I couldn’t find anything wrong with it.

I know John in real life. He knows I wouldn’t give him an easy ride. If I found a flaw I would point it out (you’ll remember at the beginning I said I was worried that it might be a bit rubbish).

Hell, even the interviews at the back of the book are worth reading. I suppose if you weren’t interested in the research he did for the book you might gloss over these interviews, but they give great insight into other experts – I especially liked the interview with Col Gray. I’ve been following his work for a while so I’m not surprised he helped with John’s rebrand.

So, should you hand over your hard-earned cash for this book?

This is not a get-rich-quick book. If that’s what you want, this book is not for you.

If you want to use the information written down here, you’re going to have to put in some serious work. It will take time. You are going to have to look at your business and the way you do business.


If you’re looking to help your business stand out, learn about what makes you and your clients tick and want to learn to be consistent and congruent, then hell, yes, buy this book. I highly recommend it.

Content DNA gives you everything you need to set off on the right path. The book is based on the advice that John gives his clients, and I’ll tell you now, it would cost you a hell of a lot more than the price of this book to get a private consultation.

I can honestly say I loved this book. And I think it will become a go-to reference guide for people serious about building a great business that stays true to the core building blocks they’re going to create as a result of reading it.

Pick up your copy here Content DNA: Using consistency and congruence to be the same shape everywhere
 by John Espirian, or ask your local bookshop.

I was given a review copy for this article.

First published on

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