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Archive for the ‘consulting’ Category

Must Your Story Always Be About You?

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Content today: Your story in context.

“Here’s where we show we care about what they care about,” I said. “For sure you get to tell your story. But 75-90% of the time your eye is on what your audience cares about. With social media we take off the loud salesman jacket and relax in an easy chair, ready to talk.”

For years I’ve talked with clients about teeing up conversations rather than selling copy. It’s a matter of committing to topics and copy that meets an audience need, day after day. Only my most forward-thinking clients listened without a glaze covering their eyes.

That’s changing.

One reason is organization-specific content has become a more easily-definable task. Buying content is becoming a bit more like buying advertising—though with a few key differences. You bought advertising with parameters and metrics in place: Buy your media and Bam! Targeted eyeballs and open pocketbooks follow.

At least that’s how we told the old advertising story.

Now we see that advertising model was all about interrupting, catching attention with brand hyperbole and hypnotizing dumb viewers to buy. And pronto.

Which hasn’t really worked for years.

What my clients now see is they can stay in touch with old and new and potential customers by telling what they know in a whimsical way. Not browbeating, but inviting them to think together about a shared interest. Staying in touch means many touch points along the marketing funnel, none of which are a salesman’s pointed jab. This means knowing what customers care about, what their problems are, and naming potential solutions to those problems.Marketing funnel-20160808

Creating content will seem circuitous to the hard-boiled marketing manager in her late 50s. And it is. But it isn’t. Creating content shows leadership and care as it sweeps up the concerns of our target audience and addresses them one by one, parsing out that copy over time so that we seem like we care.

And here’s the crazy thing—by creating content, we find ourselves actually caring.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

How to Wait Like a Boss

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Where does Fallow Fit in Your Work Calendar?

You’ve pulled all your levers, called in your favors, phoned the usual suspects and still, nothing.

You’ve checked and rechecked your inbox.

Nothing.

This is the freelancer’s periodic plight: No matter how busy you were last year, last month, last week, today is a different day—subject to the vagaries of clients, markets, time and creative flow. And there’s nothing you can do about it except wait.

Fallow-2-fallow-20160720

Waiting is not the worker’s lot. Employees have no end to work and the seeming ability to remain busy. It’s only when the busy employee steps away from a job (voluntary, lay-off, fired) that she or he realizes that they might have benefited from stepping off the treadmill earlier. A bit of perspective may reveal their busy productivity didn’t really add up to much they can take with them.

Waiting is also the job-hunters dilemma. The job-hunter taps her toe waiting for the wheels to turn, for the right people to review the resumes and the interviews to be scheduled. Waiting for an offer. Waiting for a “thanks-but-no-thanks.”

No one likes waiting. You want productivity 24/7 and let’s start being productive this instant.

Waiting is a complete waste of time.

But is waiting a complete waste time?

In fact, waiting pulls back the curtain on our fallow ground.

Kathleen Norris, in her book The Quotidian Mysteries, wrote about the infinite prairies to which she returned to focus on writing. All that land—miles and miles—seemed so unproductive. And that unproductive land was also a reflection on her mood. It took time, but she eventually saw that there was actually pretty big stuff happening in those fallow fields—all largely unseen. Norris learned to sit with her own fallow, unproductive times knowing that hidden gears were turning and new avenues were opening:

No small part of the process of writing is the lifting up into consciousness of what has long remained in the basement, hidden, underground, as in a tomb.

Maybe you are crazy busy and fallow/unproductive/waiting time has no place in your schedule. Please reconsider. Take that vacation. Rethink your time between jobs. Look deep into the underground and pull out the life what was entombed years ago.

That’s how you wait like a boss.

 

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

3 Ways to Strengthen Your Next Think-Piece

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Leadership is an emotional action storyStairs-2-story-20160713

Most of my clients see themselves as thought-leaders. These clients really are leaders in their industries: their scientists and engineers labor to create new ways of approaching old markets even as they open new markets. A think-piece is an outward-facing story of their leadership in the light of a market problem or need.

Some clients assume their brochures and web copy can be repurposed into a think-piece. One of my tasks is to help them understand that a think-piece takes a position on a problem, spins out a story that shows the problem resolved in an emotionally satisfying way. That is typically a larger frame of reference than their current brochure or web copy.

Other clients want to say something without revealing anything. They worry about competition in their tight market. But they don’t realize how a generous spirit is another kind of selling (especially in this sharing economy), and giving something-not-everything away is a mark of true leadership. But it’s just too big a task (they say) and it will “only distract our scientists and engineers.”

Sharp clients understand that thought-leadership presents a story that is immediately recognizable, universally understood (by their target audience) and easy to digest. They also understand that the best stories carry a useful thought with an emotional element.

My favorite thought-pieces typically have these three elements:

  1. Story: A story is threaded together with real people doing real things. There is emotion in a story—just like life—and real people talk in human rather than PR speak. Real people with real problems that unlock real emotion both before and after the solution appears.
  2. Visual: There’s no question that words simply take too long for most of us. We still read, of course, but our short attention spans move us toward images and video. Some say visual is the primary way social media will present in coming years. We can put that visual bias to work today with words that paint pictures. That has always been the novelist’s forte: creating scenes. That ability must find a home in today’s think-pieces. Gone are the days when an interested audience member might happily read your brochure. Now you have to catch them when they are not looking or thinking about your product or industry. This is not an easy task, but the more visual the better. Visual also has the advantage of being immediately understood.
  3. Speak Human: Every discipline has its own secret words. Every industry uses lingo and code words to show they know their stuff as well as out of sheer laziness. It’s just easier to say the same things as everyone else. Plus it’s a badge of the tribe, so why wouldn’t you? But insider language is inherently toxic for anyone outside. It’s a buzz kill for an outsider looking in. Speaking human means words cleansed of jargon, words that can shine through a clear story.

The best think-pieces don’t appear to be think-pieces at all. They can be read so effortlessly that we take every step with the author to the intended conclusion. And we find ourselves happy to be there, taking action with the hero.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Here’s the Story of a Man Named Quady

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Who was living with three alloys of his own

Yesterday I met Quady* for coffee. I was impressed all over again by the executive function of his brain: how he seems to effortlessly order complicated systems and businesses and talented people and even his own life. Quady** told me how he was weaving consulting with business acumen with creativity. I could not help but be impressed with the forward motion the guy exuded.

…and here’s the dumb sketch you ordered.

…and here’s the dumb sketch you ordered.

In fact, it was about ten years ago I met Quady at (yet) another Dunn Brothers on another side of Minneapolis to talk about how he grew the business he was running at that time. He was president of a firm that placed creative people in creative positions and his firm was on fire (that is, busy). At the time he gave me some solid advice which I resisted for years until embracing it fully: make a daily/weekly habit of reaching out to make contact with varieties of people.

And listen to them.

These days Quady is weaving together a consulting life that draws on his outsized executive function and his creativity plus a desire to walk alongside people. He’s a kind of CEO-for-hire and he’s currently working some high-level gigs. It’s the melding of these three threads that seems to open doors for him: the organizing gene plus the creative gene plus the people-smarts gene. Because he understands the moving parts of business, he can give solid, real-world advice to people. He gives the kind of advice that encourages from some deep place: the sort of advice like,

“Look. You’ve got this. It’s a stretch, but you can do it.”

And who doesn’t want to hear that?

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Dumb sketch: Kirkistan

*Not his real name.

**His real name was Markothy.

 

The Talking Part of Writing

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Talking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death

When it comes to brand new, unpaged ideas (that is, not yet written), J.K. Rowling is right:

But at some point every idea needs to make contact with an audience. Writers want their idea fully-formed with beautiful plumage before they exhibit it to anyone (lest someone call my baby ugly). Copywriters know this is not possible when it comes to collaborative writing—writing that serves some mission or purpose for an organization or cause—which needs client eyeballs as a part of the process.

Because Lillian Hellman is also right:

And Nora Roberts is especially right:

There’s the writing. And then there’s the fixing. I often think of the fixing as equally creative as the original writing. Great and wonderful things happen at the fixing/revising stage.

There is a point in every copywriting project where it must be discussed. It must be read aloud. And the key is—especially with new clients—fail faster.

I recently made a category error with a new client and I’m wondering how high a price I’ll pay. Rather than insisting on an early reading and sharing first thoughts when the bar was low, I let my content slide through several holidays until the deadline is an approaching storm and the bar is high for the copy to be right on the first reading.

Which it isn’t: it’s full of questions.

Which is almost always the case with a new client. Especially if the topic has a lot of moving parts.

Valley-3-01072015

So lesson learned (again): insist on failing faster and earlier.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

We Landed a Medtech Account—Now What? 3 Understandings

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Bollixed and castrated and then we begin

Advertising agencies and marketing firms are eager to land medical device accounts. These prestigious accounts are much desired and would seem to enlarge the status of an agency because of the exacting, rigorous work that helps the human condition. It doesn’t hurt that they seem to pay on time. But having worked with a number of ad agencies once they land such an account, there are a few common threads that surprise principals and employees:

GreenGiantCloseUp-4-09152014

  • You’ll need experts: people who know how to work within a regulatory framework (“Claim this.” “Never claim that.”). People who know the words that soothe lawyers while still making sense to humans. And especially people who know their sinus node rhythm from their rhythm method. You will stay on message and every claim must be neatly tied to an article from a respected (first or second-tier) journal.
  • Your creatives are (already) wringing their hands. That’s because creative solutions lie on the other side of a legal/regulatory/corporate culture grinder.
    • Yes: the company has come to you for creative solutions.
    • No: they cannot/will not back-off their own internal legal/regulatory controls. Their own internal machinery will bind and castrate many of those solutions you have used in the past. What a great beginning point!
  • There will be rounds of changes. Many rounds. Way more than you are used to. Far more than you can reasonably put in your bid. They will seem…unmanageable. Taming revisions will take your best customer service manners and may take you deep into the internal relationship structure of the firm. But that is exactly the kind of partnering that is needed

If your agency can come to grips with these three understandings without imploding or driving sane people mad, you’ll begin to build a reservoir of expertise.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Mind-reading and the Perfectionist’s Dilemma

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“Come here, you big, beautiful rough draft.”

You know what needs to be done.

You know how to do it.

But—given your schedule—you simply cannot attend the details. What you want is to jump to editing the rough draft—but who’s got time to create that rough draft?

This is what I'm thinking....

This is what I’m thinking….

We could be talking about drafting an email, an article or a chapter. We could be talking about a curriculum for a class or a seminar. We could be talking about writing a memo to employees or a letter to partners or a speech to stakeholders—anything that requires focused attention for a time so you can spin out and organize the details. We’re talking about anything you need to create from scratch to deliver to others. Any communication that solves a problem you’ve noticed.

Now is when you need an assistant who can move forward without hand-holding. Now is when you need someone who knows what you know without you telling them. Now is when you need a mind-reader.

But there are no mind-readers.

Are there no mind-readers?

I won’t say copywriters are mind-readers. I will say I find myself in situations every week where my client has provided 15-25% of the details but expects our project to organize 100% of the content in a coherent, compelling fashion.

Sometimes I wonder if our close friends, colleagues and collaborators serve as near-mind-readers. With them we feel free to spit out the raw bits of what we know. And as we say it, we realize what we need to do next. To tell someone what is on our mind is the first step to accomplishing a task. Those conversations are a kind of verbal rough draft.

Don’t be intimidated by the blank page. Embrace the notion of doing something mostly wrong and partly right, which is to say, embrace the rough draft.

It is much easier to change words on a page than it is to put words on a page.

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Image credit: Kirk Livingston

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