“Your boy, Lester, will never learn music.” So wrote a teacher to the mother of Lester Polsfuss of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Years later, of course, that boy was Les Paul, the world-renowned guitarist and inventor who revolutionized music by pioneering the electric guitar and inventing modern recording techniques, including multi-tracking. In fact, it’s hard to imagine what modern recorded music would be like if Les Paul (or his mother) had internalized that teacher’s “can’t-do” attitude.
Instead, the boy spent his days trying his hand at the guitar, harmonica, and banjo, begging for lessons from any local person who would give him the time of day, and building his own crystal radio set and later, his own amplifiers. By the time he was a teenager, he was in a country band. Hungry for more, he moved to Chicago and spent every off-hour on the South Side of Chicago with that city’s jazz musicians, learning everything he could about music.
I learned all this and more recently from a great documentary, Les Paul: Chasing Sound. What struck me the most about it was how Paul’s creativity was fueled by his continual thirst for learning. Undoubtedly, Paul had natural abilities that were beyond the imagination of his childhood music teacher. But without the desire to pursue them and willingness to be a beginner, they never would have developed. And Paul kept on playing music and experimenting well into his 90s. Eventually, he became the only person to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
There are some pretty off-the-wall concepts about creativity going around right now. One of the most destructive is the idea that a creative person comes up with mind-blowing ideas out of thin air. In reality, a true creative is forever a learner, focusing both on specific skills but branching out into a wide range of related concepts that pump more excitement and energy into the learning. Occasionally, I’ve run across people involved in the creative arts who weren’t learners, and they ended up as “wannabes.” It takes a combination of self-confidence and humility to admit you don’t know and seek out those who do.
Right now, I’m working on a white paper for a client about a piece of legislation that affects their industry. The client apologized for the boring subject matter! But no subject is boring if you have the chance to take apart the ideas behind it and experiment with fitting them back together—like Les Paul and his life-long quest to understand sound.
Whether business or pleasure, what do you want to learn about next? Whatever it is, give yourself permission to be the beginner. You never know where it might lead.
Have you ever worked with someone who made you pay a toll just to answer a question or give their input into a project? I think most of us have our war stories about that insufferable or arrogant colleague. I’ll never forget the guy who wouldn’t taking his turn washing dishes in the break room, explaining to the rest of us, “But I have a PhD!”
The truth is that people who are passive-aggressive, bad-tempered, or just full of themselves can take a surprisingly large toll on a project. Back when I used to interview candidates for my company’s technical writing team, I was known for my questions that tried to elicit the candidate’s temperament along with experience and skills. These days, as a freelance professional, I’m usually on the other side of the fence—and I’m more convinced than ever that being pleasant and sincere is a valuable skill all freelancers should work to cultivate.
Here are three assets that I think define that special something.
What do you think makes for a nice addition to a work team—someone you actually want to work with on a repeat basis?
Have you ever gone to a conference and had to sit through endless presentations that were badly disguised sales pitches? Then, instead of relaxing and networking with your peers at the mixer, you were button-holed by salespeople from other companies, all hoping you were their next hot prospect. Let’s face it—it doesn’t take long before you just grab a few more cheese cubes and head for the elevators.
Many companies have turned to case studies to better demonstrate their value to prospects and customers. A case study puts the spotlight on a customer and how you solved their problem. But how can you make sure that you don’t fall into the sales pitch trap and end up boring or alienating your audience? For the right mindset, keep these three points front and center:
A final tip: most people are tired of being sold, and wise to the tricks of the trade. Don’t sugarcoat your case study in sales language. This is the time to be real.
When you’re busy, it’s easy to get so caught up in the details of what you’re doing that you forget the whole reason you’re doing it. Recently I was looking back on the customers I’ve served the last year or so, and it was fun to thinking about making a difference.
I’m a pretty practical person with a lot of experience in traditional businesses. Most of my work comes from companies that offer IT solutions that solve practical, real-world problems from detecting fraud to checking out library books to managing local elections. As you can see, the end users of these solutions are experts in their fields, not computer geeks. My actual customers are usually marketing managers and directors in charge of content, marcom, or demand generation. They need to offer these end users real, substantive information, and the projects are usually pieces like white papers, case studies, or trade articles.
However, IT companies are not the only organizations that need writers. Because of my unique background in the cultural heritage arena, this past year I did two major projects for government. My largest single project of the year was writing a very extensive e-commerce catalog for a public museum. I also did a large research project for the 100th anniversary of the Texas Department of Transportation. My government customers have varied titles, but are concerned with outreach that is accurate, inviting for the public to read, and controversy-free.
Finally, I work on book projects, which I’m hoping to expand in 2017 and beyond. I worked closely with an old Austin family to create a corporate history of a legacy Austin business—a great project for a company anniversary or to celebrate the retirement of a founding executive. I also contributed research and editorial services for several book projects. Want to propose or submit a chapter to a business anthology? I can help with that, too.
As a one-person shop, I can generally handle only about 3-5 clients at any given time. I’m currently scheduling into the summer and looking for 1-2 new clients. I’d love to talk to you about your writing needs.
Are you a marketing manager who is swamped with content writing needs?
Um, does the bear live in the woods?
Odds are that you’re always playing catch-up to generate the blog posts, newsletters, trade articles, and white papers that would really connect you with customers and some great leads. But you might still be hesitating about bringing in a freelance writer like me to help generate some of your content. How could a freelancer possibly get up to speed on your products and customers? How could she understand what makes you special? Wouldn’t it just be more trouble than it’s worth?
The truth is that it’s all about communication—the very thing that got you where you are today. Here are a few ideas about how to find the right freelancer for you.
With good communication and clear direction, bringing a freelancer into your team may feel like the best decision you ever made. Want to know more? Give me a call. I’d love to see your project on my summer calendar.
In a conversation last week with other freelancers, one fellow writer said, “I’m looking for a client who sees a writer as a revenue generator to be maximized, rather than a cost center to be minimized.” I wondered—what would happen if we reframed the way we look at all of our business relationships. What if we stopped thinking of people as risks and liabilities, and thought of them as allies and assets instead?
As with many questions, I haven’t come up with any answers—only more questions.
In the end, I’m not sure that money, status, or titles work as goals, even in the short run. I have a lot of admiration for people who do good work and treat their fellow human beings with respect, care, and appreciation, no matter what the circumstances.
In his recent Design in Tech 2017 report, John Maeda refers to writing as the “unicorn skill.” Even as information design has become more sophisticated, the ability to explain a concept via the written word has become one of the rare and outstanding skills that sets a professional apart from the herd.
What makes writing such a specialized skill? After all, we all learn how to write in elementary school. With e-mail and texts, most people probably write more than they did a generation ago. The actual skill that a good professional brings to the table is far more than a facility with language. It’s the ability to fully grasp a concept, then turn around and teach it to someone else using only words.
Back in the day, bards or troubadours carried stories from town to town, teaching them using song. While The Canterbury Tales may seem a far cry from content marketing or technical writing, they actually aren’t so far apart. It always comes down to one basic principle: understand your audience. What do the people already know? What’s important to them? Why is this news? Who needs to know? What’s the hook? What’s the takeaway? How can you make the message stick?
When you put a writer on the job, look for a person who grapples with all these questions right from the beginning, thinks through the answers, and then communicates the ideas with precision and clarity to just the right audience. If your audience doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then your efforts to reach them won’t have amounted to much. People talk a lot these days about making their voices heard. But it turns out that anyone can shout and be heard. The question is: were you understood?
If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off. — Anton Chekov
Let’s have some fun today. I’d like to share a “writer’s secret” that can create a sense of mystery for even the driest subject matter. This technique is called the “open loop.”
These days, everyone is all too familiar with open loop headlines—so familiar that they’ve come to be called “clickbait.” Here are a few examples from today’s edition of Buzzfeed, perhaps the most notorious practitioner of the open loop:
These headlines leave you with a question that demands to be answered, compelling you to click on the story to find out what the answer is. Since as B2B marketers we don’t have the luxury of wasting our customers’ time the way that Buzzfeed does, we need to more graceful in our use of the technique. Here’s how.
Start with the setup. Here is the opening of a trade article I wrote for one of my clients:
Deep in the heart of a steaming jungle, a ramshackle mining town is full of dangers like mudslides, snakebites, and tropical diseases. Even getting here is an adventure that requires a small plane, a day spent navigating seething rivers, or a hair-raising 4×4 ride over ungraded roads. There are few comforts here and, apart from items in a small camp commissary, almost nothing to buy.
It may seem the most unlikely place on earth to uncover an elaborate fraud scheme.
Here’s another one from a case study I did, with the client info deleted since it was for internal company use only:
Like most [redacted] libraries, [redacted] County Library was hit with extensive budget cuts in 2010 as the shock waves of the financial crash hit county government. The question wasn’t whether the library budget would be slashed—it was where and how to absorb the cuts and still deliver services to customers.
As you can see, these openings set up a question, while still being completely professional. In fact, in a few sentences, you’ve told your readers about very difficult, challenging problems—presumably ones they can identify with. The idea is that your customers and prospects will read on to find out how it turned out. What was the fraud scheme and how was it uncovered? How did the library survive its budget cuts? By the end of your article, you’ve circled back around to close the loop, leading your reader to the conclusion of “Wow! If they could do it, so can I.”
Want to know more? Download my free guide, How to Cure the B2B Content Blahs. Besides the guide, you’ll be one of the first on the list to receive my free monthly newsletter (coming soon) with exclusive tips on how to use writing techniques to make sure your message is heard!
Most people prepare for the known knowns— that is, the problems we already know about —and the known unknowns—such as what projects your customers will dream up next, or what your competitors might bid against you. The most haunting problems are the unknown unknowns—the things that blindside us, the problems that are coming our way that we don’t even know about yet.
How do you prepare for the unknown unknowns? Let’s take an example everyone knows about: data scientists blew the predictions about last fall’s election, while one astute observer (former president Clinton) got it right. What did he know that that all the data scientists didn’t know? What combination of knowledge and experience led him to sound the alarm while others thought the election was in the bag? And most importantly, what could we learn from it in our own businesses and lives?
As a writer who helps people explain complex products and services, I think it’s important to remember that no matter how good it is, any analysis is just a simplified way to think about a thing—not the thing itself. Sometimes people are so in love with their own explanation that they forget that!
Former president Clinton, an old-school politico, didn’t use an analysis to predict events. If I had to guess, he reached his conclusions via full immersion in his ecosystem, taking in information from multiple sources on a constant basis. He had a baseline, sure, but he kept tuned in as costly and irreversible events unfolded. To this day, I’m always amazed how many IT projects go off the rails because the people in charge don’t want to spend the time to involve their employees and customers and tap into the storehouse of knowledge right at their fingertips.
Usually, it turns out that so-called unknowns were known to plenty of folks—just not the ones who “mattered” when the decisions were being made. Think “connect the dots.” If you don’t map all the dots, you probably won’t get the right picture, no matter how clever you are or what you decide you see in the dots that you do have.
After he retired, my grandfather wore the exact same outfit every day for the rest of his life: a blue short-sleeved shirt, gray trousers, black socks, black walking shoes, and a gray tweed stingy-brim hat, all of which he would buy at JC Penneys.
A practical man or a creature of habit? Most nights, Grandpa served himself his dinner from the crockpot and watched the Huntley-Brinkley report. He got his in-depth news from TIME magazine and belonged to a mystery book club. At the end of each day, he turned in with Johnny Carson and a shot glass of bourbon.
But wait! There was a method to my grandfather’s madness. By eliminating unnecessary decisions, he freed up his energy for the things he really enjoyed and wanted to do. He spent his days hiking in the woods and swamps, searching for rare wildflowers and ferns. In his retirement, he authored two guidebooks about the plants of Delaware and the Eastern Shore, where he made his home. He also traveled extensively in Central America and in Spain to pursue his passion for rare plants (he was a retired agronomist). The sunny front room of his home was given over to a huge variety of cacti, many of which he collected when he visited us in Texas. In his garden, he grew roses and the most delicious corn and tomatoes you ever tasted, which he shared with his friends all over the state.
These days, the sheer variety of choices available to us can be overwhelming. We have millions of songs, thousands of movies and TV shows, and hundreds of cable channels. We have a constantly refreshing social media feed clamoring for attention. In a large city like Austin, we have many choices about hip and cool things to do and decisions to make about how to get there and where to park.
In their book Willpower, John Tierney and Roy Baumeister write about decision fatigue and how the variety of decisions in our culture is exhausting us. According to their study, your willpower is like a muscle that becomes fatigued in the course of a day. If you wear it out agonizing over what to wear, what kind of latte to order, or what to read next, you don’t have much brainpower left for the things you actually want to do.
Yet another invitation to live mindfully! Put your most important work first, and simplify your life so you can do just that. Turns out Grandpa was on to something.