Four Hacks to Writing Faster

The first time I was ever hired to write a press release, I charged $100 for an hour’s work.

The problem was, it only took me 20 minutes to write the thing.

I felt so guilty that I just sat and stared at my computer for the next 40 minutes, looking for errors, changing a word here and there, but mostly just making sure I worked the entire hour.

I finally realized — with five minutes remaining — that the client hadn’t hired me to work for an hour. They hired me because I had the ability to produce a press release in an hour or less.

I just never told them it took me 20 minutes.

It turns out, that’s pretty fast. I know people who take a few hours to write a press release. It takes them a few hours to write anything, in fact. They dread writing, they dread the blank page or the empty screen, and they don’t know how to fill it up.
A stopwatch is not necessarily going to help you write faster. Don't time yourself for a writing hack.
Copywriter extraordinaire Henneke Duistermaat recently wrote about 12 productivity hacks to help you write faster, which can help the non-writer and beginning writer snap out of the “I can’t do it!” funk and actually get some words down on the page.

(She also created a really cool sketch for her article, and I’m totally jealous.)

With tips like “write when groggy” and “slow down,” Henneke’s advice can help even the most resistant non-writers into passable scribblers.

But there are a few other writer-y things professional writers do so we can write much faster than non-writers. And if you want to speed up your writing time, here are four tips for writing faster for you to try.

1. Always put ideas in a notebook

If you don’t have one, get yourself a nice little notebook. Either a Moleskine or Field Notes. Something durable and simple, and small enough to fit into a pocket or purse.

Don’t get one of those gorgeous leather-bound things that looks like it came from Elvish Hobby Lobby. You’ll be too afraid to write in it, and it will be too clunky to carry around.

If you have an idea that pops into your head, write it down. It gets the idea out of your head so a new one can take its place. Otherwise, it will keep rattling around up there, and you’ll keep churning it around in your brain.

Don’t put it in your phone though. You need to go through the physical act of writing, because it helps us remember things better, which is going to help us with writer hack number 2.

Next, come up with three main points — write out full sentences — that you think would best explain this topic. If you can come up with more, write them down too. But make sure you have at least three.

2. Ponder your ideas

Okay, I stole this one. Henneke says to “take advantage of percolation.”

When you aren’t writing, your brain still continues thinking about your content. It’s called the diffuse mode of thinking—when you let your mind wander freely.

But I want you to do more than just letting your mind wander freely. You’re going to focus on this idea, you’re going to imagine yourself in different scenarios, and you’re going to work it and work it, like a baker kneading her dough.

Any time you can find time to concentrate, I want you to imagine and visualize the subject of your article/blog post/white paper/story. This percolation is actually where you’re going to do the real writing, creating and fleshing out your ideas. The act of putting it down on the computer is just typing; for now, you’re going to write in your head.

Whenever you’re going to drive somewhere, ride the train home, go for a run, putter around in the garage, or do yoga, look at your idea before you start. Open up your notebook, study your great idea and main points, and then ponder them as you’re running, driving, puttering, yoga-ing.

Really mull it over and grind it between your teeth. Use this non-computer time to come up with different thoughts, ideas, phrasing, and so on. As those ideas start to develop, that should lead you into hack number three.

3. Imagine yourself giving this as a talk

Picture yourself giving a talk on this subject to a roomful of people. (If it helps, imagine they’re adoring fans hanging on your every word.) What would you say? How would you explain this? You want to explain the subject logically, so it flows in a natural, easy-to-understand way. Think about a couple of stories you could add in there, and even a few jokes.

Do this visualization whenever you’ve got the time — driving, commuting, walking, in the shower, before you go to bed, and so on. This is more of Henneke’s percolating and it’s where your best writing is going to happen.

Finally, you’re ready for the last hack.

4. Write an email to your mom.

I always like to say, “If you’re writing about something difficult, put it an email to your mom.”

Seriously. Start out with, “Dear Mom, let me tell you something I learned today.”

Now, our moms love us, but they don’t quite get what they do. For the longest time, my mom knew I “sold things on the Internet,” but that’s about as far as she got. (And she was a financial aid consultant with PeopleSoft for a lot of years!)

So we have to explain things in language that our moms understand, and in a tone we would normally talk to our moms in. In other words, keep it simple AND CONVERSATIONAL, but don’t talk down to her.

(You remember what happened the last time you talked down to your mom, right?)

When you’re done explaining the topic to your mom, go back and delete that first line, “Dear Mom, let me tell you . . .” And there’s your blog post.

Do it this way, because it’s easier to write emails to the people we love and who love us. (Unless we’re writing about our relationships with those people. That’s hard. Save that for the holidays when the nieces and nephews won’t shut up, and everyone’s frustrated and half-drunk.)

In the end, the best way to start writing faster is to practice, practice, practice. Read a lot about your subject (books, not blog posts), and talk to people about the subject. Even the act of explaining your ideas will help you write them better, because you have to organize your thoughts just to explain them.

Photo credit: William Warby (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Outrunning The Little Man: Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

There’s only one person I’ve ever been afraid of my entire life.

He’s average height, and skinny, very skinny. He’s got a bad combover, wears outdated glasses that are too large for his face, and a tie clipped onto a pistachio green short sleeve shirt. He’s an older Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. He’s very officious, and kind of an asshole. The kind of guy who loves wielding his teeny-tiny bit of power over other people’s lives.

I call him “The Little Man.” He’s not little in size, but in spirit and vision.

I live in fear of the day The Little Man knocks on my door. He’ll look at a form on his clipboard and say, “I’m sorry” — except he’s really not — “but there’s been a mistake. You’re not supposed to be a writer. You’re supposed to be a claims adjuster. Sign here, please.” I’m afraid The Little Man is going to show up one day and take everything away because of a clerical error.

Impostor syndrome makes people worry there's some bureaucrat out there trying to get us and fix some error about our lives.I’ve been looking over my shoulder for The Little Man for the better part of 30 years. Ever since I published my first column in my college newspaper, I’ve been trying to outrun him.

It’s like the movies. The hero runs as fast as he or she can, knocking shit over into the bad guy’s path. But the bad guy just steps over everything like it’s not even there.

So I’m amassing evidence to slow him down and prove him wrong. Evidence to show that his form is wrong, and that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I’ve thrown four books in his path. Twenty-one years of newspaper columns. Thousands of blog articles. Writing awards. Writing residencies. Speaking opportunities. But he won’t stop. I’m throwing it all in his path, and he won’t even look at it. He’s a mindless bureaucrat, a drone who refuses to see evidence in front of him or use common sense. He only believes what the paperwork says, despite what real life is showing him.

I’ve been running for 30 years, and he won’t stop coming.

I thought I escaped him once last year, when I was a writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It’s a prestigious residency where only four writers are chosen out of over 300 applicants from all over the world. To me, this confirmed that there had been no error, there was no form on a clipboard.

“This will stop him,” I thought. “There’s no way he can find me here. I’m supposed to be here. They said so.”

But when I stepped inside and closed the door on my first day, he was right there on the sidewalk in front of the house, staring up at it. In fact, it was the closest he’d ever gotten.

He chases my other artist friends too. They’ve seen him, following them wherever they go, whatever they do. To a man and woman, they’ve all seen him, no matter how successful they get, no matter how much stuff they throw in his way.

In fact, the more successful they are, the closer he gets. So we all run faster and work harder, and throw more stuff in his way. But he steps over it and continues on.

It’s a rare artist who isn’t afraid of him. Every capable creative professional I know keeps one eye on their work, and the other looking over their shoulder.

The ones who aren’t afraid often don’t know enough to be afraid. They’re not committed to their craft and they don’t take it seriously. The Little Man leaves alone those artists who wait for inspiration or think they’re masters of their craft. (Because even the real masters don’t think they’re masters; they’re looking for The Little Man too.)

So we work, because that’s the only thing that lets us outrun him. It doesn’t stop him. He never stops. Because he’s waiting for the day that I stop, when I give up and quit running. That’s when he’ll get me. That’s when I’ll have to take his pen and sign his form, and finally give up on my dreams.

But that’s not today. Today, I still have things to do and dreams to win. I still have the energy and the drive to work, and to outrun him one more day.

Photo credit: Max Pixels (FreeGreatPicture.com, Creative Commons 0)

A 25 Page Booklet is not a Book

Maybe I’m being elitist, but I’m getting annoyed at what people call “books” these days.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a so-called expert advise a room full of people to “slap together a short book to demonstrate your expertise on a topic.”

“It doesn’t actually need to be that long — 30, 40 pages tops. I churned mine out in a weekend,” one expert said a few years ago. He was giving a talk about how writing a book can get you speaking gigs and TV appearances.

As a real book author, this bothers me. It bothers me because it cheapens what I do. It turns the several hundred hours I’ve spent on my four co-authored books into a weekend errand you tackle between washing the car and getting a haircut.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I stayed up well past 3:00 am, writing until I fell asleep at my keyboard only to wake up and still be typing.
One does not simply "slap a book together"
But here’s this guy telling me you can just barf out a random assortment of words on any topic in a few hours, upload it to CreateSpace, and bada-boom bada-bing, you’ve got a book!

But my rant is not against self-published books. In fact, one of my books, The Owned Media Doctrine, is a self-published/traditionally-published hybrid of sorts. The others were published by Wiley and Que Biz-Tech (a Pearson imprint). And they’re all 250 pages and longer. So you’ll understand why I get annoyed when someone equates a 30 page weekend project with an actual book.

These stacks of paper aren’t books, they’re booklets. The -let comes from French and means diminutive or small. It’s literally a “little book.”

“If you run short of material, just bump the font size up to 13, set the line spacing to 1.5 lines, and bump the margins in a quarter of an inch,” said the guy. “I turned a 20 page book into a 35 page book that way,” he boasted. (I actually groaned out loud at that, and people looked at me funny.)

And punctuation and grammar? Don’t even get me started on punctuation and grammar! I’ve only ever heard one booklet advocate suggest getting someone to proofread the manuscript. The others recommend giving it one more read through on Sunday “with fresh eyes.” My books went through four read throughs before they were ever printed, and we’re still finding issues.

The whole reason for writing a book is to demonstrate your expertise on a topic. It implies that you have a depth and a breadth of knowledge that the average industry member does not. That you study and research more than the rest of the people in your field. (Whether you do or not is a different matter entirely.)

This is important if you ever want to get speaking gigs, especially paid ones. The idea is that you just wave your book in front of the conference organizer, and they’ll believe your expertise, and boom, you’re hired.

The problem is that 1) the minimum acceptable standard of what we call a “book” is slipping, and 2) our guy’s advice implies conference organizers are easily distracted by jangling car keys in front of them.

Booklets Play an Important Role

Look, these booklets might be fine for sharing with potential clients. You could even sell them for $.99 or $1.99. I know one guy who has made a decent living by writing ebooks and booklets about specific elite athletic techniques and selling them for $10 or $15.

He even goes so far as to break them out, chapter by chapter, and sells those for $.99 apiece. If you can do that, more power to you. This guy has a specialized piece of knowledge that, frankly, doesn’t need an entire 280 page book. It can be explained in a few thousand words with some pictures and diagrams. It doesn’t need to be any more than that.

There are booklets out there for launching a business, passing specific industry certifications, repairing appliances, cast iron cooking, and changing the oil in your car. There are short 15,000 word novellas and poetry booklets that take up 25 pages.

In the fiction world, these booklets are called chapbooks. Historically, those meant small pamphlets containing ballads or tracts, and they were sold by peddlers called “chapmen.” To modern creative writers, chapbooks are small paperback booklets usually containing poems or short stories.

And the chapbook authors are appropriately humble about their work. They recognize that this is a tiny work and not on the same level as a regular book. But they’ve also spent hours and hours on it, after spending years honing their craft to even start writing the book. It’s not something they “slapped together” one weekend either.

You Should Still Be Proud

Don’t get me wrong. What you’ve done is impressive, and you should be proud. You’ve strung together 4,000 – 5,000 words about an area you’re an expert in. I’ll bet 95% of the US population can’t say that. You have done something that only a few million people throughout history have ever done. And I’ll even say this qualifies you as a “writer.”

But that’s the first step. You’ve got a lot more knowledge rattling around in that great big brain of yours — at least another 55,000 words on that subject. You know about the history of your industry, the important issues of the day, the major themes, the political ramifications, and the tax implications.

You know the inside baseball, the little rules, the big problems, and what it all means for the beginner and expert in your industry. You could talk for hours and hours about the things you know and the things you’ve seen, and if we wrote it all down, we’d have 200 pages on the subject.

And that’s a book.

Your book should be thick. It should have heft. It should thunk when you drop it on your desk. It shouldn’t fit in your pocket. It’s the thing you’ll spend a few hundred hours on, wavering between pulling out your hair and setting your hair on fire. And when you’re done, it will be one of the proudest moments of your life, when you see that something you created occupies a physical space in the world, and will be around long after you’re gone.

If you want a real weekend project, write an outline of the book you’d like to read on your particular topic. Break it up into chapters (at least 12, no more than 16), sections, and sub-sections. And then write one sub-section for at least 1,000 words.

Then fill out the rest, one section and one day at a time. If you can write one section a day, at least 1,000 words per section, you should finish it in less than six months.

Then you’ll have a real book — something you can boast about and be proud of.

And I want a signed copy.

What Are You Best At?

I was at a networking luncheon recently where a sales trainer was giving a talk about how companies often race to the bottom when it comes to their pricing.

“Over 51 percent of customers say they buy on price first,” he said. “So what do salespeople do? They lower their price to grab the sale.” That means more than half your potential customers are not interested in whether you’re the best person for the job, they want you to be the cheapest.

“The problem,” a promotional products salesperson said to me later, “is that those clients will turn around and dump you for a dime.” She told me about a nonprofit she had been working with for five years, and she recently lost them in a carousel of marketing coordinators and the old “you have to get three proposals” shuffle.

Never mind she had given them decent pricing for the past five years. Never mind that she had bent over backward to meet frantic deadlines (thanks to their own bad planning), or made deliveries herself to ensure they had what they needed just in time for some event or other.

There was a new marketing coordinator she didn’t have a relationship with, and she was gone. (My friend is determined to win them back though, without compromising on price.)

That got me to thinking about how I do what I do, and why I charge what I charge. I started thinking about what I’m “best at.” Which of my skills are more defined and developed than any of my others. And which of those skills I can offer to potential clients as a premium and not a “me too” service.

For those of us in the service business, especially freelancers, the one thing we have to offer is our “Best At,” that thing we do better than anyone else.

If you can identify your Best At skills, you can work with the right clients all day, and never have to scrape bone for those price-focused clients. But if you focus on price because you can only offer the same general service as everyone else, you’re going to have a tough time finding lasting success and loyalty.

Freelancers, What’s Your ‘Best At’ Skill?

Paul D'Andrea shooting on location. One of the freelancers who has found his Best At skill.

Paul D’Andrea shooting on location.

For some freelancers, their Best At skill is photography, but not just photography. Their forte is art photography, or sports photography, or business headshots. For others, their Best At skill is accounting, but not just regular accounting. They specialize in small business accounting, or forensic accounting, or fast food franchise accounting.

If you can figure out what you’re Best At, you can define your niche. It’s not just your passion or that thing that speaker said at that seminar. It’s the thing that you can do better than anybody else, even if it’s just a tiny small difference from everyone else in your field. It’s the thing you practice and focus on, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep.

I’ve got a photographer friend whose top skill is shooting business headshots. He’s great at other photography, but very few people shoot business headshots as well as he does. As a result, he’s able to get work from area corporations and charge his professional rate. No one is trying to get him to drop his price in exchange for exposure. No one is telling him, “I have a digital camera that’s just as good.” No one is trying to nickel and dime him, asking for discounts in exchange for less work.

He has planted his flag on Headshot Hill and people are willing to pay his rate, because they know he’s the king of that hill.

Another friend specializes in long-form video with lots of visual effects. He’s hired by larger companies with larger budgets to produce long videos that tell their brand story. The companies that want someone to interview talking heads with an iPhone can’t afford him; the companies that can afford him want something more than talking heads and iMovie special effects. He’s planted his flag on his own hill, and people are willing to pay what he asks for, because he’s the king of that hill.

The Other 49%

Earlier, I mentioned that 51% of customers are focused on price first. That means a majority of your potential customers will throw you over just because they found a competitor that will do it for 5% less than you.

You don’t want these customers. Sure, they’re nice, because they’re a source of revenue, and we always need revenue. And if you need the work to feed your family, you should take every cheap client you can until you can find better ones.

But I’ve found that the price-driven customers will eke every little crumb out of your relationship, bleed you dry with feature creep, delayed payments, and demand the most attention while being the smallest portion of your revenue.

So don’t get attached to them, and never, ever try to build a business on being the lowest-priced vendor they’ve got. That just speeds you along the road to failure.

Instead, focus on the other 49% that care about craftsmanship and quality. Focus on the 49% that knows your work is going to be seen by the public, run their company, or make their lives easier.

If you’re an accountant, it’s your work that’s going to keep them out of trouble with the IRS and out of jail.

If you’re a digital marketer, it’s your work that’s going to drive their marketplace exposure and generate their revenue.

If you’re an IT professional, it’s your work that’s going to keep their network running and safe from cyber attacks.

These are jobs that should not be left to the lowest-priced provider. These are the people whose work can make or break a company. If clients buy these services on price, they’re going to get burned badly with damages and recovery costs that run 10 times as much money as they saved.

A couple months ago, a prospective client asked me to justify my pricing, given that some freelancers would write blog articles for only $5. So I shared my 20 year background, detailed my list of publications and the books I’ve co-authored, and explained my various specialties. I also pointed out that the $5 writers typically did not have a mastery of English, probably plagiarized or re-spun a lot of their work, and that she would spend so much time editing and rewriting their work, it would eat up all the money she had saved by buying the cheapest option.

And I stood firm on my price.

Of course, I never heard from her again, which was fine with me. I knew she would never be satisfied with my price unless I charged $4 per article. That’s the kind of customer I don’t need, and the kind I’ll never work for.

That’s because I know my Best At skill, and I work to get better at it every day. I read, I study, and I practice. I hone my Best At skills the same way a professional athlete works to keep in top shape for their job.

I don’t just want to be the best I can be, I want to be one of the best in my industry. That way, when someone comes to me and asks me to lower my price to be more in line with what less experienced writers are charging, I can say no.

Because I don’t want to be driven by price and spend my day chasing down client after client whose only concern is whether my writing is the cheapest they could find, with no concern of quality.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

Do I Have Your Attention?

Jon Barney is an up-and-coming writer in the Orlando, Florida area (originally from Lafayette, LA, and has a lot of big ideas about a lot of things. Jon says he has an amazing wife and two kids, and he “loves the hotel restaurant industry and corny jokes,” which makes him a man after my own heart. Jon is also in Toastmasters, and he wrote an interesting speech about getting and keeping people’s attention.

According to a 2015 Microsoft study, I will only have your attention until about. . .now. Eight measly, little seconds. Then I will have to work real hard to keep you from thinking about the errands you have to run later. Don’t feel bad for your short attention span. We are in good company, our friend the goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

What is attention anyway, and why do we have to pay for it? Is it something we can control and direct or is it like the dog who sees a SQUIRREL!? Since attention is not food, why are people starved for it? I’m here to tell you today that attention is your most valuable resource and you need to control it, and protect it.

Attention is the notice of something we deem interesting or important. Have you ever sat down on the couch and got comfortable? You are about to watch Days of Our Lives or a football game; and your kids start screaming and yelling, fighting with each other? What happened? They were fine a minute ago. Your kids saw that they didn’t have your attention and they knew the fastest way to get it back.

We all need attention, we all want to feel important to someone.

When you receive attention from someone, you will receive the actions that flow from that attention, which could lead to feelings of love. That is why we hear stories of housewives, starved for attention, thrust into the arms of another man, Raul. No attention. No importance. No love.

It is why men walk around with puffed out chests, peacocking and showboating. It is why women take care in their appearance. We all act and dress in a way that draws. . . attention.

Attention isn’t only about importance and love. It is the very first step in any form of communication. For example: You’re watching the game. You’re leaned forward, hands clasped, staring at the TV. It’s the last 2 minutes and the score is tied. Then you hear, (wom wom wom wom, Charlie Brown teacher voice) and you say ok just to get it to stop. Then once the game is over, you sit down for dinner with your spouse and get, the look. “Did you take out the trash?” “NO” “Well, I asked you to do it 30 minutes ago!!” “What? I don’t remember that.” “You were watching the game and you said ok when I asked you.” We’ve all been there, once or a thousand times. Don’t deliver important messages unless you have their attention first. We need attention to feel importance and to communicate. But how do we get it?

There are many ways to get attention, some positive and some negative. We must first know how attention works. Your body, every part of it, eyes, nose, mouth, ears and skin is gathering information, receiving signals. Then sending them to your brain for processing into two categories: important and unimportant. To illustrate my point, let’s go for a walk in the woods. We are walking and we see a tree. “Ehhh, not important, keep going.” Then as we get closer to that tree we look down and see a massive, coiled rattlesnake, ready to strike. “OMG, I’M GONNA DIE. IMPORTANT!!” Our basic sorting system is for survival and reproduction, those two processes guide most of our attention.

Sometimes it take a bright red car to get people paying attention to you.How could we use the eyes to garner attention? Use the color red. Red is a bold color that commands our attention. If you want to get a lot of attention today, head down to the dealership, trade your car in and drive off in Red Corvette. Put the top down and drive slowly. Instant attention.

How could we use the ears to get attention? Have you ever boarded your flight, sat down, book out, ready to relax and then…you hear a baby start crying? “Really?” You can’t focus on anything else. Our human brains are hardwired to divert our attention to the crying infant. We have to stop it from crying. Diaper change, bottle, attention, whatever it takes. What a survival mechanism!

How could we use the nose to attract attention? You could wear a delicious, floral smelling perfume or musky cologne. Or you could fart in an elevator. Both are powerful ways to command attention. Now, I’m not saying to buy a corvette, cry like a baby or pass gas to get attention, but it will work. Which lead us to a more important question, what can you do when you have attention?

This is where things get cloudy. When you have someone’s full attention you are free to influence them any way you please. Sell them on a new product. Manipulate them into a situation. Seduce them from their lover. It is for these reasons, you should control and protect your own attention.

Have you ever heard the phrase “pay attention”? What that means is that for your ability to focus on something, you pay for it by ignoring everything else. It is like a zoomed in picture of a flower, you can see all the detail and its beauty. But everything else is fuzzy and out of focus.

This “Zoom Lens” feature of our brains is a great tool when you are in the pursuit of your dreams. Or realizing a new healthier version of yourself. Maybe you want to reignite a love that had gone cold. On the other hand is can lock us into an 8-hour Netflix binge. It is the reason why we drive staring down at our phones instead of the road. And why we work so much we never see our family.

I know that this speech was just a little longer than eight seconds. I see the goldfish is still paying attention so it couldn’t have been that bad. I hope that you found it interesting and important. We covered a lot, we learned how to love. How to communicate. How to gain attention without embarrassing yourself or buying a new car. But the most important takeaway from this speech is simple: Take control of your attention, or something else will.

Photo credit: Scott Webb (Unsplash.com, Creative Commons 0>

Conflict Sells Solutions: How to Use Plot in Content Marketing

When we hear the word conflict, many people think that means arguing and shouting, disagreement and fighting. We’re taught that conflict is bad, and that we should avoid it.

But every good story has conflict, even if no one raises their voice in the entire book.

Conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s how we get things done. Entrepreneurs often create solutions to a problem because they’re in conflict with the status quo. They see a problem, they develop a solution to eliminate it. Or someone says they’re not allowed to develop a solution at work, so they quit and create their own solution.

Conflict creates opportunities. Every entrepreneur’s story is centered around conflict, and my favorite business stories are ones of disruption, where The Establishment tells the plucky young entrepreneur, “you can’t do that.” The plucky young entrepreneur ignores The Establishment, builds an establishment-shattering solution, makes a lot of money, and we get an exciting story out of it.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone" This is where plot and storytelling really inform content marketing.

Let me tell you a story!

In storytelling, conflict drives the story forward. Without conflict, you’ve just got two people sitting around, talking about nothing. Even Seinfeld, the show about nothing, had plenty of conflict in it. How else do you create an entire episode around whether soup is a meal?

What is Conflict in Storytelling?

Kurt Vonnegut said about writing stories, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

He meant that stories are born out of desire. Someone wants something, and the rest of the story is spent trying to get it. If you want a glass of water, you can get off the couch and get it. But there’s no real story in that.

The real story happens when something won’t let our character get the water. It could be simple, it could be complex, but our main character can’t get that thing he or she wants.

  • He just doesn’t want to.
  • The game’s on, the score is tied with 30 seconds remaining.
  • He weighs 900 pounds and hasn’t gotten off the couch since 2014.
  • She wants to go, but she’s been tied up by a villain in a top hat and curly mustache.
  • There are ninjas in the kitchen, protecting the sink.
  • The floor is hot lava.
  • Zombies.

Noted scifi author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) called this plot. She said:

Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion — that’s Plot.

In other words, you want a glass of water, but someone else wants to prevent you from getting it.

In my article on MacGuffins, the glass of water has become the MacGuffin. Remember, MacGuffin stories usually fall under either the “I have the thing/I’m going to take the thing” or “I’m going to steal the thing/I have to save the thing” construct.

Those dueling purposes is where Plot comes from. The good guy has something the bad guy wants, and they’re working at cross purposes. Those two irons will strike against each other, until KA-BLAM, we have an exciting ending to our story.

How Does Conflict Help Content Marketing?

In content marketing, you’re the protagonist, the problem is the antagonist. You’re the hero, the problem is the villain.

You want something (higher profits, more leads, lower turnover, lower downtime, fewer defects), but the villain is preventing you from achieving your goals.

Therein lies the plot. You want the thing, the villain wants to take the thing.

You want higher profits, the villain causes higher costs.

You want more leads, the villain breaks your website or creates crappy content.

You want fewer defects, the villain causes your machine to break down.

And the plot is those two irons striking together.

But it’s not enough for the irons to strike together. Something has to happen, there has to be a resolution to the problem.

Enter the mentor. (We’ll talk about the mentor another time, in an upcoming article on the Hero’s Journey.)

The mentor is the person who teaches the hero about the solution. The hero applies the solution to the problem, and wins the day. He or she slays the villain and ends the problem. There is much rejoicing, and prosperity spreads throughout the land.

This is why we have case studies, and why a well-written case study can do things that no brochure, special report, or white paper can ever do. For those of you who aren’t tossing the term “storytelling” around willy-nilly yet, case studies are your moment to shine.

Kelly was thirsty, she was parched. Her lips were dry and cracked because she was so thirsty. A tumbleweed tumbled in front of her cubicle. She desperately wanted a glass of water, and would have given anything to get it.

The problem was, the office kitchen had. . . KITCHEN NINJAS who had been blocking the kitchen water cooler for three days. People tried bringing water from home, but it was never enough. They tried moving the cooler, but Steve from Accounting was nearly run through. Things looked bleak.

Until Kelly ordered a bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! Ninja Spray from Whamco!

Just a few sprays from her bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! sent those ninjas packing! Now, everyone in the office can get water, and office morale has improved. Productivity is up by 30%, and sales have risen by 230% as well! And once Kelly was able to quench her Sahara-ish thirst, she was promoted to department manager!

Samurai vs Banana

He must really hate that banana!

This is the classic storyline that nearly all movies and stories follow. Anne wants something, Bob doesn’t want her to have it. Carl helps Anne find a magical object/enchanted sword/learn the power was within her all along. Anne vanquishes Bob, and gets that thing she wanted.

And it’s the same formula that good case studies follow. But in this case, there are no magical objects or enchanted swords. There are solutions or products that eliminate the problem, restore peace, and improve profits.

(Consultants, in these stories, you are the mentor. Your client is the hero. Your job is to create heroes, so write your case studies in a way that says “I can help you become the hero in your company.”)

Sometimes You Can Only Hint at Conflict

Of course, not everything you write is going to be/have a story. Sometimes you just have to engage in marketing speak, and remind readers of their own conflicts. Get them to imagine the problem, and think about the situations they’re often facing. Get them to think about the plot.

“Manufacturers often have to deal with high absenteeism during the holidays or special events, like the Super Bowl. What if you could reduce post-holiday absenteeism?”

or

“In a manufacturing operation, even a 2% spoilage rate can equal a 10% loss in profits; the industry average currently hovers around 3.5%. So what would a software system that prevented spoilage look like for your company?”

In those cases, we’re not telling a story so much as we’re reminding people of their stories. It’s a recap of a past conflict (or even a reminder of an ongoing conflict). The story doesn’t have to be told, because they’re living it. But with the right message, you can present yourself or your product/service as the solution to the problem, and get them to write your story in their head.

The foundation of all stories is Leigh Brackett’s plot: human desires, working at cross purposes, striking against each other, until there’s an explosion. If you can incorporate that idea into your case studies and your marketing copy, you will have mastered one of the most basic tenets of storytelling as content marketing.

Photo credit: David Schmittou in Beef & Board’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ (Used with permission)
733215 (Pixabay, CC0/Public Domain)

Good Writers Read Good Books

Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.

What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?

I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” someone will say.

“Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win,'” says another.

The Art of War,” says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.

How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women,” says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.

And I can spot the content marketers too.

“Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes!” someone will say.

The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” says another.

“I don’t read books, I only read Copyblogger,” says a third.

My bookshelf at home. I've whittled my books down to favorite authors and books by friends.

My home bookshelf. I’ve had to limit my books to favorite authors and books by friends.

But the writers — the good writers — will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.

Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)

Content marketers, as writers you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, you understand your product, or understanding big data, SEO, the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.

Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.

If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.

You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.

The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.

That all starts with reading.

Stop Reading Business Books

Content marketers — at least the writers — need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.

As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.

But. Don’t. Read. Business books.

This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.

That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.

So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of the techniques you see them doing.

This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.

This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.

It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.

And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have must read books and authors they recommend to everyone.

My friend, Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once,

Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words.

Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

What’s In Your Bookshelf?

There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.

There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.

Erik Deckers and Jay Baer at Blog Indiana 2012

Jay Baer and me. This dude’s a rockstar no matter what.

And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)

But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.

Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.

Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.

Read Agatha Christie And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.

Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice doing them in your everyday writing — emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.

Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.

When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.

Content marketing is facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.

It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”

It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.

Six Steps to Get Started with Influencer Marketing?

Occasionally, I’ll publish blog posts from guest writers, usually young writers who want to build up their portfolio. Erica Badino is a newer writer in the marketing world, and I thought I would give her a shot. Especially after she was so patient with me getting to this in the first p

The idea behind influencer marketing is nothing new. People have always looked to trusted friends and acquaintances for recommendations. In the digital world, the concept of asking a close comrade for a suggestion has morphed into the idea of turning to a favorite blogger. However, the broad online landscape now gives you the platform to connect directly with the influential individuals who are making the recommendations. Getting these people to share and vouch for your content or product can be extremely valuable.

But the question is still the same, how do you actually do that? How do you get those influencers to pay attention to you and share your stuff? Here are six steps to get you started.
How to Get Started With Influencer Marketing
Determine your budget & KPIs

  • What is your budget? There are ways to make influencer marketing work with budget size.
  • What are your real target KPIs? Are you planning or aiming for brand awareness? App installs? Social conversations? While being metrics-driven is essential, remember that influencer marketing creates long-term value beyond the immediate metrics (e.g. consumer trust and viral exposure).
  • What does success look like? Create a plan with 3 hypothetical outcomes: failure, success, and home run.

Craft your influencer strategy: The second step is to create a well-thought-out strategy. At first glance, influencer marketing seems very simple. Get popular posters to talk about your product and you’ll instantly gain a larger audience, right? To truly succeed, we need to approach it the right way, just like any other campaign. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who am I trying to reach?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • What services or products do I want people to learn about?

Target top influencers: A strong campaign will typically have between 5 – 20 influencers on it. To target the best influencers for your industry, we need to dive in and surf the web like the target customer would. Get to know your audience intimately. Build a detailed profile for the types of people that you want to reach based on. . .

  • Where they shop
  • The blogs they read
  • The magazines they subscribe to
  • The books they buy
  • How they engage with brands and influencers (Do they comment often? Are they keen “likers?” Do they browse posts quickly?)
  • They hobbies they’re interested in
  • The television shows they watch
  • The restaurants, bars, or entertainment venues they frequent

All these elements come together to help you define which influencer your key audience is likely to listen to. The best influencers have great engagement levels with your audience. They usually get a lot of positive comments and likes.

Make Initial Contact: Reach out and begin making contact with the top influencers on your list. Don’t start with a product pitch or a request for a guest post. Start slowly, and engage by following them, commenting on their posts, and sharing their blogs.

Keep in Touch: Keep in contact with your influencers for several weeks before approaching them with your campaign. Successful influencer recruiting is all about building professional relationships. There are many ways that you can collaborate with them. These may include guest posts on blogs, reviews from the influencers, or product giveaways featuring your goods on their site.

Explore Outsourcing: This type of marketing can introduce your brand to a broad new community of followers when it’s done right.

Like all good things, social influencer marketing will change and evolve over time as it adapts to the latest trends and technology. Make it a priority to learn emerging influencer marketing strategies so you can follow them successfully. Savvy marketers are already capitalizing on the opportunity to grow their brand with the voice of their potential customers, consumers, and fans etc.

If you recruit passionate and dedicated influencers to participate in your marketing campaigns, you will improve profits, reach new customers through your influencers’ well-established networks, and increase brand trust.

After helping launch several successful blogs, Erica Badino is on a quest to share her knowledge and experiences with bloggers both new and old. She is a regular contributor for SEO Services USA.

Using MacGuffins In Your Content Marketing

Despite what it sounds like, a MacGuffin is not a golf term. It’s a writing term used in movies, TV shows, and books.

A MacGuffin is a plot device used to motivate the protagonist to action. It’s something the protagonist pursues or protects, but there’s no real explanation of why it’s important. In fact, the object itself isn’t even important to the plot. It’s just the thing the protagonist and antagonist fight over, one of them trying to take it, the other trying to save it.

It could be a sandwich for all we care. All we know is that the good guy and bad guy are going to beat the crap out of each other trying to get it.

The MacGuffin usually follows one of two themes:

Protagonist: I have the thing.
Antagonist: I want the thing.

or

Antagonist: I’m going to steal the thing.
Protagonist: I have to save the thing.

The most common types of MacGuffins are objects or sometimes a person. Other times, they’re more abstract concepts, like love or survival. TVTropes.com has a great list of MacGuffin sub-tropes, like the Clingy MacGuffin, the Hostage MacGuffin, or the Egg MacGuffin.

The One Ring is a perfect MacGuffin

One MacGuffin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

Some famous MacGuffins are things like the plans for the Death Star, the Ark of the Covenant, or the One Ring. Even Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan and the baby from Ice Age are MacGuffins. In all cases, the MacGuffin was important to the characters, but it didn’t matter as much to us. We care more about the pursuit of the thing, but not the thing itself.

Most importantly, says TV Tropes, do not confuse a MacGuffin for a plot device. The Death Star plans was not the plot of Star Wars, and the thing inside Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase was not the plot of Pulp Fiction. The plot was about people trying to get/save/deliver the plans and the what-was-undoubtedly-a-human-soul.

How Do MacGuffins Figure in to Content Marketing

In content marketing, the MacGuffin is usually the product you create or the service you offer. But you’re not going to talk about your product or service, because that’s boring.

How boring would Star Wars be if they spent several minutes on the construction timeline of the Death Star, its propulsion system and fuel consumption ratings, or the magnetic tape the plans were on? (Seriously? You have faster-than-light travel, but you store information on cassette tapes?)

That’s how people feel about your product. They don’t want to know about the materials it was made with, or the manufacturing process behind it. They want to know what your product will do for them.

Will it make them work better or faster? Can it help them make more money? Will it make them attractive to men or women? Will it prevent heart disease or male pattern baldness?

This is the old “features versus benefits” marketing discussion we’ve all heard. Don’t tell us what it does, tell us what it does for us.

In short, your product is the MacGuffin. It drives your content marketing story forward, but it’s not the thing you talk about.

What’s Your Content Marketing MacGuffin?

If you’re a marketing automation company, the MacGuffin is your software. If you’re a barbecue grill maker, it’s your grills. And if you’re a luggage company, the MacGuffin is your bags.

Which means your readers want to know more about travel. . . with your bags. They want to know about cooking outside. . . with your grill. And they want to know how they can get more leads. . . with your software. But they don’t want you to talk about your bags, grill, or software.

Just like the movies, we don’t actually care about the thing, we care about the pursuit of the thing, the relationships that form around it, and how the thing will change our lives. But the MacGuffin will always remain there as a silent part of everything you do.

The marketing automation company will write about “how white papers generate more leads” and “five best email newsletter headlines.” The assumption is the readers will track all the information on your software, but your articles shouldn’t discuss the software. It’s just implied.

Similarly, our grill manufacturer should talk about things like “gas versus charcoal grills” and “preventing grease fires,” but they should also share articles on new summer recipes and how to use a motorized rotisserie. Again, the grill is important — “I want to use the thing” — but we’re not focused on BTUs or the gauge thickness of the lid.

And the luggage company should write about vacation travel, packing tips, and the activities that necessitate carrying a suitcase. But they shouldn’t focus on the construction of the suitcase, its materials, or the manufacturing process.

In some cases, the MacGuffin is going to be a little more abstract (wealth management, plumbing), or it might be a particular person (a lawyer, a realtor, or an orthodontist). And in some cases, there’s no real MacGuffin at all. Not every movie has a MacGuffin, and not every company is going to be able to use one either.

But if you can identify yours, use it to drive your content marketing story forward, even if you never actually discuss the MacGuffin directly. It will always be there, always present. And in the end, it will become the most important thing of all.

Photo credit: Jorge Arimany (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

How I Helped the Prancercise Lady Hide a News Article on Google

It was summer 2013, and I was driving my kids to one of my wife’s performances when my mobile phone rang. It was a Florida area code.

“Hello?”

“Yes, I was calling to see if you could help me with some search engine optimization.” The woman’s voice sounded awfully familiar. We hadn’t met, but I could almost place her.

Kate Micucci appeared on seasons 6 and 7 of The Big Bang Theory, and is one half of Garfunkel & Oates. She is NOT the Prancercise lady

Kate Micucci appeared on seasons 6 and 7 of The Big Bang Theory, and is one half of Garfunkel & Oates

“Sure, I can help you with that? What’s the problem?”

“Someone wrote a negative article about me, and it keeps appearing at the top of Google whenever I search for it. I’m worried other people are going to see it and it’s going to harm my reputation.”

Lucy! It was Lucy from Big Bang Theory! Who would be mean to Lucy? I love Lucy!

Well, it was Kate Micucci, the woman who played Lucy, Raj’s love interest from Season 6, but I was so excited!

Except it wasn’t.

“Who is this?” I asked, hoping she’d say “Kate Micucci.”

“My name is Joanna Rohrback. I’m the Prancercise lady.”

Dammit!

It seems Joanna had been a big Internet rage in 2013, because her original Prancercise video on YouTube had garnered millions of views. She went on to appear on the Today Show, in John Mayer’s “Paper Doll” video, and was named MSNBC’s Surprise Star of the Year for 2013. Richard Simmons was also a fan, and shed a few tears describing her journey to make Prancercise a viable form of exercise.

Joanna told me about her problem. A young journalist had signed up for one of her classes, never said she was a journalist, and then wrote a blog article for a major newspaper making fun of Joanna and the class, and called it a ripoff.

Joanna was worried people would see the piece and refuse to take her class.

So we talked for a while, and I reassured her that the article wouldn’t be that damaging for a few reasons:

  1. Nobody is liked by everybody, and while this may not be a favorable article, if people really liked her, then they would take her class anyway. And it sounded like millions of people already liked her, so I was sure they would be on her side.
  2. She could always get more positive attention and press for her work, and eventually bury that negative article under an avalanche of good stuff. I could certainly help her with it, but it was going to take a lot of effort and would be pretty costly, and would probably require a PR professional as well. She was famous, but she was not making “I have my own PR person” money.
  3. Most importantly, she was actually creating her own problem! The thing people don’t realize is that the Google search engine wants you to have an excellent experience so you’ll continue to use it. That means it will show you the results it thinks you want to see, including articles you’ve already read several times, because Google thinks you want to see it again. That article may actually be 347th in actual rank, but because you’re clicking on it, it appears first to you.

She didn’t quite believe me, so I walked her through doing a private/incognito search on her web browser. The article disappeared from the first few pages.

“How did you do that?!” she asked.

“That’s what I was saying,” I said. “Google is showing you that article because you keep looking for it. In the incognito version, Google can’t tell it’s you doing the search, so the article doesn’t show up anymore. You’re seeing a more accurate representation of the true results, and this is what a stranger will see if they search for you.”

I told her I could help her further if she needed it, but that it probably wasn’t a wise use of her money, especially in light of the “disappearance” of this negative article.

She thanked me, and said she was going to be in the Irvington Halloween parade that year, if we would like to get together sometime that week. Sadly, I was never able to make that happen, so I never got to meet the woman who invented Prancercise. But I helped “hide” a negative article from Google, and made her a little happier.

Photo credit: Kafziel (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)