TOO BUSY TO WRITE? How Perfectionism And Fear Keep Us From Realizing Our Marketing Communication Goals

Many of us thought 2015 was going to be the year we would finally do it… start that blog, create that marketing brochure, rewrite that old, crusty website copy, send weekly e-newsletters, and finally post something on that Facebook business page.

So, what happened?

We all know the answer—work happened. How are we supposed to spend time writing about our business when we’re busy running it, right?

But today I want to talk about something else that often stands in our way. Writer’s block, procrastination, perfectionism—everything that keeps writers from producing work—all comes from one thing…

FEAR.

Fear

I know, I know. You’re not afraid; you’ve just been really busy, right?

I was really busy, too. For over a decade I kept myself ridiculously, supremely busy with insurmountable daily to-do lists, all because I was trying to distract myself from the unbelievable and frightening truth of what I was actually put on this earth to do—write.

I’m not suggesting that you’re doing the same thing—distracting yourself with accounting or lawyering when you’re actually supposed to be a novelist. (Although, who knows, right?)

But I am saying that you KNOW, deep down in your gut, that there is one thing standing in between you and the success you envision for yourself:

COMMUNICATION.

In the age of the Internet, “Communication” doesn’t mean more meetings or picking up the phone more often. It means writing.

And writing is scary.

I know, I know. You’re not scared; you’re just busy. So, just try something for me:

Close your eyes and remember a paper that was returned to you at some point in school with blue or red writing on it. Remember a time you had to share your writing out loud in class as a kid.

hateshomework

Are those happy memories? If the answer is a unilateral yes, then you’re right. You’re not scared; you’re just busy. You can stop reading now.

But if anything about that exercise made you flinch, just consider the idea that I might be on to something.

Writing is scary for so many reasons. We grew up with the constantly reinforced notion that our writing wasn’t good enough. Even if you were an A student, a teacher would be loathe to return an assignment without at least one or two red marks on it. There’s always room for improvement, right?

And, if you’ve ever had to read a piece of writing out loud, you know the undeniable fact that your writing is going to be judged—no matter what.

The other thing about writing is the commitment of it. Once you hit SEND, you can’t take it back. And what if it’s awful and everyone thinks you’re pathetic? ridiculous? stupid? That’s why we want everything we write to be absolute…

PERFECTION.

At least I do. I want everyone to think I’m perfect. It’s a wonder I get anything on the page at all, let alone into the send queue. You want to know my secret?

Every day, I give myself permission to be messy.

IMG_0089

Because here’s the thing: no one wants to hire a robot. If people wanted robots, we would be living in a robot world by now, like that old movie with Robin Williams. Instead, we invented the Internet.

People want to hire accountants and lawyers and coaches who understand them, who can relate to their problems and concerns, who can visualize their goals with them. In other words, we want to hire humans.

And humans aren’t perfect.

So, it’s okay that you didn’t finish (or even start) that writing project you wanted to get done this year. You’re human.

It’s okay to get a messy and completely imperfect half-of-a-first-draft onto your desktop today. You’re human.

It’s okay to look silly, or stupid, or wrong, because you’re human.

It’s even okay to ask for help—you’re human!

And you can keep doing all of those things as messily and imperfectly as humanly possible until one day you’re ready to lift your human, God-given finger and hit SEND.

Your business will grow. YOU will grow, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The DOs and DON’Ts of Establishing Your Authority in Writing

Somewhere along the way, we’ve all heard about the importance of “establishing your authority” in a piece of writing. We were taught to use quotes and statistics to prove that we know what we’re talking about. We’re taught to adhere to the formality of traditional academic writing to create an aura of clout around our thoughts and ideas. And that’s why most of us feel like total frauds when we sit down to write something important for our clients. We’re struggling to write in a formal, authoritative tone that we would never use when we talk to a client in person. Even with a wealth of knowledge and vast experience about a subject, we think that our readers won’t believe us unless we affect this I-know-more-than-you-and-use-bigger-words inflection. But in today’s culture, that kind of writing will not only make you feel like a fraud, it’ll make you sound like one, too.

2ccaefe1-ec54-449b-8322-9451c3c86a7e-ServicePic

Whatever you may think about social media, there’s no denying that it has changed our culture. Where we once read written articles, we now read “shares” and “posts.” The filter between the thoughts that pop in our heads and the written word has been obliterated by conversing in text message and frantic Facebook posts. We know what it looks like when people share honestly and openly because we see it on screen all the time. So when we open an email or an online article and find stilted and authoritative writing, an alarm goes off. It’s not that we’re bored by that kind of writing now. It’s that we don’t trust it.

And that’s what “establishing your authority” is all about, really. It’s about getting your reader to trust you. Well, the only way to really get someone to trust you is to be trustworthy. That means writing in a truly authentic voice and being honestly motivated to share something important with your clients.

How do you do that? Here are my dos and don’ts for “establishing your authenticity” in our new culture of sharing:

DON’T:

Talk down to readers. You don’t create trust by putting yourself above your readers. You create it by letting them know that you understand their questions and concerns and that you have something to share that might help.

Name drop. I do this all the time. I work in Hollywood, and it’s a part of my industry that I find difficult to avoid. But I also know that the more I focus on other people’s names, the less I focus on my reader, and the less credit I give to myself and my own volume of expertise.

Affect false modesty. This is tempting, because it looks and feels like authenticity, but it really isn’t. The people I’ve known who are really good at affecting false modesty are really charming and charismatic, but they’re not people I trust.

DO:

Find your personal connection. Try journaling or free writing about a subject before hitting the keyboard. Even if you’re writing about stock prices, there is a personal connection that may only be found by putting pen to paper.

Be empathetic. Clients are people, even if they didn’t go to business school or law school. They are people with the same hopes and fears that you have. See if you can put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what they would want to hear.

Be earnest. Look at your motivation for writing a piece of marketing. Are you writing about something that you think is a hot topic or might get a lot of hits? Or are you writing about something you honestly know and care about and that you think your clients may care about, too? (Of course, it doesn’t hurt if it’s also a hot topic.)

AND PRACTICE. If you’re not on social media, get on it. Check out what’s being shared and try your hand at sharing yourself. In today’s world, establishing yourself means being part of the global conversation.

Liz Cotone is a writer, editor, and business writing coach. You can learn more about her work at www.lizwrite.com.


Writing is Rewriting

RedPencilTip

The first piece of advice I give my clients is to spend more time rewriting. To quote good old Hemingway, “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Okay, you’re reading this post, so you get that. And maybe you already know how to utilize your thesaurus, cut excessive word clusters, and eliminate redundancy. But maybe you’re also missing the whole point of the rewrite process.

The point is this: DOES MY DOCUMENT MAKE SENSE?

The question most business writers ask themselves is “Do I sound SMART enough?” Well, “sounding smart” and “making sense” are actually antithetical goals.

This post is concerned with making sense. For me, this type of rewriting is a three-part process.

Part One—the “Fresh Eye” Read

I’m primarily a fiction writer and a screenwriter. I approach my business writing the same way I do any story. When I rewrite, I first reread the entire document, imagining that I’m someone else—that I know absolutely nothing about what I’m reading.

If you can truly do that, the holes in your argument will be evident. This only works when you’ve given yourself some time away from the material. In the business world, writers very rarely give themselves that chance.

When I conduct this “fresh eye” read, I’m following the logic of my protagonist. Every business document has a protagonist. (If you’re confused by this idea, go back and read my post A Question of Character.)

Sometimes a business document has a clear protagonist—the client you are defending, the team on whose behalf you’re reporting, the company you’re marketing. But often the protagonist is you.

When you are your own protagonist, you’re more likely to confuse the reader. It already makes sense to you, and you’re writing from your own perspective. You need to step outside of yourself and ask: would someone else understand why you made the choices you made in the order you made them?

On my current creative project, the protagonist I’m writing about is Zeus (yes, the Zeus). So, as I do my “fresh eye” read, I ask myself, “If I were Zeus, is this really what I would do next?”

But I also know Zeus incredibly well at this point—I’ve reread every myth many times to prepare for writing this story. Would someone who knows very little about Zeus really understand why he does what he does in my script?

cards

Part Two—House of Cards

Usually, I complete a thorough outline during my pre-writing phase. But hopefully, the muse takes me somewhere, and—outline or no—things inevitably change. So, I go through the document and make a new outline based on what actually happens, not what I had planned to happen.

I often write this outline on index cards. For a script, it’s one scene per card. For a document, it depends—one section per card, one paragraph per card, one thought per card—whatever’s necessary. I use the cards because they’re fun to play with. Once I have the whole document notated, I can put the pages aside, lay the cards out, and look at the spine of the story through the cards.

Is this the order they should be in? Would it work better to begin with card four? Should the explanation of that defined term come earlier? I usually use colored cards and start rearranging them like a Rubik’s cube. Before I did the cards on this blog post, this was paragraph three, and the whole discussion of protagonists came afterwards.

I tear the house down and build it back up again. Sound time-consuming? Sure. But it can be done faster than you think. Usually the answers pop out at you much faster than when you stare at the document on screen. And—call me a dork—but it’s a blast.

Part Three—An Outside Perspective

Now, once I’ve spent this much time playing with a document, I’ve lost all perspective. So, the last thing I do is get a real “fresh eye” read—I go to someone else. Every script I write goes through my writers group first, then my managers, before I send it to my producers. I know that I’m too close to the material, and I need their perspectives to keep me on track.

You can pick a buddy at the office to swap documents with, or you can hire a writing consultant like me for really important documents. But either way, this kind of rewrite requires time.

So, the second piece of advice I give my clients after telling them to spend more time rewriting is to change the way they approach deadlines. I don’t have time here to go into my deadline approach, but I will make it the subject of my next Weekly Writing Tip.

If you’re not currently signed up for Weekly Writing Tips, you can sign up here.


How Binge-watching HBO Can Improve Your Resume

A development executive at HBO recently told me that this powerhouse premium cable network likes to forget about Act One and start their dramatic series already in Act Two.

In order to understand what that means, let me briefly explain dramatic three-act structure. Aristotle said that all good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning (Act One) tells us the “who, what and where.” The middle (Act Two) is the action of the story. And the end (Act Three) is the resolution of that action.

HBO recognizes that today’s viewers don’t have much patience for the set-up—the dreary exposition of Act One. We’d rather jump right into the action and hope that we figure the rest out as we go along.

This is a good lesson for our business writing as well, particularly when telling our professional stories in resumes, bios, online profiles, etc.

For instance, so many of my clients come to me thinking that a resume absolutely must start with the most recent event in their work history and go chronologically backwards from there.

But that traditional format has little to do with today’s rapidly shifting employment landscape and our ever more circuitous career paths. People have stopped referring to the “corporate ladder,” recognizing that our careers more favorably resemble a jungle gym. Highly successful C-level executives trace more and more sidesteps between industries in their work histories and fewer traditional internal promotions. So, a format that is literally built like a backwards ladder cannot possibly be successful at showcasing our much more complicated professional histories.

The resume is still widely used, and it is regarded as a necessary tool in the employment game, as well as the business of client building. But we shouldn’t be limited to a traditional resume structure. Yes, a work history is imperative, and yes, it is usually best done in reverse chronological order. But the work history doesn’t have to be the first section your eye goes to when reading your resume.

Rather, you can start with an introduction of yourself, your assets, skills, goals, and/or highlights of your proudest successes. Barbara Safani skillfully outlines this introductory section in her book Happy About My Resume (a must-read if you are writing your own resume).

When writing their resumes, professionals don’t often consider how over-stimulated their readers are. Generally, applicants have the first one-third of the first page to either make an impression or get their resumes moved into the trash. So, what will you spend that first one-third of a page talking about? Your last job, which you hated and which made you realize that you’d rather be working in a different field?

The next time you need to write anything to market yourself and your skills—your LinkedIn profile, a bio for some event you’re attending, or even, yes, a resume—take out a piece of paper… I know, what’s that, right? Yes, a good old-fashioned piece of paper and jot down the answers to the following questions:

  • Why would you want to work with you?
  • What do you bring to the table?
  • What kind of work do you see yourself doing?
  • How would you define your professional self to a stranger if you had the freedom to say anything?

These are the goods. You want to give your audience this information up front. Don’t make them wait for it or piece it together by the middle of page two—they’ll switch the channel long before then.

Much more than the name of the prestigious firm you currently work for or the number of years you’ve been in business, people want to know what you’re capable of. You might as well get right into the action on that—let them read on if they want to know how you got there.

Start your story in Act Two.


How Homer Can Teach Us To Write Great Content

People have been reading and rereading The Iliad for 2700 years. Right now, I’m reading a surprisingly riveting new translation by Stephen Mitchell. Seriously, if you’re not being forced to read it for a high school English class, The Iliad can be a real page-turner. That’s shocking considering that we all know how it’s going to end. Even in Homer’s day everyone knew the ending.

[SPOILER ALERT] The Trojans lost the Trojan War.

In the centuries since Homer and his fellow poet-historians, we’ve continued to tell and retell stories that we already know. For example, two of the highest grossing movies of the 20th century were Gone with the Wind and Titanic. The first was such a popular book at the time that most of the audience had either read it or heard about it from their wives. As for Titanic, I doubt anyone in the audience was surprised when the boat sank.

And the trend continues. Last year, 40 movies were based on popular books.

Iliad

Back to The Iliad

Not only do we know the ending, Homer even reveals a major plot point. A hundred and fifty pages before it happens, he starts teasing the scene when Achilles kills Hector – the crucial moment when the tide turns for the Trojans and things start to go downhill.

So, if we know what happens, why do we keep reading? In fact, why do we read even more voraciously?

Well, we know what will happen, but we don’t know how it will happen. And, the what is so enticing that we yearn to know the how. Hector is going to die – Homer tells us so. But he also paints several beautiful, poetic deaths for lesser characters.

So, when some chump whose name I’ve already forgotten is commemorated with such poetic genius, I think how magnificent it must be when Homer finally describes Hector’s death. Although I don’t consider myself a gore-a-phile, I’m turning every page waiting for that moment.

Also, Homer doesn’t just tell us that Hector will die. He has an omnipotent character (Zeus) give us three important pieces of information:

1. Achilles’ best friend will be killed.
2. Achilles will be so angry that he’ll finally leave his tent and take Hector down.
3. Hector’s death will be the beginning of the end for the Trojans.

In storytelling, we call this “planting and payoff.” It’s not foreshadowing – foreshadowing is subtle. This is pretty obvious. We say, “we’re going to be at this place later on,” or “we’re going to meet this character later on,” or even as direct as “this character will die later on, we’re just not going to tell you when.”

And this is something I so rarely see in business writing. No, I don’t mean the part about characters dying. I mean leading the audience in a direction they want to go.

For example, look at my title for this post. If I were to be mysterious and “interesting,” I would have stopped at “What Homer Can Teach Us.” I didn’t stop there because my reader would have, too. My reader needs to know that I’m going to impart something important about writing great content, not just ramble on about a dead Greek guy.

So, let’s talk about how to apply this practically. After all, most of us don’t have anything to impart as momentous as an ancient Greek warrior’s demise. But we do have something to plant.

As an example, I’m going to offer you three great ways to improve your content, and the third is really the key.

1. Come up with three things you need to tell your reader. The power of 3’s translates into everything.
2. Let them know you’re going to offer them three things they need to know. It seems simple, but most writers don’t introduce their lists. They just start listing things with no warning.
3. Tell your readers that the last thing in your list will be the most important. This way you keep them on tenterhooks until the bitter end.

And that’s an abbreviated business writer’s version of “planting and payoff.”

For more tips to improve your business writing, subscribe to LizWrite’s Weekly Writing Tips.


My New Year’s Resolution

Okay, it’s a little scary to share my New Year’s resolution online. I mean, that’s a whole lot of accountability, right? But here it goes…

Yes, I’m going to eat better and get in shape and transcend my soul to a new plane of serene wholeness and all that good stuff. But, as far as my business goes:

I am going to add at least one piece of quality writing to this blog every single month in 2015.

And here are three reasons why this should be your New Year’s resolution too:

1. People don’t trust us.

According to a 2014 Gallup poll, many of the service professionals who make up my clientele – lawyers, bankers, business executives, and marketing executives – had the lowest scores for honesty and ethical standards.

In fact, the only two professions that scored lower were car salesmen and members of Congress. It sucks. We know we’re good people. But the evidence is in.

So, what’s the best way to instill trust in our clients? Communicate. Be personable. Find a way to give them something – a story about your business, a piece of information you know they need – in a truly authentic way.

In other words, start a blog.

2. Establish your authority.

I know no better way to establish yourself as an authority in your field than to find your niche and comment about it online.

For a great article on this topic, visit Real Lawyers Have Blogs. Geared for lawyers (obviously), but it really applies to all service professionals.

3. Take charge of your Google first page.

So, a colleague refers a new client to you. Do you think that new client shows up for her first consultation without having googled you? Not these days.

When you have a blog, it’s often the first result of a google search for your name. Don’t you want to be the one who writes the content for that first result?

Now, if you’ve read this far, you might actually be thinking about it. So, here are a few simple rules to keep in mind:

1. Don’t be a blab.

You don’t want to get on a blog and just blab about anything. Think about your audience. Think about what they need. Write your story as if you’re writing them a letter.

2. Get someone to proofread.

The worst thing you can do is put up a great blog with typos running through it. Maybe that’s okay in some industries, but not in yours where you’re expected to be an expert.

(Funny thing about that – you can get your online content proofread at www.lizwrite.com).

3. Read other blogs.

If you’re reading this, you’re there. I’ll be gearing my 2015 blog posts for people who are looking for tips on writing great online content.

Look forward to my first new post later this month. Happy writing in 2015!


A Question of Character

The principles of good storytelling are time-tested, millennia-old, and guaranteed to help you develop stronger client communications.

In narrative fiction and film, a complex structure of elements, including theme, plot, exposition, setting, and time, guide a well-told story. But at the heart of it all is character. We usually follow one person whose character has been so deeply and specifically drawn as to magnetize our attention and, hopefully, our empathy. Often, stories that fail to attract an audience lack this strong central character.

As an example, let’s look at a logline. In the film and television industry, a “logline” is a short summary of a script (usually 50 word or less) used to pitch an idea to producers, distributors, and audience members. Take a look at this logline:

Astronauts are fixing a satellite up in space, debris hits them, communications with earth are lost.


(image provided by NASA)

When I read this, I imagine a group of nameless, faceless astronauts spending the entire movie fixing a piece of broken communication equipment. Boring. If I didn’t know better, I’d never suspect that this story would attract the star power of Sandra Bullock.

Now, try this logline for the same film:

On her first mission to space, a NASA scientist loses her crew when they’re hit by dangerous debris. Unable to communicate with Earth, she must find the strength and courage to make her way home alone.

This logline has a star – a strong and courageous star at that. This is the kind of phrasing that entices someone like Sandra Bullock.

When reviewing client communications, I often fail to find a strong character at the center of the prose. Somewhere along the way, most business writers were taught to eliminate first and second person prose to make their writing “formal” and “professional.” But this approach to business writing dehumanizes the subject and alienates the reader.

When your job is to imbue trust and confidence in your clients, better to follow the example of filmmakers – like the ones who eventually convinced Warner Bros. to make a film as daring (and expensive) as Gravity.

Often, the best central character for your client letter or email is not yourself, but your client. Want to make a client feel good? Try making him feel like a star. This is also a great approach for imparting bad news – rather than focusing on the news, focus on what your client can do about it.

For instance, think how disheartening it would be to read a letter that starts out with:

I have had a chance to review your case. The allegations are extremely complex. Plaintiffs present several different allegations in their complaint, making the discovery process very difficult…

…and then goes on to enumerate all of the allegations and doesn’t provide a plan for discovery until the very end.

Instead, start off by providing a task to empower and focus your reader:

After reviewing the complexities of the allegations in your case, I’ve compiled a list of documents that should aid your defense. Please find in this letter a list of the documents you may be able to provide in response to each allegation…

…then enumerate and describe each allegation AND explain why providing each item of discovery should help in responding to it.

The next time you sit down to write a client letter, consider your relationship to them as the reader. Should the focus be on your actions or theirs? Or, should the two of you be conspiring against a third party in the prose? Whoever you choose to focus on, be sure it is a person, not a thing. This will ground your communication in the single most important storytelling principle: character.