Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business…

About a month and a half before my holiday trip to Ohio this past December to visit family, I Googled “Ohio Writers Groups,” and found one right in my kin’s neighborhood, Western Ohio Writers Association. Shot an email to the executive director of the group (Gery Deer, also a commercial freelancer), letting him know I’d be in the area for the holidays, and would he be interested in exploring the possibility of an event. Absolutely, he replied.

(Funny sidebar if you’ll allow me a vanity moment: In my initial email, per my custom, I didn’t assume he knew who I was, introducing myself as the author of The Well-Fed Writer, etc., etc. Apparently unnecessary. He wrote back saying his wife had recently bought him my book, and he’d been carrying it around with him like a bible since then. Okay. That saved some explaining time…;)

Anyway, in fits and starts, the thing came together. Gery even tapped his long-cultivated network of local contacts and got me five minutes on TV on Dayton’s News at Noon show (slow news week, apparently…). We had 30+ in seats come show time, and all went swimmingly. Sold a small pile of books, possible commercial writing coaching business down the line, and left some goodwill in my wake – always the goal.

Sure, it’s easier for an author of a book targeted to a specific audience to put on events like this (especially with such an involved local ally as I had in this case). But remember this: what we commercial writers do – help businesses boost their bottom line through more effective marketing and communications materials, amongst other things – is something every business potentially needs.

By extension, any business/civic organization made up of businesspeople would be a good target for a speaking offer (though don’t expect to be paid). Kiwanis, Rotary, local business associations, Chambers of Commerce, industry-specific associations, are all good candidates.

Once there, any number of topics could strike a compelling note with this crowd. Right off the top of my head (and depending, of course, on your areas of expertise…):

“The 7 Most Common Mistakes Companies Make with Their Marketing Materials…”

“Five Ways Social Media Can Boost Your Bottom Line (and a Few Ways It Won’t…)”

“The Powerfully Effective Marketing Tool You’re Probably Overlooking…” (about case studies, white papers, etc.)

“How to Do Your Own Writing for Your Business (and Why That May Not Be Wise…)”

I’m sure you could come up with a bunch of others with a little thought. All designed, of course, to showcase your knowledge of commercial writing, marketing communications, and marketing in general (and your readiness, willingness and ability to execute the aforementioned…).

Most importantly, make it Job #1 at any speaking gig to offer truly valuable content, NOT pick up business. Provide enough practical information that audience members could put your ideas in action without your help. And therein lies a seeming paradox: the more you give away, the more of your beans you spill, the more likely many will be to hire you.

By being generous, you accomplish three things – all good:

1) You showcase your expertise in implementing what you’re discussing

2) You get people thinking, “If he/she is willing to give away this much, they must know a whole lot more.” And…

3) You establish yourself as the “good guy” interested in making them more successful and profitable.

Get an okay in advance from your contact person to offer a brief “marketing minute” at the end of your talk, explaining what you do, letting people know you have business cards, and perhaps offering a free consultation, top-line business analysis, report, etc.

Truth, be known, while I’ve done a ton of speaking related to my books over the years, I’ve done very little of the business speaking described above. But a healthy number of commercial freelancers I know do, given its effectiveness as a lead-generation tool. If the idea calls to you, start with some of the ideas above – or brainstorm your own.

Put your storyteller hat on, breathing life into talks with anecdotes and success stories from your own experiences (or those of other writers – with attribution, of course). Or even made-up “picture-this” scenarios to get them thinking about their own businesses.

Just remember, as you put any talk together, always imagine yourself as a businessperson in that audience, and keep in mind what’s most important to them: profitability, competitive advantage, industry reputation, etc. Benefits, not features.

From what I’ve heard, neither the bar nor audience expectations in general are set particularly high for civic/business group luncheon speeches, so don’t imagine it’d take more than you’ve got to make your mark.

Shy? Introverted? Don’t let that stop you. I read a great piece of advice about public speaking once that went something like this: While having good nuts-‘n-bolts speaking techniques down is always a good thing, the two most important attributes of all good speakers is, 1) they’re experts on their subject, and 2) they love sharing it with others.

Some years back, I watched author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), speak at a local Borders about Blink. Obviously shy and egghead-ish – wild hair and all – you could tell speaking wasn’t something natural for him. But, because he knew his subject intimately (AND used lots of great anecdotes), and was obviously passionate about sharing it, he had the standing-room-only crowd captivated for well over an hour. Food for thought…

Have you done this kind of speaking, and if so, how did it turn out?

What approaches/strategies have worked for you in the speaking arena?

What types of groups have you found most receptive?

If you haven’t done this kind of speaking, are you getting any ideas from all this?

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20 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I love this idea, Peter. I did a TON of public speaking in my corporate life and for the life of me, I don’t know what has been holding me back in my business writing life. I’ve had it on my back-burner from the start. I love doing it, I create a mean PowerPoint and I have plenty of stories I can share.

    I need to stop waiting until I’m published and do something I love. Thanks for the motivational kick-in-the-rear, Peter. 🙂 You definitely got the wheels turning.

  2. Matt Hugg
    Matt Hugg says:

    You’re right, Peter. Speaking works. My niche is direct mail and other marketing material for nonprofit fundraising. I speak regularly at fundraising professional association chapters. Exactly as you said – offer value. In many quarters of my world, there is a suspicion of “consultants” (although today’s consultant probably wore the white hat of a nonprofit organization the day before!) The only advertising I do during a talk outside of being introduced is my contact info on the first and last slide and my name and email on the footer at the bottom of each. Yet I get calls from attendees asking for more information – and business.

  3. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Joining a weekly networking group can also help, because in addition to asking for writing referrals, you can also ask your fellow members to promote you as a speaker for events. Getting in front of the same group of people each week is extremely helpful, because it gives you the time and opportunity to build genuine relationships and learn about each other’s business in depth. And as you say, goodwill is the main thing. Help connect other business owners to whatever they’re looking for, and they will naturally want to return the favor.

  4. Karen Wormald
    Karen Wormald says:

    I did have a book published, totally unrelated to my commercial writing, which led to an invitation to do a (paid) workshop at my alma mater, which led to me doing several other (paid) classes for them on business writing. Just having my name in the college’s catalog led to being hired for several in-house business writing seminars for organizations and a number of (paid) speaking engagements with professional groups. The affiliation with a prestigious school gave me instant professional cred and created a nice little sideline that would have been much more difficult to forge on my own.

  5. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    I recently pitched a web series marketing class to two local colleges. They accepted immediately, and my class is on their agenda for Spring and Summer!

    I pitched it as a marketing class — and it is. But web video script writing makes up 50% of the course content (the other half is concepting).

  6. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, everybody!

    Glad the idea struck a chord, Cathy! And I DO know that we’ve all only have so many hours in the day, but if it’s something you really enjoy doing (as opposed to cold calling, direct mail, etc., which aren’t most writers’ idea of a good time…), then even more reason to do it!

    Thanks for the affirmation, Matt. And congrats on your success. Definitely want to lead with value, and it sounds like it’s paid off well. And good idea, William. Leads/networking groups aren’t good ONLY for business leads – they can yield leads to other lead-generating activities.

    Isn’t it great, Karen, when something unfolds as nicely as that has for you, because of a past affiliation? Good reminder to all of us to be tapping those associations that we often overlook.

    And good for you, Mele! I think we sometimes don’t realize how much we’ve learned about a bunch of stuff in the course of building and running our businesses. And it’s often information that people would be willing to pay for – all we need to do is ask. And who knows where that will lead eventually. Connections lead to more connections and to more opportunities.

    Any other stories and observations?


  7. Star
    Star says:

    I sent out 50 postcards recently and got one call–from the local chamber. I started my career writing for American Chamber of Commerce Execs, so have a soft spot for chambers. The “Development” director (make that Membership) invited me to come over, which is quite involved out here since I am disabled and must hook a ride etc, but I did it. We talked at length and she of course invited me to join, but of course that was not in my budget. I followed up with several topics I could speak on and several ideas for seminars. But no–she just wanted my dues. Well, fair enough–I am trying to look at it as one of my 13 “touches”…We used to tell clients they need to be “seen” 7 times to register with prospects–now, I believe, that is 13.

  8. Usha Sliva
    Usha Sliva says:

    After a long period of hibernation, where I was getting work, but not the kind I wanted, I finally took initiative and signed onto a couple of networking groups and a toastmasters association. The former takes care of my meeting new people and the latter helps me chat with them effectively. I’ve also thrown in a direct marketing campaign, which I amp up from time to time. I love the point Star made about groups wanting membership dues – there are lot of networks and associations out there; with limited budgets, you really have to select the ones that work for you.

  9. Mike
    Mike says:

    Peter, your timing couldn’t be better.

    I just saw the ‘workshop-light’ last month. As a part of their value-offer to the community, a local web-design firm hosts weekly informational seminars. They’re always looking for new presentations. Great practice for me, great value for them, and great context for us to meet. (I doubt that they would have responded well to a cold call.) Since then, I’ve met with the president and one of his account managers (separately), and I’m confident that I’ll be hearing from them soon. In the mean time, I’m eagerly approaching other firms in my city.

    I would love more insight on:
    ‘packaging’ the presentation to increase its perceived value, and
    how others have crossed the divide between ‘free’ and ‘fee.’ (Or maybe lead generation is the smarter way to go…?)

    Discussion would be awesome, but recommended links would be accepted with gratitude.

    Best of success, all.
    Thanks, Peter.

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Star, Usha and Mike!

    Apologies for the radio silence, but been on vacation for a few weeks, and working as little as possible…;)

    Star, in your experience with Chambers, do they typically get their speakers from their membership? Didn’t know whether that was their policy, but if so, I suppose it makes sense to try and reward their own. Anyone else have experience speaking for a Chamber (OR picking up work through one’s membership in one)?

    As Usha points out, given the high fees charged by a Chamber, you have to pick and choose – often paying as a guest for a while to see if it’s potentially worthwhile. I know they can vary widely in the results one gets…

    And good suggestion on Toastmasters, Usha. I was a member of a group many years ago, and it’s a great way to get more comfortable speaking in a very supportive, friendly setting. If you consider yourself more of an introvert, and are uncomfortable in networking/speaking settings, I’d highly recommend it.

    By definition, many (if not most) of the folks who join a TM group ARE shy and uncomfortable getting up in front of a group, so you’ll find plenty of kindred spirits. And it’s a lot of fun, to boot! But the key is this: if you can make the process of speaking or in-person networking far less daunting, you’re just more likely to do it.

    And thanks Mike, for your comments! Good stuff. And you’re right – they’re going to be more receptive to your offer to speak than they’d be for a straight cold call. And it’s logical: you’re offering them something (making their lives easier, since they have to always be coming up with new topics/speakers), and proving your value in the process.

    Per your question, in this particular case, if you can somehow work the ideas of the value that professionals bring (perhaps piggybacking on the idea I offered above (i.e., “How to Do Your Own Writing for Your Business (and Why That May Not Be Wise…”), and expanding your discussion to include both copywriting AND design, I promise you’ll endear yourselves to the design firm in a big way.

    Maybe you even discuss this with the design firm beforehand. Just make sure when you deliver the talk, your advice to hire professionals is clearly framed as a way to boost a company’s bottom line, not viewed as a shameless call for business. Anyone else have thoughts on this one?

    As for the fee vs. free discussion, they’re two very different scenarios. In cases like this one, where the potential is high to pick up business, you’re not likely to be able to charge, and those choosing speakers understand the quid pro quo at work: you provide our members with good, useful, non-promotional information, and you get access to potential customers in return.

    You’re really only able to charge if you get to a point where your credentials and track record are impressive enough that you are truly an asset and resource worth paying for. And even THEN, as I and many of my author-speaker peers have discovered, there are many conferences who don’t pay yet still are able to attract top experts in the field, because those speakers consider the exposure and access to potential customers worth it.

    Just a few thoughts!


  11. Star
    Star says:

    Do chambers get speakers from their membership? Good question. The impression I got from meeting with the development (er, membership) director at ours was that she would only recommend a member to another member to do a task…. The speaking events in the one newsletter I looked at seemed to be sort of technical or motivational–I guess that could have meant members, but I doubt it… Not sure.

  12. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Star,

    I guess I’d think it’d just be logical for them to favor their own, and then go to outside resources if they can’t get what they need from inside. And it sounded like, even if she didn’t come right out and say it, that by encouraging you to join, she was hinting that that’d help your case for speaking. Just speculating, but again, it feels logical to me…

  13. Michael Scully
    Michael Scully says:

    Interesting, Peter. My reaction to Star’s story was very different. My advice would have been: Don’t agree to an in-person meeting unless they’re willing to make a conditional commitment to hire you PROVIDED you can demonstrate that you can meet their conditions of satisfaction (cf. High-Probability Selling by Jacques Werth). Of course, that means that first you have to determine what their conditions of satisfaction are. You are, in essence, trying to make a sale — if there is a sale to be made. So that means that you are trying to determine, first, whether there is a sale to be made. If you determine that there is no sale to be made, why leave your office?

    If the development/membership director wanted to get across the message (oh-so-subtly) that Star should join in order to make this presentation happen, well, she should have come out and said so. This kind of ambiguity does no one any good.

  14. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Can’t disagree with that, Michael! Chalk it up to back-from vacation spaciness…;) Seriously, you’re right. There definitely needs to be some qualifying going on before one commits to a meeting.

    Of course, it depends as well on the nature of the meeting. If it’s designed as a meet-‘n-greet, where there’s no work on the table at the moment, your approach will be different than if the client has seen your work, you discuss the fact that it’s a match for their needs, and they do in fact have a project pending that’s a fit for those skills.

    In that case, it’s fair to ask them for that conditional commitment, but as good as that sounds, you’d better do it very diplomatically. I can see that sounding pushy if it’s delivered wrong. But all in all, your point is well taken. Thanks for weighing in!


  15. Star
    Star says:

    My poor little chamber story is getting pretty changed here… I did a marketing postcard and sent out about 50. The chamber was the only reply and she said why don’t you come over and we can talk. I am used to DC, where you meet and greet, schmooze. I was not thinking of getting work from the chamber or of joining. But I did fix up a ride and go over (I am visually and mobility disabled). Out here in AZ, I never do in person meetings–I realized it had been nearly 5 yrs since I did one. It had a nostalgic feel–it was fun. We talked an hour–she clearly just wanted a member for $190, although she said she would invite me to a free mixer–although these were at 7:30 AM and I knew I could not go ridewise. Also, she specified that my mixer would be all women–I wondered why on that. I went back to my office and emailed a nice acknowledgment–and suggested I was available to speak (named three topics) and also that maybe their site could use a blog of short takes about the neighborhoods (I have two daily blogs–I know how to do this). She never answered. I repeated it and she said thanks for coming over. The end. In fact, a friend of mine said–great, you paid for the card and she got the prospect. Well, sometimes that’s life. I brought this up because the topic was speaking. This was not a new-business meeting. Of course, you need to qualify prospects for those. The last one I did 5 yrs ago resulted in business.

  16. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    I know Star’s Chamber story wasn’t about meeting to obtain new business.

    BUT, I do want to speak to Michael Scully’s comment: Michael, you don’t know how RIGHT you are.

    I contacted two organizations offering to speak. I included in this offer a complimentary online video script for one lucky member (needed the sample and it wasn’t going to hurt me financially)

    Both times the representative tried to sell me on joining the group. In fact, the meeting was one long sales pitch.

    I would have appreciated knowing that ahead of time.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] organization made up of businesspeople would be a good target for a speaking offer,” writes Peter Bowerman of The Well-Fed Writer. “What we commercial writers do … is something every business […]

  2. […] Highlight: Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business… […]

  3. […] In this blog, I will share resources I have found useful in helping freelancers grow their businesses. This blog post from Peter Bowerman on February 28, 2012 describes what can happen when you speak up. Check it out at http://www.wellfedwriter.com/blog/speak-up-and-grow-your-commercial-writing-business%e2%80%a6 . […]

  4. […] Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business – Peter Bowerman at The Well-Fed Writer […]

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