The “APPETIZER” Series: The original version of this piece first appeared as an Appetizer course in The Well-Fed E-PUB in February 2017, and was one I wanted to run as a blog post (with minor alterations) in order to get input from many voices.
A friend of mine recently sent around a pithy quote (source unknown) to a larger group of our friends. It struck me as a truism that gets at the heart of what we as commercial writers should aspire to, but don’t always. It said…
“The goal is not to be successful. The goal is to be valuable. Once you’re valuable, you don’t chase success, you attract it.”
I love its clarity. If you say, “I want to be successful,” not only is success an exceptionally nebulous concept that means different things to different people, but, just as importantly, how you get there isn’t at all clear.
It’s this vague state of being, akin, in many ways, to saying, “I want to be happy”—also a vague state, with vague path to completion. But say, “I want to be valuable,” and well, that’s a LOT clearer, no?
And if you know you want to be valuable as a commercial freelancer, then it’s just a matter of figuring out which skills and expertise you need to gather and develop in order to be valuable—to be someone that high-caliber, well-paying clients want and need to hire.
Once you’ve developed those skills—skills that make you more valuable than the average writer—assuming you do a decent job of letting the world know about you and your above-average abilities, you’ll indeed attract success.
Again, it’s like happiness. Trying to figure out what you should do in order to “be happy” can be a frustrating and circular process.
Come to think of it, becoming a useful, and yes, a valuable person—in many arenas of life—might just have you attracting happiness as well as success.
I can tell you this from plenty of firsthand experience: Being valuable is a LOT more fun than fighting it out with a bunch of other writers, when all of you have equal (low) value.
Forgive an Editorial Aside…
I think this little saying is particularly form-fitted to our times: With all the talk today of finding one’s passion and “finding one’s self” (especially for young people starting out), it’s good to be reminded that none of us is owed a life of passion or fulfillment.
We get there by working our butts off for a long time and for little money or recognition, until we eventually develop a skill or talent for something we enjoy and for which others will gladly pay.
If your copywriting practice is going well, what skills did you develop to make yourself valuable to your clients?
If your practice isn’t where you want it to be (or you’ve struggled in the past), was it because you focused on being “successful”?
Have you found that focusing on being valuable has, by any chance, boosted your happiness along the way? 😉
Becoming valuable to my clients has been about a lot of things, but mostly, it’s been about honing my marketing-writing chops across a broad array of commercial writing projects so I can step into virtually any copywriting situation, and quickly know what to and how to do it.
If that sounds like the kind of “valuable” you’d like to offer your clients, I invite you to check out Well-Fed Craft, my new, self-paced course that delivers just that. Click the course name above for full details, testimonials AND a free 10-minute sample.
Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.
I was sitting with a client the other day in a marathon on-site session. We were putting together a high-level presentation for a major executive pitch coming up in a few days. They’d brought me in because the presentation, in its current form – for the most part cut-‘n-pasted from an earlier version – just felt choppy and disjointed.
His goal was to build the case for his company to this audience, and knew from experience that I’m good at doing that kind of thing. It was a lot of data, information about the company and how they do what they do, but as he reminded, “It’s still a story. You have to tell a good story…”
How true. You have to tell a good story. As kids, it was our mantra to our parents, “Tell me a story!” But no matter how old we get, we never tire of hearing stories. And that’s never truer than with the audiences for the commercial writing projects we create for our clients. It’s something magazine and newspaper journalists have been doing forever (so if you hail from those arenas, put those chops to work here…).
Proposals and presentations – like the one described above – if they’re going to hit home, MUST tell a good story, must lay out a rational step-by-step case for what’s being “sold.” That doesn’t mean boring and linear – hardly. The good ones are exceptionally creative and will jump around, while always knowing exactly where they’re going and the most effective path to get there.
Marketing brochures – from simple tri-folds to lofty corporate image pieces – can tell the story of a company’s history and evolution, complete with testimonials from satisfied buyers. They can give a prospective customer a compelling narrative, which, when done well, can more expeditiously move that prospect along the sales cycle.
Every description of a product or service within a brochure, sales sheet or newsletter can be enhanced by creating a one-paragraph mini-story that showcases the experience of someone (even if fictitious) actually using the product. And in the process, demonstrating its features and benefits. An example…
In a newsletter for UPS I worked on years back, instead of just describing the features of one of their services, I told the story below. And I put it together simply by asking my client who might use the service and for what reason:
It’s late morning. One of your best customers calls – frantic. A key machine on his 24-hour production line just threw a part. With no spares on-site, he’s dead in the water. Overnight me a replacement, he says. I can do even better than that, you reply. Thanks to UPS “next-flight-out” Sonic Air service, the part’s on its way within an hour, and by mid-afternoon, it’s been installed. Production is restored at 4:00 P.M., not 10:00 A.M. tomorrow, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Think he’ll remember you the next time the competition comes to call?
Using characters and a dramatic story line (where possible, and as dramatic as such a subject can be, of course…) makes far more interesting and credible writing than straight marketing copy. Stories draw in readers, and make it more likely a piece will actually get read (i.e., The Goal, in case you forgot…).
Course, the above (and other story-telling strategies) could be used in web content, white papers (a story as well – one that leads a reader along a very specifically-plotted path), trade articles, direct mail (especially the long-letter type…) – even ads. And what about a case study? It’s the quintessential story.
Before starting ANY project, always ask yourself, “How could I make this more interesting to read?” Be a storyteller and you’ll be a better copywriter. AND people will notice, and that can only be a good thing.
How have you used storytelling in your commercial writing practice?
What specific story-telling techniques have you used effectively in your writing?
Can you give some examples of how being a storyteller improved the effectiveness of a piece?
What kind of feedback have you gotten from clients when you’ve suggested or implemented storytelling in your marketing copy?
Got the following note from Twin Cities, MN commercial freelancer Megan Tsai (www.RedWagonWriting.com), who thought it might make a good blog post. At first, I didn’t think so, as it wasn’t about commercial writing, but the idea grew on me, and I starting seeing the potential for a good discussion. She wrote:
I sometimes take on assignments for a low-paying national magazine with high production value because I enjoy the work and the clips look great in my portfolio. Typically I take the photos myself or allow the publisher to select stock photos, but because I know the value of these clips and have no use for national photo credits myself, I thought I’d offer the opportunity to a local freelance photographer. As you discuss in your book, many freelancers get their start by doing non-paying work.
I posted a quick ad on Craigslist, explaining this would not be a paid assignment, but would result in some high-quality clips for a freelancer just getting started. I asked that anyone interested shoot me an email with a link to their portfolio. Within minutes, my post had been flagged and removed, and several angry responses posted (the site is self-policing, so it was the freelancers who had it removed, not Craigslist itself). At the same time, I received three emails from interested photographers and dozens of hits on my Web site. So the question becomes, is it fair to deprive fellow freelancers of the opportunity to complete non-paying work, or should this decision be left to the individual?
My take? Megan, you’re right. They’re wrong. I’m a libertarian at heart, believing that people should be free to take or not take work, and no one should dictate the conditions under which that happens. You offered a “free market transaction”: people were free to respond or not, and for others to attack you and move to remove your post note, was wrong.
Those applauding the freelancers’ decision to silence you think they’re “standing up for the rights of creative practitioners to be paid what they’re worth” as if you were forcing them to work for nothing. Instead, as you pointed out, what they were doing was indeed depriving freelancers who wanted to exercise their right to do non-paying work (to build their book and reputation) to do so. And in this case, even more so, because it wasn’t as if the publication was going to pay a photographer “market” rates for the gig.
That decision should be no one’s to make but a given freelancer. Yes, I understand the philosophy that says, “If you encourage the idea of working for free, you cheapen the value of what any practitioner in that field does.” Arguably true, but still not your decision to make for someone else. And not compelling enough in my books to make that decision “for the good of the industry” under the guise of protecting rights. Obviously, those people who responded positively to your ad didn’t feel they needed anyone else’s protection.
As I see it, is there any substantive difference between what they did and, say, removing an ad for a TV you had offered for $50 that they thought should have been worth $200? For those who’d say, “That’s different,” I’d ask “How so?” Whether a TV or someone’s time, you’re still deciding for someone else what the value of that thing is, and that’s not your decision to make. And, yes, the same would go for commercial freelancers willing to work for free or for far less than their competitors. I don’t like to see it, but it’s their right to decide, not mine. And until this economy improves, we’re likely to see more and more of this.
Granted, for most established commercial writing practitioners, we’re not likely to find too many newbies beating us out on sophisticated commercial writing projects (e.g., brochures, ad copy, direct mail, case studies, etc.) by working for free or for $25 an hour (they’re more likely to operate on online writing job sites and in the online article writing realm), but I’m still interested in hearing people’s take on this.
Your thoughts on this subject?
Have you had any similar experience of being on either side of a situation like this?
Where do you draw the line between individual’s rights and the “greater good of the industry”?
Was doing a talk about commercial writing (www.wellfedwriter.com) recently when someone asked, “Isn’t writing for business pretty dull and uncreative?”? My reply? “I don’t glorify this field and won’t tell you you’ll get all your creative fulfillment from it. That said, I’m pleasantly surprised on a regular basis at the interesting, challenging – and dare I say, at times, fun – projects that cross my path.”? And to get paid so well for it? MmMmMm. Another reason to love this life (see previous post). But, when I tell most people I write commercially, the most common reply I get is, “Oh, technical writing?” Egad, no (not that there’s anything wrong with being a technical writer…). But, as we all know, it’s MUCH more fun than that…
Recently, I landed a most interesting gig (which I’ll actually showcase a bit more in May’s ezine). This BIG firm does marketing for retail establishments – fast food places, convenience stores, supermarkets, etc. They design, build, and come up with unique marketing strategies to maximize their profitability. This job entailed creating 150+ point-of-purchase displays to highlight tips, values, recipes, and product bundles (i.e., meal ideas) with an eye toward maximizing sales. I had to create a snappy headline and one line of equally catchy body copy. Ended up being 50+ hours over 6.5 days or so, and an exceptionally healthy hourly rate.
Unusual project. NOT my typical fare. But a good example of why I like this business: such a broad variety. So, it got me thinking about what commercial writing IS. I figured if I’ve had some unusual “don’t-fit-the-mold” projects, some of you have as well. Remember, commercial writing can be anything an organization has to create in the course of doing business.
Here’s a list of commercial writing projects that have crossed my path over the years:
Marketing brochures (from tri-fold to capabilities to corporate image), ad copy, newsletters, direct mail campaigns, web sites, sales sheets, sales letters, case studies, executive profiles, speeches, video scripts, radio spots, event scripting, on-hold message scripting, CD-ROM scripting (did the commemorative CD-ROM for the Korean Veterans Memorial in D.C. – very cool), slogan/tagline concepting, annual reports, trade articles, press releases, and more that elude me right now…
So, what have I missed here that you’ve done? And what’s the most fun or unusual well-paying commercial gig you’ve ever landed?