Writing Cinematically: 7 Tips for Better Storytelling


Some time ago I had a client who’d written a book and wanted my help polishing it up. As I looked it over, I quickly realized he had a great story to tell. But he had approached it like a college term paper:

First, state the theme; then list the pertinent events one by one, in chronological order; then summarize.

It was about as exciting as, well, a term paper.

I suggested that instead, he should think of his story like a movie. There are certain things we’ve all come to expect in a good film. Filmmakers use proven techniques to draw us in and keep our attention—usually without our awareness. If we’re smart we’ll learn from them.

Here are seven cinematic devices that also work for the written word:

  1. Start with action. Don’t explain. Just throw the viewers [readers] into the scene.
  2. Choose a scene so intriguing or emotionally compelling that they can’t pull away. Think of your favorite movies. They probably begin in a way that makes you want to keep watching. You simply must find out what happens next, even if you’ve already seen it a hundred times! And before you know it, you’ve sat through the whole thing.
  3. Enter the scene as late as possible. Skip the introductions, lead-ins, throat-clearing, and other distractions. (On that point, an old copywriter’s trick is to write a piece in the way that seems right—and then throw out the first paragraph or two. It will usually read better!)
  4. Show, don’t tell. Screenwriters do this by using images in place of dialog or exposition. You can do it too. Instead of writing, “Mary was nervous,” how about: “Mary smiled, but her hands were sweating as she gripped her briefcase a little tighter.”
  5. Provide some atmospherics. You can’t put music or sound effects into your written piece. But you can still describe the weather, the scenery, the background, and the action that’s happening around the subject. Paint a vivid picture for your readers.
  6. Move fast. Modern films tend to use short scenes and quick cuts. That’s what viewers are used to. Your writing will benefit from a similar approach. You don’t want your readers to get lost—but you don’t want to bore them either. Keep your narrative at a brisk pace.
  7. Think cyclical, not linear. Sometimes the best place to start a story is at the end—or in the middle. It’s okay to jump back and forth between present and past. Just make your transitions clear so you don’t lose your reader as you jump around.

Unless you’re writing a company’s policy handbook for new employees, chances are no one will be required to read your masterpiece. So, you have to make it interesting. Whether you’re writing a book, an email, a sales letter or a fundraising appeal, these approaches can improve your storytelling. People will be more inclined to keep reading—all the way to the end.

# # #

Confessions of a Grumpy Geezer

Why your appeals to donors over 60
could be turning them off

“Hi! How are you guys doing tonight? Staying cool? D’ya have a chance to watch the game today? Oh, just chillin’ with the family? That’s great. You’re looking good! By the way, I’m Todd. I’ll be serving you tonight. So hey, you look like you might be thirsty. How about some drinks to start off?”

You could walk into nearly any restaurant in America and hear this type of rap before you order. It’s a nice, congenial way for servers to loosen up their customers. But for people of a certain age (like me), it’s grating.


It’s too informal. We like a certain decorum when we meet people for the first time. And we remember when “servers” were expected to remain invisible—except when their presence was needed. You can still find that approach in fancy restaurants, but it’s largely a lost art.

Nowadays, that kind of informality shows up in a lot of communications—especially emails. I’m often addressed as “Bill” by people I’ve never met—which would have been a faux pas just a few years ago.

I’m used to it by now. I even do it myself. “Dear Mr. Davis” just sounds so … old-fashioned.

But “Hey, Bill?”

Too casual. Like kissing on the first date. (Well, not quite, but you get the point.)

As you’ve noticed, there’s a generation gap here. Communicators are often much younger than the people they’re trying to reach. So they don’t always realize how they’re being perceived.

In the nonprofit world, the most reliable donors tend to be part of the “silent generation”—folks who came of age in the conservative 1950s. But they’re gradually being supplanted by baby boomers—people born between 1946 and 1964.

Boomers inaugurated the casual style in American culture. (Think blue jeans, baseball caps, slang, rock and roll, etc.) It was all part of our rebellion against the stuffy environment we saw around us. But we still have memories of a more formal time. When I was growing up, we would always dress up to go out to eat. Or to get on an airplane. No one would dare show up at a wedding or funeral without formal attire. I never once saw my dad in blue jeans, much less a T-shirt.  We addressed adults respectfully, with formal titles. We used profanity among ourselves—but never around our elders.

So we can find today’s radical informality a little jarring.

Here’s another shocking truth—we all get more stodgy as we age! So don’t be surprised if your mature prospects are a tad grumpy.

One more thing you should know about us geezers: We’ve already heard every sales pitch known to man. Many of us have even been conned a few times by affable smooth-talkers. So we’re naturally wary—especially of people who are too friendly right away.

Whether you’re communicating digitally, through direct mail, or even by phone—here are five ways to smooth your path with the older set:

  1. Introduce yourself

That doesn’t mean, “Hey, Bill. Jane here. I wanted to talk with you about your home’s equity.” (I received just this type of phone pitch several times lately. Needless to say, it didn’t work well.)

Excuse me? Jane who? What company are you with? That poor salesperson lost me before she had a chance.

The same rule applies to digital communications. If I visit your website, chances are I just want to find out who you are. Your full-screen images and dramatic headlines may be impressive. But don’t make me search all over to find your hidden “About us” page. Why are you hiding that?

A page dedicated to your leadership team is nice. But how about a physical address too? What are you, just a virtual company operating out of a basement?

These things matter—to us old-timers.

  1. Mind your manners

A little arms-length formality won’t hurt. Don’t insult a prospect by getting too casual right away. And never imply that she’s ignorant, out of touch, or behind the times—even if it’s true. Imagine you’re speaking with your grandmother (or someone else you deeply respect).

  1. Think linear

We didn’t grow up with Twitter, MTV or video games. Some of us even read books! That means we appreciate complete narratives that make sense. We’re as susceptible as anyone to the power of images and emotional appeals. But we’ll relate best to your pitch if it’s laid out in an orderly way that addresses our questions.

  1. Get an editor

The sad truth is, many smart young communicators today are deficient in basic grammar. And we geezers tend to notice that. You’ll undermine your own credibility if your text is riddled with poor usage and misspellings (the ones spell-check doesn’t catch).

  1. Use large fonts

Thank goodness, most current web design leans toward big fonts, big images—big everything.  But your direct mail pieces could be losing their effectiveness if you’re cramming in too much copy. You’ll inevitably resort to smaller fonts. And some of your prospects won’t read your pieces—because they can’t!

All that work, thrown into the trash.

Instead, say less. But say it bigger.

Remember these things as you reach out to your mature prospects. And watch your response rates rise.

#  #  #

Note to Executives: Nobody Wants to Read Your Stuff

Four keys to making your written
content more pleasant than a root canal

Imagine …

You’re exhausted from a long day at work. But now at last, you’re home.

So you kick off your shoes, pour your favorite beverage and settle into a comfortable chair. And you can’t help but smile as you begin reading … the latest company memo from the vice president.


Well, why not?

The truth is, there are some things we only read when we have to. That includes anything work-related.  Not just because it’s about work. But because, most of the time, it’s also excruciatingly boring.

When we’re reading something we really don’t want to, we tend to skim, to get through it as fast as possible. That makes us likely to miss important things.

We may also be tempted to avoid reading it altogether. Haven’t you ever ignored an important email for days at a time—just because you didn’t want to deal with it? Or haven’t you relegated an urgent document to your Big Stack of Unread Papers—telling yourself you’ll get to it soon (but knowing you won’t)?

That’s human nature. We tend to avoid unpleasant experiences as long as possible. And there’s no app, technique, or office policy yet devised that can override human nature.

So if your job requires you to communicate with colleagues or subordinates, here’s your challenge: to make your notes, emails, announcements, memos and proposals more pleasant and attractive—so that people will, you know, actually read them.

Here are four tips to get you there:

  1. Keep it short. Start by writing everything that’s on your mind. Then, go back and cut it down. Get rid of every unnecessary word.

Use short paragraphs. Like this one.

Short sentences too.  

Remember, before they read it, they have to look at it. And if what they see is a massive, unbroken wall of text, they’re likely to avoid it.

  1. Make it clear. This can be trickier than it seems. You know what you’re thinking, but your thoughts may not make it onto the page. Go back and re-read what you wrote. Is there any way it could be misinterpreted? Is it cluttered with content that’s off-topic? Is there a clearer, simpler way to say what you mean?

There’s an old saying: Good writing is rewriting.  Professional writers know this and practice it. You should too.

Remember, you really only have two things to convey: what you want them to know, and what you want them to do. Make sure you spell both of those out in unmistakable terms. Everything else is fluff.

  1. Write like a human. Imagine hearing this from your spouse or partner:

"The necessity of a visit to a place of commerce has been determined and will commence forthwith. A variety of grocery items and consumer goods will be purchased. Therefore, requests for additional purchases will be considered at this time."

You’d think it was a joke. Here’s another way of saying the same thing:

"I’m going to the market to get a few things. Want anything?"

That’s how real people talk. But for some reason, many of us abandon normal language when it comes to business. We think our words will carry more weight if they’re big and official-sounding.

The opposite is true. If you write in a simple, personal, even intimate way, your readers will be more likely to lean in and pay attention.

  1. Apply the Golden Rule. Once you’ve finished your masterpiece, take another look at it. Imagine it showing up at your desk or inbox. Is this something you’d enjoy reading? If not, why subject others to it? Unless you’re using the workplace to vent your sadistic impulses, the Golden Rule is still a good guideline: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.

Apply these four principles in your writing—and people will look forward to reading it.

#  #  #


A Tip for Young Writers: Remember the Willie Sutton Rule

You’ve probably heard the story. A reporter once asked bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is,” Willie replied.

He later denied ever saying it, but the story had already entered America’s cultural mythology. So much so that medical students began learning “Sutton’s law”—the principle that the most obvious diagnosis is probably the right one.  

Willie’s words offer some wisdom for aspiring writers too—especially copywriters. Want to be successful? Go where the money is.

That is, if you want to make money, you have to work for people who have some.

Obvious? It should be. But how tempting it is to go after projects that have no realistic chance of paying off.

For writers just starting out, it makes sense to take some jobs pro bono to build a portfolio. But that can become a habit. Eventually, you have to decide that your work is worth something, so you should start insisting on a fair price.

Even experienced writers can be seduced by shiny objects and wind up taking a loss.

Here are three traps I’ve learned to recognize (yes, from sad experience):

The Charismatic Individual. This guy has always wanted to write a book. “I’ve got an incredible story,” he tells you. “Wait till you hear it! Some publisher will snap it up.” All you have to do is ghostwrite it. And by the way, he’s ready to spend $500! Then, once it’s published you could get royalties …

Or, he’s got an invention that’s going to revolutionize the … tech/financial/communications/organic farming/dry cleaning industry (take your pick). Wouldn’t you like to get in on the ground floor by writing some copy?

Or, he’s got a band that’s on the verge of breaking through … a new Internet marketing scheme …

You get the picture.

But few individuals have the deep pockets to sustain a real livelihood for someone else—even a great, talented writer like you. Proceed at your own risk.

The Promising Startup.  Sometimes smart, experienced people get together to launch a new business. They seem to have everything going for them. They’ve studied the market. The demand is there. They know that what they’re offering is unique. They’ve got the expertise to pull it off. And you get to write for them! Just be content with a few bucks now, and in the long run you’ll make out like a bandit.

Except, most startups fail. And not just the flaky ones. The marketplace can be merciless. If you look beyond the placid surface, you’ll see the landscape is littered with great ideas that flopped.

The Content Mill. One consequence of the digital revolution is that writing has become cheap—since people no longer have to spend money on printing and ink to make something public. So hacks and hucksters of all types are hungry to fill web pages with content.

You’ll find these “writing opportunities” by the dozens on jobs boards and online lists. Quality? That’s secondary. Many of these operators wouldn’t know good writing if it punched them in the nose. And of course, they pay next to nothing. So while they’re wasting your time, they do nothing to build your portfolio or qualify you for anything—except to work for other content mills.

 So, does that mean you should never take projects that don’t promise a reliable paycheck?

Not at all. But you mustn’t rely on them for all of your income. Instead, seek out established enterprises that have a solid product, service, clientele or donor base. Organizations that have been around a while, that have a strong revenue stream and a history of paying their vendors.  Those should be your meat-and-potatoes clients. Then you can afford to take on the occasional mad whim.

Because by then you’re already making a living.

And yes, by the way, you deserve it.

# # #

(Open) The Envelope, Please!

The secret motives that will drive people to open your direct mail package

For most folks, a trip to the mailbox is filled with emotion and expectation—both good and bad. They’re hoping there won’t be a delinquency notice or some other bad news. They might be expecting a check or some other thing of value. They might even be hoping to find a letter from a family member (probably not).

In any case, they know they’ll have to sort through lots of clever offers and solicitations—the junk mail—to get to the important stuff.

So, in the midst of all the noise and distraction, how do you get someone to take note of your mailing—and actually open it?

You already know the answer, because the factors that motivate them are the same ones that motivate you.

Here they are:

Familiarity. If a person is already accustomed to interacting with your organization, congratulations, you’re in! They’ll probably take the time to at least look at what you’ve sent them.

Now, just don’t blow it by:

  • Offending them
  • Boring them
  • Letting them think they’re looking at something they’ve already seen

That last part is tricky, because you want to present a consistent brand image while conveying that this mailer is something completely new—so they’d better read it. That’s where a good envelope teaser comes in. Give them a hint of the compelling news that’s inside. Make it irresistible.

Expectation of benefit. This is also tricky, because people are jaded. They’ve seen all the free cruises and exclusive dinner invitations—and they know there’s a sales pitch hiding in there. I don’t even bother opening those mailers anymore. Do you? But I’ll tell you what gets me every time—personalized address labels. I know I’ll use them, so I open the envelope. And I’ll usually read at least part of the letter. Give your prospects something of immediate value—even if it’s only a small value. They’ll open the letter. The rest depends on your amazing offer.

Fear. “FINAL NOTICE!” Does that get your attention? It might be your last chance to take advantage of a great offer—or it could be from a creditor about to file a lien against your home. Either way, it might just be scary enough to make you open the envelope. On the other hand, when you find out it’s just another pitch, you’re liable to get angry and toss it. The envelope that’s designed to look like an official government document can provoke the same response. But fear is, and always will be, a strong motivator. You’ll have to decide whether it’s the right one for your product.

Curiosity. The blank envelope. You know it’s probably just another sales pitch. But you can’t be sure. So you open it.

Or, the envelope with an intriguing teaser. It piques your interest just enough to rip it open and see what it’s all about. After all, it will only take a few seconds …

Both approaches can work—or not.

To tease, or not to tease?

That is the question. Fundraising expert Gifford Claiborne says, “There’s a lot of research that says just a blank envelope will out-pull one with teaser copy.” He should know. He’s been testing this stuff with nonprofit mailings for about 50 years.

Stephen Hitchcock addresses the same issue in his book, Open Immediately: Straight Talk on Direct Mail Fundraising—What Works, What Doesn’t and Why. And as the title promises, his take is straightforward:

Most teasers are about as useful as an 8-track tape—without an 8-track player. That’s because a lot of organizations keep forgetting how intelligent and sophisticated donors are. If they’ve heard about your organization or if your organization’s name sounds like something they’re interested in, then donors open your envelope. Absent those factors, no amount of screaming or no degree of cuteness will save your package from the recycling bin.

There’s that familiarity factor again. It doesn’t offer much hope for organizations seeking to acquire new donors or customers.

But then Hitchcock follows with a caveat:

Of course, there are exceptions.

A truly creative or brilliant teaser—one tied forcefully to the central concept in the letter—can sometimes work well. That’s especially the case if there is a true crisis or emergency about your appeal.

Hitchcock also notes another interesting discovery from his own testing:

Membership or annual renewal notices appear to generate a higher response when the renewal process is telegraphed on the outer envelope.

That makes sense. We’re all programmed to be on the alert for expired memberships. No one wants to call the Auto Club for roadside assistance—only to find out their membership expired last month.

Here’s a good test for any mailing—one that’s easily overlooked. Imagine that you’ve just found the letter in your mailbox. Do you open it, or not? If you wouldn’t, why would you expect anyone else to?

Make sure you’re appealing to one of the motivators mentioned above: familiarity, expectation of benefit, fear, or curiosity. Then, once you’ve got their attention, hit them with an offer they can’t refuse.

Here’s to your successful direct mail campaigns.

# # #

All that Pesky Punctuation

How a bunch of dots and squiggles can sink or save your written copy

I had just created a nice webpage for my boss, complete with some hard-hitting bullet points. He printed a screenshot of it and later came over to congratulate me.

But when I looked at the printout I saw a bunch of places circled in red.


“You put a period after some of the bullet points, but not others,” he pointed out. “Shouldn’t we be consistent?”

Of course, he was right. In creating my amazing work of copywriting genius I hadn’t paid attention to the punctuation—or lack of it—in my bullet points. But he noticed it. I should have, too.

So, what are the rules of punctuation for a copywriter, anyway?

In school, most of us learned rules to give our sentences proper form and clarity. But in copywriting, we’re encouraged to throw the rules out.

Well, maybe not all of them. But our objective is different, so the rules are different. For copywriters, every keystroke is meant to keep the reader interested and ultimately motivate her to act. In that light, the words matter—but the periods, commas, dashes and exclamation points do, too.

Punctuation is like a road sign. It can subtly signal the reader to:

  • Stop (period, paragraph)
  • Keep going (comma, ellipsis)
  • Watch for something important coming up (colon, ellipsis)

We usually don’t want the reader to stop. But sometimes we need him to focus on a particular word. Or phrase. So we put a period on it. Even if it’s not a complete sentence.

We might even give it its own paragraph for special emphasis.

That’s one way of using punctuation to keep the reader engaged. There are more.

What’s an ellipsis, anyway?

In normal writing, the ellipsis (…) indicates that something has been omitted:

“Oh say, can you see … what so proudly we hailed …”

Or, it can signal a pause:

“Well, I don’t know …” He stared out the window for a long minute. “… Maybe so.”

But copywriters can use an ellipsis at the end of a paragraph to tell readers that the thought is not finished …

There’s more coming …

So, they should keep reading …

I’ll also use the ellipsis at the end of email subject lines—because I want readers to feel they must open the email to finish the sentence. A cheap trick? Sure. But it works.

What about those dashes?

The em-dash is a good way to separate a thought within a sentence. (It’s called an em-dash because it’s the same width as the letter M. Now you know.) It can serve the same function as a comma setting off a phrase or subordinate clause—but it’s more dramatic. And I always want drama in my writing.

Nowadays the em-dash is often used instead of the stuffy, old-fashioned colon:

Rutabagas—they’re good for you.

I also like the em-dash because it mimics the way people actually talk:

I paid less than wholesale—by the way, you could probably get the same deal—so anyway, it was worth it.

(And parentheses?)

Direct mail wizard Denny Hatch addresses these things in his timeless book, Write Everything Right.  According to Denny, parentheses create distance, so they should be used carefully. They’re helpful when you want to downplay something:

(Individual results may vary.)

But they can also convey exclusivity:

“Original issue price (for our preferred members) just $99.50”

I like to use parentheses to convey a sense of confidentiality: (Pssst—what you’re reading now is private!) That can increase the reader’s involvement.

But all this comes with a warning …

Stop, already

Needless to say, all these critters can be overused. And then, instead of prodding the reader to keep going, you’re just annoying him. (Personal confession: Along with commas and colons, I tend to overuse the em-dash—as you’ve noticed. So I have to discipline myself to avoid that. Discipline—that’s the thing!)

Other overused devices:

“Quotation marks.” In general, don’t use them. Unless you’re actually, you know, quoting somebody.

Exclamation marks!!! They’re reserved for real exclamations:

My hair’s on fire!

Your hair’s on fire!

Walmart has women’s flip-flops at 50 percent off!

And never use more than one. Readers will get the point. No one likes to be shouted at.

So, learn the rules. And then throw them out. Or rather, use them shrewdly. Strategically. Effectively.

Oh, yes—what is the rule for punctuating bullet points? I’ve never found a style guide for this so I just apply what I learned in sixth-grade English class: If it’s a complete sentence, use a period. If it’s not, don’t.

Simple, right?

# # #

The Waterslide Effect

How to make sure they read your copy
 all the way to the end

Picture yourself at one of those big waterslides—the kind you find at a summer amusement park.

You’re at the top, looking down, not sure you really want to do this. But there’s a bronzed and brawny teenaged attendant standing there waiting for you to make up your mind. So you go.

Fear turns to exhilaration as you plunge helplessly down a slippery chute, careening this way and that. As you speed downward, you find yourself smiling. Then chuckling. Then laughing out loud.

And then, sploosh! You’re dumped unceremoniously into a big pool.

Soaked and shaken, you gather your dignity and stagger toward the steps. And you have to admit—that was fun!

That’s what good written copy is like. The reader might hesitate at first, but once she starts, she finds it impossible to stop. And to her surprise, she finds herself enjoying the ride. Then suddenly, she’s at the end. That’s when you present your call to action—asking her to mail a check, click the box, visit the landing page, enter her credit card info, or whatever you’re hoping she’ll do.

But she’ll never do it if she gets bored or distracted halfway through.

So, how do you make your reader’s journey as fun and effortless as a ride down a waterslide?

Well, first, focus on that word fun. No one wants to read something dreary and tedious. We had enough of that in school. There, we read boring stuff because we had to. But no one has to read your copy. They can just as easily put it aside and go check their email or turn on the TV. So respect their freedom to choose, and make your piece irresistible. Try to keep it light and lively. Use short sentences. Make it fun.

Of course, if you’re highlighting the plight of hungry children in Bangladesh, fun doesn’t work. So, how about gripping? Captivating? Heartrending? You can do that.

The next adjective to notice is effortless. The waterslide experience is appealing because you don’t have to do anything but sit down. The slide takes you from there. In the same way, once you start reading good copy, finishing it is easy. You’re skeptical at first. You tell yourself you’ll just read the first sentence or two, to find out what it’s all about. After all, you’ve got a thousand other concerns vying for your attention. And then, to your surprise, you find yourself plunging farther and farther down the page. Before you know it, you’ve read the whole thing. And you’re entertaining a proposition you never would have considered before.

That’s where the power of a good story comes in. We all love stories. They capture our attention, even when we don’t want them to. You doubt that? Think of those tabloids at the supermarket checkout stand. They’re filled with stories—sordid, tragic, lurid, unbelievable stories. And no matter how we try to ignore them, they draw us in, at least for a few seconds till it’s our turn to check out.

Tell your reader a good story. It doesn’t have to be lurid or sensational. But it must be compelling. And it must have a human face. A story told in the first person is ideal. But as long as it’s human, dramatic and personal, people will be attracted.

And that brings us to the end—literally. You made it all the way through, didn’t you?

Congratulations. You’ve absorbed the first principle of good copy.

# # #

My secret to success: Strive to be the dumbest person in the room

Elderly man at keyboard

One of my passions is playing jazz guitar.

Bill Ireland Group 1985

I never quite made a living at it, but at times I’ve had the privilege of playing with some really great musicians. And in those moments, something amazing happened—I played better. Sometimes way better.

Instead of making me feel inferior, their skill and creativity brought out the best in me.

That’s what great musicians—and great people—do. And that’s why they’re the best folks to work with. They’ve already found their own niche, so they can afford to be gracious. They’re not threatened by the talent of others—in fact, they have a knack for recognizing it and drawing it out. They know that good ideas can come from anywhere, so they’re exceptionally open-minded.

This explains why people at the top of their game can be the easiest—and most fun—to collaborate with.

By contrast, it’s easy to spot folks who are insecure in their roles. They buy into the conventional worldly wisdom—that to succeed they must strut their stuff, make their mark, toot their own horn, make people notice them, etc. That approach sounds right, but it can boomerang and create the opposite result.

We’re all familiar with the loudmouth who always needs to be the smartest person in the room—and let everyone know it. Who wants to work with someone like that? His colleagues may nod and smile, but then they’ll secretly do all they can to avoid him.

That experience I had as a musician also applies to my business as a copywriter. I try to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am (It’s not that hard to do). And nowadays I work with a lot of young folks who weren’t born yet when I started my career. Their talent and skill continually amaze me. I ride on their genius, relying on their sharp wits and savvy ideas. And I always come out looking better for it.

sun and clouds

There’s another obvious benefit: By hanging around with people who are better/smarter/more accomplished, you’re steadily ascending to ever-higher levels.

You just have to be willing to be the low person for a while—a small price to pay. You’ll discover that collaborating with the most talented people can yield amazing results.

Ronald Reagan was fond of an old saying, which he quoted often in his speeches: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” Those words eventually wound up on a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office, so they apparently served him well.

As King Solomon said, “He who walks with the wise grows wise” (Proverbs 13:20). So, learn to excel—by being the dumbest person in the room. You’ll grow smarter. And you’ll accomplish more than you could have imagined.

# # #

Society’s Unsung Heroes: Salespeople!


Yes, you read that right.

I know what you’re thinking. Are you kidding? I hate salespeople! They bug me, day and night. They’re constantly at my door, in my TV, on my phone, in my email! Aaagghh!

True enough. But maybe your perspective would change if you had to work as a salesperson. It’s a tough business. It’s not glamorous—unless maybe you’re selling cosmetics to celebrities. But probably not even then.

I have a friend who sells Ferraris to people in Beverly Hills. One day I heard him complain, “I’m barely making minimum wage!” Because, you see, a salesman only gets paid when he, you know, closes a sale. The rest of the time it’s all work and no pay.

But here’s the thing. It’s salespeople who make our economy work. Not big-shot executives. Not factory line workers. Not even the consumers who buy stuff. Because they wouldn’t be buying a product unless someone somewhere had sold them on it.

There’s an old saying: Nothing happens until somebody sells something. It was true then. It’s true now. Think of the telephone, the motorcar, the computer, and my personal favorite—the flush toilet. They’d all be quaint curiosities gathering dust in a dark storeroom if someone hadn’t sold the public on their amazing benefits. And without that where would we be? Riding horses, communicating by letter, and tiptoeing outside in the middle of the night to a cold, disgusting outhouse.

Yes, you say, old-fashioned selling was useful once. But we’re more sophisticated than that now. Modern advertising takes the place of crude salesmanship.

The fathers of modern advertising would disagree. They knew better. As Claude Hopkins wrote in his classic book, Scientific Advertising:

Advertising is salesmanship. Its principles are the principles of salesmanship. Success and failures in both lines are due to like causes. Thus every advertising question should be answered by the salesman’s standards.

David Ogilvy, another advertising legend, put it even more bluntly in his famous slogan, “We sell or else.”

Here’s another bombshell to rock your world: Salesmanship promotes virtue.

How? In several ways.

If you’ve ever had to sell something, you know it takes courage. You face a steady barrage of rejection, ridicule, hostility, sometimes even the threat of violence (Get away from my door before I get my shotgun, you dang huckster!).

But you keep at it, because you have to. That leads to another virtue—persistence. You know you may only get one sale for every hundred encounters. So you patiently slog through 99 fruitless sales pitches. Only then do you get your reward—a single sale.

Here’s another virtue that salesmanship teaches—selfless service to others.

How could that be? Well, to sell anything you must consider the customer’s needs and find an effective way to meet them. The customer doesn’t care about your problems. Your late mortgage, your toothache, your troubled children—all are irrelevant. To sell, you must focus on the other person, empathize with her problems and help her solve them.

So, the next time someone intrudes on your space to sell you a magazine subscription, a solar panel, a software program, a cruise, a business service, a home renovation, or a phone plan—feel free to turn them away. But do it gently. They’re keeping the world spinning in their own little way.

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7 Reasons Your Business Should Be Using Freelance Writers—Now


“We don’t really use freelancers.” I hear that sometimes from marketing and creative directors.

Of course, it’s a knee-jerk objection to what they perceive as a sales pitch.

I understand. I do the same thing myself. “No, I’m not a candidate for your solar panels.” “No, I’m not interested in your software that will revolutionize my business.” You know how it goes. Sometimes I feel like I spend half my day turning away vendors.

But the we-don’t-use-freelancers line is pretty easy to knock down. First of all, it’s probably not true. Most companies will call a freelancer if they’re in a pinch. And then they have to go through their list (if they have one) and find someone who can handle the job—and whom they haven’t already blown off.

But why let things get to that point? Here are seven reasons for a healthy business to use freelance copywriters—now, not just when a crisis hits.

  1. Cost. When things get busy, businesses start thinking they need to hire a writer. But once you factor in the cost of health benefits, payroll expenses, sick time, paid vacations, holidays, etc., full-time employees are really expensive. And what happens when business slows down again? That now-full-time staffer is spending time schmoozing with the other employees, pretending to be busy—and drawing the same paycheck week after week. Savvy business people know all this, and use “contractors” as much as possible—often to the point of abuse. But using a genuine freelance contractor is a no-sweat way to get the job done without entanglements. Let the freelancer worry about the vacations and health insurance.
  2. Overflow. Your poor staff writer is already overloaded—and now you’re going to give her one more assignment? That’s a recipe for stress, bad performance, resentment and disappointment. Give the kid a break. Bring in some help.
  3. Emergencies. Yes, it’s still okay to call in the cavalry when disaster is looming. Here’s a secret—we freelancers are accustomed to working by the seat of our pants. Some of us even thrive on emergencies. So when you need it done now, do you really want to rely on your loyal-but-plodding staff? Call someone who’ll welcome the stress and get it done when you need it.
  4. A New Voice. Even the best writers have a limited repertoire. When your marketing messages always sound the same, prospects may tune you out. And that’s a killer. You need a different voice.
  5. Versatility. You may have writers who are good at certain things but not others. Few people are excellent at sales letters, white papers, press releases, articles, social media and blogs too. A freelancer who specializes in some of those areas could be just the thing to round out your efforts.
  6. You’re Not Getting It Done. If writing isn’t part of what your organization sells, you probably have a lot of marketing tasks sitting unfinished. You know you should finish that brochure, update your website, and get into that social media thing. But you simply don’t have the time. You really need a writer’s help—but probably not full-time. Voila! a freelancer can solve your problem.
  7. A Fresh Perspective. This is the most important point. You may be too close to your work to appreciate its unique features. It’s hard to see something with fresh eyes when you’ve been wrangling it for years. But it’s probably all new to your prospects. You need someone who can spot those delightful things you’ve forgotten about—and present them to the public with real enthusiasm.

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