Ink-Dipped Advice: Word Choice Matters — and Has Power

I had an interesting conversation with a client the other day. She shared that she parted ways with her previous marketing/social media person because that individual did not work with her to communicate the client’s message effectively.

Ms. Marketing Pro came in with the attitude that she knew everything and the client knew nothing. She set up a series of social media channels, used marketing buzzwords, spread identical content on all the channels, but didn’t communicate the message or the product that my client sells. When my client wanted a particular type of promotion set up, or a particular message communicated, she was told that she didn’t know what she was doing, and to leave it to the professionals.

My client was paying; the business did not grow. They parted ways.

When I started working with her last year, I tweaked the message for each content platform, aiming to use the strength and identity of each platform to its best reach. In one month, I expanded the social media reach by 86%, resulting in a 26% sales bump.

I know, as a consumer, there are certain buzzwords that turn me off. If I see something listed as a “boot camp” or a “hack” — no, thanks. I’m not interested in that. Nor do I promote my own work using those phrases. At this point, they are overused and meaningless. Plus, the choice of those terms does not effectively communicate what I want to say to people. It doesn’t give them any information about what makes my work unique.

Also, if a business has marketing materials out there that show a lack of discernment between possessive/plural/contraction, as a potential customer, I assume they’re too stupid to be worth my money, and I go somewhere else.

No, I don’t approach them and tell them their materials are full of errors and they should hire me. That would guarantee they wouldn’t. But when I meet them at a networking event, I give them my card and say, “If you’re looking to freshen up your marketing at any point, I’d like to work with you.”

As a marketing person, I have an arsenal of tools I use to spread a message, that includes web content, media kits, blogging, social media content, press releases, ad creation on multiple channels, PSAs or radio spots as appropriate, pitching articles to the media, and, again, if appropriate, event scripting or video scripting.

Not every client wants or needs all these tools.

I offer them, but I don’t tell them they “have” to use them. We work together to find the best tools to communicate the message.

One of the most important thing I can do, as a marketing person, is genuinely listen when they tell me about their business, why they’re passionate about it, and what it means to them.

By listening and getting to know who they are AS WELL AS what they want, I can help them craft their story, their message, and expand their reach in a way that is unique to their business. Sometimes that does what I call “drawing the ear” — which, to me, is as important as drawing the eye.

Sure, you want strong visuals, and you need to work with a great graphic designer.

But you also need to choose the right words to communicate your message in a way that engages rather than attacks.

When someone hard sells at me, when I feel attacked or as though my space is invaded — be it physically or emotionally — I shut down. If I’m really uncomfortable, I fight back. What I don’t do is spend money with someone who makes me feel bad.

It’s often the same societal structures that cause problems when they are transformed into sales pitches. For the women reading this, how often has a male salesperson used the tactic of invading your personal space, of patronizing you, of treating you as though you should “listen to the man” in order to part you from your money? Or how often has a female salesperson used negative language to make you feel bad about something personal, and tried to convince you that only by listening to her and buying the product, can you feel better and will you change others’ negative perceptions of you (which exist in her mind, and which she tries to plant in your mind).

At this point in my life, when someone is aggressive towards me, I push back. Hard, without filters. As a potential customer, I tell them exactly why I’m not buying what they’re selling.

As a marketing person trying to shape the message, I do my best to:

–listen to the client
–offer suggestions to shape the message for different platforms
–communicate the message in a way for a positive reception by the target audience
–offer options and a variety of strategies, so if one thing doesn’t bring return, we have something else ready to launch

That means choosing words with care.

Just because a marketing Pooh-bah says this is “the” way to present something doesn’t mean it is.

Wanting to cast a wide net doesn’t mean use bland language. If anything, you need to be more specific in word choices.

You want to create a positive, sensory response. So choose words to evoke positive sensations.

Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

The five senses evoke emotions.

What kind of emotions do you want to evoke in your audience?

Taste and smell are closely related, as are sight and touch (or texture).

Use active language — verbs rather than adverbs, and avoid passive or past perfect as much as possible. “have been eating” is weaker than “eat” or “ate.”

Use specific adjectives and avoid overused tropes. If someone tells me it’s a “bold” wine, it means little to me, other than I expect a vinegary aftertaste. If they tell me it’s a “deep red with plum, cherry, and chocolate tones” — now I have sight, texture, taste, and scent cues. Not only that, but I expect a deeper sound when it pours into the glass.

My favorite medium is radio. One of the reasons I love to work on radio dramas or radio spots is that I choose specific sounds to drive the story and character. I love that challenge because the more specific I am, the better I communicate with the audience.

Individuals will receive the specifics within their own frame of reference. You won’t please everyone. An individual may have a negative association with a specific detail you and your client choose.

In my experience, I’ve found that those are rare, and more people will respond positively to compelling sensory detail than to vague marketspeak. Overused marketing terms always makes me feel like the seller is trying to get my money for snake oil, and I’d rather put my money elsewhere.

More and more people are practicing conscientious consumerism, choosing where and how they shop to align with their values. I think that’s great. I want people who align their wallets and their ethics to connect with my clients.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who reads this to try, be they a marketing person, a business owner, a consumer: For one week, only speak and write in specifics. Remove vague language from all your interactions. Keep track of it.

You will notice a remarkable difference in the level of communication.

What are your favorite ways to choose the best language when you work with clients, or as you communicate your business?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Positive Networking Practices

 

It’s been a busy time for me lately, and in a good way. But I’ve had some positive results of the various networking I’ve done.

When I meet people at events and exchange cards, I try to send them a note or an email within a few days of the meeting, just to say I enjoyed meeting them and to continue whatever conversation we began at the event.

Most places I’ve lived and worked — New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Edinburgh, Australia, Western Mass, Vermont, Washington DC, etc. — this is standard. You exchange cards, you exchange messages post-event and build from there, or have the initial post-event pleasant exchange and put the information aside in case it’s needed down the pike. And then use the information when and where appropriate.

Here, it’s quite different. Most of the time, I do the follow-up, and it’s crickets. If it’s a visiting artist/instructor/agent/editor from somewhere else, there’s response, but local? Rare.

If I mention, the next time we run into each other, “Hey, I sent an email after we met last time; did I get the address wrong? I want to make sure I have your correct contact information”  — the answer is usually, “Oh, I don’t have time to respond to emails” or “I didn’t answer, because I figured I’d run into you again.” In my book, those are not solid practices that grow one’s business.

I try to reconnect with those I’ve met about once a quarter. Just a quick “Hey, how are you, thinking of you, how’s it going?”  When I have an address, I often send a postcard rather than an email. Whereas email response to quarterly follow-up is about 3% locally and 15% beyond the bridge, response to postcards (by email, since I add my email address) is usually 25% or more.

I attended an event a few months ago, a lovely networking event, with about forty or fifty people. I exchanged twenty or so cards. Followed up within two business days (standard) with all twenty. Heard back from four (which, around here, is a huge response).  From those four, one was a person with skills that was useful to one of my clients, and I got them in touch and he was hired; the other opened the door to an arts group with whom I hadn’t had previous contact, and we’re talking. So that was pretty decent.

Wearing my playwright/novelist hat, I was a reader at the Provincetown Book Festival a few weeks ago (which was one of the best festivals I’ve attended in years). After the festival, I thanked the organizers and the sponsors (I’m still tracking down contact information for the fellow readers in my event, to say what a pleasure it was to read with them). I heard back almost immediately from festival personnel (not at all a surprise, since it was one of the best-run events I attended). 

I also heard back from several sponsors, absolutely thrilled that I contacted them and told them how wonderful the experience was.

One sponsor stated that they support so many local events and hardly ever hear back from anyone. So they were delighted that the event went well, and that I took the time to contact them. On my part, “taking the time” took probably less than five minutes.

And now that sponsor knows the event was money well spent.

I attended two events last week. Followed up on both. From the first, I heard back from two out of the two dozen or so people contacted. From the second, there were thirteen of us at the event. I followed up with all thirteen. I’ve heard back from and made plans with six of those thirteen so far, which is positive.

Will any of those above contacts end in cont-RACTs?

Who knows? But these are interesting people who love what they do. Interacting with them improves my quality of life, even if it doesn’t end in a contract. I hope they feel the same way. And even if they don’t hire me, there’s a good chance they’ll recommend me if they feel it’s the right match. As I will do, in the same situation.

What’s the moral of this little tale?

Follow up and follow through when you meet people. Don’t just collect cards and stick them in the drawer. Think beyond being hired on the spot. Think about getting to know some really interesting people who enrich your life.

Even if I don’t get hired by any of these people — there are some of them in fields relevant to upcoming books. You can be darned sure I’m going to consult them on their areas of expertise and thank them in the acknowledgements.

Connections are about people. As much of an introvert as I am, I find other people interesting. So I make myself get out of the house and interact, and I am almost always glad I do. Because their stories are interesting, and fuel my work.

Remember, as a writer: Nothing is EVER wasted.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Pieces of Teachers

“Everyone wants a piece of the teacher, but you don’t get that piece until years later.”

That quote is attributed to author Kate Green by Natalie Goldberg in her book LONG QUIET HIGHWAY, which I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time.

That quote reverberates with me. I remember many teachers from my life. Far too often, I didn’t realize the gifts they gave me until years after.

My fifth grade teacher, who bought me a set of Rudyard Kipling at a yard sale because she knew I loved to read the classics; My sixth grade teacher, who let me read and write far off the reservation, and encouraged me to write stories during class time, even during lectures. Who taught me I could spit out a first draft any way I wanted, but then I had to shape it in order to present it to the world. My band teacher in high school, who knew I loved to write, and suggested I write articles about the high school band, orchestra, and chorus for the local newspapers (my first professional published byline).

In college, I was lucky to have a fantastic teacher who was also my advisor. At a competitive school like NYU Film School, that was vital. I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years, and even got together with him when I visited NYC a few years back. I’ve also kept in touch with one of my screenwriting professors from NYU. The two of them helped me get back on track when I got unfocused, especially when I put other people’s work ahead of my own.

I think they were both surprised when I went into theatre instead of film as my career, but were interested in how I looped what I learned in their classes to the rest of my theatre and writing life.

When I teach, students come away with handouts and workbooks (I am the Queen of Handouts – the bins I haul into a conference workshop cause eyes to widen and backs to groan).

I’m a strict teacher and don’t put up with excuses or not writing. I make it clear that during the scope of the class, things are strict, and then, AFTER the class is over, they get to keep what works and toss the rest. I see many of my students toss quite a bit initially, and then slowly work their way back to what we did, in their own time.

Either way is great. You find your process by trying many different things, not staying in a rut, taking chances, and building your skills with every piece you write.

I am deeply grateful to my teachers. Even the ones I didn’t agree with gave me something important. And I’m still realizing the pieces, and will continue, my entire life, as long as I pay attention.

Who are your most memorable teachers? Is there anyone with whom you kept in touch?

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Right to Love Your Job

 

I say this often, and figured it was about time an entire post was devoted to it:

Loving your job does not mean you forfeit the right to make a living at it.

Let’s break this down. For most of us who work in creative arenas, unless we are famous, we spend a great deal of time being asked when we’ll get a “real job.”

Being creative IS a real job. It’s a demanding one. Most of us work nights, weekends, holidays, because we CREATE others’ leisure activities.

I used to try to “educate” those who try to demean what I do for a living. Then, I realized that it’s not that they’re ignorant; it’s that they resent that I love what I do. So now, when someone asks that, I usually respond with something flippant or snarky. My subtext is always, “when you get a brain” but I don’t always say that.

How many people do you know, outside of the creative realms, who love what they do?

I’m always delighted when I meet a lawyer who loves lawyering or an accountant who loves taking care of the books, or a mechanic who loves fixing cars. Because that means I don’t have to learn more than the basics, and I can trust that individual, who loves the job, to do a good one. I can hire that individual, for a fair day’s pay to do a fair day’s work, and I don’t have to worry about it.

But most people I know don’t love their jobs. It’s something to pay the bills. Not only do they dislike their jobs and resent them, they are angry at anyone else who loves their job.

Being a creative person and committing to make a living doing what I love is a risk. It requires commitment. It doesn’t mean that I “don’t have responsibilities.” I have PLENTY of responsibilities to my family, etc. I am the breadwinner. It’s up to me to keep everything going. To point at me and claim I don’t have responsibilities because my family structure is different than someone else’s is not a valid argument.

For someone to say they “would” do something else if they “had time” or “didn’t have responsibilities” is simply a cop-out on their part. We all HAVE the same amount of hours in the day. How we choose to use them defines us. We prioritize. We make time for what matters. If we allow others to shape all of our time, that’s not on them, that’s on us.

If we are trapped in jobs we don’t like, then it is up to us to sock away as much as possible while we look for a job we like better that pays better. So many of us have to live paycheck to paycheck that it’s a challenge. We all know people who are working two or three jobs just to get by. Sometimes it’s us. We do what we need to do. But ANY job that is out of our creative work is only to support the work itself. As soon as you land something better and in your creative line, you take that opportunity and leave the lesser one. Too often, we remain trapped in a bad situation because it’s the devil we know.

Life will always change. Make sure YOU make the decisions, and they’re not made for you.

On top of that, REFUSE to do the work you love for those who don’t respect the WORK it takes to do what you do and won’t pay a fair wage. Especially in the arts.

I don’t have the patience for people who try to punish me because I love my job and they hate theirs. That is on THEM – the refusal to get out of being stuck.

When someone tells you they are giving you a “great opportunity” – chances are it’s great for them and not so great for you.

Do some research. If it’s a job with a company, check with salary.com to find the median range for the position. If it’s a freelance gig, do some research with other freelancers, the Freelance Union, and places like Writers Market, who, in their print edition, have a list of standard rate ranges.

Put together your quote from that. Give yourself some wiggle room. Decide what your bottom number is AND DON’T GO BELOW IT.

It is often better to not take the gig than to take it for content mill rates.

If you keep getting lowballed and accepting that, then you’ll get the reputation for being the “cheap choice” rather than the “most creative” choice.

Another trap freelancers and creatives often fall into – the self-deprecating comments. Undervaluing ourselves in our words. Often, we’re trying not to come across as boastful or arrogant. But, in reality, we are telling those to whom we speak that we don’t value what we do, so they shouldn’t, either.

When you’re in a meeting or a networking event, frame what you do and how you describe yourself in positive, active terms. No negatives. No passive or qualifiers. Positive verbs. Don’t make claims on which you can’t deliver, but keep your phrasing positives.

If you don’t expect and demand respect for your work, no one else will, either.

When we do work we love, our lives are better. When we do work we love, the work itself is better. When I’m excited about a project — whether it’s writing a play or researching my next novel or planning a marketing campaign for one of my clients — the excitement reflects in the work.

The work is stronger and better. The excitement I feel as I work on it, that energy, is absorbed by the words themselves. Good marketing people can communicate the energy of their projects to engage, enchant, and enlarge their audience.

Great marketing people are also excited by the work itself.

It’s a very specific talent to form words and images into engaging, sensory content, to be able to ignite energy and excitement, turning the two-dimensional form of a page or a screen into the three dimensions and beyond of imaginations.

We deserve to be paid — and paid well — for doing so.

Loving our jobs makes us BETTER at them. Which means we are worth MORE than, not less than, someone who does not.

Don’t settle.

Ink-Dipped Advice: My Deal With the Muse

There’s been all sorts of fa-la-la going on lately, especially on Twitter, about how often writers do and should write. And I don’t mean in a deck-the-halls way. I mean in an I’m-refraining-from-swearing way.

It’s interesting where the harshest criticism against those of us who write every day comes from. There are two factions: One faction is those with the luxury of a day job in a different field or a partner who pays the bills, who only write “when they have time” or “when the muse strikes.” Unpublished and under-published writers often fall into this category. Writing is what they do on the side, not how they keep a roof over their heads. Because their day job gives them financial security, they feel it also gives them the right to deride, bully, and even shame those of us who earn our living at it.

Honey, I have no shame. Not when it comes to my writing. I do this because I love AND because I value my craft and my art enough to be paid for my work.

The other faction surprises me: Writers with traditional publishers who have agents and advances that allow them to take two or three or five years to write a book. Sometimes, they have other sources of income or a partner shouldering the bills. But often, they started out by writing a lot to keep a roof over their heads, but now they don’t have to. Hey, good for them, they’re living the dream, but have they forgotten what it’s like?

I distill it down to this:
Is writing your business or your hobby? Is it the way you keep a roof over your head?

If it’s your business and how you keep a roof over your head, you show up every day like you would at any other job and you put in the work.

There’s nothing wrong or bad or anything about writing on the side or writing as a hobby. It’s just a different career trajectory.

Getting paid for my work isn’t shameful. It doesn’t make me “less of” a writer or a hack.

It makes me a professional.

I remember, even when I worked on Broadway, how people told me I should “get a real job.” It’s also around the same time I kicked musician and poet boyfriends to the curb who spent all their time in bars with floors full of peanut shells, downing watered-down drinks, and moaning that landing a publishing contract or getting paid to work was “selling out.”

I call it “going pro.”

Because I simply do not have the time or the patience for creative vampires.

Also, there’s a misconception that “writing every day” means you never get a day off. What “writing every day” means you show up the way you would any job and do the work. You CHOOSE days off. You take vacations. Sometimes you’re sick. Sometimes you have to deal with a crisis. But you still show up regularly and do the work. Sometimes you’re tired; sometimes it’s a hard day. But you show up and do the work.

I’ve written about “The Muse” before on Ink in My Coffee, especially during the years I made the transition from working on Broadway full time (which means many more than 40 hours a week) while writing an additional 40-60 hours a week to writing full time. I’ve personified the muse, joked about it, etc.

But the bottom line is that I made a deal with the muse: I will show up and do the work regularly. When the muse smacks me upside the head with the Frying Pan of Fresh Ideas, I will make notes AT THAT MOMENT – even if it’s on a napkin or a sticky note – and I will be grateful, every day of my life, that the muse is my partner on the journey. I will honor, respect, and work with the muse. And the muse will not abandon me. Even if sometimes I get a kick in the butt or silence for a few days.

When you put off or  ignore the muse, when you tell the muse you “dont’t have time” or you’ll “get around to it”–the muse will pack up and leave.

Creative energy is a sustainable source. It feeds on itself. The more you create, the more energy you have to create, and the more you can create.

So meet your muse. Evolve with your muse. Make a deal with your muse.

Then fulfill it.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Craft and Passion

Note that I did not write craft VS. passion. Because I don’t think they are at odds.

I love to write. That’s why I became a writer. I look at those who only want to “have written” and feel they miss so much. I love to actually sit down and form the words that create a world in which to transport readers. Make them see, feel, experience life in a different way than their daily routine.

In order to do that well, I need craft. I need to know how to construct a sentence. I need to know the shades of meaning in each punctuation mark. There’s a world of difference between what a comma elicits from what a semi-colon does; a huge difference between a period and a question mark.

My goal is that every piece I write is better, both technically and artistically, than the pieces before it. Growth, change, evolution, improvement.

I’m interested in almost everything, so it’s easy to be interested in my clients’ work and how to communicate it well. If I don’t have passion for what I do, I don’t do it well.

There are plenty of writers who disagree with me. They claim it’s “just a job” and professionals can make “anything” sound interesting. That they don’t have to agree with what they’re writing or agree with the values of their clients to work it.

It works for them. It does not work for me.

Writing is how I earn my living. It is my business, not my hobby. That’s why I froth at the mouth when people who need writing in order to communicate their business don’t want to pay for it, because they think “anyone” can do it. It’s even worse when wanna-be writers sigh and say, “Oh, I don’t get care if I get paid. I do it for the love of it.”

Why shouldn’t you get paid for doing what you love?

Why does enjoying one’s work negate the right to earn a living from it?

It doesn’t.

Throughout my life, I’ve found that those who denigrate artists (in all disciplines) and demand that artists not get paid a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work are those who hate their own jobs, and resent that artists have the courage to go after what they want, and that artists are ruthless enough to create in spite of people trying not to pay them, trying to shame them for talent, trying to sabotage their work by demanding proof that they are more important than the art.

I’ve kicked more than one guy to the curb because he demanded that I prove he was more important than the work by not doing the work. Not because he had something equally important going on that needed my support, but just in the regular course of the day, that whatever his needs and whims were, they were more important than anything I could possibly want or need.

Gone.

A healthy, balanced relationship means that partners don’t demand that from each other. Everyone needs the other to give on occasion, but when it becomes one partner doing all the giving and the other doing all the taking — get out.

That applies to both writing and life.

I’ve ended working relationships that demand the same imbalance.

What about clients with whom I disagree?

That depends on the level of disagreement. As a marketing writer, if I think someone’s product is harmful or awful, I’m not going to take them on as a client. I won’t do a good job, and they should hire someone who will. I don’t find it a “creative challenge” to convince people to buy something I think is awful.

When it goes deeper, and in this political climate, it often does, I have to weigh what the job is and how what I do promotes an agenda I feel is hateful or ignorant or harmful. If we simply disagree in our approach to how to reach issues where the end goal is the same: a better world, a cleaner environment, social justice — we can focus on the work and agree to disagree on other stuff. If a client actively participates in or promotes a platform of hate, discrimination, oppression — not going to work for that individual.

As a consumer, I believe in “conscientious consumerism.” That means I put my money to companies and products that align with my beliefs. If the owner of a company starts spouting off in a hateful manner or implements discriminatory practices, I will not buy their products/shop at their stores. That doesn’t mean I expect them to change; it means I will spend my hard-earned money elsewhere.

When someone criticizes my political activism and tells me that they won’t buy my books, that is their “conscientious consumerism.” They have the right so to do. Chances are they wouldn’t like my books anyway, because my books deal with love, loyalty, social justice, building a better world (something I think is effectively achieved in genre fiction). My political activism reflects those issues. So if someone doesn’t like what I stand for politically, they’re not going to like those aspects of my books. Life is too short to read books one doesn’t like. They should spend their money on other authors, whose work resonates better.

But I’m not going to write books based on a reader threatening not to buy my books because I stand up for that in which I believe.

When there’s a boycott of a personality or a company or an artist because of what he or she believes, I always watch the trajectory of it. Did the person just say or do something stupid? We all do or say stupid things sometimes. If there is an apology, is it genuine? (“I’m sorry IF I offended anyone” is not a genuine apology. You offended. You’re sorry or you’re not sorry). How does this incident fit the overall body of work? Is there a pattern? Has the mask finally slipped and the individual shows the real self? How does it affect my response to the art? If future art goes in a different direction, does it come from a genuine place of exploration or someone desperate to save a career? I make decisions from there. We all make mistakes. But there’s a difference between a mistake and trying to do better, and pretending you don’t stand for something when you do.

But isn’t art — and the best art is a mix of craft and passion — supposed to change the way one sees the world? Absolutely. That means I read books by people whose viewpoints I disagree with. I might still disagree with them at the end of it, but I’ll have a better insight to the thought process.

That’s why libraries are so important. They contain multiple points of view on issues, and one can find an array of opinions on a topic, research those behind opinions, and make informed decisions. That’s known as critical thinking, which falls by the wayside far too often.

How does that fit into a discussion of craft and passion, especially when it comes to business writing (and I’m mixing business writing with other forms of writing here)? Because who you are and for whom you choose to write matter.

The best writing combines great craft with great passion. It doesn’t matter if it’s selling tires or urging people to register to vote or the latest thriller. Words matter. People are shaped by the words they read and hear.

The more passion you meld with the more craft you’ve built — you can change the world in a tangible way. For better. Or for worse.

The choice is yours. So is the responsibility.

Write with craft. Write with passion. Write a better world.