What happened? — Frequent Questions

Q: What happened?
A: Glad you missed me.

I took Sunday off from blogging. I think some people thought I’d fallen in a sinkhole.

Nope. I’m fine. And my writing streak remains intact—567 days in a row as of yesterday.

It’s easy for me to talk to you here about whatever’s on my mind. And it’s fun, too. But if it was supposed to be fun all the time, they wouldn’t call it “work,” would they?

I need to spend more time wrasslin’ with Marketing Block. And less time writing blog posts.

For now.


Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Marketing Block — Writer’s Block’s evil twin

marketing blockI don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve written about that dozens of times, including this post about Fran Lebowitz’s decades-long block. But when I came across that post the other day, I had a new appreciation for what Lebowitz has gone through. Writer’s block may not be real, but I’ve been locked in mortal combat with its evil twin for a couple of weeks now. Marketing Block. It’s a bitch.

Interviewed in 1993 for The Paris Review, Lebowitz talked about the pain of not writing:

“Not writing is probably the most exhausting profession I’ve ever encountered. It takes it out of you. It’s very psychically wearing not to write—I mean if you’re supposed to be writing.”

Replace “writing” with “marketing” and you have a snapshot of my life the past month. “Exhausting,” “psychically wearing”—Fran, I see those adjectives and I’ll raise you “painful.”

Of course, if writer’s block isn’t real…

Damn. Really?

I’ve been suffering for a month from something that doesn’t exist?

Marketing Block and the F-Word

In my blog post last spring, I wrote:

If you invent an external reason for your inaction, you don’t have to face the (probable) internal reason—a reason Lebowitz identifies as fear.

At this point, I gotta tell you, “fear” isn’t the only F-word floating around in my head. Perhaps I’ve been too smug about people who fear writing so much they pathologize not doing it. They may be inventing the condition, but they’re not inventing the pain they experience from it. Neither am I.

Okay, time to pick myself up and deploy some well-placed F-words in the direction of my fear. Maybe if I tell Marketing Block I’ve decided it’s not real, it will get the hell out of town.



Do you need some practice speaking up at work? Join me for “Say What You Want to Say”—a webinar for women who are ready to lead. Priceless advice from an award-winning business speechwriter: On November 20th, it’s free.

Is it possible to love Seth Godin even more? — Frequent Questions

Q: Is it possible to love Seth Godin even more than I already do?
A: I didn’t think so. I was wrong.

love Seth Godin
The illustration to Seth’s bio on his website. He’s actually a little taller than this.

Look, I’ve been a raving Seth Godin fan for probably a decade. Ever since my then-partner brought home his book—well, compilation—The Big Moo. It was the first business book I’d ever read that didn’t sound like pompous bull.

More recently, I forked over some pretty decent money to attend his one-day workshop in New York last December and was rewarded with the best idea I’d had all year, the 5×15 Writing Challenge. We’ll be doing another one in late December.

And I jumped at the chance to be part of the pilot of his Marketing Seminar this summer. Again, money well-spent.

I thought for sure the only person in the world who could possibly be more of a Seth Godin fan than me would be Helene, his wife. And then I found his interview on the Why I Write podcast. Now my fandom of yesterday pales in comparison to my fandom of today.

Do you love Seth Godin too?

The Why I Write pod is produced by the National Council of Teachers of English, so Seth made sure to note that an English teacher somewhere along the way told him he was a terrible writer. He never took another English class again and whenever he needed to write something he would just talk it out. The result: “I write like I speak.”

Later on, the podcast host trotted out the inevitable question: “How do you manage to write every day?” And Seth paused, unwilling to accept that there’s anything unusual in having and expressing ideas on a daily basis. Then he said something like:

“Look, we’ve already established that I write like I speak. And when was the last time you ever heard of anyone getting ‘Talker’s Block’? No one is astonished to hear you say more than two sentences in a day.”

You’ll hear more about this podcast soon. But listen to it yourself. If you don’t love Seth Godin already (how is that possible?) I promise you will before the 25-minute podcast concludes.


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Who’s my audience? — Frequent Questions

Q: Who’s my audience?
A: Why are you writing?

I’m not just being flippant: Who you write for depends a lot on why you’re writing.

I write my Frequent Questions posts for whoever asks the question, for the most part I’m writing my other blog posts for an intellectually curious writer with a serious sense of humor. In other words, for myself. My marketing writing is for me, too. The me that hasn’t yet done the work I’ve done to be able to teach what I teach.

When I start with a new group of writing students, I always do an exercise aimed at helping them see themselves more clearly through our favorite medium, words. It’s also a great self-esteem boost—and who couldn’t use one of those on the regular?

Seeing themselves more clearly helps them see their ideal audience more clearly—if you agree with me that the ideal audience is someone very much like yourself.

Marketing to your ideal audience

I was talking about this with my writers yesterday and they asked me what Seth Godin had to say about the subject in his Marketing Seminar. So I broke out my notes and found that—eek!—I’m diverging from Godin’s teaching a bit.

One of the questions he encourages us to ask is how our ideal audience differs from us.

Can our audience be like us and be different from us at the same time?

I think yes.

Because if we have something unique that they do not: our experience, our product, our wisdom—whatever it is we’re marketing.

While my ideal audience may be smart, creative, committed writers, they’re writers who have not walked in my shoes. I can tell them where to position the cushions to avoid blisters.

Being like me is not the same thing as being me.

But, listen, if any of you out there are me, could you find someone else to do the dishes?

Golden brandcuffs — the downside of commitments

golden brandcuffsYou’ve heard of golden handcuffs? They’re a series of payouts timed over a long period—the corporate world’s way of keeping key executives from straying. I don’t have golden handcuffs keeping me here at Bennett Ink. But I do seem to have forged myself a pair of golden brandcuffs.

I was taking some Me Time on Sunday evening. I’d just spent an exhausting three days at a conference. Valuable stuff, but my mental gastank was pinned on E.

Despite that, after the last session ended I had to pound out a speech for a client. I had definitely earned that baseball-watching time.

Maybe, I found myself thinking, maybe that two hours I spent writing for my client could count as my 15 minutes for today? That’s not the commitment I’d made to myself 538 days earlier—I’d promised to count only non-client writing. But I was mentally fried. And there was baseball on the television machine.

And then I saw that Julia Wu, one of the writers in my Writing Unbound class, had posted a piece in our Facebook group and on her Medium blog. A meditation on what makes a brand. The brand examples she cited included this one:

“A writing coach who centers her business around the word daily: daily practice and daily publishing.”

And off the couch I got. So what if it’s a tie ballgame? The Cubs had a 50% chance of losing it, and did I really need to see the Cubs lose again?

Choosing the golden brandcuffs

Now, obviously I forged these golden brandcuffs all by myself; I choose to write and publish daily. But Julia Wu’s salute to my daily habits came at an interesting moment.

The coach I was working with this weekend insists we should spend no more than two hours a week creating content. Although I’ve only committed to 15 minutes a day, I probably average something closer to 30; the longer posts may creep up to an hour. So I’m at upwards of 3.5 hours of content-creation—not counting marketing emails and my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

Of course, I could always blog on my own time. Problem is, when you’re a solopreneur, every minute is your “own time.” And this quarter I’m trying to spend at least 20 hours a week having a—what’s it called?—life.

Still, it’s not every day you build a recognizable brand. Maybe it’s worth investing the extra time to maintain it?

I don’t know. What do you think? Scroll down and let me know.

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“Shockingly expensive” — truth in marketing

“The Shockingly Expensive Meal Program Worth Every Penny”

That’s the headline of the ad that appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday. Well, actually it said “Worth Every Pe…” but we all know how it ends.

shockingly expensive food

This company knows who its target audience is—and it’s apparently not bargain-hunters.

The people who buy this stuff pride themselves on spending lots for meals. And—hey—if it’s “worth every pe…” I might not care if it’s “shockingly expensive.” But I will balk at $400 angora throws or $200 dog collars. (Sorry, Fenway.)

Everybody has a price range for everything. It just depends on what you value.

Shockingly expensive — and truthful

Still, you have to admire that marketer’s guts, right? “Shockingly expensive” are not words you see often in advertising.

In a world where you can buy an online course for $59, my writing programs may seem “shockingly expensive.” Even my self-directed course costs nearly $500. But, yes, I think it’s “worth every penny.” And more. Heck, it’s a year-long program. Where are you going to find that for $59?

Think a shorter course will be less expensive? Actually, my 10-week program requires an even bigger investment—in money and in time. I want to weed out the dilettantes, the people who have a passing thought that “Gee, it might be fun to write more.”

When people invest in working with me, I want them to be committed, to do the work, to interact with their fellow writers, and to experience real change together.

If that sounds like you—and if you’re ready for a “shockingly expensive” personal growth experience that’s “worth every penny”—check out my Writing Unbound program.

I can’t promise you a puppy on your lap as you savor your organic breakfast. But I can promise to get you thinking in new ways—and get you writing things that people actually want to read.

“Significant objects”: How to make the usual unusual

We were talking in class about metaphor—it’s one of the toughest concepts to grasp, apparently. Not what a metaphor is—all of my writers have been through high school English class—but what a metaphor does. So I was searching for marketing pieces that use story and metaphor when I came across the Significant Objects project.

All of the best marketing uses stories, as the Heath Brothers have documented. Take toothpaste, for instance. A pretty mundane product.

You could market it with facts—People who brush their teeth regularly are X% less likely to get gum disease.

Or you could market it with a story.

An indirect story—People who use this toothpaste are X% less likely to develop gum disease.

A direct story: Use this toothpaste and you’ll have a dazzling smile.

An indirect story: People who use this toothpaste are X% more likely to die with all their original teeth.

If you’re really good, you can get consumers to tell themselves the story:

Ooh, I want a dazzling smile so I can be more attractive and get a date.

Whatever story you use, it’s still just toothpaste.

But the Significant Objects product used story in a different way. Writer Rob Walker and brand analyst Joshua Green bought inexpensive items at thrift stores and found fiction writers—some well-known and some not—to write a story about them. Then they took these knick-knacks and auctioned them on eBay.

Did the stories enhance the value of the objects? Not objectively. But they did enhance the perceived value: the average mark-up for some objects rose as high as 2700%. Yes, you read that right: 27x the original price. Retailers strive for a sale price of 3x cost.

Services as significant objects

If story can enhance the value of a souvenir ashtray, what can it do for something of real value—like the products and services we provide?

So I gave my writers an assignment: Write about your own business as if it’s a “Significant Object.”

Look, it’s never easy to write about your own business. If it were, there’d be a whole lot more marketing communications writers whipping up lattes and frappucinos. So I’m always on the lookout for ways we can write about our businesses indirectly, or at least from different angles.

So, “Write about your business as a Significant Object,” I said. A daunting assignment, but one that could yield valuable results. So I volunteered to do the assignment too.

Here’s what I came up with:

A new perspective

I was antiquing—that’s what one does on a rainy day on Cape Cod. Driving down the first “highway” in the United States—it’s little more than a country lane, but here and there you’ll find an old shack or cottage with an “Antiques” sign planted in the front yard, a strange species of native tree.

The quaintest of the shops lack sufficient parking, but those are the ones with the best finds. So I parked down a side street about a quarter mile away and hiked back.

Inside, in the only corner of the shop not covered in dust, I saw a woman sitting on a decidedly not-antique desk chair, reading a book. At first I thought she was the shop’s proprietor, but then I saw a small sticker affixed to her sweater, near her right collarbone: “$129.95.”

“Excuse me?” I hated to interrupt her reading, but I had to know what the joke was. She looked up. “You seem to have picked up a price tag by mistake.” I laughed. She didn’t.

“No mistake. One-twenty-nine-ninety-five. You’re not buying me—that’s been illegal in the U.S. for quite a while. But half an hour of my time, to talk.”

“What would we talk about?”

“Mostly people like to talk to me about writing,” she replied. “I’ve won awards for it. In fact, I teach it. But I like to come here on rainy Saturdays because you never know who you’ll run into. Would you care to buy a chat?”

“Actually, I was looking for a bargain I could resell at a profit. A hidden treasure,” I said. “Have you noticed anything like that in this shop?”

“Treasure? I assure you, young woman, that I am worth my weight in gold.”

I sized her up—yep at that rate, $129.95 would be a real bargain. So what could I do? I bought a full hour.

And we talked about things I’d never thought about before. And the things I had thought about before—well, she showed me different perspectives on them. The ideas seemed to glow, hanging between us like a crystal chandelier as we turned them this way and that.

When I left the shop, the rain had disappeared. The skies were bluer than I’d ever seen them, the air felt crisper. And so did my mind.

I turned around and bought another half-hour. For you.

What’s it worth?


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How to build a fan base? Think like your audience

Last weekend, Major League Baseball rolled out a new feature: Players Weekend. The players wore different uniforms, with the most hideous socks imaginable, and instead of having their last names on the backs of the jerseys, they each had nicknames.

The ostensible purpose of this exercise was to attract more young fans to the game. As a side effect, it also gave the teams a fresh batch of merchandise to sell. Okay, they’re auctioning off the game-used jerseys for charity, but MLB will happily sell you a replica for anywhere from $30 to $200.

I’m not the only person baffled by this promotion. If you’re a fan of the last Mets pitching star still in the rotation, Jacob deGrom, will you really be more likely to beg your parents to buy his jersey when it has his nickname on it rather than “deGrom”? That nickname, by the way—prepare yourself—it’s Jake.

The Spanish-speaking players seemed to go for more interesting monikers. Infielder José Reyes went with “La Melaza,” which apparently means “sweetness.” One of our relief pitchers, who has a Puerto Rican grandparent, was “Quarterrican.” I’m amused by the wordplay, but would a kid care?

And the night games still started at 7pm—or even 8:00—and still dragged on for more than three hours, on average. You want to attract the next generation of fans? How about playing games while they’re still awake?

No, the nickname promotion seemed to focus more on increasing MLB’s profits rather than increasing its fan base.

What could they have done differently?

To build a fan base, start with empathy

People want to feel special. Actually, more than that, they want to feel like you think they’re special.

I suppose kids named Jake might feel special to know they share a nickname with a major league pitcher. But that’s a pretty limited universe. (And a pretty unsurprising nickname.)

What if instead of offering to sell young fans something, baseball actually gave them something instead?

build a fan base with empathy

I haven’t been a “young fan” since well before the current crop of players was born, but I felt pretty darn special yesterday when the Cincinnati Reds gave me a certificate to commemorate my first Reds game.

There I was in my Mets jersey and “2015 National League Champions” cap and they still gave this to me.

Now, imagine you’re actually a young baseball fan. Does this certificate go up on your bedroom wall? I think it does. And I can’t see when it comes down. Wouldn’t you always want to remember your very first major league game?

And once you’re a member of the club—I don’t mean the ball club, I mean the club of people who go to baseball games. In this case, people who go to Reds games. Once you’re a member of that club, don’t you want to stay in it?

Now it’s true, if you’re focused on the bottom line, there’s nothing in this for the Reds. They’re not making a buck on this transaction. In fact, they’re losing money—paying an employee (today it was sweet-as-pie Rita), to sit at the computer, offer her congratulations, personalize the certificates, and print them out for the fans.

But what return is the team getting on that investment?

Young fans who feel special will grow into older fans who feel special. Catch a fan young and you’ve likely got a lifelong fan. That’s a lot of chili dogs and beer (and Graeber’s ice cream—a revelation) and merch to sell.

Somebody in the MLB marketing department ought to visit a Reds game one of these days. If it’s their first time, the folks at Fan Accommodations will be happy to give them a commemorative certificate. For free. Rita would be far too polite to say it outright, but the baseball execs might get the message: building a fan base means building a community. It’s not about getting people to buy merch, it’s about them to buy into the experience.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Dorie Clark: How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

Dorie Clark
Photo by Thitiwat Nookae

I’m thrilled to introduce you to today’s guest expert, Dorie Clark, a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of business best-sellers Reinventing You and Stand Out, and she offers readers a free Stand Out Self-Assessment Workbook. Take her up on the offer (after you read this post). — Elaine

How Writing a Book Can Score You a Job

by Dorie Clark

What’s the best way to land your dream job? It certainly isn’t sending in a resume and waiting to hear back. Instead, Miranda Aisling Hynes – whom I profile in my new book Stand Out – used “inbound marketing” to ensure her future employer was dying to talk to her.

She dreamed of a career in arts management. But it’s a crowded and competitive field. For her master’s thesis in community art, instead of writing an ivory tower treatise, she self-published a manifesto on creativity, Don’t Make Art, Just Make Something (published under her middle name, Miranda Aisling). She wanted it to inspire regular people, not just practicing artists or those inside academia. The term “art” is loaded, she’d come to believe; it signified something rarefied that most people couldn’t imagine aspiring to. “But everyone is creative,” she says. “Whether they use that creativity is a different issue, but it’s an innate human skill like curiosity, and your creativity can manifest itself in any number of ways . . . Most people do want to be creative; they just had it squashed out of them at some point.”

She gave a copy of her book to a friend who worked at a local arts center; he passed along the copy to his boss after he’d finished reading it. When Hynes later applied for a job at the organization, the director was extremely enthusiastic, praising it during her interview and again in front of the entire staff when she went in for the second round. “The book definitely opened the door,” she says. She got the job.

She recognizes that self-publishing probably won’t make her rich or famous. “I think you have to have realistic expectations about what you’re going to get out of it,” she says. “It’s an entrance [for other people] to my ideas. I haven’t really made a profit; I’ve pretty much broken even.” But the book landed her the job, and is bringing her closer to her long-term vision of opening a “community art hotel” that connects visitors with local artists. “The more stuff you create—a blog, websites, books—the more articulate you become about your passion and purpose,” she says. “And the more articulate you become, the more people flock to your message.”

It’s about creating a variety of touch points that can draw people in and keep them engaged. Someone discovering her website might order a copy of her book, sign up for her e-newsletter, and perhaps start attending the regular art and music gatherings she hosts. “Instead of building the arts center and hoping the community will come,” she says, “I’m building the community first and hoping they’ll help me make the arts center.”

Writing your own book might seem like an enormous challenge. But you don’t have to dive into your masterpiece right away. Start by listening and learning about the major issues in your field, as you begin to formulate your own point of view. Then, begin to share your thoughts via blogging and social media. Finally, as you’ve built up a following that’s interested in your perspective—and asking for more—you can expand those concepts into a book that encapsulates your philosophy and how you see the world. That will be your calling card to attract like-minded people to you and your ideas, and to help ensure that they spread.

If someone hasn’t worked with you before, hiring you can feel like a significant risk. If it doesn’t work out, they may have wasted months and tens of thousands of dollars. But when someone reads your book – or even just hears about it and recognizes the thought and expertise that went into creating it – it gives them a far deeper understanding of who you are and how you think. That provides an extra level of reassurance that makes it easier for them to say yes to you.

So ask yourself, if a book could serve as a calling card for you, what message would you want it to convey? What does the world need to hear? Set aside an hour on your calendar sometime this week to brainstorm – maybe during a walk over lunch, or as you relax in the evening. As Hynes’ story shows, self-publishing a book may seem an unlikely route to winning your dream job – but because it helps you stand out from the competition, it’s a powerful one.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me (Elaine!) for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

“If only I had the money” — stupid communications decisions

Of all the stupid communications decisions I’ve heard people make, probably the stupidest is

“I’d do it [that ‘communications’ thing] if I had the money.”

As if every time you open your mouth—or one of your staffers sends an email to a client—or you release a newsletter or put up a  job posting—you aren’t already “communicating”?

Seriously, even if no one ever hears your actual voice, even if you hire an ASL interpreter for your board meetings or galas—I’ve got news for you:

You’re communicating.

So let’s revise that sentence, shall we? Because what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it well if I had the money.”

You’re okay with doing something poorly? Wow. Does your boss know that?

Or maybe what you’re really saying when you say “I’d do it if I had the money” is:

“I’d do it to make an impact if I had the money.”

So you’re okay putting out communications that no one reads or remembers? Again, does your boss know that?

Yes, communications costs money. It also brings in money—whether in the form of clients or, if you’re a nonprofit, donations. Communications can also save you money—wouldn’t you rather communicate clearly and retain your employees than replace them?

Stupid communications decisions make me mad

Sorry if that sounded like a bit of a rant. But stupid communications decisions really fry me. You can tell that because I call them “stupid”—and that’s not a word I use lightly.

Joan Garry does not make stupid communications decisionsNonprofit guru Joan Garry knows exactly what I’m talking about. Because she devotes at least some of her podcast this week to talking about the stupid communications organizations in her field (nonprofits) have made. Her guest, communications consultant Sarah Durham, notes that instead of thinking of communications as a frill, nonprofits should think of it as a utility.

A utility? You mean like electricity? She means exactly like electricity. If you wouldn’t set up shop without a way to power your computer and internet, you shouldn’t try to run your organization without a communications expert. (And if you would set up shop without electricity, well, it doesn’t matter because you’re probably not reading this.)

Durham says it’s not just a matter of money and other resources being in scarce supply. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what communications does and can do for an organization. And, of course, it’s hard to communicate—even if you do have an expert dedicated to the task—if your organization hasn’t developed a strong strategic vision.

For strategic vision, see Joan Garry. She’s one of the best. But if you want help to communicate—well, I bet Sarah Durham can help you there. And so can I.

Do-It-Yourself Communications

You think you can’t afford to have a communications expert on staff. I hope by now you’ve figured out you really can’t afford not to.

But what if you could turn one of your staffers into a crack communications person? What if you invested a little in yourself to learn how to shape your thoughts? To focus on what’s important to your audience?

I’ve got a suite of live, interactive webinars geared specifically to professionals who need to communicate as well as they do whatever they actually got hired to do. The next round of writing classes kicks off in the fall. But if you want to start right away, I’ve got a class in revising coming up in July. And a free webinar this week to get you started thinking about this essential skill.

See you there.