Making More Spaghetti Stick To The Wall

Spaghetti

“Hi there! How’s it going? I just discovered your website and I have to say it’s really great. The content really shows that you’re the best in the industry. I’m sure you receive hundreds of emails like this but mine is the one to pay attention to because with the introductory SEO package I can offer you and your awesome sales team, you’ll be driving even more customers to your store and excellent products!”

Any guesses how long it took me to hit the “delete” key on this ground-floor opportunity?

For starters, I wasn’t personally addressed by name, nor was the name of the website referenced. Flattering to know the sender thinks I’m the best in the industry…and yet doesn’t identify what my particular industry is. And while it’s true indeed that I receive hundreds of emails making the same glowy promises of global exposure, where exactly is this store stuffed to the gills with trendy merchandise supposed to be? For that matter, who’s on my awesome sales team? I should take them to lunch.

Like many a salesperson on the hustle, it’s the old “Let’s just throw a big plate of spaghetti against the wall and see how much of it sticks.” While now and again an accidental noodle and some sauce might get someone’s attention, it’s more often than not an enormous waste of pasta (and probably broken plates). To make matters worse, they never even think of varying the recipe before they’re skipping off to the next wall, thus perpetuating a messy cycle of trial and error.

Let’s apply this for a moment to writers. A colleague of mine was recently lamenting her history of copious rejection letters. Her style, I learned, was the scattergun approach of ignoring submission rules and simply sending out the same manuscript to every magazine she could think of. While an impersonal “Dear Sir or Madam” photocopied letter should never be cause for tears, I asked what she did about the ones where an editor actually took the time to offer some constructive advice. “Oh, I just need to find the right editor,” she dismissively replied. In other words, “I like my spaghetti recipe exactly the way it is and I refuse to change it for anyone.”

In the arena of sales, how much do you really know about your customers’ interests, needs and wants? Do you really expect them to take seriously any mass-produced “Hi there! I’ve been thinking about you” letter that was stuffed without any thought into an envelope or distributed with even less thought via an electronic mailing list? Do you ever consider when you throw your spaghetti that some of your customers might be vegetarian? Or gluten-intolerant? Or on a tight budget and unable to afford artisanal marinara? Are you averse to switching up or swapping out ingredients just because “this is the way we’ve always done it”?

Takeaway lesson: Whatever you think you’re saving by doing generic, one-size-fits-all advertising may actually be costing you much more than you realize in terms of building customer trust and a belief that you sincerely care about what they’re really hungry for.

*****

Here’s my line-up of stellar guest bloggers this month:

Giving Back Made Easy – by Lee Romano Sequeira

How Your Name Is Your Most Important Brand – by Rainier Fuclan

Challenging The Disconnect Between What Science Shows And Business Does – by Linda Ray

5 Ways to Simplify Scheduling During a Busy Season – by Brett Duncan

Building a Culture of Health at Start-Up – by Jill Gambaro

 

The Business of Being Creative

Painter

Several years ago at a party someone asked me what type of business I was in. “I’m a writer,” I replied. “No, I meant for a real job,” she said. Despite the fact I’ve been a full-time wordsmith for some time and earn a good income from it, her response wasn’t an uncommon one. When you have a career that pays you to have fun, it somehow flies in the face of conventional wisdom – and parental nay saying- that you’re just not treating the concept of “work” seriously enough.

Unfortunately, I’ve encountered a number of aspiring writers, artists and musicians that are apologists for their own talent, boxing themselves into the category of hobbyists on the argument that they haven’t been discovered yet. To support themselves until that day arrives, the salary they draw from being employed by someone else often becomes the excuse to avoid thinking about how they’re going to be their own boss.

This is a self-defeating mindset on several levels, the most important being that if you’re not treating your creative endeavors as both a brand and a business right now and spending the time and money to be successful, no one else will invest in your dream, either.

Even if your passion is currently in the part-time/evening/weekend stage:

  • Do you have a well defined marketing plan?
  • Do you have a presence on social media?
  • Do you hold regular staff meetings with yourself?
  • Do you set weekly goals?
  • Are you willing to cut poorly performing divisions (i.e., low-paying markets)
  • Do you research what your competition is doing?
  • Do you really know who your audience is?
  • Are you staying abreast of current trends and technology?
  • Do you constantly look for ways to repurpose/reinvent/recycle past projects into exciting new ones?
  • Do you reward yourself when your one-person team does well?

Creative types are also the least likely to pay attention to what they have to pay in taxes or what types of business expenses are allowable as deductions.

Herein are six tips to lessen the pain of tax season (and possibly avoid an audit):

  1. Even if you haven’t made the transition to a full-time creative (and your relatives still refer to this quest as your “little hobby”), it’s critical to treat your craft like the professional enterprise it is. If you don’t have one already, there should be a designated “home office” space in which you can perform, uninterrupted, the principal tasks relevant to your biz. If this space is used exclusively and regularly for that purpose, you may be able to claim a tax deduction for costs associated with its maintenance (including utilities and repairs). Note: If your art/music/writing really is a hobby, the deductions you claim can’t exceed the total amount you have earned.
  2. When you work for someone else, a lot of deductions come out of your paycheck before you ever see it – the largest of these typically being state and federal income tax. If you’re a freelancer, the responsibility to estimate these amounts is up to you. For every check you receive, set aside approximately 25 percent of it so you won’t be caught short when annual taxes are due. If you’re bringing in large sums of freelance money on a regular basis – as opposed to occasional dribs and drabs – you’ll need to make estimated tax payments every quarter.
  3. Familiarize yourself with what’s a legitimate business expense and what’s not. If, for instance, you’re writing a biography about Beethoven, you’re likely to show up on a tax auditor’s radar if you went out and bought yourself a grand piano for $100,000 to just sit in your living room and inspire you. On the other hand, a $2 pair of earplugs so you can immerse yourself in Ludwig’s world of silence would qualify as a research tool. Other deductible expenses include resource materials (books, periodicals, tapes), office equipment and supplies, business insurance and licenses, membership fees, conferences and subscriptions, telecommunications, photocopying and postage, and marketing. Travel, meals and entertainment may also be deductible if there’s a verifiable correlation to your business.
  4. Keep detailed records and receipts for everything you plan to claim as a business-related expense. And no, we don’t recommend throwing everything into a shoebox. Set up an Excel file or purchase an accounting software program to judiciously log every money transaction that comes in or goes out. Create a back-up file and store it somewhere other than where you keep the original.
  5. Don’t toss your rejection letters. Yes, yes, we know they’re painful reminders that someone didn’t like your work and you’d just as soon rid yourself of the evidence. When you’re just starting out, however, this paper (or email) trail of correspondence serves as proof that you have actually been trying to hone your craft. Otherwise, that pricey new computer you’re claiming as a business expense could raise suspicions that you’re only using it for games and watching cat videos on YouTube. Keep in mind that you have to be earning something from this creative endeavor and that it has to be more than what you’re trying to claim on deductions.
  6. Hire a professional who is well versed in the tax laws and filing requirements specific to freelancers home-based small businesses. Even if you’re as savvy with numbers as you are with words, tax preparation can be stressful. (And really now, shouldn’t you be putting your brain to better use thinking of a plot for your next book or the subject of your next painting?) If you do try to go it alone, second-guessing what’s allowable, what isn’t and which form to fill out could get you in trouble. FAQs can be found on your country’s tax authority website along with a help line to speak with an expert.

*****

Here’s the line-up of this month’s guest bloggers:

Can Introverts Excel at Publicity? – by Marcia Yudkin

Level the Playing Field Using Sponsored Content – by Roger Wu

The Anatomy of a Killer Facebook Ad – by Jasmine Batra

 

 

 

One Size Does Not Fit All

 

One Size

In my line of work, I often hear from authors who have written a novel, memoir or theatrical production and want my advice on how to adapt it to a different medium, typically a screenplay. The rationale behind this isn’t just that movies represent the gold standard of fame and fortune; it’s the perception that if an idea is really spiffy, it should be able to shine in multiple venues.

Hollywood, of course, is replete with examples of why this isn’t true. How many times, for instance, have TV shows that were popular in their heyday been expensively repackaged for the silver screen, only to flop miserably? Likewise, how many adaptations of your favorite books have turned out to be a disappointment because the director’s vision wasn’t the same plot that played in your head while you were reading? And who among us doesn’t have a friend or family member who pens hilarious emails but would be a total deer in the headlights if s/he were encouraged to pursue a career in stand-up comedy?

How can these variations fail, people wonder, when the source material had so much going for it?

Individuals and organizations tend to view media outlets in a similar, one-size fits-all context. Because these entities are all in the business of promoting products, services and events, it’s not uncommon to assume that their procedures, timeframes, expectations and rules of etiquette are interchangeable. The small business owner who is accustomed to submitting newsy notes to a weekly newspaper on Monday morning for publication in that Thursday’s edition is, thus, thrown for a loop to discover that magazines and trade journals have lead-times of several months. The bloggers whose comfort zone has always been a casual chat with virtual fans may be daunted by the inherent structure of doing a live show, despite their familiarity with the topic. Even something as commonplace as email – a ritual that most of us take for granted – is foreign turf to those who have never learned how to type nor mastered the skills to type particularly well.

The fact that today’s media opportunities can arrive in any size, shape or format makes it incumbent upon you to stop clinging to yesterday’s outdated practices. When the chance to tell the world who you are comes knocking on your door, your ability to respond with confidence, flexibility and professionalism will dictate how smoothly the experience flows and whether you’ll be contacted again in the future.

Suffice it to say, the latter scenario is often based on the spin-off value of what you represent as an entertaining, informative and reliable commodity. It’s not so much how many names and phone numbers of media personnel you have in your office Rolodex but how many of them have your contact information on file. On many occasions, for instance, I get calls from newsletter and magazine editors who suddenly have a spot to fill as the result of another writer missing a deadline or delivering a story that just doesn’t click. Having already demonstrated my ability to write material that resonates with their readership, I’m among the first people they think of to come to the rescue or to liven up a slow news day.

That same strategy is essential in fostering mutual trust with your own media contacts. Be the person they know they can rely on to consistently give them what they want, including fresh ideas for what they may not even have thought they want yet. In the words of Mickey Spillane, “The first page sells your book. The last page sells your next book.”

Never give them a reason to stop reading…and anticipating.

*****

Here’s the line-up of this month’s guest bloggers:

Why Old-Fashioned Media Still Rocks – by Dr. Neryl East

Event Safety and Risk Assessment – by Mike James

Calming the Crisis, or Fueling One? – by Philip Owens

Releasing Your Project at the Perfect Time – by Alijah Villian

Un-Googling the Art of Online Ads – by Ben Bradshaw

Crossing the Potomac

Washington Crossing Delaware

When George Washington stood at the helm in his famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Day in 1776, it’s unlikely he brought along a boatload of emotional baggage:

  • “I wonder what’s up with Benedict’s sudden disappearing act.”
  • “Whatever happened to all those couples with whom Martha and I used to break bread at Mount Vernon?”
  • “Does Betsy Fauntelroy ever think about me?”
  • “How long is Franklin going to stay in a snit about my dissing his idea that our national bird should be a turkey?”

Nope. You can tell by the look on George’s face that he had much weightier issues on his mind:

  • What if the Hessians outnumber us at Trenton?
  • What if we run out of food and ammunition?
  • What if my soldiers whose enlistments are up on the 31st decide to quit and go home?
  • What if this wicked weather causes the river to freeze and we’re stuck until Spring thaw?
  • What if my standing upright while everyone else is sitting down causes the boat to capsize and we all drown?

These were indeed the times that tried men’s souls. Washington, however, wisely understood not only how to pick his battles but also which battles, frankly, were no longer worth his time and energy. Turns out that this is actually a pretty good business model with application to the 21st century as we move into the challenges of a new year.

In my own case, the river I’ve crossed most frequently isn’t the Delaware but, rather, the Potomac. Since 1982, my love of Alexandria, Virginia has led to annual getaways from the West Coast to enjoy a Colonial glimpse of life in the past lane and reconnect with friends and colleagues. “You always come back so refreshed,” my friend Linda said after I described the euphoria I felt every time I saw the morning sun glint off the wings of my plane as it banked over the river and followed its course all the way to National/Reagan Airport.  In time, “crossing the Potomac” became a euphemism for leaving one’s cares behind…if only for the blissful duration of a week’s stay.

It wasn’t long after that I introduced my husband to this “rite of winter” and the importance it held for me, so important that – without even asking – he always makes sure I have the window seat for our descent so as not to miss a single moment.

The euphoria is still as high as ever but on our recent pre-Christmas trip, I came away with an epiphany that makes even more sense than simply putting one’s worries and trepidations on hold. Why not, instead, figuratively release them to the depths of the river and allow them to sink once and for all?

Too often our journeys in life are so weighted down by regrets, disappointments, anxieties, betrayals, doubts and anger – usually over events which aren’t even within our control – that we lose sight of the possibilities and opportunities that are within our reach. Instead of steadfastly focusing on the road ahead, we become obsessed with looking in the rearview mirror to either see what’s gaining on us or to speculate ad nauseum why we’re not being followed by those whose loyalty we once trusted would always be there.

Not all destinations can be reached by land, sea or air, especially if it’s a dream that dwells within the heart. In order to reach it, you must first cathartically lighten the emotional load which has been taking a toll on your spirits, zapping your energy levels and causing you to believe that every problem – real, imagined or even someone else’s – is realistically fixable. And while it’s a stretch to fathom Elsa’s “Let It Go” as a soundtrack to George’s historic crossing, it’s nonetheless a theme as relevant to a Frozen fairy tale as it is to an ice-locked landscape or the inertia of stuck sensibilities.

*****

Here’s the line-up of this month’s guest contributors:

Tuning Out the Naysayers – by Mandy Wildman

Hidden Energy Users, How Much Is It Costing Your Business? – by Graeme Ambrose

Emerging E-Commerce Trends For 2015 – by Jason Kane

How Shopify Reinvented the Wholesaler – by Sean Allan

 

Don’t Bring It All To The First Meeting

Grocery Cart

If a magician explained in advance all the detailed mechanics of a particular trick, would there still be a reason to stay for the actual performance? Arguably, there are those who might steal the trick once they saw how it was done and shamelessly stitch it into their own repertoire. On the flip side are those who would not only respect the magician’s craft but might also think, “If I could be that wowed seeing one illusion, I wonder what else this guy has up his sleeve!”

A correlation can be made to the wizardry of professional consulting, advertising design, and wordsmithing. Specifically, it’s a common practice in these industries to offer a free consultation, the purpose of which is to identify a prospective client’s needs, demonstrate one’s expertise to address those needs, and determine whether the respective personalities are a smart fit. The highest chance of such meetings failing to seal the deal is when the person making the pitch presupposes a level of loyalty that has yet to be forged and, thus, reveals all the tricks of the trade at the initial meeting. “You’ve certainly given me a lot to think about,” the listener says, not the least of which is now whether they need to hire an expert at all.

I recently interviewed a potential ghostwriting client who wanted to hire me to pen her screenplay idea about an obscure Italian painter. Starting her story in the wrong place and not giving her protagonist any compelling conflicts were just two of the problems inherent in this project; she had also put no thought into who its target market was. These things could be remedied, I suggested, if it were developed as a stage play instead of a movie. The intimate, real-time bond the actors could make with the audience would invite a deeper understanding of what fueled the artist’s passions and relationships with others. In response to her assertion that theater was too limiting for all the scenes she wanted, I pointed out that elements such as selective lighting, scrim curtains, platforms, stairs, and holograms could deliver far more visual variety than she thought. Further, theater patrons typically process information at a higher level of abstraction than movie goers; i.e., you can tell them a minimalist stage is a dense forest and they’ll “see” it without your having to bring on a single tree.

By the end of the consultation, she was excited but wanted to make her decision the following week. When she did, it was to inform me that – despite her lack of any playwriting experience – she was going to write the whole script herself rather than pay someone who had obviously divulged “everything about theater there is to know.”

Or did I?

Her belief that she had tricked me into giving her something-for-nothing was only an illusion. The reality – the portion of the iceberg not visible from the surface – is what I could have shown her about how to keep an audience spellbound.

*****

Here’s this month’s magical line-up of guest blogs:

Is Abundance Avoiding You – by Mandy Wildman and Wayne Porter

Ideas for Succeeding as a Business Person Overseas by Arpaparon Keasakul

Help Others, Help Yourself: Supporting Your Competitors in Business by Shane Russo

 

You Like Me, You Really Like Me! (Wait a Minute – Was That a Trick Question?)

 

grinning man

No matter how accomplished someone is at designing landscapes, selling cupcakes or writing novels, common sense has an unfortunate way of flying out the window whenever the press comes calling with a request for an interview. For those unaccustomed to being in the media spotlight, there’s a tendency to embrace a predisposed view that every reporter will be (1) their new best friend or (2) their worst enemy.

To err in either extreme not only impacts the comfort level of both parties but also colors the quality – and quantity – of content imparted. In my years as a freelance journalist, I’ve had no shortage of interviewees who giddily hug me upon first introduction, blather on about their last vacation, or tearfully confide they had terrible childhoods that no amount of therapy can remedy. I was even asked once if I could pick up a latte for a female bank executive on my way to our meeting because she hadn’t had time for breakfast. (Apparently she had already decided that such are the favors one asks of potential BFFs.) On the flip side, I’ve had just as many interviewees who – when asked why they went into the cupcake business – folded their arms, squirmed in their chairs, squinted their eyes and responded defensively, “Why do you want to know?”

The fact of the matter is that unless you’ve pilfered squillions from the company coffers or bulldozed the habitat of endangered muskrats to expand your parking lot, the media only wants one thing in a feature profile or advertorial: to get great stories from individuals who have not only positioned themselves as experts in topical, consumer-interest subjects but who can also provide entertaining, well-focused, informative, inspirational and/or memorable segments with a strong takeaway value for the media outlet’s core audience.

If you adhere to that approach in your professional relationships with the press, you’ll soon become the media darling who gets invited back time and again…and at absolutely no advertising cost to your business.

**********

Here’s the lineup of this month’s blogs by my guest contributors:

Conquering Sales the Entrepreneurial Way – by Mandy Wildman

Next Stop, Success: A How-To Guide For Interns – by Olivia Meena

Ask the Content Marketing Guru: 6 FAQs on Low Cost Lead Driving – by Taylor Calhoun

Is an SEO Specialist Really Necessary for Your Business? – by Clare Evans

Podcasting: Separating Yourself From The Pack – by Craig Price

 

 

 

Springing Into Media Readiness

leap

Ah – Spring! That time of year when we roll up our sleeves, take stock of our accumulated clutter, and commit to the task of getting better organized. Obviously this would be a less daunting exercise if we simply kept our house in order all the time and ready to entertain guests at a moment’s notice.

Could your in-house PR plan pass the same test of readiness?

Whether you’re an author, entrepreneur or nonprofit, getting – and staying – prepared for a call from the media is job #1.

This blog comes on the heels of a perplexing – and poorly conceived – response to an offer I’d recently made to a small business owner who also happened to be a personal friend. In these tough economic times, I knew that she and her staff were struggling to stay afloat and, further, she couldn’t afford the expertise of a PR firm to help with shout-outs about the products and services she provided. “Tell you what,” I said, “if you can provide me with the answers to a few interview questions along with a great photograph to accompany the article, I can get the story out there within two weeks.”

She was appreciative and effusive in her enthusiasm and promised that she’d put all of her energy into the questionnaire on her upcoming days off. Time passed. When I followed up to see what was accounting for the delay, she replied, “You know, I’m way too tired on my days off to spend them doing any work but maybe I can throw something together for you by the end of next month.”

Throw something together?

In my mind, this prompts three disturbing questions. The first is whether she felt it wasn’t necessary to treat the offer that seriously because it was coming from someone she knew, someone who could say, “Oh, there, there. Really, it’s all right. Take your time. And when you get back to me, I’ll just drop everything else I’m doing.” Secondly, was there some naiveté in play which led her to think that media opportunities come along like busses every ten minutes? If so, why are they not regularly making stops outside her front door? Thirdly – and perhaps the most alarming – how can anyone who has run their own business for more than 24 hours not have a press kit available in case someone requests it? There should be no mad scramble to assemble clips, get testimonials, compose snappy quotes, or grab a digital camera.

Sadly, though, this slapdash mindset isn’t uncommon, particularly with small business owners who either never expect to garner media attention or fail to understand that press deadlines aren’t fluid.

For future reference, they’d be wise to take a page from HR specialists who recommend keeping your resume up-to-date. Even if you’re happy as a clam in your current job and have no plans to leave, a dream opportunity with a short window could suddenly present itself. Such was my own experience many years ago when I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. She was lunching with a colleague who let it drop she had a position to fill and was dreading the upcoming process of advertising it, then interviewing candidates. By the time she returned to her office, there was a fax waiting for her: my resume. Not only did I get the job but I also met my first husband, started an acting company, and was able to return to college.

If being prepared can produce that magnitude of life-changing fortune, imagine what could happen to your business if you’re prepared when media opportunities knock?

Here’s the lineup of this month’s blogs by my guest contributors:

Spring Cleaning Your Email Inbox – by Erika Taylor Montgomery

Adapting Entertainment Publicity Techniques to Your Situation – by Steve Thompson

7 Reasons Why Businesses Hold Their Event in Las Vegas – by Melissa Page

Brand-Building Basics – by R. Travis Shortt

Using a P.R. Strategy to Gain Great Inbound Links – by Thomas Farley