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What’s the Big Idea?

As I mentioned previously, I’ve listening to an audiobook version of Jerry Weintraub‘s biography, When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead. I’m finding it particularly interesting in light of my recent look at selling a product or service. I’m only about half-way through the book, but Jerry has already shared innumerable stories that will affect how I work going forward. I figured I’d share a few of them here.

It’s all about the packaging. For Weintraub, everything is a limited edition (after all, legally, what’s it limited to? Isn’t everything limited to the period during which it’s produced?). It’s all about the pitch – how does this event/service/idea benefit them? How is it going to make them money?

For a writers, who are constantly pitching ideas, this is an important concept. You need to picture yourself in the readers shoes: how do they benefit from what you’re trying to “sell” them? What opportunity are you offering them? If you can’t see it as offering them an opportunity, they sure as heck aren’t going to see it that way.

Have a Big Idea. Jerry is always working toward his next big idea. The story that got me to buy the book was the tale of how Jerry decided he wanted to take Elvis on tour, but at the time he didn’t know Elvis or anyone who knew Elvis. He had nothing but his idea. This is a theme over and over in his life, whether the time he got past a bouncer with a gun to knock on a star’s door (by pretending to give the bouncer a job review) to pitch a show idea, when he was 14 and tried to run away to Fla., or while he was in the service and began selling Hawaii vacation packages at the local retail store where he worked in Alaska.

Freelance writers, like any small business owners, need to have end goals; they need to have things they are working toward. Whether it’s a big magazine you want to land an article with some point in the future or a monetary goal you want to hit, come up with your next big idea, believe in it, and do what it takes to make it happen.

Persistance Pays Off. That tale about taking Elvis on tour? Before he finally got the deal, Jerry called Elvis’ manager everyday for about a year; every time the guy thought about taking Elvis on tour, Jerry’s name came to mind–simply because Jerry was so persistent. He was respectful and smart about it, but he didn’t give up. He really thought he had a good idea (another tip: believe in your ideas) and wanted a chance to prove it.

I mentioned in my piece about Parker’s chapter on sales that on average a consumer needs to be exposed to a brand 7+ times before they consider buying from it. For Jerry, it was everyday for a year. Don’t give up. The goal is to accomplish what Jerry did – every time a prospect thinks about writing, you want them to think about you.

Think outside the box. When Jerry got his chance and took Elvis on tour, the King only had two requests: that real fans be in the front row (he didn’t want to be playing to see the big shots up front when he played) and that there never be an empty seat in the house. Well, Jerry messed up; he booked a matinee in Flordia in the summer. They only managed to sell half the tickets. What did Jerry do? He went to the local prison and convince the warden to have his prisoners come remove 5,000 chairs from the arena before the matinee, then put them back afterward, before the evening performance which was completely sold out. There wasn’t an empty chair in the house.

Sometimes, taking away is as important as putting in. There are where two ways to make sure there weren’t any empty chairs in the house. X number of tickets had been sold – either more tickets needed to sell (or be given away) or fewer seats needed to be present. Most people wouldn’t have thought of removing seats. Jerry did. Ideas like that are the difference between being good and being great. Don’t eliminate ideas just because they aren’t what someone else would do–think about the advantages and disadvantages of the options available and consider even the most unlikely way of doing something. That’s how new ideas are born.

What’s your big idea? Have you found success through persistence? Was there a time when you thought completely outside the box? Tell me about it in the comments.

A True Story: Working With Elvis

As a New Yorker I spend a lot of time on subways–a minimum of an hour and a half a day. That means a lot of time on my iPod, and since my musical acumen is rather limited, I tend to spend it listening to podcasts. There are a number of podcasts that I subscribe to on iTunes, but the two big ones are Slate magazine’s political gabfest (which is always amazing) and a ton of NPR podcasts. Both tend to serve as great filters for the rest of the media world–they discuss the big stories that are out there and, through their discussions, I find myself hooked by books and articles I probably never would have heard about otherwise.

Well yesterday, I listened to NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me podcast featuring Jerry Weintraub. Music or film enthusiasts may know who he is–I didn’t. (For those of you who are like me, he managed people like The Carpenters and Frank Sinatra, and is a well-known film producer). During the NPR interview what caught my attention was Jerry’s tale of how he ended up working with Elvis.

Jerry didn’t know Elvis. He didn’t even know anyone who knew Elvis. But he decided he wanted to take Elvis on tour. And guess what? A year after announcing his intentions he had raised 1 million dollars and convinced the King to give him a shot.

After listening to the interview I’ve bought a copy of his biography, When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead, as an audio book (I have an monthly membership) and I can’t wait to hear what other crazy accomplishments Weintraub pulled off, despite my complete lack of interest in all things pop culture.

But there are two lessons I think we should all take from this.

1. Don’t be afraid to set big goals–even huge, completely ridiculous goals–and work your ass off to achieve them. Anything is possible given enough time and work.

2. Know one interesting thing about yourself or your company and use it to make sure people remember you. I would never have known who Jerry was if not for his NPR appearance and I would never have remembered him beyond the podcast if not for that one tale that completely stood out.

Quality vs. Quantity

I’ve read a few posts recently on social networking and the difference between being a business card ninja (someone whose primary goal at networking events seems to be how many business cards they can pass out) and making connections (check out Marian’s post on how this plays out in the online social networking world).The point of these conversations is that it’s important to make deep connections when networking–whether in person or online–and that it’s only networking when you take the time to actually get to know the person you’re connecting with. Otherwise, it’s like standing in Starbucks or in Times Square and screaming “Look at me” – people will look, but they’ll just think you’re weird.

The reason I bring this up is because the issue at heart here is one that affects every aspect of every business–depth vs. breadth; wide vs. deep. It’s a decision business owners (including freelance writers) should make consciously. They should decide what works best with their strategy and in that situation.

A while ago I interviewed several business experts for an article I was working on, and we got to talking about strategies retail stores use when deciding what products to stock – and what do you know? This is exactly the issue that came up. For that particular article we were discussing whether retailers are better off carrying 3 or 4 of something in every possible color or a half-dozen each of the most popular 4 or 5 colors. While there may be one customer somewhere that is interested in that puke-green t-shirt, carrying colors that are more popular will make it easier to turn the inventory.

My point is that in almost every aspect of business (not just networking) individuals have to decide if they’d rather offer a buffet or a gourmet meal. But most of the time you gain more from serving gourmet, from going deep instead of wide, from making lesser but more real connections that from having 20K followers on twitter (follow me here!) and not knowing any of them.

Like any other business owner, writers also need to decide if they’d rather specialize or generalize. While there are some advantages to generalizing–namely, you can write for any number of people about any number of things–it limits how deeply you get to explore any one topic. It means you constantly need to do new research on the new topic. Instead, if you specialize, you quickly build up a well of knowledge and sources that are industry-specific and that you can tap as needed.

When have you had to decide between these two options? Was it better to go gourmet or to offer a buffet?

Part II: A Q&A With Tom Albrighton

This is Part II of a two-part Q&A with Tom Albrighton, founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting. Check out Part I: to find out how Tom got started and what he believes freelancing is really about (hint: it’s not just about words on a page…) For more about Tom see below or check out his blog.

Jargon Writer: What was the biggest thing you had to learn?

Tom: Confucius said, ‘you turn the handle the way it goes, not the way it ought to go.’ That’s a great lesson for a freelancer. Learning what is ‘good enough’ for different clients, accepting direction even when you know it’s wrong, and being flexible over prices and terms are all very important skills. Being a freelancer is about acceptance and tapping into a flow, not shaping or dominating a situation. Once you learn that, you can find ways to ride the stream to where you want to be.

JW: Do you set goals for yourself? What goals are you working toward currently? If not, why not?

Tom: I set revenue targets, which I think are useful. You might spend the whole time thinking ‘I should earn more’ or ‘I could earn more,’ but ‘more’ is just a relative, unspecific goal. If you want to make it real, put a number on it. Sure, you might fall short, but you might also surprise yourself. It’s important to have stretching goals.

I’m also working toward creating some sources of passive income, so my work isn’t just about selling my time for money. I’ll always have to work, but I think I could reduce the pressure by finding some more creative ways to use my skills and knowledge.

JW: How successful do you feel you’ve been as a freelance thus far? What do you use to measure your “success?”  Why?

Tom: I think I’ve done OK. When I started, my aim was just to make a living, and I achieved that. For a while I wanted to set up a company rather than working alone, but I couldn’t find a way from freelancing to building a corporation. So I abandoned that idea, which you could call failure or just choosing a different path.

My client base has steadily grown, giving me more security, and I’ve got lots of positive reviews and testimonials. Those are important measures of success for me, as well as revenue. On the intangible side, I realize I’ve built up a little bit of authority in the industry, even after just five years, which is very pleasing. Sometimes, you need the views of others to understand how far you’ve come.

JW: Do you have a top tip for others who want to freelance doing what you do?

Tom: I’ve got two. The first is to turn your existing skills and knowledge into a writing specialization. Don’t worry if you’re not ‘creative’ – if you can write reasonably well and you know about something, you can work as a writer. Almost any life experience or vocational expertise can be turned into interesting content.

The second is a general point for all freelancers: believe in abundance. Freelancing can be lonely, anxious and uncertain. You have to sustain yourself with the belief that there’s a whole ocean of work and money out there – it’s just a question of accessing it. And remember that you’re just as well placed to do that as anyone else.

Tom Albrighton has over fifteen years’ experience in writing, editing and project management, including work for Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, London Business School and Dorling Kindersley.

Tom is founder and principal consultant at ABC Copywriting, which provides writing and editing services to businesses, organizations and academic institutions in the UK and around the world. He writes regularly on copywriting issues for the ABC Copywriting blog, which is read and commented by many leading copywriters.

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