Are you writing for humans?

tangled-cablesOne of the gaps in my education is my inability to speak a second language. At various times I’ve worked to learn French, Japanese, and Italian. I had a bit of success with all three, but time pressures from other parts of my life have prevented me from getting beyond “good day”, “which way to the cathedral?”, and “where is the bathroom?”

Nevertheless, as a copywriter I often find that I’m playing the role of “translator” between clients and their target audience.

Professional jargon is sometimes the main thing that needs to be untangled, but more often it’s the age-old problem of gobbledegook. These terms and phrases are the product of fear, spin, or misguided attempts to impress the largest-possible audience.

The inevitable result is copy that sounds like it was written by and for machines. Trouble is, even if you’re a business-to-business guru chasing Fortune 500 companies, you’re ultimately writing for people.

To help you avoid these communication-killers, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more recent dehumanizing buzzwords and what they really mean. Scratch them from any communication intended for human beings.

  • Stakeholders People. (Sometimes “the people working on this project,” but more commonly “the people who sign our paychecks.”)
  • Space A term for “home” or “office” that isn’t hip anymore because too many of your friends are also using it.
  • Core Competency 1) The stuff you’re good at. 2) The stuff you’d rather be doing besides marketing, accounting, and cleaning your office.
  • Deliverables Items on your to-do list.
  • Mainstream “Wow, people are actually buying this stuff!”
  • Solution A product or service. (Yes, Mike Bosworth could be a genius, but most people who read his book don’t seem to get beyond this simple word substitution.)
  • Scaleable Solution A product or service that might still work if we attract new customers.
  • Low-Hanging Fruit Easy sales we should have been closing two years ago.
  • Next-Generation Please buy a new gadget to replace the one you bought last year. Please?
  • “For all your _________________ needs!” We haven’t done any market research.
  • Post-PC Office Environment Our receptionist has an iPad.
  • “We’re the best-kept secret in _________________.” Our marketing sucks.

Best regards,


  The perils of “canned” copy

Insurance_MailingsEarlier this month, I received a familiar-looking letter in the mail. No slick sales message—just my name and address printed in understated, professional grey designed to entice me to open the envelope.

“Dear Thomas,” the letter inside began with formal pomp, going on to tell me how I could “bring home $825* in savings” (note the trust-building asterisk, which lead to fine print that essentially said: “well, maybe not, but that’s our best guess”) just by switching all my insurance business over to a Ms. J_________ whom I’ve never met or talked to.

The pitch was lackluster on its own, but two more things made it an even bigger loser—the two other envelopes that arrived the same day from Mr. M_________ and Miss R_________, representatives of the same company who had clearly bought the same package from their corporate masters, complete with the same Mad Libs copy and the same mailing list, helpfully mailed for them on the same day.

These unlucky three are just a few of the latest victims of “canned” copy. As the name implies, it’s kind of like prepackaged food…and about as appetizing. Imagine reading the print equivalent of Muzak from the 1970s and you’ll have a pretty good idea.

Worst of all, they’re not alone. I also get duplicate promotions from printing companies, accountants, realtors, and more. Each has a different rep’s name and address, but they land in my mailbox or inbox at the same time on the same day with surprising regularity.

But sending the same love letter your competitors are sending isn’t the biggest risk you face when you use canned copy. Here are 5 more reasons to shy away from it:

  1. You’ll be boring. Even if your prospects don’t see it anywhere else, the one-size-fits-all approach used by canned copywriters is designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience. This “lowest common denominator” approach will make your company sound lackluster and generic.
  2. You’ll sacrifice control. With canned copy, you often don’t get to choose the content. That can lead to problems if your mailing suggests an expertise you don’t have or fails to pick up on hot opportunities you’ve identified in your field.
  3. You can’t react quickly to market trends. Companies that control their own marketing copy can react swiftly to consumer trends. If a particular topic attracts interest and sparks sales, they can shift focus quickly to take advantage of it. With canned copy, you can’t just pick up the phone and ask for a quick change in strategy. Even if your copy provider is responsive to your insights, it could be months before they catch up with your market, costing you valuable time.
  4. You won’t sound like you. Successful brands have a unique “voice” that distinguishes them from competitors. When you publish copy that’s written for multiple users, you don’t stand out—you become part of the background.
  5. Customers can smell it. Copy isn’t just the padding you put between pretty pictures. If it’s not relevant or valuable to your audience, you run the risk of having your entire message ignored no matter how amazing the design looks. Since canned copy is typically designed to appeal to a wider (and vaguer) audience, its chance of being on target for your readers is usually far less likely than if you address what you know your customers are thinking, asking, and worrying about.



  Creative Freelancer Conference 2013 highlights

cfc_2013_netwalkingLast month I spent six amazing days at the Creative Freelancer Conference and HOW Design Live. Here are a few high points from the event.

  • Luke Mysse’s observation: “Criticism reveals more about the critic than what is being criticized.” ‘Nuff said.
  • Great advice from Sarah Durham of Big Duck: Your values belong on your company website. Be up front and transparent about them, and clients are more likely to respect them.
  • Growth doesn’t always mean making your company bigger, especially if you’re a freelancer. Growth can also be assembling a virtual team, working for better clients, or having more free time for what matters most in your life. Thanks to Kirk Roberts for rocking the growth panel with these and other insights.
  • Nearly half of all managers of in-house creative departments expect to use more freelance help in the next few years. Another third expect to continue the same level of freelance and partner outsourcing they have now.
  • “I’ve been hugged by Julie” stickers…usually seen on the right shoulder blade of the people she’s networked with. A creative self-promotion idea that had a lot of people asking “Who’s Julie?” and “Where can I get my hug?”
  • Dyana Valentine’s suggestion: don’t ask people “What do you do?” Ask: “What are you really good at?”
  • Too many insights about websites and content marketing from Mark O’Brien of Newfangled to detail here. Read his book. Seriously.
  • And as always…all of the inspiration, advice, and encouragement Ilise Benun gives to everyone who attends this remarkable event. Lives change for the better as a result.

I’m still in the process of following up with many of the great creative people I met at the event. If you haven’t heard from me yet, watch your inbox or feel free to reach out!



  Can’t write? Don’t blame the muse.

muse-1Many a writer—professional or otherwise—has complained about their “muse,” that much-maligned maiden of creative inspiration inspired by Greek mythology.

Though reputed to be beautiful, most writers have a love/hate relationship with their muses. In practice, “she” often seems to be something of a shrew—pestering you with inspiration when you’re trying to take a shower or eat dinner in a restaurant (how many great ideas begin on the back of a napkin?), but clamming up entirely when you decide it’s time to write.

Personally, I think writers’ muses get a bad rap—mostly because I hold the unromantic opinion that they don’t exist. I’ll freely admit that inspiration can strike at truly inconvenient times (and no, I won’t elaborate on that one), but if you’re freezing up when writing needs to get done, the problem is most likely you, not the muse.

Here are 7 easy ways to overcome the “fickle muse” problem:

  1. Do your “pre-writing” work—The most common cause of writer’s block is usually “research block,” better known as “not doing your homework.” The first step in any writing project is to know who you’re writing for and what you want to say to them. Once you have that, the muse is likely to get more talkative.
  2. Write every day—Building your skill as a writer is a lot like building a muscle. It responds to regular exercise. If you struggle with writing but want or need to do more of it, make sure you write something each day. It doesn’t even have to be anything for your business. You can keep a journal or just write about whatever comes to mind at the time, as long as you’re translating your thoughts into words.
  3. Try free writing—Free writing is the ultimate “stream of consciousness” exercise, and it can be a great way to brainstorm or focus ideas. Start with a blank sheet of paper, write a word or phrase at the top, and start writing about it. The trick with free writing is not to stop until you’ve filled at least one sheet of paper. You can write more if you’re on a roll, but don’t stop until you’ve made it to the end of that first page. If you get stuck anywhere, write exactly what you’re thinking or the word “write.” You’ll be amazed at some of the stuff that drops out of your head.
  4. Destroy some of what you write—Even if you don’t intend to show your writing to someone else, anxiety about what others might think can dramatically affect your writing. To eliminate this concern entirely, try starting a writing session with the intention of destroying what you write when you’re finished. This can be amazingly liberating, especially when combined with the free writing exercise described above. I prefer to write longhand when I do “destruction” exercises, which I then shred and recycle. If you prefer typing, try, which automatically deletes your entries on a regular basis and provides an automated analysis of your mood, typing speed, and other insights.
  5. Write longhand—Just like the rest of us, muses appreciate the hand-written notes most people don’t send anymore. If the blank screen intimidates you, try going low-tech. It will give you the opportunity to slow down and relax as you write.
  6. Accelerate deadlines—Schedule your personal deadlines a day or two before your writing is actually due. It’s easy to cheat when you use this method, but it’s much better not to cheat while knowing that you can. Even if you follow a stricter deadline schedule of your own creation, you won’t feel the pressure as heavily as when the real deadline starts to loom.
  7. Get a reality check—Worried about spelling something wrong or offending someone with your opinion? Plan to show your writing to a friend or colleague before you make it public. Knowing ahead of time that a second set of eyes will review your writing before it’s set in pixels or ink can make it easier to overcome the big hurdle of getting started in the first place. Many professional writers actually go through this process twice: once with “alpha” readers—other pros who can advise them on style, grammar, and other details of the craft—and “beta” readers—people who fit the profile of the target audience as closely as possible. Unlike alpha readers, beta readers don’t need to know much about writing. It’s more important that they resemble members of your target audience and point out places where your writing either loses their attention or doesn’t work for them.

Best regards,


  7 reasons to make people laugh at your copy

laughing_boysThe most difficult class I took in college wasn’t trigonometry, computer programming, or even thermodynamics.

No, the subject I agonized over most was—no joke—humor writing.

There aren’t many places where you can take humor writing at the college level. But I was lucky to be at Ohio University when former Madison Avenue agency president Mel Helitzer offered a course called “Humor Writing for Fun and Profit.” The class had a limited size, and was so popular that I had to sign up a year in advance.

Mel’s class also featured my most memorable final exam: five minutes of stand-up material at a popular campus coffeehouse. I can still quote how we were graded without looking at the syllabus:

  • Standing Ovation: A
  • Enthusiastic Applause: B
  • Polite Applause: C
  • Audience Throws Fruit: F (unless fruit is edible, in which case grade is marked up to D)

I got an “A,” but getting there was murder. The actor who supposedly said “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” wasn’t joking.

If recent comments are anything to go by, some of Mel’s training stuck with me. One client recently quipped “Tom does ‘cheeky’ very well” during a conference call. I also get a lot of positive feedback about the tone of “relaxed snarkiness” on my website, especially the FAQ page.

But seriously folks, humor in marketing copy isn’t just for fun. Here are 7 good reasons to go for a smile when you peddle your stuff:

  1. To warm up a “cold” introduction—Humor creates interest, even if a potential buyer knows you’re trying to sell something. Hook them with a joke in the critical seconds when they see your message, and you’ll have a better chance of getting them to read the rest of what you have to say. If your gag is particularly compelling, you might even get away with using the setup as a tease…making them open your mailer or click a URL to get the punchline.
  2. To promote controversial ideas—Polarization of opinion is a real and growing issue in our society, and not just in politics. If you need to go against a prevailing current to succeed, well-crafted humor can help you break the ice. It’s tough to be angry with someone who makes you laugh, and it puts a more positive spin on your message than predictions of doom and gloom or attacks against opposing views.
  3. To encourage new thinking or buying patterns—Humor can be a powerful agent for change, especially if you can highlight the absurdity of the status quo compared to the benefits of your product or service. I like to write copy that speaks plainly, so I often poke fun at “corporate-speak” when I do content marketing (past trauma has made me particularly vicious about “scalable solutions.”)
  4. To set a boundary—As with controversial ideas, marketing occasionally has to draw a line. For example, on my website I make a point of telling prospects that I don’t work on weekends, but I sugar-coat it by quipping “Mrs. Tumbusch gets my undivided attention on weekends.” Many people tell me they laugh when they read that—but they also get the message.
  5. To connect with your target buyers—If you speak the language of your audience well, you can use humor to create and reinforce connections. The Apple “I’m a Mac” / “I’m a PC” campaign is a classic example that highlighted the difference between the brands “zealots” and “pagans.”
  6. To position your brand as fun or unconventional—A masterful use of this technique was the “So Wrong for So Many” campaign for the Toyota Scion xB.
  7. To make your message memorable—When done well, laughter dramatically increases the chance that your slogan will be remembered, repeated, and re-tweeted. (That grading system quoted I quoted above? I remember it verbatim after nearly a quarter of a century.) It also makes it more likely that readers will learn from what you have to say, and pay closer attention next time. That beats another “scalable solution” any day.

Best regards,


  5 reasons you shouldn’t do your own marketing

Just because you do marketing for a living doesn’t mean you have to do your own marketing.

marketing-quandaryA lot of my bread-and-butter work is content marketing for a set of clients that might seem counter-intuitive…other marketing companies.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In fact, many businesses I interact with—from solopreneurs to full-scale agencies—are increasingly outsourcing their own promotion. Every month I work with marketing consultants, graphic designers, and even several other writers, all of whom are handing off some portion of their self-promotion to me.

These folks aren’t abdicating their creative voice…they’re very particular about what they “say” when I ghost-write in their voices, and are quick to make changes when needed. Yet many of them tell me month after month how much the collaboration helps them sound “even more like themselves.”

Here are five great reasons why they do it, and why you might consider following their example:

  1. You’re busy. Marketing any organization right takes time, which many agencies don’t have. Rather than overloading your staff with extra tasks—especially if you’re a staff of one—it’s often more efficient and cost-effective to put an outsider on the job.
  2. Promotional writing isn’t where you want to spend your time. Many of my clients are talented designers who hate to write. Great copy helps them look and sound good. Some of the writers I work with are very skilled at their craft but don’t write marketing copy, which is very different from fiction or editorial copy.
  3. You’ll keep your marketing machine on schedule. It’s easy to run a content-focused marketing plan when there’s not much else to do. But when you’ve got deadlines for clients who pay well, the last thing you want to do is take time away from that work to do your own self-promotion. Having someone else handle your marketing schedule keeps everything humming when you get busy, and helps make sure that you stay busy by promoting your services while you focus on paying gigs.
  4. You’ll get an objective perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in your needs and motivations when you write about yourself. An outsider is more likely to think like your prospects and write stuff that takes what they want and need into account.
  5. You won’t have to be shy. Creative people are often afraid that saying great stuff about themselves will be perceived as boasting. Having someone else craft the message that tells the world how great you are short-circuits this inhibition by demonstrating that at least one other person believes the power is in you.



  10 Great moments in freelancing

living_the_dreamOne of the things I love most about freelancing is the variety. Even in the age of caller ID, you never know what will come your way when you pick up the phone, and there are always exciting new things to learn.

In celebration of 11 years in business (a milestone I hit late last month) here are ten of my favorite highlights from “living the freelance dream” so far:

10. Having a veteran copywriter tell me the rate she thought I was qualified to charge (a lot more than I had guessed) a month before I left my corporate job.

9. Writing a package that hit Inside Direct Mail’s “top 5” list.

8. Having a conference call interrupted by a sandstorm (the client was in Saudi Arabia).

7. Being self-employed long enough to qualify for a home loan.

6. Landing my first book-length ghostwriting gig.

5. Flying to Walt Disney World on the client’s dime to cover the 30th Anniversary of the Haunted Mansion.

4. Getting referral business from my copywriting hero.

3. Interviewing undersea explorers who found a lost pirate ship.

2. Not having to ask anyone’s permission to disappear for four days to celebrate my wife’s milestone birthday.

And of course, #1 is still:

1. Telling clients I don’t work on weekends.



  Why it pays to be opinionated

firing_squadA month or two ago, a graphic designer friend was unexpectedly drawn into a friendly debate at a networking function. She was friendly, she was polite, she was gracious. But despite being the lone voice supporting her point, she didn’t back down.

Later, she went on to write an article substantiating her opinion with examples from her own experiences. She freely admitted that her views might be unpopular—using the term “firing squad” to indicate the reaction she expected from some of her readers—and continued to stand firm.

Swimming against the current is never the easy way to promote a product or service, but in many cases it’s the best way—especially if you’re trying to bring about positive change. This is particularly true of Green business, which by its very nature tends to target a narrower market segment than most.

Here are three great reasons not to hold back:

You’ll attract the right people—and they’ll love you for being spunky
Inexperienced marketers are afraid to offend anyone because they worry about driving any customer away. Unfortunately, marketing to the lowest common denominator makes you sound wishy-washy and discourages your best potential buyers. It’s far more effective to connect with your best prospects by demonstrating that you understand the difference between them and the “others.”

You’ll weed out people you don’t want to do business with
Primal Branding author Patrick Hanlon calls people opposed to your brand ideals “pagans.” For example, if you sell electric cars, your pagans are rednecks in gas-guzzling pickups and Hummers.

Once you’ve identified your target, zero in on that type and don’t be afraid to activelyexclude others. Yes, your pagans will scorn you, but it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be your customers for more than one unsatisfactory experience in the first place. Drawing a line in the sand up front will save you a lot of time and frustration by helping you pre-qualify prospects.

You’ll be speaking your truth
Nothing makes marketing copy more effective than believing what you’re writing. Letting your true colors show allows you to tap into your passions and create the kind of copy that motivates like-minded people. The more in tune you are with your audience, the more they’ll respond to your sincere enthusiasm.

Who knows? You may even convince the firing squad.

Best regards,


  Forget QR codes. You’ll get better results with “WR” codes.

wr_codeMy wife Toni is a smart woman, but she doesn’t get excited about the latest whiz-bang gadgets and bleeding-edge technology the way I do. So I was more than a little surprised during a recent brunch at a favorite restaurant when she brought up the topic of QR codes.

Toni is a reading specialist who works with elementary-school kids. As it turns out, tech-savvy teachers in her field have started using QR codes to help children who need oral testing. The kids scan the codes to hear pre-recorded test questions, which allows teachers to help more kids in less time and frees them up to focus on other tasks in their ever-busy schedules.

Prior to this conversation I had been pretty lukewarm about QR codes, but this application got me excited. It also made me realize why they’re not working in the U.S. as well as they are in places like Japan and Korea, where they’re hugely popular. Simply put, it’s because many companies aren’t thinking about the user’s experience.

So I have a modest proposal for getting this technology up to its full potential. Let’s stop thinking of these pixellated boxes as QR codes, and start calling them “WR” codes.

Follow the White Rabbit
What’s a WR code? It’s a more intelligent way of thinking about your prospects. The “WR” stands for the White Rabbit, a character from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

First, consider all the hoops your prospect (we’ll call her “Alice”) has to jump through to get to your message:

  1. Alice has to know what a QR code is.
  2. Alice has to own a device capable of running an app that can scan QR codes.
  3. Alice must have taken the time to find, download, and learn how to use a QR code scanner. You have a slight advantage if, like my wife, she’s the kind of bargain-hunter who uses apps like RedLaser, ScanLife, Quick Scan or ShopSavvy to scan bar codes to find the best deals.
  4. Alice has to get her phone out of her pocket, briefcase, or purse.
  5. Alice needs to boot up the app (some of them take as long as 30 seconds to bring up the scanning camera).
  6. Alice needs to scan the code.
  7. Alice has to click a button giving her phone’s browser permission to open the URL.

If Alice sees anything labeled “Drink Me” while she’s doing all of this, you’ll probably lose her attention, so every one of these steps is a barrier to your message.

That’s where the White Rabbit comes in. If you want Alice to run this gauntlet, you need to give her a really good reason—something better than “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late to make my sales quota!”

Wonderland had better be good
Not only do you have to make it clear up front that it’s going to be worthwhile to go down this technological rabbit hole, you need to deliver when your prospect gets there. That means giving Alice some kind of value, not just a marketing message.

Your first job is to remember that however amazing Wonderland is, it’s going to be viewed on a mobile device, most likely a phone. That tells you a lot about your prospect before you spend a dime. Does Alice have an iPhone? Does she know how to use it? If either answer is no, the rabbit is hopping through the wrong meadow.

If the answer is yes, make sure Wonderland won’t take all day to download or max out Alice’s data plan. It should also be readable on at least a 640×960 pixel screen without zooming. Make it as easy as possible to begin the engagement. If the end of the line is a form with ten fields to fill out, Alice won’t be staying for tea.

Which road do I take?
Place your WR code someplace where it makes sense for your prospect to scan it. An airplane jetway (no joke, I’ve actually seen this), is not an ideal place. The in-flight magazine might seem to make more sense since anyone flipping through it is likely to have nothing else to do, but there’s a problem here too. Unless Alice flips right to your code before the door closes, she’ll have to pay extra for in-flight wi-fi…in which case she’s more likely to be playing that new croquet game on Facebook instead of reading a print magazine. Alice either needs to have time on her hands or find your offer extremely compelling—preferably both.

Where do you want to go?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking your job is over when Alice finally scans your code. Make sure the rabbit leads her to something she can’t get anywhere else. Audio or video content, coupon codes, or other exclusives are a good start. If you send Alice down the hole only to find your home page or a digital version of a print ad you could have posted in the same place as the WR code itself, you haven’t just wasted your interactive budget, you’ve wasted her time. And you can bet she won’t be grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

Best regards,


  Do you love the people you write for?

heart_toastOne of my most important things I write each year is a Valentine’s Day message for my wife Toni. A lot of men stress about finding the perfect words, and I’ll freely admit I’m one of them.

Luckily, I have a big advantage. I know that I married the right woman. That means I don’t have to struggle to find sincere things to say or force sentiments I don’t really feel.

This kind of devotion isn’t just for Valentine’s day, especially if you’re in the creative industry. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t believe in something, I can’t write about it. It’s a disservice to the client. No matter how good a writer I may be, I can’t fake sincerity.

What’s more, there are few things more stressful than doing work you don’t enjoy.

So take a look at the people you’re selling to. Do you like them? Do you love them? Would you sell your stuff to a trusted friend?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it’s time for you to re-think what you’re creating.

Happy Valentine’s day,