Writing insights from a puppy

puppyOn Valentine’s Day weekend, my wife Toni and I drove to nearby Columbus to meet four delightful Shetland Sheepdog puppies (responsibly bred…not from a puppy mill).

Toni had been craving another canine companion in the house for some time, but didn’t think that I would approve. After all, I work from home, am closely attached to the pooch we already have, and she didn’t think I’d want to mess with training a newcomer all day. Much to her surprise, I had already made up my mind before we left home that she’d be getting something more than a box of chocolate and the new Austenland DVD this year.

That evening we drove home with a new family member, who we’ve dubbed “Tilney,” the sweetest little 3.4 pound ball of fur you’ve ever seen. (Okay, maybe I’m slightly biased.) He was just seven weeks old the next day, so everything about his world was fresh and new.

I don’t remember much of anything from the time I was seven weeks old, so I can only imagine what it must be like for Tilney to be seeing the world for the first time. Some things make him anxious, like the vacuum cleaner, while others—notably Bingley, our adult pooch—excite his eager curiosity. But in either case he’s jumping into our lives with only seven weeks of experience to use as a frame of reference. What must the world look like through his eyes?

Tilney’s arrival also means I can’t take anything for granted for a while. I’m used to sharing my office with Bingley, a dog who already knows how to sit, stay, and let me know when he needs to go outside. Adorable as he is, Tilney still has most of that learning curve ahead of him—a fact I need to remember even as his training begins.

So what does all this have to do with writing (apart from blatant nods to characters from Jane Austen novels)?

When you reach out to new prospects—whether you’re promoting your business, introducing a new product, or expanding your audience—it’s a lot like trying to communicate with a newborn puppy. Some will know you by reputation, but many more will know nothing about you. The messaging you use to introduce yourself can excite their interest, turn them away, or (less common in puppies) leave them feeling uncertain about whether or not you’re right for them.

Your approach can be different when you’re dealing with people who already know you—your existing clients, prospects you’ve already had some contact with, or even people who are likely to know about you from high-profile projects. These readers already have a frame of reference that you can draw upon to build a more sophisticated message.

When it comes to totally new readers, though, you need to think like a puppy. You can’t assume that they’ll know the jargon you’ve lived with throughout your career, be familiar with the technology you use, or understand the significance of current events on your business. This doesn’t mean you should talk down to your prospects. Simply think of them as intelligent people who don’t have as much information as you do.

Prospects who are unfamiliar with you also won’t care about behind-the-scenes pressures that affect you, especially deadlines for other clients or your pet peeves about minutiae in your field. (Hint: Many of your long-established clients don’t care about these things either.) Save that stuff for conversations with your industry peers or close friends.

The key to mastering “puppy’s mind” is to ask yourself what’s in it for the puppy. Your message should have a single goal…to encourage the reader to take the next step in your action chain. That can be clicking through to your website, placing an order, or giving you a call. Cut everything else. Focus on what will encourage your prospects to take action, and they’ll be far more likely to join the big dogs on your client list.

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