On the virtues of a Mastermind group

Back in the summer at the Creative Freelancers Conference, one tip was repeated by numerous speakers and also by several of my fellow freelancers – get yourself an accountability group. I thought about it, recognized the value of it and ta-da, now I’m actually getting started on it.

I can’t claim the credit for the idea, that goes to the very wonderful Forrest Anderson (who really is the Nate Silver of communications research) who got the whole thing going. However, I can claim the good sense of recognizing that getting together regularly with three smart and funny entrepreneurs is going to have a huge impact on my business.

We’ve just got started but already I’m seeing the value in specific ways:

  1. My fellow Masterminders have suggested some new markets I could approach that are totally in line with where I want to take my business.
  2. I have a real problem with goal setting and planning. It’s not that I don’t want to but…ahem…I really don’t understand the process of going about it. I mean, I understand you set goals and take steps to try to achieve them but I didn’t really know practically what a goal should look like or how to use a plan to get there. I am delighted that two of the Masterminders are expert at this and extremely generous with their knowledge.
  3. I’m inspired by the group. Their commitment to their own businesses is making me re-examine and recommit to mine.

Plus, it’s a ton of fun.

Next step for us is the “Day of Planning”. We’ve carved out a whole day to work on our business plans.  A whole day. I think that this might be the year I actually create a plan that will help me guide and grow my business.

So, thank you to all those smart people in Boston in June. And for anybody hesitating over starting a group like ours, my advice is go for it – you won’t regret it.



Speaking the client’s language

I attended a great Content Strategy MeetUp in San Francisco this week. The speaker was Melissa Rach of Brain Traffic and she was sharing with us the top ten things she’d learned about working with clients on content strategy projects over the last four years.

Brain Traffic have a great graphic that they use to demonstrate that a content strategy project encompasses four areas that have to be kept in balance to make sure content strategy pays off for clients – workflow, governance, the strategy and the substance or content itself. In itself, this is a good way to remind us that effective content can only be produced when a company pays attention to ownership and how and by whom that content will be created.

Moving on from that point, two things that Melissa talked about really struck me:

1. You have to get really precise around the language. The words “Content Strategy” mean different things, or raise different expectations in different people and it’s really important to make sure that client and consultant are on the same page.

For instance, Melissa’s view is that the “strategy” is not so much a plan, but actually more of a vision, a signpost to what the content needs to achieve for the business. Below that are tactical projects that move a company towards that vision but have specific shorter term and measurable goals. So when clients ask to see an example of “strategy”, they’re quite often really asking to see an outline of the projects that will move the company closer to that vision.

Understanding the potential for confusion around “strategy” and “plan” makes it a whole lot easier to talk to clients about the different phases of the project and to spell out the value of working with a content strategist.

2. We have to get a lot better at using numbers to demonstrate progress and the need for change. The effect on readers of informational content is traditionally hard to measure but trying to draw a line to customer behavior can be helpful.

Melissa gave an example of revising content on the homepage of a hotel’s booking site. If you can say, for instance, that by refining the content and focusing it on clients, you assume the hotel gets one more customer booking a room each week.

Then turning that into a cash number and providing the assumptions that allow a client to play with the figures, increasing the number of customers to two or five or whatever, provides reassurance to clients and gives something tangible to talk about.

Rating content according to its currency, usefulness, appropriateness to primary audience etc. can be one way to help clients understand what pieces of content need more attention.

The reason these two examples particularly stuck with me is that they demonstrate what I feel is a fundamental about the work that I do for clients and the way I want to do that work. I see writing and communications as a service to clients.

In Melissa’s talk, I was reminded that the role of content strategists and writers more generally, is to help clients better express their business values and meet their business goals. In order to do that most effectively, we have to understand people’s concerns and learn to talk in the language of business – even when that means reframing terms that we commonly use or demonstrating our value in numbers (not always the most natural approach for word nerds.)

It’s not about imposing something on a company, or providing content in a vacuum, it’s a totally immersive communications process and in order to be successful, it has to be a partnership between consultant and client. Which is just the way I like it.

When employees need to be heard

Flowering tree

Corporate reorganizations, mergers, big strategic announcements – these are the fun times for communicators when everyone wants our help and we can really show how communications matters.

But for many employees, these same events can cause disruption, anxiety, or be a signal to brush up the resume and start looking elsewhere. We all know that at such times it’s vital to keep communicating with employees, letting them know what’s going on, what’s going to happen, where they’ll be once the change has taken place.

But in the urge to communicate, are we forgetting the power of listening?

I was reminded of this by a Facebook update from Paul Matalucci, CEO of Wordwright Communications: “Today I prepared an agenda for 1:1 meetings that I will conduct with a client’s line managers. A wise colleague pointed out that given the scope of transformation underway at the site, managers would be better served by an opportunity to be heard rather than “informed.” So I’ve prepared a one-page handout of communication tips to leave behind. I’ll spend my 30 minutes asking questions.”

Often letting employees or managers ( or execs for that matter!) just talk about the issues and about their challenges and what they hope for provides a double benefit. The employee has the opportunity to raise issues and discuss obstacles, the communicator learns more about the audience and what they really need to hear.


Off to the Creative Freelancer Conference

I’ve never been to the Creative Freelancer Conference before, although I’ve definitely been tempted. So this year , I finally signed up and I’m off to Boston tomorrow.

As it happens, this couldn’t have come at a better time. After three years of constant work, mostly through referrals and networking, I’ve hit the “famine” part of the cycle and I’m looking for ways to boost my marketing efforts, new approaches and niches and just learning about the ways other freelancers smooth out the roller coaster. I’m particularly going to be interested in ways people find to market their services within companies without being douche-y or annoying.

I’ve also promised to recap what I learn for the Independent Communicators Roundtable group that I belong to. I know that’s going to change the way I pay attention and take notes and I’m convinced that having a public speaking commitment is one of the best prompts for active learning!


Good vs. Bad Curation

I have a Scoop.it account where I’m working on finding articles and interesting discussions about the use of content creation in employee communications. It’s not exactly a bustling field – I think about 99.9% of articles are variations on content marketing themes and using curation as a tool to influence and engage external audiences.

Still, there are some interesting things going on and today I scooped a great article from Beth Kanter where she skillfully reworks a graphic that compares the attributes of  “good” curation with those of “bad” curation. The graphic originally came from Ross Hudgen’s “Link Building by Imitation” deck (and referred to “Good Theft” and “Bad Theft”). With Beth’s revision, it’s a really useful graphic for reminding us of what we’re striving for, and what we’re trying to avoid with content curation!

Beth Kantor's "Good" vs "Bad" curation. This is a rework of a graphic that appeared originally in "Link Building by Imitation” by Ross Hudgens.

Beth also succinctly outlines the ongoing discussion about the value of curation and quotes both Robin Good ( an expert curator) and Guillaume DeCugis ( founder of Scoop.it) to illuminate the issue. The question about whether curation has a value or is simply the “theft” and republishing of other’s material is a lively one.

I have to agree with Robin Good when he draws the distinction between the value that is provided by those with good good curation skills versus those with a less well developed approach:  “You should NOT mix-up republishing, self-expression and easy-content-sharing with curation, because they are in fact at opposite extremes of the same spectrum.”

I agree. I think curation is really only of value when we can use it to join the dots for audiences, by broadening the story that we’re sharing and explaining exactly why we think a particular piece of content is worth sharing in the context of a specific audience’s needs. Otherwise it’s just re-posting anything and everything that crosses our virtual desk – and I don’t see any purpose or additional value in that.

Positioning is hard

I can write positioning statements for clients. I can help them to focus on their core offering, the unique value they offer and the ideal clients they need to attract. Doing all this also involves defining what they do not want to do, and who they do not want to serve. Alrighty then – it makes perfect sense.

Until I get to my own marketing. In theory, I should be able to apply the same principles to my own business –  but this is what happened when I started revising the copy for my new website (this one!):

Me: I really want to emphasize that I am great at internal communications. That’s where most of my work is, that’s what I enjoy, that’s where I find clients I love working with.

Brain Gremlin:  But that means you have to turn down everything that isn’t internal communications – like that annual report for the Metta Fund, and that great B2B website.

Me: No – I can still do that, I just don’t have to talk about it on my site.

Brain Gremlin: But all of those awesome clients will see your site and take that great work elsewhere because you don’t specifically mention it.

Me: Aaaargh – I will never work again, nobody will ever offer me any work, I will die penniless and alone under a bridge… maybe I should mention other things too.

Sound familiar?

The thing that gets in the way is fear – but how realistic is that fear?

You’ll have to turn away work

Really? If I come across someone who wants my help for something that  I can do well, even though it’s not mentioned on my website, I have to turn it down? Uh, that seems kind of dumb.

The truth is – I can accept it if I like. And if I don’t want to take it on, I can point out that actually this kind of work isn’t my sweet spot ( see the evidence of my website)  but I have a fantastic freelance colleague that I can recommend.

Awesome clients will see your website and decide to take their project elsewhere

Does this really happen? My clients usually come from referrals from people I know or I have worked for. I can’t think of a single example where a client has found and hired me only on the basis of my website.

So why have a website, you ask? And the reason is that it provides reassurance, lets referred clients check me out a bit before they reach out. Most importantly, it makes it much easier for potential clients to approach me and start a conversation. For example – I see you worked for our big competitor- was it in the same area?  Did you run across my friend Joe Smith? And all of these questions make it easy for me to sell my services in a non douchey way – which is super important as we all know.

So – I have nothing to lose by focusing on the work and the clients that I love!

But I think this is a really common dilemma  - we agonize over decisions for our own business that are no-brainers when we work for our clients.  Any other examples you’ve come across?