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If You’re Not Embarrassed By Your Startup, You Launched Too Late

“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” — Reid Hoffman

If your startup is successful, no one will remember how ugly your product looked the day you launched. (And if it’s not successful, no one will care.)

When we think about successful companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, we tend to forget the modest beginnings from which they came. As Paul Graham recently wrote, “Think of some successful startups. How many of their launches do you remember?”

In celebration of modest beginnings, here’s a dose of reality: I recently came across the landing pages of some of the most successful companies we know. This is something everyone should see.

The moral of the story: don’t name your company BackRub. Also, don’t worry about making something pretty, worry about making something people love. As Reid Hoffman (the founder of LinkedIn) once said, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

It’s easy to say “have a growth mindset,” and “follow lean startup principles.” It’s a lot harder in reality, when you have to launch quickly, and put out versions of your product that feel unfinished, raw, or even ugly. Take a look at the startups below, and how they launched their first product — and maybe you can launch a little earlier. Or a lot earlier.

(Credit goes to Phil Pickering for finding these.)

Twitter’s first landing page:

Early Facebook screenshot:

Early Google homepage (from 1997):

The precursor to Google, BackRub:

An even earlier Google homepage:

Yahoo!’s homepage in 1994:

Early tumblr dashboard screenshot:

Early Amazon homepage screenshot:

Apple circa 1997:

AuctionWeb before it became eBay:

Burbn (a Foursquare clone) before it pivoted to… Instagram:

The first ever prototype of Foursquare (shown at SXSW in 2009):

Reid Hoffman’s original LinkedIn:

And finally… Reddit (some things never change):

What stands out to you? How would you have designed things differently?

It’s easy to think that you need to have a great design and get everything polished before you release it to the world. In reality, you should launch things as soon as you can, as quickly as you can, to get validated learning. The Lean Startup talks about this as validated learning — getting immediate feedback from users as to what they actually want, not assuming you know all the answers.

How can you launch a beta version earlier? Why is getting feedback on a somewhat-shitty design more valuable than perfecting a design that no one wants? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

Changing Careers at 30: Are You Bold Enough To Do It?

You’ve been dreaming about it for almost a decade. You see it so clearly it’s almost three dimensional. You can practically taste the sweet nectar of success.

Except that it’s nothing more than a fantasy. A pipe dream. One of those woulda, coulda, shoulda things you dwell on, that fascinates and scares you at the same time. It’s painful, but you can’t seem to stop.

You’ve been slowly wasting away at a job you loathe, letting it drain the life out of you, while you eye your friends with envy. You know, those friends that bit the bullet back in your glory days and dove head first into exciting career plans? Who never looked back, not even once?

You keep thinking, “Man, that could have been me.”

Except, well, it wasn’t. For whatever reason. Maybe you decided to take the more secure albeit less exciting route, or that well-paying “safe” job. Maybe you decided to start a family right out of the gate. Maybe you coasted for a few years, drifting from career to career, or project to project, but never really seeing results you’d hoped for.

No worries, friend. Whatever your situation, wherever you’re at right now, life isn’t over until it’s over. Now’s the time to stiffen up that upper lip and chase those dreams in earnest. But where to begin?

Have a Plan

Why? Because planning is cool. And because, well… if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Really though, you don’t want to just drop your life and switch careers on a whim or start a new business without doing some due diligence. Quiz yourself. Ask yourself why you want to make this big change. Can you handle the pay cut that most likely will come (at least initially)?

Do you have the working capital you need to fund your idea? If you’re starting your own business, do you have a marketing budget? Do you need any sort of insurance coverage to legally operate? Assess all the required moving parts that will be necessary to make your career move a success, then ask yourself: Do you fall short in any of those areas?

Consider a Trial Phase

Perhaps your idea is something you can test the waters in first, before making a major move and potentially lighting bridges afire behind you. Ask yourself if the change you are contemplating could be something you could do on the side around your current job, just to make sure it’s viable.

For instance, if you’ve always dreamed of launching your own web design company, maybe you can start out with a couple of freelance projects during your spare time, and see where the waters take you. You might find web designing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and decide you want to focus your attention in another direction.

That’s perfectly fine too. There are no rules that say we have to settle on one career path, and one career path only. Variety is the spice of life, or haven’t you heard?

Deep Dive into Your Dreams

While it can be tempting to want to change careers simply because you see others around you succeeding at something, it doesn’t mean what they are succeeding at is right for you. We humans are a quirky lot, and we each come with our own unique gifts, talents, and skill sets.

Instead of being seduced by the lure of quick or easy money, or dazzled by a career that seems glamorous but doesn’t give you any kind of thrill, sit down and actually think about what you want to do. Analyze your passions, honestly assess your skills and strengths, figure out what lights you up and sets you on fire for life.

Then get to researching and find out if there’s a market out there that will let you somehow marry your passion and skills with smart business. If there’s a market for it, turn that idea into the best career move of your life, and don’t look back. But never forget, switching careers merely because you see someone else doing better than you at something is lame. Don’t do that.

Make Lots of Friends

A big part of changing careers successfully is making sure you have an established network of friends in place before you make the big move.

This is your social circle, your network of people that you know in the industry you’re trying to move into that can help make your transition a bit less difficult. In many industries, they say it’s all about who you know, and this is more true than you probably realize.

Even that guy you say hello to every day at the coffee shop might be a potential contact that could prove valuable in your business at some point. As an entrepreneur, you just never know when you meet someone, how they may affect your life and your business further down the road. Make friends, exchange contact information, expand your network. But do it with class, and don’t be an… well, you know.

Just Do It

Have you done all the research? Have you asked yourself all the tough questions? Have you mapped out some kind of game plan on where you’re going, how you’re going, and what you need to get there? If you’ve done everything you can think of to mitigate potential failures, it’s time to quit talking about the big plan, and do the big plan.

It’s easy to get stuck in some kind of holding pattern as you wrestle with a big life change. Any big life change, really. It doesn’t just apply to careers. “Should I? Shouldn’t I?” is the mental narrative that seems to loop on repeat.

It often triggers something I like to call procrastination assassination. I should know, I’ve been a victim of it myself. Don’t let that be you. Once you’ve reached a certain point, you just have to take a leap of faith. Or give it all up for good and resign yourself to your current ho-hum career.

But if you’re reading this post, I know you don’t want that. You want more than ho-hum. So how about you get busy, and make that long-awaited dream happen?

By my admittedly flawed calculations, I figure now is as good a time as any.

5 Fool Proof Tips for Building a Strong Web Developer Portfolio

The demand for web developers is growing quickly. But even with this rapidly expanding demand, if you’re looking for a permanent or freelance assignment, landing the right work can feel daunting. The competition can be intense, and trying to stand out can be exhausting.

Many employers will look at your education and work history, but what they’re interested in most is your web developer portfolio. What have you done in the past, and more importantly, does your work fit their needs? Fortunately, there are steps you can take that will differentiate you from other web developers, and make landing your next position or assignment more effortless.

You likely have an online portfolio, but what do prospects think when they view it? After spending time on your site, do they feel like you’re a natural fit for their projects? Or are they left with unanswered questions? Here are some tips for refreshing your web designer portfolio when it’s not getting the job done.

Develop a specialty. It may be tempting to highlight a broad range of experiences so you will “fit” whatever the visitor is looking for, but this can be a mistake. Instead, focus on highlighting expertise for the projects that you most want to pursue. Or even better, focus on specific niches and industries. When you get specific about project expertise, the right employers will be attracted to your work, and will perceive you as a “better fit” than the majority of competitors.

Develop points of differentiation. Many designers are available for work, which can make these professionals seem like a commodity, especially in the freelance market. So what makes you different? Maybe it’s your expertise in a specific niche, or perhaps it’s the way you approach projects. Don’t be afraid to weave your points of differentiation into every aspect of your site.

Don’t showcase everything, only your “greatest hits.” Think about your web design portfolio like a greatest hits album. Many projects could be included in your body of work, but there are some projects that are stellar. Cherry-pick the projects, and displaying only a select few, rather than everything.

Highlight your skills and abilities through testimonials. Prospective employers and clients want to know “If I hire you, what will working together look like?” Will you improve their overall work dynamic and deliver excellent outcomes, or will they have regrets?

Ask previous co-workers, clients and others who can speak to the quality of your work to write testimonials. Request testimonials on LinkedIn if possible, and then leverage that content onto your portfolio site, doubling the impact.

Develop a clear call to action on every page. Oftentimes, a developer will create a fantastic portfolio, but there is no clear call to action. What should your visitor do next? Maybe it’s a “Hire Me” button for freelance projects or “Request a Quote.” Or perhaps it’s a softer call to action, such as “View My Recent Work.” Whatever it is, don’t leave your potential customer at the end of the page without a clear next step or a good idea of how they can contact you.

Portfolio Building Blocks: Finding the Missing Pieces

You’ve figured out how to make your portfolio stronger, differentiate your positioning and showcase your best work, but what are the basic elements that your portfolio should have? More importantly, are you missing anything? Here are some basics that every great portfolio should include.

Name and picture. Your site and work might be compelling, but nothing adds a personal connection like a photo of you. If you prefer not to include a photo, and it fits with your personal brand, consider including a logo that reflects your individual brand infuse additional personality into your site.

Who you are. This can be a basic “About Me” page that details your background, relevant education and anything else that demonstrates your expertise as a web developer.

Contact details. This information should be on every single page. Once you sell a potential employer or prospect, it shouldn’t be hard for them to get in touch with you. Make the experience fast and easy.

Recent work. A carefully selected sampling of your greatest work.

Social icons and networks. Encourage visitors to connect with you on social networks, whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or other media.

Building a Portfolio With Limited Samples

Developing a great portfolio may appear simple for the seasoned pro with many samples to choose from. But what if you’re a relatively new developer, and you don’t have many work samples? Even if you don’t have a large body of work, you can still create an excellent portfolio.

First of all, if you don’t have a few samples to showcase, get some quickly. This isn’t as difficult as many people think. The easiest way is to handpick a few companies in the niches where you’d like to work, and offer to do a pro bono assignment for them. In return, ask the client for a strong testimonial, assuming they are happy with the work. If all goes well, hopefully they’ll hire you in the future, or at least provide a solid referral to another prospect.

Potential clients and employers won’t know the sample was completed at no cost. And more importantly, once you’ve completed a few work samples, you can upload them to your portfolio and have a starting point. A few strong projects are enough to start. Once you’re established and have more samples, you can swap out older samples and focus on displaying the most impressive work.

The Next Steps

Depending on the current state of your portfolio, there may be lots of work to do. Don’t feel overwhelmed. Select a small task to complete each day. By taking a single step daily, you will build the required momentum to create an excellent portfolio.

A web developer’s portfolio will always be a “work in progress,” but by continually tweaking it and making it better, you will become an established developer in your niches, and land your next assignments with greater ease.

Calculating Freelance Web Developer Rates

You need a freelance web developer or are thinking about freelancing yourself, but you have no idea where to start when it comes to rates. Should you pay or charge by the hour? How much does this stuff cost? You ask around, and you can’t get a straight answer.

That’s because freelance web developer rates vary based on experienced, location, and expertise. Some developers charge $20,000 per website, while others scrape by at $30 per hour. It all depends on the developer.

The trick to figuring out a web developer hourly rate is figuring out the services you need, and venturing out into the field to determine how much it will cost you. Whether you’re a freelance yourself or you want to hire one, you’ve got to ask yourself what you need done, and what you can realistically afford.

What Type of Development?

Do you need ongoing maintenance? Do you need someone to build a website from scratch? Ecommerce websites that sell online might have more needs than brick-and-mortar shops, and rates will adjust accordingly.

  • Website from scratch — Building a website from scratch is likely to be more expensive in the short term than adding on to a website that already exists. Note that it could cost more to add a content management system, have someone code in HTML5, or to be responsive on mobile devices.
  • Ongoing maintenance — All websites need ongoing maintenance, and you should be prepared to have a freelance web developer on hand to help with the creation of new pages, any issues with hosting, URL changes, and integration with marketing tools.
  • Design needs — Sometimes freelance web developers also offer design services, such as image creation for blog posts and other website pages.

Typical Freelance Web Developer Rates

There’s a wide array of rates. A new website can cost anywhere from $2000 to $20,000. An experienced freelance web developer might charge upwards $150 per hour, while a newbie might charge $30 per hour. But what do you need?

The trick is to determine your needs and set your budget first. Determine what work you need done, and decide on how much you’d be willing to pay for it. For example, you might decide that you need a 5 page WordPress website, and that you’d be willing to pay $800 for it. This will give you a basis to work with, and even if it the designers and developers you want appear out of your reach, you’ll be able to have some sort of starting point, and can adjust accordingly.

It’s also a good idea to ask any friends and colleagues for insight. How much did they pay for their website? Try to collect as much information as possible from real experiences.

You Get What You Pay For

People want to get a good deal, but everyone knows the best goods come with a substantial price tag. If you want high quality, or can provide high quality to your clients, your rates should reflect that.

When a company hires a freelance web developer, it’s typically a lot cheaper than hiring an employee. Freelancers and those who hire them should keep this in mind when it comes to rates, and not shy away when rates seem high.

For example, a freelancer might charge $10,000 to build a website from scratch, delivering it within three or four months. If an employer hires someone to do this in-house at a salary of $80,000 per year, plus benefits, this employee might take three months to build the same website, which winds up costing you $20,000, which is twice as expensive. That doesn’t include the benefits you have to provide that employee, either.

Finding Developers

Finding high quality, trustworthy developers is half the battle. If you’re searching for a freelance developer, here are some sources to turn to:

  • Your connections — Hands down, your connections are the best places to look for a freelance web developer. Who built their websites? Who do they use for ongoing maintenance? Who do they recommend?
  • Stack Exchange — Stack Exchange is a community for developers of all kinds, and tons of freelance developers hang out and exchange tips in this community. It’s a great place to tap if you have a new project and want to get the word out.
  • Guru — Guru is a freelance website that specializes in freelance developers. It allows you to post your project and your budget. It’s a good option for those on a tight budget as many freelance developers on Guru are inexpensive.
  • Toptal — Toptal is a newer freelance platform that connects the best developers with clients in need. Unlike Guru or other freelancing sites, Toptal focuses on the best of the best, only accepting 3% of all developers who apply.

Testing the Waters

Many want to understand freelance web developer rates before they hire a developer, but you may need to test the waters to understand how your rates work out in the field.

  • If you’re looking for a freelance web developer, find a few developers and get some quotes. Find a few different developers, explain your project, and ask them for a quote. How much would they charge to get it done? What would their process be? This is the best way to figure out the going rate.
  • If you are a freelance developer, test out some rates and see how clients respond. Setting rates is tough, and sometimes the best way to learn is through experience. It’s also a good idea to ask other freelance developers what they charge, and join up with some freelance communities to learn more.

Understanding Freelance Web Developer Rates

Asking about typical freelance web developer hourly rate is much like asking how much it costs to pay rent. Rent depends a lot on budget, location, and size and quality of the home. Web developer rates depend a lot on project, expertise, and quality of the freelance web developer.

10 Ways To Improve Your Writing Skills Today

One skill that most people need in business is writing. Entrepreneurs working on their own will find themselves writing emails, proposals, blog posts, social media posts, on a regular basis. This is why developing your writing skills as an entrepreneur is essential. In this post, I’ll share my top 10 ways to improve your writing skills.

Write Every Day

When it comes down to how to improve your writing skills it can be hard to know where to get started. The best way to refine any skill is to practice it. With writing, you should be practicing daily. Chances are, you already are as you are replying to emails and sharing social media updates. If not, then you need to start.

Your daily practice can include writing that is shared with others like blog posts, social media posts, and comments on articles. Or it can include writing that is for yourself only, like Morning Pages, a three-page handwritten stream of consciousness done every morning to reduce stress and anxiety.

If you can’t muster up the enthusiasm for writing about your business, that’s ok. Write about other things that you are passionate about (although hopefully, you are passionate about your business too). Write articles on a personal blog about your favorite hobby. Write social media posts in groups about a particular interest. Write comments on entertainment and technology blogs that you visit for fun.

As you write more, you will find one of two things. You will find that the more you write, the easier it gets or you will find that the more you write, the more you need to polish your writing skills. If the latter is the case, definitely try the following.

Write Something People Want or Need to Read

If your writing falls into the realms of something people want to read or something people need to read, then you will have a successful piece of writing. Better yet, you will be more motivated to write in the first place because you will know that someone out there will consume your writing.

Here’s a handy guide to determining if your writing is what people want or need to read.

For example, let’s say you’re working on a blog post. How do you figure out if it is something people will want or need to read? You can use tools like Impactana to help. Start by signing up for an account and searching for the topic of your blog post. Then click on the Impact rating next to blog posts similar to the ones you were thinking about writing.

The number of views will show you if people actually cared enough to view the content. This tool will also show you things like number of backlinks (for SEO value) and number of social shares so you can further determine the popularity of your topic.

Alternatively, you can just do a Google search for your topic, click on the top articles, and see what kind of engagement they get in the way of social shares (usually shown next to social buttons on a blog post) and comments they receive. You can also use Q&A networks like Quora and Yahoo Answers to see what people ask about often related to your topic.

Note that some topics might fall into the “need to read” category, but not necessarily be popular, or terribly interesting for that matter. Take insurance. No one gets excited about reading or sharing articles about insurance with their friends.

But if you’re thinking about buying your first house, you’ll want to do some research into different types of home insurance. If you have a friend who is buying their first house, you might share articles you find with them.

Keep it Simple

KISS stands for Keep It Simple Silly. When it comes to writing, the simpler you make it, the better. Make your point and move on. You shouldn’t be focused on word count as much as you are focused on whether your reader will be able to get what you are saying and take value from it.

Write First, Edit Later

There is nothing that can stall a good writing session like obsessing about spelling, grammar, order, outcome, and anything else besides the process of writing itself. Focus on getting your thoughts out on paper or in your document first. Edit once you are finished.

If you have trouble doing this, then try dictation software. Dragon software will allow you to say whatever is on your mind and write it out for you. You will have to do some editing work after, especially until you get used to verbally adding in punctuation and new paragraphs. But ultimately, it can help you write faster.

Once you are finished writing…

Use a Professional Online Editor

Most text editors and word processors like Microsoft Word or your browser have a built-in proofing tool that helps to correct basic spelling and grammar. But the problem with these built-in tools is that they miss a lot of mistakes and teach you little about the mistakes you are making.

Grammarly and Hemingway are the best alternatives to hiring a professional editor for your writing. They are online editors that can help you improve your writing by identifying specific writing errors, letting you know why they are errors, and helping you correct them.

Grammarly’s premium version allows you choose from a variety of settings based on the type of document you are writing.

Additional benefits of using Grammarly include the following.

  • You can save your documents in Grammarly as to refer to the fully edited versions later down the road.
  • You can install the browser extension and get Grammarly editing advice in different applications (like Gmail and Facebook).

While you can save documents in Grammarly, I’d suggest writing in a different word processor (like Microsoft Word or Google Docs) and copying / pasting your text to Grammarly and back to your word processor. That way, you always have your document, whether or not you choose to maintain your Grammarly account.

Hemingway, on the other hand, is a free tool that offers similar advice, but in a more simplistic manner.

You can’t save your documents in this editor or use it in other browser applications. But you can toggle between write and edit mode so you can focus on writing, then focus on editing.

Read What You Write Out Loud

Even after you have done a full online editing of your writing, you should give it a final test by actually reading your writing out loud. There are some things that might be grammatically correct, but unnatural otherwise. If any portion of your writing is difficult to say out loud, then it might need to be rewritten for better clarity.

Alternatively, you can have someone else read your writing out loud to you. Being the recipient of your own writing could help you further improve it.

Follow Those Who Write for Your Target Audience

To get the best writing examples to study, look for writing done by those who write for your target audience. Subscribe to your competitor’s blog posts and email newsletter. Read the sales letters and landing pages on their website. Follow their social media posts. See if they published their investment pitch deck on Slideshare.

When reviewing your competitor’s writing style, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Is the writing formal or casual?
  • Is the writing serious or funny?
  • Is the writing verbose or succinct?
  • Is the writing first, second, or third person oriented?
  • Is the writing text heavy or light?

Be sure to analyze the writing of multiple competitors or others with the same target audience. That way you don’t model yourself after the one misfit in your niche or industry.

Create Templates

Templates are the answer to writing efficiency in business. Whenever you find yourself writing a similar document repeatedly, creating a template for that document will save you time (and frustration if you are not particularly fond of writing).

Email templates are going to be a huge timesaver for most entrepreneurs. Each time you find yourself looking back through your email archives to copy an email you sent to one person and paste it to send to another, that email content should become a template.

When using templates, pay attention to personalization fields throughout the template so you don’t address someone by another name or reference something from a different intended recipient. While templates can be great productivity boosters, they can also lead to some embarrassing blunders as well. Use them carefully!

Do Some Testing

If you liked science in school, then you will love A/B testing. When it comes to writing, there are lots of different things you can test. Start by defining your goal for a particular piece of writing. Here are some common goals for common types of writing in business.

  • The goal of your proposal will likely be to get funding for your startup.
  • The goal of your outreach email will likely be to get a blogger to write about your startup.
  • The goal of your blog post will likely be to get lots of social shares.
  • The goal of your sales page will likely be to get more sales.

Once you have defined your goals, you can start doing some testing with your writing to see what versions of your writing produce the most conversions, or goal completions. Start by changing the areas that are going to make a first impression in your writing: headlines, subject lines, bolded headers, and calls to action.

Change one element at a time so you can compare the results. For example, you can send 50 emails with one subject line and 50 emails with another subject line to determine which email received the best response. Once you know which one works, you can move on to testing different portions of the email content itself. Eventually, you will have an email that is scientifically proven to get the most conversions.

For A/B testing in direct email correspondence, you will need CRM tools like Salesforce. For your website, Optimizely, VWO, and Nelio are a few tools that will measure the results of your A/B testing so that you can quickly identify the best writing on your landing pages to accomplish your goals.

For email newsletters, several email marketing services offer A/B testing options for headlines and other aspects of your email content. These include GetResponse, MailChimp, and ActiveCampaign.

Don’t let the cost of investing in tools stop you from testing your writing. You can always go with good old paper and pen analysis to get good results.

Study the Art of Writing

If you are truly interested in improving your writing skills, take some time to study the art of writing itself. You can focus on business writing or expand your mind into the creative side of things. You will find lots of great books on writing on Amazon. If you prefer to learn while you commute, you will also find some great books on writing on Audible. You can even take a free course on High-Impact Business Writing from the University of California via Coursera.

In Conclusion

When it comes to writing, there is always room for improvement. Even if all you do after reading this post is invest in the professional online editor, you will have made a great investment in the future of your business through better writing.

5 Steps To Successfully Transition Into Freelancing While You Still Have A Full-Time Job

When I quit my full-time job to freelance, my friends and parents thought I was crazy.

  • “How are you going to make money?”
  • “Where will you find clients?”
  • “Why didn’t you get another job, at least as a safety net until you’re really ready?”

I put on a brave face, but truth was, I had no idea what the answer was for any of these questions.

I had just quit my full-time job, with benefits and insurance and a regular paycheck, to break into the world of freelancing as a self-taught coder.

I was not prepared. All I had was high aspirations and a couple of books on consulting.

I made a lot of mistakes.

I had no idea how to prioritize my time. I didn’t even know what to prioritize.

I was used to people telling me what to do. I had experience getting deadlines, not setting them.

I didn’t know how to talk to clients, let alone find them.

I had a runway, a cushion of savings, but not nearly enough for someone so incredibly unprepared to start a freelancing business.

On top of all that: once I did find and land my first client — I massively undercharged my services and undersold my value.

Here’s what I wish I had done instead, so you can successfully transition into freelancing while you still have the safety net of your full-time job.

Step 1: Start thinking like a freelancer. One who has a full-time job on the side.

This is a simple mindset change: your full-time job is no longer your life. It is not where you will be next year. It is not where you are stuck, living out the rest of your days.

Your job is the rest stop between now and the flexibility and freedom that comes from freelancing.

Remind yourself of this every day that you go to work.

Then, begin thinking like a freelancer. A freelancer has to juggle priorities and stay motivated with a packed plate. A freelancer needs to know what next steps to take, and how to stick to deadlines without anyone breathing down your shoulders.

Consider these aspects, and try them on.

Give yourself projects with deadlines. Do them. Pretend they are for clients.

Step 2: Decide who your target clients will be.

Who do you want to work with? Small businesses? Local coffee shops? B2B marketing firms? Sole proprietors in a certain niche?

Do research on the types of clients you want to serve.

Make sure they fit the following qualifications:

  1. They have the ability to pay (so don’t pick, say, brand new start-ups).
  2. They have real, burning business needs that you can solve with your skills.
  3. They are niche enough that you can offer specific, tailored services — this will help you stand out from the competition and give you a leg up. You become the natural first choice for very specialized problem.

If you find a target client that doesn’t fit all three qualifications, pick a different one.

Don’t get hung up or married to any particular client fit just yet. You’re exploring the field, testing the grounds.

Step 3: Decide what services you will offer.

Think about your range of skills. Are you able to create beautiful websites? Amazing UI? Great.

Now, what specific services do you want to offer to your target client? More importantly, though: what specific services would your target client want, no, need from you?

Think back to your research in Step 2. Consider reaching out to a couple potential future clients, and testing your ideas on them.

Ask them for a 15-minute call or a 30-minute coffee meeting. Let them know you’re just curious to learn more about their business and what they do.

It’s not a sales pitch, it’s an inquiry. You’re learning.

Try to take yourself out of the equation and explore what your clients want from you, versus what you want to offer your clients.

This will help ensure that when you launch your business, you will have clients knocking down your door to get access.

Step 4: Consider how you will deliver your services.

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to service delivery.

You have a lot of options. This is your opportunity to get creative.

For example, you can productize your services.

You can build out on-going, monthly service options that bring you recurring revenue.

You can partner up with similar service providers and double your access to potential clients.

You can create add-ons to any of the options above.

Deciding how you will deliver your services is a fun process, a brainstorming session that will continue as you progress through your transition (and continue into your actual freelancing as well).

Step 5: Start connecting with influential people who can make introductions and referrals to high value clients.

Influential people will be the 1 most important playing card for your successful freelancing business.

By building authentic connections with influencers, you gain access to powerful introductions and referrals to high-value clients. You meet high powered mentors who can propel your business forward. Last but not least, you increase your own social standing and can market to a higher class of client who pays premium prices.

Starting to build these relationships now, while you are still at your full-time job, is the best possible thing you can do to ensure the success of your business once you put in your 2-weeks notice.

To start, find people who are influential to you. Connect with them on social media and follow their blogs or websites.

Do the same for people who are influential to your clients. To do this, see who your clients are tweeting and following on Twitter, or “liking” on Facebook.

Then begin building relationships by offering value to these people. You can do this by:

  • Leaving comments on blog posts about specific takeaways
  • Taking any and all advice given via email newsletters or blog posts, then report back with the results you got
  • Sending new clients or introductions their way

Building solid, authentic relationships takes time. It’s important to start now, while you still have the security of your job.

Now it’s time to take action.

At this point, you have five action steps to take.

Here’s how you can start taking those steps today:

  1. Make a slight mindset shift and think of yourself as a freelancer who happens to have a full-time job on the side, a rest stop between now and when you’re freelancing.
  2. Pull out a notebook or spreadsheet and begin exploring potential client options. Make sure they hit the top three qualifiers: they can pay, you can help them, and they are niche enough that you can tailor specific services to them.
  3. Think about what specific skills you will offer as services, based on your research from action step 2.
  4. Start brainstorming the ways you will deliver your services to your clients. Explore options. Go online and see how other people are doing it. How can you go one step further and do it even better, or more different?
  5. Find influencers who impact you, and influencers who impact your future clients. Begin getting on their radar, and start slowly building authentic connections with them by providing value any way that you can.

Now that you have these action steps, you can start your transition from your full-time job to freelancing.

You’ll be able to hit the ground running once you put in your resignation.

You’ll be able to tap into a new, extraordinary network of strong influential people who are now ready to help YOU since you’ve spent time providing value to them.

All it takes is five simple steps.

9 Tips to Own Your Next Video Interview

You’re at a conference and suddenly asked to be interviewed on video: what do you do?

How do you make sure to look great on camera, and also give them great sound bites that won’t end up on the editing room floor?

I was recently interviewed by AWEBER at WistiaFest and my training as a filmmaker and a voice over actor paid off. Here are some of the practices that work really well, and will make you look great on camera.

1. Always repeat the question.

Adding that context will make it clear to the viewer what you’re talking about, which will make you the video editor’s best friend.

In any interview, they’ll ask you a question. Repeat the question in your answer, but don’t add inflection.

“What do you think is the best part of using video content?”

YES: “The best part of video content is …”

NO: “It’s a great tool!”

Adding that context will make it clear to the viewer what you’re talking about, which will make you the video editor’s best friend. Most people don’t know to do this, which means you’ll be more likely to be the first person featured in any interview montage.<

2. Use your company as an example, not a lead.

When you reference your company, slide it into one of your answers as an example, not as a lead.

“Hi, I’m Zach and I work at One Month,” will be edited straight out of my answer to get to the good stuff. Instead, I put it inside of my answer:

“The biggest takeaway that I’m excited to use for my work at One Month is…”

3. Pause a lot more than you would in real life.

Take pregnant pauses in between statements. As a video editor, I’ve worked with all sorts of people, and the ones who make my life the easiest are the ones who smile and breathe in between sentences. It might feel awkward to speak slower than you’re used to, but it will look a million times better.

It might feel awkward to speak slower than you’re used to, but it will look a million times better.

If it’s an interview at a live event, odds are good they’ll have and want to use B-Roll, or supplemental footage of the event, which can be played over interviews to hide cuts. If you ramble on and on, it’s much more difficult to get a clean take, and I’ll spend hours cleaning up the section of video to make you look good.

4. Watch your eyeline (aka: look where they tell you)

Your eyeline is where you’re looking while you’re on camera. It’s distracting to watch someone talk while they’re looking all over the place. There are two main approaches to eyelines in interviews:

1. Off-screen: You’re looking just off-screen, implicitly at the interviewer. 2. Direct address: You’re looking right down the barrel of the camera lens, making ‘eye-contact’ with the viewer.

You don’t want to be the only goof looking into the lens in a collection of 10 subjects.

Whichever it is, you want to keep it consistent, both in your personal interview and with the other people they already shot. You don’t want to be the only goof looking into the lens in a collection of 10 subjects. If you’re not directed by the production team, make sure to ask them. If they say it doesn’t matter, you probably don’t want to be in their video.

5. Stick ’em up! Your hands, that is.

It can feel awkward to use your hands while being interviewed, but if done right, it can make you look like a boss. First, check with the camera person to get a sense of what is in or outside of the frame. If it’s a close up, nobody will ever see your hands. That doesn’t mean don’t use them, though. Open, confident body language will translate regardless.

If you feel like a complete alien waving your hands around, strike a power pose with your hands on your waist, but only if you’re standing.

Keep your hands at about your beltline, palms open, and use slight gestures to emphasize what you’re saying. Some good rules of thumb: Avoid touching yourself, don’t block your face, and if there’s studio lighting, try not to cast hard shadows on your body. If you feel like a complete alien waving your hands around, strike a power pose with your hands on your waist, but only if you’re standing. Wistia has a great video about this.

6. Turn off your phone

Unlike being at the movies, turning off your phone during a shoot is more than a courtesy. Aside from incoming texts and Tweets throwing you off your game, the wireless frequency from your mobile phone can interfere with wireless microphone signals and produce unwanted distortion and static in the recording. This a great way to guarantee you won’t be featured at all.

7. Get your selfie on

The only way to get good at being on camera is by being on camera, so whip out your smart-phone or laptop and get in front of that lens. It’s the best way to get an upperhand on how you’ll look in your next close-up. If you don’t have access to a camera, or are still feeling shy, you can warm up to it by practicing in front of the mirror. At the end of the day, if you can’t be present with yourself, it’s hard to be present with other people.

At the end of the day, if you can’t be present with yourself, it’s hard to be present with other people.

Practice, focus on being right there, on point with eye contact, speaking in complete sentences, giving good pauses. Next, experiment which side of your face is your “better side”. Record yourself on your phone, and play it back so you can hear the tone in your voice and get an idea for what your body language and posture looks like. Feel free to experiment and try new things, too! This exercise will help you direct a camera crew looking to interview you if they want to look at the interviewer and not into the lens. You’ll learn whether you need a trim or to be packing some oil blotting sheets.

You won’t get better just by reading this; you’ll actually have to practice it.

Try a few of these tips once a week, or give yourself rehearsal time a day or two before a conference. Here at One Month, Mattan practices giving short motivational speeches on Monday Mornings, because he wants to learn how to be a better public speaker. Tell your colleagues your goals and find a space where you can practice your skills.

What are you going to take on? Do you already have a practice you love? Any questions about how to interview like a pro? Leave a comment and we’ll get back at you!

Content Marketing Isn’t The Dirty Word You Think It Is

People call me a “content marketer” often (not sure if it’s a compliment or insult), so let’s talk about how you can use the articles you write to sell the products or service you’ve got.

Too often, clients, friends, and confidants (i.e. people I talk to on Slack) tell me that they don’t have time to write articles that support their business. Then, in their next (digital) breath, they tell me how their business could be doing much better. When I mention to them that useful content could support and grow their business, and they could do a lot better if they made time for writing, they reply that they don’t have time to write.

This, my friends, is known as a total logic fail.

Let’s start with what content marketing isn’t.

It’s not simply blogging. Otherwise, there’d be thousands of teenagers on Tumblr who could put “content marketer” on their resume (although I’m sure some do, those pesky teens!). If you’re writing entirely for yourself, that’s a journal — there’s nothing wrong with that, but it won’t be effective for selling anything.

Content marketing is the intersection of where the writing you do serves the audience and you, the creator, equally.

Your audience wants value from timely, useful, and engaging information. You need your business to grow (whatever growth means to you), make money, and be continually exposed to new audiences.

With this type of writing, there’s always an intended next step. Buying something, signing up for a list, registering for a webinar, sharing something socially, ranking in a search engine for a term, etc. There’s some explicit action that happens after someone has consumed what they just read. Because they made it all the way to the end, they’re finishing reading now, and are looking for what to do next.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing.

The reason I’m called a “content marketer” is because my weapon of choice for selling what I create is writing. I choose this weapon because it suits me the best, and aligns with what I like do and how I like to show up in the world.

As a writer, I know I can write. Whereas if I had to make cold calls or give speeches, I’d be a sweaty mess of “uh’s” and “hmm’s.” Writing has consistently and strategically grown my product business (books, courses, online events) to make up more than 50% of my income in less than three years.

So maybe you want to be a content marketer, too? Maybe it’s not such a dirty term after all. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not as much work as you think.

Here’s how you can maximize a small amount of time to use content to help both your audience and your business.

Start by always having a list of ideas for topics you want to write about. What do you add to this list? Questions your audience has asked you, related content to your most popular existing articles, using apps like BuzzSumo to analyze topics/competition, even articles you’ve read that you have a unique or opposite take on.

Have ready access to this list of ideas (either in a physical notebook or a text file that you can access from your computer or phone). Add to it constantly and be on the lookout for new ideas to add to the pile while reading, watching TV, scrolling on social media, walking in the park, or even eating breakfast.

Now, look at the list and pick the first idea that stands out to you. You’re going to write a content marketing article on this idea!

Write down the following items in a spreadsheet (and we’ll use this article as an example):

  1. What’s your goal in writing about this idea? Ex. “I want to teach people that content marketing is easier than they think it is.”
  2. What’s the reward your audience gets for consuming an article about this topic? Ex. “They learn how to use content marketing to drive revenue and exposure in their own businesses.”
  3. What’s the main point of the story? Is there a secondary point? Ex. “PRIMARY: Content marketing is easier than most people think it is. SECONDARY: Writing consistent content takes less time than people think, too.”
  4. What makes those points valid? Is there data, a unique personal story, research that backs it up? Ex. “50%+ of my revenue is now coming from products — all because of content marketing.”
  5. What is the result a reader would see if they, too, acted on the main point you’re making? Ex. “Better/more business if they used content marketing correctly.”
  6. What are 5–10 headlines you could use for this post? Ex. “Content marketing isn’t the dirty word you think it is” “How I use content marketing to generate more than 50% of my product business revenue” “Why content marketing can work for you, in less time than you think” “If you’re too busy for content marketing, then you’re too busy to grow your business” “Get out of your own head about content marketing — it can help drive business”
  7. What’s the next action you want a reader to take after reading the post? Ex. “NEW READERS: Sign up for my mailing list. EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS: Download the XLS worksheet and actually use it.”

Guess what? In answering those simple questions, you’re now 80% (or so) of the way finished your article. No staring at a blank screen for hours or life hacks required, just asking yourself a few simple questions for each idea you’ve got. Let’s put the answers to those questions together a little better:

  • [A6 — Pick your best headline or A/B test the strongest ones.]
  • [A2 — Use the reward your audience gets to illustrate a pain point — what happens if they haven’t taken action.]
  • [A1 — Spell out what you are illustrating.]
  • [A3 — Clearly explain your point(s).]
  • [A4 — Back the points up with data or stories.]
  • [A5 — Describe what the outcome looks like if your reader acts on this.]
  • [A1+A2 — Reiterate your goal and why your audience cares.]
  • [A7 — Give a concrete next step now that they have the information. Bonus content, buying, signing up, sharing, etc.]

Without writing the article by staring at a blank screen, you’ve just written the entire outline, now all you need to do is make the sentences flow together in your own style. If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle — it gets stronger the more you exercise it. So don’t be discouraged if things at first are slower than you expect. You’ll get faster the more consistent you are with your writing practice.

If you’re just starting out with writing, remember that writing is basically a muscle — it gets stronger the more you exercise it.

“Now Paul,” you might be thinking, “That sounds so formulaic and boring! And not at all like the creative person you are or — more importantly — that I am!” But here’s the thing. The formula may be … well … formulaic, but the key is all in how you apply it. How you take the information and make it into a flowing story for your readers. It’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t read fiction because they’re all stories of a character who starts out, goes through some things, and ends up in a different place.” The high level stuff IS formulaic — it’s what you do, what data that makes it interesting, and what makes it you.

With a bit of practice and consistency, there’s no reason you can’t spend an hour each week writing at least one of these articles. That way, you can get your words, ideas, and brand in front of your audience on a regular basis, and the more you write, the faster and easier it becomes. There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

There’s no excuse not to carve out a bit of time each week if you have a business.

One extra thing I’ve figured out by doing this for a few years is that it’s easier to write a bunch of articles at once than it is to write just one, wait a week, then write another. Once you get into the rhythm and flow after writing one, you may be able to crank out another couple right after it. This helps you stay a few weeks ahead of your publishing schedule, which leads to less stress (also known as, “Oh shit! I have to release an article tomorrow?!”)

Staying ahead of your schedule can also help you commit to only publishing your best content. The formula above doesn’t guarantee greatness, it just helps frame content quickly. So you may find that some posts just aren’t that awesome. However, if you’re head of your publishing schedule by a few weeks, you can throw the bad ones away and keep the best for sharing.

I’ve used the above ideas to sell books, drive mailing list signups, sell courses, and keep my brand top-of-mind. It works for me because I get to share in a way I feel comfortable with: writing and teaching.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool.

Using content to engage, teach, and inform your audience is a powerful sales tool. It helps define you as an expert as well as a helpful person, which leads to trust, which then leads to sales. All done in a non-slimy, non-sales-pitchy, really honest way. You help the most important people to your business (your audience), and reciprocation from them helps your business. It’s a win-win.

For those of you paying attention (which I assume is everyone who has read this far), this post was written using the formula I just outlined. I took an idea from my list of topics and went through each question, then put the answers to those questions in a order that gave me an outline. From there it took a little while longer to turn it into the article you just read.

11 Ways To Improve Your Business and Personal Storytelling

When you want to learn how to describe yourself or your business, people look to storytelling as a way to improve their core message.

But what is storytelling? And how do you actually get better at it?

And what does it matter for businesses today?

“Story” — the word is vague and yet so appealing — so it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to use what you learn in your everyday practice.

If you’re not telling your story, who is telling it for you?

This essay will look at some of the core truths about stories and storytelling in Part I, and then I’ll share a few tools that are practical and easy to implement in Part II. Use these core principles across many communication needs, from a personal biography to the description of your company.

Storytelling is a fundamental human tool that we all do innately. The problem is that over time, we’ve been bombarded with terrible examples of bad messaging, and we don’t know what models to look to. Our brains are wired for storytelling, because stories help us learn, explore, and retain information through second- and third-hand experiences. We know when we’re in the presence of a good story, but do we actually know what’s happening inside of them?

We can recognize when we’re captivated by a great story. The problem is, can you dissect what’s happening into tools you can use to your advantage later?

Stories are innately human. Everyone is a born storyteller.

Case in point: when you recount events that you’ve done, even a simple sentence as you walk through the door, you’re setting up a basic story structure:

“You won’t believe what just happened — first I went to the grocery store, then…” — your ears prick up.

You’ve set up the most basic form of a story: do you know what it is?

Here’s another example —

“The beach was dark and quiet. It was eerie — the moon was dark and someone had turned off all the lights on the boardwalk. Alison felt uneasy as she stepped nervously out into the dark. Who had turned out all the lights?”

Both of these examples use a very specific form of storytelling that we’re all hardwired to understand. Do you know what it is?

I’ll explain it today as we deconstruct storytelling. But first, I want to debunk a few myths about storytelling. Somehow we think that only an elite few can be storytellers, and it’s a skill that we don’t have.

Part I: Common storytelling principles that apply to business and life.

1. Everyone is a storyteller.

Some people say that storytelling is limited to an elite few, or a professional clique. In reality, that’s not true. All humans are born storytellers, and we’re born to look for, hear, and describe our world in stories.

When someone comes back to us and says, “Avoid Atlantic avenue, it’s crazy full of traffic,” we select a different route because we got information — in the form of a story — about someone else’s experience.

2. We tell stories to connect, dream, and imagine.

We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine futures. Humans spend up to four hours per day inside of imaginary landscapes — in daydreams, thoughts, visualizations, and places beyond the present. We live in a world of stories.

We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine our futures.

Children are born telling stories — in fact, we play for exactly this reason. Play is our built-in mode of imagining the future and the past. In telling stories, and playing make-believe, we’re able to learn at a much faster pace than if we had to rely only on our own experience.

We are learning creatures. We learn by experience and through our imagination. When something good happens to us, that’s a reward. When something bad happens, there’s a punishment. These incentives teach us over time.

In stories, we get to pick up and enter into the landscape of someone else’s learning — and learn for ourselves, even though we may be sitting in one place, not moving.

3. Stories are how we are hardwired.

Prior to written language, we had to keep important information about the world around us, somehow. We’ve constructed melodies, songs, and other modes of storing information.

Is it any coincidence that “storing” and “storytelling” are related? We are hardwired to remember cause and effect relationships — “I saw a spider, that spider killed my friend, spiders are bad.” “REMEMBER THIS!” Shouts your brain.

Lisa Cron’s research on the brain science behind storytelling is what prompted her book, Wired For Story, if you’re curious about how it works.

In research in The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottfried, he talks about how we actually make up stories all the time, whenever we see two events happening.

If we see a group of women and they’re all wearing tiny shorts, we might tell as story to ourselves about how they are all going to the beach. In research on people with their two brain hemispheres segmented or separated, they discover that our brains actually wire stories into our minds when presented two pieces of information. (For more on this, here’s a list of great books on storytelling.)

4. A story is what you take with you.

In any situation or setting, a story is what you take with you.

When giving a presentation or sharing your brand or idea, what someone walks away with is the story. They’ve taken all the information they’ve been given and distilled it into the easiest parts to remember.

Listen to what people catch from your descriptions, and guide your story towards what people naturally keep bringing up!

A story is what you take with you. Listen to how people explain

It’s less about what you want to say, and what people do with what you say. Pay attention to what people respond to, and adjust accordingly.

5. We are surrounded by far too many examples of bad storytelling — powerpoints, inadequacy marketing, and droll presentations have numbed our innate ability to tell stories.

Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by terrible examples of storytelling. In The Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he talks about all the sins of modern storytelling — from our need for vanity to posing as an authority, and more.

There are far too many bad examples out there — boring presentations, terrible pitches, inadequacy marketing — that we’ve forgotten what great storytelling looks like.

Basically, the last century of mass broadcasting let the leaders in charge of storytelling get lazy. There’s too much talking about yourself, not listening to the audience, and shouting lists. Technology (like powerpoint) even encourages bad storytelling by putting bullets and lists as the mode of operation.

The good news is that once we recognize the bad examples for what they are — boring presentations that put us to sleep — we can stop copying them and start engaging.

6. When you sell anything — yourself, a brand, a business — you tell a story.

When you sell things, you tell a story. It’s not about the thing at hand. And powerpoint lists are terrible ways of communicating.

When you sell things, you’re telling a story.

Think about a toothbrush. You’re not selling a plastic stick with a bunch of flexible bristles on it. Why describe it like that?

When you sell a toothbrush, you’re selling the idea of a cleaner mouth. Why is that clean mouth important?

Think about Listerine: you’re not selling a bottle of alcohol, you’re selling … a date.

The ability to be well-liked.

A possibility.

Advertisements are stories about who you are and who you should be, and great advertisements want to capitalize on something deeper than the physical thing that they are selling.

What do they believe about human nature? What story are they telling you, implied or otherwise?

7. We are naturally curious, and we all want to be smart.

Finding Nemo, the movie, is about a little guy who gets lost and needs to find his dad. Along the way, he goes on adventure after adventure in order to return home.

At the beginning of the movie, we, the audience, know the purpose of the whole movie within the first few minutes: this is a story about a father and son finding each other again.

The same is true in most situations. We interrupt because we want to get to the point faster. When presented with a puzzle, most people work furiously to get it right — first.

People like to be smart, and curious. Stories let us engage our curiosity.

We want to be smart. We like the puzzle of a story, and we want to guess how it will end. Stories entertain us because they keep us in suspense, and they tickle our brains to try to guess how something ends.

Part II: How to improve your business and personal storytelling today.

So how do you take all this and make it applicable to your stories and messages? Here are some concrete ways to improve your storytelling right now.

8. Your English teacher was right — it is about “showing” versus “telling.”

Too often we jump straight to the point. Think about each of these as lead sentences:

“It was the hardest day of my life.”

“The thing is, simplicity matters.”

“Never underestimate the power of a good friend.”

These are all true statements, but it’s not gripping or exciting. Whatever your core philosophical statement, think about leaving it unsaid.

Just like the toothbrush examples before, the point of your story isn’t to beat someone over the head with the idea, but rather to SHOW it through lots of vivid detail and an example that highlights your core philosophy.

We don’t need to be hit over the head with ideas. We want to learn through the experience.

For example —

[It was the hardest day of my life.] vs:

“I’d just finished a fourteen hour shift in the cement factory. I had no idea what my dad did, so that summer I signed up to join him at work. Three days in, and I could barely lift my hands. My forearms burned, and my calves were shot from jumping in and out of the trucks. I’d probably lifted more than a hundred sacks of cement mix in and out of the truck. When I got home that day, all I wanted was to lie down. Then I discovered…”

[Never underestimate the power of a good friend.] vs:

“I’d just found out that my grandmother had passed, and I couldn’t make it home in time. My job had closed the week before, our office putting up the ‘for sale’ sign after more than eight months in the red. On the bus ride home through the foggy drizzle of Portland’s grey fall days, I wondered how I could pay for groceries for the rest of the week.

As I got off the bus, I saw someone sitting on my stoop. “Probably another homeless person,” I muttered to myself, thinking I’d be one soon myself. As I got closer, I saw that it was actually Andy, holding two bags of Indian food takeout. He wrapped me in a big hug. “I thought that you could use this today,” he explained, pointing to the food.

“Let’s eat.”

Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision.

9. Detail, detail, detail. The environment matters — because it lays the foundation for imagination.

Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision. The more you set the stage for where you are, the easier it is for someone to buy in.

Great storytelling is about detail — but a specific kind of detail. How do you set the stage and the context for what’s happening? What does it feel like to be you?

Stories immerse us in an event far away from where we are, catapulting us into a new time and space. Key descriptions anchor us into this new space through the use of all of the senses — smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, texture, even kinesthetics.

Begin by describing the world around you, in vivid sensory detail. The English language has thousands of words to describe the subtle differences in texture and weight and material. Tell the story of what the world looks like. Great fiction books often begin with these details — take a look at 1984 or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for great opening scenes.

With written narrative, all we have are words. Contrast this to film, where we can show rich detail through visual imagery. In our hyper-visual culture, we sometimes replace describing feelings with posting a quick picture, because it’s easier.

But in writing, all we have are words. Choosing words and describing the scene, in detail, is what brings someone into your story.

10. Introduce conflict — by using the “bait” method.

Here’s a secret about the human brain: we all like to be smart.

We like to figure things out, and know the answers to things. Whenever we are presented with a puzzle, we like seeing if we can figure it out before someone else does.

In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning.

In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning. By using a little bit of bait, you stoke the curiosity in your listener’s mind. Ira Glass talks about this often, and if you introduce a story with an underlying question (like “the house was eerily dark,” or “it was a different night than any other,”) the listener begins to wonder why it was so dark, or why the night was different.

This “curiosity gap” between a piece of information that asks a question, and the story that resolves the question, helps the reader stay engaged and curious about the story. A little bit of conflict introduces a puzzle to be fixed!

11. Shorter is often better. Keep it simple!

At the end of the day, a story is what you take with you — and we don’t remember every detail of every story, but rather, the highlights real.

When you’re presenting your idea, biography, or product, start with something short and sweet.

The idea of an elevator pitch is right, but with a twist. It’s not how much you can cram into 1 or 2 minutes, but how easy you can make something that’s understandable and sticky.

At a conference, if you babble and ramble when introducing yourself to people, they’ll forget most of what you said. If you string it into a story, and you keep it simple, people will be able to take that with you.

You don’t need to get all the perfect information into one sentence; in fact, being imperfect can prompt likability and curiosity!

A quick and easy test for how good your story is is to listen in to what’s being said.

Introduce yourself to someone, and then listen to when they introduce you. I’ll often keep it simple — I focus on writing and swimming. I’ll say, “I work as a writer; I teach writing, and I’m also an open-water swimmer.”

Then, when I’m being introduced, Clay leans over and grabs his friend and says, “You gotta meet Sarah, she’s a swimmer!” — I listen to what people hang on to, and what captivates them.

I can’t possibly capture everything about myself (or my business) in a single sentence. But what I can do is find the most interesting part, and start there.

Conclusions and take-aways: journaling and practice.

What did you take away from this introduction to storytelling?

How can you change your story to make it sweeter, simpler, and easier to understand? Is there anything you’re still curious about? Leave a note in the comments, and I’ll be happy to chat with you.

Here are a few ways to take your work forward in your journal and practice:

  1. Practice: how can you write a one-sentence description of who you are that’s super simple? What three keywords or nouns would you use to describe you? Think of it as a gift to your audience — the less you say, the more they can remember.
  2. Writing exercise: describe your environment, in vivid detail. What is the shape of the space that you are in? What does it smell like, taste like, sound like?
  3. Bookmark 10 great “About” pages that you love and highlight what stands out to you. What techniques and styles are used that you particularly admire?
  4. Take a quick look at your email inbox (but don’t get lost in it!). Take a screen shot of your inbox and print it out. Highlight what’s already been read, and what you’ve skipped. Are there any themes? Look at what you click — which email titles are stories? Which ones are boring? What do you skip over? Your inbox is a great case-study for clues to how storytelling works in your everyday life.

Great storytelling, just like anything else, is a learning journey. The best stand-up comics practice their material dozens (if not hundreds) of times to learn what works best.

And remember: a story is what happens between two people. So get out there, practice your story, and use each experience to get a little bit better.

If you want to know more about marketing, content marketing, and storytelling, check out the free webinar recording we have, or the class I teach on Content Marketing.

What else would you add? What would you like to know more about? Leave a note in the comments and I’ll be happy to respond.