When I was studying fiction back in the day, my teacher, the amazing Barry Hannah, said something in class that's been seared into my memory ever since: "Nouns and verbs, baby, nouns and verbs."
It's been a tough few months. I can tell because I went on my website to finally kick off my New Year's resolution to blog every 2 weeks and saw that I hadn't updated my project availability on the homepage since November. That's because for me, like for so many progressive-minded citizens, the world kind of spun off its axis on November 8...
Dave Eggers. He is THAT PERSON. The one everyone wants to be/emulate/worship-at-the-altar-of.
So it was with both relief and delight to find the quote from him you'll find below. It was part of a speech he gave at Yale, which had an earlier incarnation as a retort to someone from the Harvard Business Review who called him a sellout.
The critic stance he rails against is one I think most people battle with pretty much every day, in work, with family members, with oneself. (I know I do). Worth contemplating an alternative approach.
“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.” – Dave Eggers
You know the saying: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And while that still may be technically true, in today's short-attention-span, constantly-reinventing-ourselves (see: Lady Gaga, Johnny Depp) world, there's kind of no such thing as a first impression any more.
If you're like most people in business, you end up spending almost every hour of your day doing things for your customers or clients. Mostly, this is good. It means you've likely got a calendar packed with meetings, a phone that rings a lot, and money in the bank.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where people are as obsessed about the ever-rising price of real estate as they are about their third-wave coffee, thyme-infused cocktails, and Waldorf preschools. I thought Seth's insights into what "overpriced" means today were worth a callout for further contemplation:
One of the favorite things to land in my inbox each morning is the day's missive from Tina Roth Eisenberg. Today, she kicked things off with a Kierkegaard quote that came at a time I needed to hear it:
“Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”
I know it's the giving time of year, but I'm hoping that the latest spate of blog posts and videos I've run into about the importance of being generous in business—with your talent, your time, your capacity to delight your customers—is part of a more global trend and not just a seasonal one.
The writing in this Reebok video is superb. Gorgeous photography, too. Well done.
[hat tip: http://thatis-kingcharming.tumblr.com/]
As someone who makes her living as a writer, it's very tempting to trot out the excuse of "writer's block" whenever I don't feel like working.
Today I started thinking: no other profession has a built-in escape clause. Nothing called "neurosurgeon's block." Or "accountant's block." Or "electrician's block."
But surely those people have days where they'd rather scour the internet for hours for the perfect shade of white to paint their kitchen cabinets (hint: it's Benjamin Moore China White) than go into work and mess around with someone's frontal lobe or their knob-and-tube wiring. Is it that they don't have a title for their malaise? Or is the work of a writer so special, so very hard, that it demands a form of sanctioned relief.
OF COURSE NOT!
But that doesn't stop us writers from whining. From going down rabbit holes on Google. From filling up our Amazon cart. From wandering into the kitchen to wash the morning's oatmeal bowl.
So let's call a spade a spade: writer's block is just a fancy term for garden-variety procrastination. I am guilty. Oh so guilty. At some point, though, I'm staring at a dangerously close deadline and I have no other option than to GET IT DONE.
Sometimes this is a good thing. Miraculous things can happen when you've got your back to the wall and minutes to spare. Musicians talk a lot about how the best songs get written in minutes or come about while they were doing something other than staring at the keys of the piano. Paul McCartney woke up hearing the entire melody of "Yesterday." The Beastie Boys wrote "(You gotta) Fight for your Right (to party)" in 5 minutes on a napkin. David Bowie heard the tune of "Life on Mars" in his head while buying shoes one day and then came back home and wrote the whole song that afternoon.
But usually, the best writing isn't the first writing. At least not in my case. It's taking what comes out at first and revising and honing (and getting input from others) until it goes from serviceable to sparkling.
So what to do when you feel tempted to give into writer's block and take a nap? Here are a few ideas.
1. It's okay! Go ahead, take a nap.
Research shows that short naps do enhance creativity. Even Arianna Huffington is on board. Just keep it in the 15-20 minute range.
2. Get the first sentence or paragraph written
I find that often a lot of my block comes from the fact that I was trained as a journalist, which means I still think of beginnings as ledes. That is: the first thing that gets read has to contain at least the basics of everything that happens after, so that someone can read just the first paragraph of a story and move on if need be. Even though I don't do journalism anymore, I am still telling stories. And if you're telling the story of a product or a company or whatever, you still need to make sure you're setting the story in motion correctly. So if I can get that first sentence or paragraph down, the one that has the big picture nailed—what's the problem and what's the fabulous solution I'm getting ready to unveil for the reader—I find that writer's block disintegrates, and it's actually hard to stop the train of writing that comes after that (which feels magical every time it happens; it's these moments I live for).
Note: this is a hard step. To nail that first sentence or paragraph you really do need to have given some serious thinking/research time to the project at hand. But the benefits are so worth the effort.
3. If the beginning isn't happening for you, pick something in the middle
If you're too paralyzed to get that first sentence down, take the pressure off and start in the middle of what you're working on. The middle must be strong, sure, but it's not carrying the weight of those first words that need to grab hold of the reader by the lapels. Just take a section (a product detail, for example) and get it down and move on to the next and the next. This will give you both momentum and hope.
4. Do not go looking for similar work samples just to "get you started"
Inevitably, looking at work that's about the same thing you need to write about ends up influencing your own writing way more than you think it will, without you even knowing it. I know that all great artists steal, but when you're trying to nail a headline about, say, how good an artisanal potato chip tastes, you don't go trolling around the Frito-Lay site. If you do need something to jumpstart you, try snooping in other territories to see if something peripherally related to potato chips might spark an idea: urban farming, kid's favorite songs, etc.
5. Don't beat yourself up.
The worst thing you can do when procrastination/writer's block hits is beat yourself up about it. Seriously, you're just digging that big hole of shame deeper. Accept that procrastination happens to all of us (except, as noted above, Mr. Godin), give yourself a pat on the back, and move on.
6. Just write something. Any little thing.
One of my favorite sayings is "Action absorbs anxiety." (I've had it on a Stickie on my computer for about 14 years). If you can get even one little part of your writing task done and checked off, it will help you stop obsessing and get back in the groove.
If any of these tips helps you demolish writer's block, I'd love to hear about it!
So last week, I got an email from J. Crew. Actually, last week I got about 17 emails from J. Crew, but I received one that caught my eye. Here's what I saw when I clicked on it in my Mail app on my laptop:
Now those other 16 emails from J. Crew last week? Didn't even bother scrolling down. I have a closet full of perfectly great clothes. I don't need anything from J. Crew right now. I don't even want anything from J. Crew right now. Also? I am trying to be the kind of person who lets enticing offers float by and doesn't get hooked. But then I got the Holy Guacamole email.
I'll cut to the chase: It worked. I scrolled down to the CTA (call to action) button. I clicked. And I spent the next half hour virtually browsing their big sale rack and bought 3 things I did not need and did not even know I wanted.
All because of this email.
I know not many of us have a J. Crew type of business, but I do think there's a lot we can learn about effective email marketing from my experience. So I thought I'd do a quick breakdown of why the Holy Guacamole email worked, when the 16 others they sent last week did not. What could you apply from this email to your next campaign? Color? Simplicity? Compelling offer? Let me know in the comments!
The always brilliant Seth Godin made my day recently by going public with the fact that brainstorming doesn’t work. I know, I know. Other important people have outed brainstorming. The New Yorker. Fast Company. CBS. But I think it’s been proven that an idea doesn’t exist until Seth proclaims it so.
Anyway, I was thrilled to read his post because I’ve always hated brainstorming. Maybe it’s because I think best staring out the windows, my fingers hovering over my keyboard. Or maybe it’s because I’m an introvert. Whatever the reason, the quickest way to get me to seize up like a busted engine is to email me and say, “Hey! Let’s hop on a call and do some brainstorming about the [insert latest cool thing I get to work on] campaign!”
All of the ideas that flow just fine while I’m working, hiking, bathing, and procrastinating skedaddle when I’ve got my phone cradled on my shoulder and four people straining to hear each other on a free conference line.
So though I’m happy to hear that I’m not alone in this syndrome, the question becomes: what’s the best way to create something genius-y?
With a caveat that the only research I have to back these up is the testing done here at Story House labs, here are some ideas. Your mileage may vary.
1. Ask yourself: what’s really going on here?
Let’s say you’ve been charged with launching a fantastic new product–awesome! Instead of rushing out and going full bore on the tactics—Facebook campaign, check! Blogger outreach, check!—stop and think: what is it that I’m really trying to do here? Get people to buy my product (yes of course, but really, no). Or solve somebody’s problem (ding!).
Another always brilliant soul, Clayton Christensen, uses this language to get at the same thing: “What’s the job to be done [by this new product]?” To quote him directly: “The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to crawl into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, always asking the question as she does something: Why did she do it that way?”
So does your customer really need another new pair of black sandals? Probably not. But does she want to look really hot and not have to walk with a fake smile plastered on her face because her toes are killing her? Ah, now that’s what’s really going on here. And that’s what’s going to get you to genius.
2. Ask somebody else what’s really going on here
Preferably someone completely unfamiliar with your business or your product, but someone who might use your business or product. Warning: this is not market research! This is genius idea research. Ask her, “Hey, what job do dressy sandals need to do for you?” If she looks at you like you’re crazy, say, “Okay, what’s the biggest problem you have with dressy sandals?”
3. Get out of the office already
No matter how packed with creative mojo your office is, it can be really hard to come up with fresh ideas if you spend day after day cooped up in there. Here’s your assignment: get out of there. Grab your notebook and go find a bench somewhere. Sit down. Look up. Watch the world go by. Focus on details. Or even better, find a gallery or museum to wander around for a bit. A bookstore will do in a pinch (maybe a title will spark something?).
4. Take a nap
There have been lots of recent studies that show that a good nap can spark some genius ideas. Get out your iPhone and set the alarm for a max of 30 minutes; sleep much longer and you’ll go into a deeper sleep (and feel groggier getting up). Make sure when you’re done, you head right back into the project that needs the most creative juice.
5. Let it be
Sometimes coming up with a good idea is a lot like chasing down a naughty puppy. The harder you try to grab him, the more elusive he gets. Then as soon as you give up and go sit down in the grass and ignoring him, he’ll come running to you, tail wagging. If you’re trying to wrangle an idea and you keep hitting a brick wall, one idea is to just stop. Leave it alone. Work on something else for a few hours that’s not creative at all (I find sending out invoices is always a nice diversion). If you can leave it for a whole day, even better.
Would love to hear what works in your studio. Tell us in the comments!
“Hi, my name is Laura, and I’m in marketing.”
I'm here to admit for the first time that this little mantra, stolen from AA, is what I feel like I should be saying to myself in front of the mirror every morning after I brush my teeth.
Because I think we can all agree that 95.7% of marketing just makes everybody feel gross:
“Time is running out!”
“If you don’t act now…”
“But wait—there’s more!”
And really, I didn’t even mean to end up in “marketing.” I started out as a journalist where I learned the fine art of asking a gazillion questions until I understood completely whatever it was I was writing about that week. Then I'd scurry back to my computer and sort through it all to turn it in into a story that regular people could read and understand.
I did that happily for years until a chance meeting with author Barry Hannah unearthed a long-buried desire to write fiction. So I gave up life as I knew it and headed west to Montana—a.k.a. the most beautiful place on earth—to get my MFA in Creative Writing.
After a couple of years in grad school shangri-la, real life concerns (rent, insurance, vet bills) came flooding back. I had moved to San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities on the planet (I know, I know), right as the news industry started its slow decline and so I quickly realized I needed to blend my two skills—journalism and creative writing—into a new, more sustainable career path. And voilà—a copywriter was born.
Back to the marketing thing…
When I started copywriting, I didn’t even realize, consciously, I was doing “marketing.” And if you’d told me back then, I probably would have stopped cold turkey and hightailed it back to Missoula.
But after a year or so of building a client base that was decent, I realized there was a method to the madness. And if I wanted to move beyond "decent," I needed to understand the method. I set out to learn all I could about what constitutes good marketing writing, and just as in my journalism days, I synthesized everything I learned and put together my own story of what makes good copywriting good.
And you know what?
Good copywriting doesn’t have anything at all to do with marketing.
Good copywriting is all about solving people’s problems.
Their time problem. Their being bored problem. Their being boring problem. Their husband problem. Their “I feel fat” problem. Their “no one understands what I do” problem.
Once I figured this out, I got over any lingering angst I had about going over to “the dark side” of marketing and started wearing it like a badge. Because solving people’s problems feels really good. And because I get to do it with writing, it's pretty much the best job I could ever have.
But wait...there’s more!
The best thing about all of this is that I’ve been able to create the kind of copywriting career (and now branding, too, but more on that in my next post) that feels right for me and feels great for my clients. It’s just real people talking to other real people about stuff that really matters. What could be better than that?
In the weird way that the world works—like when you buy what you think is a unique-ish car and all of a sudden you see them everywhere—for the past week or so, I've been reading and hearing a lot about the "starting at the end" theory. Like here. And here. And here. There's no official definition of this theory that I know of, but the basic gist is this: the best way to embark on a new project (new website, career change, marriage, a business from scratch) is to fully visualize and map out what your ideal outcome is. Now, I'm mostly too skeptical for hard-core Law of Attraction stuff, but this idea really appeals to the brander in me.
All too often, people—and I'm talking to myself here, too—decide to change their website, messaging, logo, whatever, because they're nervous. They're not reaching as many people as they like—or not reaching the right people—and they think all will be healed if their stuff could just be "cooler," which often translates into "I want it to be something Seth Godin would think is cool." Or worse: They want it to look and sound exactly like what everyone else is already doing.
Now, I'm all for cool websites. Nothing makes me sadder than websites like these. But when you don't think about what you want to happen at the other end of whatever you're starting, you're likely going to end up on a very frustrating two steps forward, one step back journey.
The other thing that happens when you aren't thinking of the end game is even worse: You're so caught up in creating this cool thing that you forget why you're doing it. You forget your audience. What do they want? What do they need? It's kind of like when people obsess about the color of the napkins at their wedding reception, but haven't thought much at all about actually being married (which, I admit, for a few might be a good thing).
So, what to do when you get the urge to jump into something big and new? Let's take the example of a new (or revamped) website since that's my specialty.
3 Steps to Starting with the End in Mind
1) Think about your ideal customer and what he or she really needs from you. When you're redoing your site, it's easy to feel like you need to load it up with all kinds of proof of your amazingness. And yes, testimonials are a must. But the thing that's going to get someone to hit a "buy now" button is the feeling that you can solve her problem. So put yourself in your imaginary customer's skin and pretend you're browsing your new-and-improved site. What's making her hurt? What's keeping him from being as fulfilled as he knows he could be? Then you can spend some time thinking about how to show that you're the very best person to help.
2) Visualize what you want your website to look like, feel like, sound like. Will it be clean and spacious? Or will it be filled with tons of pretty badges from all of your favorite affiliate programs? Will it sound super sassy? Or will the language be warm and inviting? Will you be featuring your blog on your home page? Or will your programs be the star? The more you can actually visualize what's going to be the beautiful product of your process, the better chance you'll have of getting there.
3) Now that you've got the practical stuff out of the way, spend a bit of time each day for a week or two thinking about how your work and inner life will be different when you get your new website up and running. Imagine the types of conversations you'll have around the new way you're expressing yourself. Think about the clarity and confidence you'll feel. And go ahead, indulge in a bit of fantasy about Seth Godin mentioning your work in a post.
I'd love to hear stories about how you've had success by starting with the end in mind. What's the most interesting thing that's happened to you?
In my last post, I asked you to consider “turning down the noise” in your business so you could make some space for creativity, growth, awareness. If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking, “Then what the hell am I going to listen to?” I, too, rely on that noise to keep me comfortable, distracted, busy.
And though I’m not trying to be super-literal here, it was an interesting coincidence that in the middle of thinking about all of this stuff I heard an interview with Don Campbell about his new book (written with Alex Doman), Healing at the Speed of Sound. In the book, Campbell, who wrote the groundbreaking (and, ultimately, controversial) The Mozart Effect, puts forth the theory that by "using" music and silence, you can become more efficient, productive, relaxed, and healthy.
Um, yeah. Sign me up for that.
I realized after hearing the interview how little I actually listen to music these days. When the iPal is on in the kitchen, it’s tuned to public radio. When I hike each morning, I listen to Howard Stern. Sometimes in the evening, I’ll put on Pandora and have a dance party in the living room with my four-year-old daughter, but “Let's Get It Started” isn’t exactly listening music for me.
During the day, I listen to my ever-spinning brain, filling it up on 30-second snippets of noise from the internet in between bouts of writing. Now it’s not to say that everything I listen to is noise and junk. It’s just that I haven’t been very mindful about what I’ve been listening to.
I thought I’d do an experiment to see if Campbell’s theory is right. I downloaded the “Focus & Vitality” soundtrack that he put together to accompany his book. The sales copy for it says that it will “sharpen your mental abilities by stimulating your brain through specially chosen frequencies, tempos, and musical structure.“
So every day for the last week, I’ve listened to it through my headphones off-and-on during my workday. It’s mostly classical music—though no composers are mentioned, so it must be original?—with a bit of new age-y stuff tucked in at the end.
I’ve probably listened to the whole thing about a dozen times since the experiment started, and I have to report that it makes a difference. I don’t know how much I can attribute to Campbell’s music specifically, but I do feel that having something lovely playing through my headphones keeps me focused on the matter at hand rather than feeling the need to skitter off and go look at whatever amazing video someone’s just tweeted about or read another Top Ten Ways to Transform Your Business in a Week!!!!!! post that someone’s just tweeted about or, basically, lurk around on Twitter at all.
I’m very happy doing things like, well, writing this post for the Story House blog. I've been promising myself I needed to post more regularly for a long time, and lo and behold, after listening to the soundtrack, I’ve written two in two weeks.
Now I’m branching out. Have loaded up the Symphonic Classical Period Radio station over on Pandora, though it seems that some of the less allegro-y pieces don’t have quite the same “focus & vitality” effect. I’m hoping to create my own Story House soundtrack that will be kind of like the green smoothies I’ve started making every morning—energizing and good for you.
So a question: What do you listen to when you're being your most productive?
I went out with a friend last night to hear Jeffrey Foucault, an über-talented singer and songwriter who looks like he just walked out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. We were there because of my friend Chris Dombrowski, a poet I met while studying fiction in Montana. He and Jeffrey had been introduced a while back and become fast friends, bonding over their mutual passion for a perfectly tied fly and the sun flash on brown trout's tail.
While waiting for Jeffrey to go on, my friend and I talked about Chris and his wife Mary, and how whenever we're around them (which is a far-too-rare occurrence these days), we feel a delicious spaciousness. When you sit down at their kitchen table in Missoula, they are there. Like, really there. Present.
This made me think a lot today about how a lack of spaciousness can just suck the soul out of people—and brands. We're so jacked up on launches and likes and lists that it's really, really hard to just be.
I'm not trying to go all Buddhist on you or anything, but I do want to make a pitch for turning down the noise.
Give your business and brand room to breathe. Give your brand time to get its shine back (it's there, trust me).
See who comes to your table. Have a cup of coffee with them. Enjoy the company.
It's navel-gazing Wednesday over here at Story House, and to "celebrate," I thought I'd give you a little quiz.
Let's say someone sends you a link to photos that were taken at a recent party you attended. You're excited because you think, "Gosh, that party was fun. It will be so great to see Jenny in that crazy wig and Joe in his brother's powder blue tuxedo again."
So you quickly click over, and what's the first thing you look for? Is it Jenny's rainbow afro? Joe's ruffles and tails?
If you're like me (or, I suspect, like 96.5% of people), um, no.
The first thing you look for is yourself. How are your highlights looking? Did you really pull off that almost-mini dress like you thought you did? Is the Renova working?
After you've looked at all the pictures of yourself and determined, "Hey for 40+, not so bad," then you go and quickly look at all the other pictures so you can relive the party before your 3pm conference call.
What in the world does this have to do
When people come to your site, their first instinct is to look for themselves: Do you sound like them? Does your site look like a site they'd create if they were in your business? And most importantly: Is what you're selling going to help solve their problem?
It's sooooooo easy for big companies, entrepreneurs and others (I'm looking at myself, here) to get caught up in crafting messages that talk about who they are and what they do. Hey, look at all of my degrees! Check out our awards! Can't you tell by how many three-syllable words I use in my "about" page that I am super smart?
The One-and-Only Content Rule: You Must Solve Problems
But all someone really wants to know when she comes to your site is how you can solve her problem so she doesn't wake up in a sweat at 3am wondering why she didn't go to law school like her father told her to because he knew a degree in theater history was a total non-starter.
So what to do? First of all (no surprise), think about yourself: what type of appeals work for you?
Do you read the headlines on the cover of Oprah Magazine and think, "yes! I want that!" for every single one? Then think about how Oprah would "sell" you and implement some of that mojo into your content.
Are you strangely persuaded by the SkyMall catalog? SkyMall is all about problem solving. And when you're trapped on a Southwest 737 for five hours and your iPad's dead, there's plenty of time to think about how this little catalog could change EVERYTHING. (A side note: The fact that the Bigfoot garden sculpture has been in for the past year is no mistake. People are buying it. Who? Why? I don't know. But they are and if you can sell an Bigfoot garden sculpture, you're doing something right.) So bring the catalog home next time (hide it inside your New Yorker if you must). Read and re-read their copy and then add some SkyMall pixie dust to your own content.
Are you more of a minimalist? Well then look no further than the founding father of the movement over at Zen Habits. Like the hot guy in high school who spent the lunch hour smoking cigarettes and reading Camus, Leo's the master of saying less and making you want it more. Study him. (p.s. proof Leo's a master? He became the minimalist guru with a .net URL).
Go forth and be helpful
If you're like me, you like a little bit of everything. That's okay. Don't be afraid to mix it up.
As long as you keep in mind that your customers want you to make their lives easier, you'll be okay. Promise.
For a while when I was young, I was addicted to books about a very particular type of girl in a very particular time: the early 1960s (think Sally Draper without the dysfunctional parents). This girl lived in Colonial two-story house with a big elm tree in front and a treehouse in back. She wore fresh, new Levi's with rolled-up cuffs and plaid shirts. She had twinkly eyes and wore her long, straight hair in a ponytail that swung when she walked. Her mom was lovely and sweet and wore pretty dresses while she entertained. Her dad taught at the local college and took her fishing and birdwatching on weekends.
The girl read books every minute she could, and when she wasn't reading she was hanging out with her best friend, usually a boy, coming up with some creative adventure, like starting a neighborhood newspaper or drawing anti-littering posters and hanging them around the school. Her classmates loved her. Her teachers loved her. She was happy.
At the time I was reading these books, my life couldn't have been any different. We lived in an apartment in the suburbs. We had a concrete patio instead of a yard. My mom was bedridden. My dad was always traveling trying to make enough money to keep up with my mom's medical bills. My classmates were all way wealthier than I was, and I was embarrassed to invite them over. I did well in school, but I never felt I fit in anywhere.
I was often sad.
Except when I was reading.
When I was reading, I could see myself, feel myself, walking through the world with that Brady-Bunch-girl straight hair and my name-brand jeans and parents who where present enough to really know me. It was such a relief.
I still don't have a Colonial house. And though I'm now a mom, I still prefer Levi's to pretty dresses. But those books changed how I saw myself and who I thought I could be. They made me a reader. A writer. A thinker.
So that's why this month, Story House has donated to Mrs Smith's classroom down in San Fernando, California. She's committed to finding books that her students really want to read (as she says, books that they "ooh" and "ahh" over). I hope our small donation helps even one of her kids find a book that inspires him.
photo from www.iamnotastalker.com
It was a particularly bleak and hot summer in New Orleans in 1997. Every morning, I dragged my ass out of bed at 6 and head to Audubon Park to walk around and around and around the swampy lake. One morning, I was bored with whatever story was on Morning Edition and switched over to the alternative rock station on my little Sony clip-on radio. But instead of Fiona Apple, I tuned in and heard Howard Stern bitching about how his baked potato hadn't been cooked right that morning.
Howard recently re-signed (yay!) with Sirius for another (probably final—boo!) five years, and so I thought I’d commemorate the event by sharing what Howard’s taught me about marketing and branding and the importance of good content.
1. Find your thing and commit to it—hard.
Yes, he’s the king of all media, but Howard’s “thing” is radio. He doesn’t take time off to write his books. He won’t take a day off to fly to LA to do Jimmy Kimmel to promote his show. He won’t even eat dinner out during the week (past 5:30pm, that is) because his number one priority is being at the studio every morning before 6am and talking for four or five hours. Even when he was filming his movie, they would shoot in the afternoon and evening so he could still keep doing the radio show every morning. His commitment to what some say is an almost-dead medium is what keeps his millions of listeners committed, too.
It’s tempting these days to spread yourself thin. You start out as a designer, but before long you’re spending a ton of creative time blogging and twittering and then maybe writing an ebook that unexpectedly takes off. Before you know it, your spending more time in Quickbooks than you are in Illustrator. Doing different things is okay, of course, especially if you love all the things you do. But keeping focus on your primary thing will help you make choices (e.g. “I’ll do Twitter, but not Facebook”) so you can prioritize when you’re feeling scattered and burned out.
2) On the other hand: don’t get too comfortable with your thing.
Howard worked hard to get to where he is, and it would have been tempting to just stick with his schtick. But even though he’s committed to radio, he continues to try other things—producing a sitcom, starting a TV network—that don’t guarantee him the success his radio show does. Not everything succeeds, but because he stretches himself, his show remains vibrant and current—Howard’s the furthest thing from what my friend Jerome would call “crusty.”
Yes, keeping focus on your core mission and product is key. And because it’s such hard, hard work to turn that focus into success, it’s tempting to relax into a successful rut. By always keeping your eyes, ears, and heart open to new adventures and new ways of thinking, you’ll keep your main thing alive and growing.
3) Ask good questions—and then listen to the answers.
If Howard’s underrated for anything, it’s for his interviewing ability. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let out a small groan when he announces his guest for the day. I mean, how compelling could Ron Howard be? Could I really care about anything Jerry Springer might have to say?
But Howard’s curiosity is genuine—and bottomless. He never fails to ask the question that I would want to ask if I were brave enough (e.g. “Is Henry Winkler an asshole?”) or ask a question I wouldn’t even know to ask (“Did you know when your daughter was in utero that she was going to be born deaf and blind?”).
More importantly, Howard actually listens to what the person has to say so that the conversation can go deeper and reveal more. His interviews frequently run over an hour so there’s plenty of space to go off on interesting tangents.
Why does he do it? For his “customers,” the listeners.
Your company can learn a lot from your own customers and potential customers. But you’ll always learn the most when you really get curious and listen. Come at it from a place of doing the right thing for them: Think more about what they want or need as opposed to trying to sell them on what you have. It really is all about them.
4) Tell the truth.
Howard's show lives and dies by one thing: truth. He always tells the truth to his listeners—about his personal life, his work—and insists everyone involved in the show to do the same. Even guests. That’s why we find out from Ron Howard that he seriously thought about making a porn movie, “Opie Gets Laid,” to finance his then-fledgling directing career. It’s why we find out that Jerry Springer’s entire extended family was killed in the Holocaust.
The truth is real. The truth is where the interesting stuff lies. And when you tell the truth—to your customers, to yourself—you create connection. Customers who are connected to you and your brand are going to stay customers.
5) Be loyal.
Howard is excessively loyal: once someone’s a part of the show, he or she is there to stay (unless it’s his/her choice to leave). That’s the main thing that’s kept me listening for so long: I know that every day I turn on the show, I’m going to hear the same people--on air or behind the scenes--mixing it up with one another about their respective quirks and foibles.
The result? There’s a consistency and a familiarity to the show that makes the listener want to have a consistent and familiar relationship with the show.
When you’re loyal to your own vision and to the people who work with you, it will help you provide consistently great products or work. It will give your customers confidence in you and what you do and how you do it, and they’ll be much less likely to dump you for the next hot young thing that comes down the block.
But because we try so hard to please everyone all the time, we end up with a life that looks more like this:
I'd say marketing—and more specifically copy and content—seem to follow the same grim fate (though perhaps, sad to say, I'd beef up the "bullshit" category and tone scale back the "interestingness" one): The more you try to be everything to everybody, the more blah it all becomes. Want to see what happens when you don't try to kiss ass so much? Look here and here and at anything these people do.
What could you do to make your content more "interesting" and less "bullshit"?