Our Latest DonorsChoose.org Donations

To do our little part to make sure kids all over the country have an equal shot at a good education, Story House gives 10% of its profits to DonorsChoose.org. We thought you might want to read more about the latest two projects we've funded.

Mr. O's Class, Leland, Mississippi


One of the reasons we chose this project was because I lived in Mississippi for a pretty long time. I also loved that the teacher was using literature to teach such tricky/sticky issues like identity and self-esteem.

Mrs. L's Class, Baldwin Park, California


Oh, if only I had had a teacher like Mrs. L—I might not be so petrified of speaking in front of a group lo these many years later.

If you happen to have any "pet projects" on DonorsChoose, let us know and we'll add them to our list!



Marketing Rule #1: Know Your Audience

Not too long ago, I read an article about how women control four of the five stages of the purchasing process. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad that I was the one pushing a lot of the purchases at my house: the new mattress, new chairs I really, really want for our dining room table, and a new-ish car.

After we got that new-ish car whose purchase I had "controlled," we needed to take it in for a very expensive oil change. I found several places in Berkeley that specialize in Volkswagens and set about digging into each of them to see which one "felt right" and then narrowed it down to two.

CHOICE #1 The first one had great Yelp reviews (my favorite quote: “The customer service was friendly and prompt, no waiting and watching employees stare off into space or BS.”) and their site definitely gave off a “we’re serious about high performance” vibe. I love cars, and I like them to perform well, but for better or worse, I’ve always been more concerned about style than high performance.

CHOICE #2 The other one had equally great Yelp reviews (favorite quote: “They knew what I was talking about based on a sketchy description.” Yep, I’ve given many of those in my day) and I really liked how they talked about themselves and their approach to car-fixing on their About page. AND I CHOSE... Karmakanix. At the end, it came down to gut instinct. And a lot of that had to do with the “Gallery” on their website. It features a slideshow of a cookout/picnic in front of the shop with the mechanics cooking up assorted meats and kids of the people who work there (and even a guy from a competing VW shop) milling about. It spoke to me, and I'm sure it speaks to a lot of people who want to know that their mechanic isn't just technically proficient, but a real person, one that you might want to hang out and eat some barbecue chicken with. AUDIENCE MATTERS So how did things turn out? I knew I’d made the right decision when I got to the office/waiting room and saw a local artist's work hanging on the walls and the equal-opportunity reading material on the table:


And my instincts turned out to be right. I didn’t just fall for them because they were trying to appeal to a woman who controls 4 of the 5 stages of the marketing process.

They actually walk the walk: Their service is as good as their marketing.

And of course that’s the most important thing.



How to Conquer "Blank Page Syndrome"


The dreaded blank page.

And the endless procrastination tricks that keep you from it: Pavlovian “get mail” button pushes, Twitter refreshes, and RSS feed checks.

(Admission: I was secretly glad I had a cold this week. It gave me an excuse to get up from my work every 10 minutes and go get a tissue to blow my nose).

Oh how I hate the blank page. And oh how I love it.

The drama of it all.

But here’s the deal with all this avoidance of the blank page: Chances are, you’re not procrastinating, you’re “marinating.”

I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I still have a hard time believing this, but it’s true.

Here’s why.

Assuming you’ve done all the background prep for a writing product—interviews, reading, research, etc.—the time that you spend avoiding the blank page is time that your brain is using to figure out what’s important, why it’s important, what the problem is that needs to be solved, and how you want to say what you decide needs to be said (or the “voice”).

It really is amazing: If you’ve done your due diligence, if you’re excited and interested about what you’re working on, and if you’ve let your smart little brain work on this without you even noticing, when you get to the blank page, it’s going to be shockingly easy to get the right stuff down.

Of course, you can't stop here. You'll need to let it "marinate" again after you get that first draft banged out so you can dig back in and revise the hell out of it until it's good.

But you'll be long over your Blank Page Syndrome by then, so go ahead. Check your email. Write a witty tweet. Blow your nose. It's all right.


How to talk about yourself on your website without sounding like a blowhard


I just finished a draft of a bio for a life/work coach. It represents a pretty radical departure from how she’s currently talking about herself on her site. I’m hoping she’s feeling excited right now because it’s definitely the right step to take. It feels good. It feels like her. And most importantly, it feels real.

I’ve done bios for people before, but usually in the context of writing a whole site for them. Being really focused on just doing this one thing really made me appreciate the power of telling a good story about the person behind a product or service or whatever.

Here’s what I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with the About Me (a/k/a “Hey, look how great I am!”) tab on your site.

Step 1: Imagine you’re talking to just one person.

When you’re writing your bio, it’s tempting to try to talk to a broad audience about who you are and what you do. But when you talk big, you often start using corporatese, one of my BIGGEST pet peeves.

(Want to see corporatese in action? Try a Craigslist job posting, especially for something in the b-2-b world. Ack, it drives me insane. “We’re committed to delivering optimal solutions for technology-based businesses on the cutting edge of state-of-the-art systems protocols.” Um, what was it again that you do?)

But when you talk to one person—preferably your ideal client—you’re having a conversation. You’re giving them a sparkly, feel-good mixture of both concrete facts and the things that evoke emotion. People love that.

(For a different take on this concept, see this excellent post from Laurie Foley.)

Step 2: Can I have a little context please?

I often see bios that are stuffed full of lists: awards, fancy job titles, training certifications, and so on.

(Now sure, if you’ve gotten a MacArthur Genius Grant or a Nobel, go ahead and feel free to include it. In fact, that’s probably all you need to say about yourself.)

Proving your mettle is good, of course, but what the reader really wants is your story: how you got here, what you’ve learned along the way, and how all of that wisdom is theirs for the taking.

If you’re a chocolatier, tell us about how you grew up helping your grandmother in Nebraska make her trademark fudge.

If you’re a designer, tell us about going to New York for your high school trip and seeing your first Mies van der Rohe chair.

If you’re a marketing consultant, tell us how you got 10,000 people to watch a video about a new yogurt brand you helped launch (yeah, that’s right, you got 10,000 people to watch a video about yogurt).

These stories not only give us your background, they give us insight into how you see the world and what’s important to you. They help build relationship and that will make it a thousand times easier for them to buy what you’re selling.

Step 3: Be yourself.

If this is all feeling a little too squishy for you (“I got my J.D. at Harvard for crying out loud. I’m not going to go all chatty Cathy with this thing!”), relax. You don’t have to give up the more traditional bio.

Just make sure your personality comes through somehow—your favorite quote, a book you read that changed your life, something—so that when we read it we feel like you’re greater than the sum of your degrees (even if your degrees are pretty darn impressive).

Feeling good about this? Here's a Bonus Step!!!

Besides telling the story of you, think about giving the reader the story of how you work or what it's like to work with you. It's another great way to connect and make a potential customer feel like you're simpatico.

What change could you make to your bio right now to make it more you-like?


The secret to success (and to good writing)

I'm a sucker for books on writing. I've got a whole shelf full, from Charles Baxter's Bringing the Devil to his Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life to Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. I keep thinking that one day I'm going to finally get the book that has a secret decoder ring hidden inside. I'll slip it on my finger and suddenly I'll have all the beauty, grace and ease of writing I've ever wanted. I will be a star!

And maybe you think that about your business, too: Some seminar, some trade show, some deep-pockets client will sprinkle you with magic fairy dust. And presto! Your bank account will fill up and all of your worries will evaporate.

We may not like to admit it, but we know that's not how it works.

Here is how it works:

You have to put the time in and just do the work. Again and again. Day after day.

It's not glamorous. It's often not even all that much fun.

But it's the only thing that really works.

And with writing, putting the time in has an even more measurable effect on your success. Because you really do have to write page after page of mediocre copy to extract the super-good stuff that makes doing what we do so much fun.

If you aren't putting in the time to get through to the good stuff, then you're going to end up turning in that mediocre copy. The client may think it's "fine," but you know deep down what could have been.

So here's a challenge to myself and to everyone:

Suck it up. Do the work.

I promise we'll all feel better at the end of the day.


Multiple choice: a) "Only connect" or b) "Only disconnect"

The "all of a sudden everywhere because of his new book" Gary Shteyngart had a superb essay in the NYTimes book review recently, "Only Disconnect." In it, he struggles, beautifully, to reconcile the competing desires to be engaged in the technological world and to be an unencumbered, thoughtful observer of it: "With each post, each tap of the screen, each drag and click, I am becoming a different person —   solitary where I was once gregarious; a content provider where I at least once imagined myself an artist; nervous and constantly updated where I once knew the world through sleepy, half-shut eyes; detail-oriented and productive where I once saw life float by like a gorgeously made documentary film."

This dilemma is nothing new, of course. From the minute the first listserv went live, we've been trying to sort out how to balance our online lives with our "real" lives—work, families, and the occasional indulgence of watching Mad Men.

And if, like is increasingly the case, your work is online, it gets even trickier.

You have to be connected because that's how your business stays busy—and relevant. And connecting with people who are in your "tribe", is essential to learning, growing, evolving.

But I believe there has to be space for ideas to emerge (and enough space for both good and bad ideas to emerge because you have to have both to get anywhere good).

And I also believe there has to be some psychic breathing room so the good ideas can take root. An always-connected mind is like hard, clay soil: you can scatter seeds all day long, but they won't grow.

I'm still trying to figure out the balance. I've tried social media guru Gwen Bell's "only check email twice a day" system (though I turned it into a 3-times-a-day system, and that only worked for a while); I haven't been nearly brave enough to try a Digital Sabbatical,  but maybe someday.

What have you tried?

Taking a stand.

Two days ago, a group of really smart people put on the smartest event ever: The Influencer Project: The Shortest Marketing Conference Ever. The whole point was to get a bunch of gurus to give tips about how to make sure you stand out in the blog-o-, tweet-o-, whatever-o-spheres.

Why was it smart?

1) it was free (well, if you still consider giving someone your email address as free) 2) each of the 60 speakers had a 60-second limit so the whole thing only lasted an hour 3) if you have to distill all of your knowledge into a 60-second soundbite, it's got to be GOOD, right?

I'm about halfway through listening to the MP3 of the event (the fact that they made this available for free, too, would be smart thing #4, actually) and so far, it's awesome. As advertised. I'm a super-satisfied customer.

One of the tidbits that hit home with me was from Loren Feldman of 1938 Media. I didn't know anything about Loren before I heard him speak, but am a total fan now (his WTF Wednesdays, an homage, surely, to master WTFer comedian Mark Maron, are priceless).

Anyway, Loren said something like this in his 60 seconds:

When you put yourself out in the digital space, you have to take a stand about who you are. You have two choices:

1) You can be totally transparent/brutally honest in how you communicate and risk pissing people off; or 2) You can be the totally nice person whose only goal is to make friends and to never ruffle any feathers.

He says either route works, but you have to choose. Because when you do a mashup of the two routes, you get into trouble.

This sooooo hit home for me, both in my own tip-toe-y efforts to get some of that "influence" everybody wants and with the clients I work with. So many people/companies have been programmed to water things down so as to appeal to the broadest range of people possible. And that works, to a degree (e.g. Mama's Family, Starbucks, Wal-Mart). But how good can you feel at the end of the day that what you're doing is making the world the tiniest bit better? Not so much, I would imagine.

The lovely and amazing Catherine Caine had a blog post just yesterday that was inspirational in this regard. She wrote a refreshingly honest review of Charlie Gilkey's new book, The Unconventional Guide to Freelancing. She took a stand in her own cheerful, truthful, "how could you ever get mad at this smart-and-funny chick?" way. Even Charlie himself gave her a pat on the back for the review.

I'm going to heed Loren's advice. And help my clients heed it as well.


The elegance of doing one thing well

Throughout my career, I've been a generalist. Want a direct mail piece that will get customers in your new grocery store? Would love to. Need an article on the state budget cuts to health care providers in California? On it. Need to get out a press release on the launch of a new line of window shades? No problem. I love being a generalist: it's super exciting to immerse myself in a subject/product/company and learn as much as I can so I can write appealing content.

But I have to admit, I really admire people and companies who focus on doing one thing and doing it impeccably. These are the things I'm organically drawn to, and these are the things I most often spend my money on.

This comes to mind because I'm working with a company like that right now: Aidells Sausage. They're committed to doing things right—highest quality ingredients, small batches, taking care of their employees and their customers—and the result proves the smartness of their approach: Their sausage is astoundingly good. (And yes, I do spend my money on it at the grocery store).

I've been thinking a lot about how to bring that type of focus to what we do here at Story House, and I believe it comes down to mindfulness:

Whatever project you're working on, do it as though it's all you're working on, even if, in 30 minutes, life demands that you'll be working on something utterly different.

What do you think?


What you can learn from a physicist about what you're worth

Maybe it's my southern upbringing, but gosh I hate talking about money with new clients, especially because writing is notoriously difficult to quantify. Ask any copywriter what takes longer—a killer 5-word headline or a 50-word product description—and you'll see why (the killer headline takes way longer). So I loved this nice little story about Niels Bohr, the physicist who basically invented the atomic bomb and quantum mechanics, that I came across recently.


A company’s machine breaks down. The company’s owner, an old school friend of Niels Bohr, calls in the physicist to help fix it.

Bohr examines the machine. He draws an X on the side and says, "Hit it right here with a hammer."

The company’s mechanic hits the machine with a hammer. It springs into action. The company’s owner thanks Niels Bohr profusely and sends him on his way.

A few days later, the owner receives an invoice from Bohr for $10,000 and gets on the phone with him immediately: "Niels! What’s this $10,000 invoice? You were only here for 10 minutes! Send me a detailed invoice."

A few days later, the company’s owner receives this from Bohr:

 Drawing X on the side of your machine                         $1 
Knowing where to put the X                                           $9,999
Total                                                                             $10,000


So what is your experience worth?

(hat tip to the Consultant Journal blog for the story.)


How NOT to market your business

I was walking down a not-so-spiffy part of Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley the other day and saw a tiny new pizza place had opened up in an otherwise lackluster strip of storefronts. It was painted a nice Tuscan orange and looked like a sweet little place with just 2 two-top tables and an ordering counter. It was around 5 o'clock and I noticed a guy in there, but there was a big CLOSED sign in the window. I thought that was odd as it wasn't a "proper" restaurant, which often don't open for dinner until 5 or 5:30. And then I saw this chalkboard:


Besides the obvious ("NO SLICES NO SLICES"), there's the more subtle problem here: This unknown place on a sad part of Shattuck is selling whole pizzas for $18 and charging you for every extra ingredient ($1 for red onion, $3 for mushrooms... what?), when you can drive a mile over to Pizzaiolo and get a gourmet, wood-fired pizza with green olives, housemade sausage and basil for $17. And you can use your credit card.

The takeaway:

1) Do your market research. Price your product correctly or at least give the menu some love words-wise so that I am so blown away by the product description that I can't wait to hand over my hard-earned cash.

2) Avoid the "no" like the plague. If your customers are asking for something that's reasonable, give it to them and find a way to make it work for your bottom line.

3) Be nice. Even if you do the right thing and avoid the "no," you still need to put just a little bit of work into making your customers feel happy to be your customer. It doesn't take much, and I promise it's worth it.


What writers can learn from copy editors

I've been reading "The Subversive Copy Editor," by Carol Fisher Saller, chief grammar guru at the Chicago Manual of Style. The graphic designer colleague who recommended it said, "After reading it, I feel horrible about what I've done to your copy!" We worked together in a high-stress, this-should-have-been-out-last-week environment where there was never time for the copywriter to proof; I just sent out my plain-Jane Word docs and hoped for the best. Often, the designer would have to decide herself where to trim or ad copy depending on the design. She's smart, so it usually went fine. But as a writer, it can be devastating to know your words are being chopped and diced without you getting the chance to put a Bandaid on it. And since I do copyediting as well as writing, the book is doubly interesting to me. Copyediting could, in many hands, be an awfully dry subject, but the author is quite charming ("Now that I think about it, contacting a writer for the first time is much like answering a personals ad . . .").

And most helpfully, her advice also extends to working relationships writ large as in:

"Write or email after you've looked over the project but before you start editing. The writer is going to be your best ally as you work, so establish cordial relations. . . . Show that you've familiarized yourself with his work by asking a question or two, and let the questions show your knowledge and competence.

. . . .

Asking questions like this at the beginning will help give the writer confidence that you will pay attention to detail as you whip his stuff into shape. . . . And it will demonstrate your willingness to listen and negotiate."

I think that's good advice for any new project with a client.