Words matter. They’re often an agency’s go to tool for clients and biz dev. Your prospects spend time on your website, follow you on social media, and read your content long before they ever reach out to you – so your written word is critical. It’s the first thing that your prospects see, so it better be up to snuff.
My podcast guest, Jody Sutter has a long history with the written word. Jody works with agencies helping them develop a more proactive approach to growing their business, with a special emphasis around how they communicate – getting jargon, generalizations, wordiness, and sloppy writing out of their proposals and everything else they use to promote their agency.
Through your writing, Jody helps you to differentiate yourself, so that your work stands out from the others by being clear about who you are and what you do best.
Jody and I help you find your unique voice by showing you:
- Why strong writing is more important than ever in our digital age
- The major mistakes that agencies make when presenting themselves in writing
- How to avoid making the big mistakes agencies make when responding to RFPs
- Why editing is so important for improving your team’s writing, how to get good at it, and what you should keep in mind if you are outsourcing the editing
- How agencies can differentiate themselves through storytelling
- The Pixar pitch
- The “5 things that you can do to make your writing better right away” checklist
- What you need to do to assess whether or not your writing needs improvement
Jody Sutter started her career in sales and ended up working in agencies leading the new business teams. Today she runs The Sutter Company, a business development consultancy.
To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/jody-sutter/) and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.
If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:
Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)
If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line.
Bringing his 25+ years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.
Drew: Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. So glad you are back with us. Today’s conversation is going to be packed with things that you can put into play right away.
You know my career started in the agency business as a writer, and I have always been very fond of the written word. It’s one of my favorite things to do, and it’s one of the things that I appreciate most when I see the talent in other folks. That’s why I’m really excited to have our guest with us today.
So, Jody Sutter started her career in sales and ended up working in agencies – design firms and ad agencies leading mostly the new business team, but at her heart, she’s always been a writer. In fact, a psychic once told her she would end up being a professional writer, and apparently that has come to be. So because today, what Jody does is she runs a business development consultancy called The Sutter Company.
Jody spends a lot of time working with agencies and helping them put a more proactive approach to growing their business, but with a special emphasis around how they communicate and getting jargon, and generalizations, and wordiness, and sloppy writing out of their proposals, and all of the things that they use to promote their agency.
Jody went a step further and partnered with a journalist and a Columbia journalism school professor, and created a persuasive writing course for new business specifically for agencies, and teaching them how powerfully persuasive the written word can be. So we’re going to dig into all of that with Jody. We’re going to talk about all the places where agencies sort of stumble as they write for themselves, and probably for clients, and how you can do that better. So Jody, welcome to the show.
Jody: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be contributing.
Agency Demand for Strong Writing
Drew: It’s going to be a great conversation, so let’s start off with…the demand for writing for agencies, I believe, is greater than ever before between the buying decision being made so much online now in terms of our prospects are hunting us down on the web, and doing a lot of their homework, following us on social media and following our content, and checking out the website long before they ever reach out to an agency.
Do you think that agencies today have to depend more on that, even though we’re in a digital age, are depending more on the written word than ever before or am I off base?
Jody: No, I think you’re 100% right, and it is because we are in a digital age. You think about when 15, 20 years ago, especially in a sales role, the primary tactic of a new business person or salesperson would be a phone call or an in-person meeting. Unfortunately, I’m old enough to remember the days, and I started out in sales working for commercial production companies. I remember the days of walking the halls. It was interpersonal, and it was very effective. Those days are over. But you still need to communicate in that same genuine, but succinct, and direct, and persuasive way. But now you have to do it through the written word. Whether it’s email, whether it’s on your website, or whether it’s through your client briefings, yeah.
So first thing that I get people to think about is how often the written word is the first thing that your prospects see.
Drew: Yeah. You know what? I find, as an agency owner…because I play dual roles. I have AMI, but I’m also still on my agency, I find that when I’m interviewing job applicants, or I’m even screening people for internships, I’m sort of appalled at the writing skill level that kids are coming out of college with.
Jody: Yes, definitely. Unfortunately, I think college reinforces that as opposed to better habits. It’s very unfortunate.
Drew: I think they sort of learn to bloat there, they use language to bloat papers and other things, and so there’s always a lot of hype and hyperbole that doesn’t really need to be there, along with bad punctuation and all the other stuff that I see.
Jody: Yeah. I think partially because…and I don’t want to generalize because I’m not an academic, but I think unfortunately many academics themselves are prone to that type of bloated language, and hyperbole, and jargon. So maybe I should start teaching these workshops at higher education or places of higher learning, which would be kind of ironic.
One of the things that we started teaching in our workshops was to try to get people away from writing in bullet points. One of the things I point out is that in college, most people, even in high school, and sometimes grammar school, you learn how to write in an outline. That’s one of the tools they teach you. Here’s how you write in an outline form. Again, academia, college often reinforces that. Then you get into the advertising world, and there is a dangerous but subtle transition from writing in outline form to writing in bullet form, and it becomes a weird, ugly animals.
So you’re doing what you think you were told to do in school, and instead, you’re writing this like patchwork of bullets. Where, quite frankly usually, your most important point…and I’ve analyzed this in a lot of my clients’ writing, your most important point is at the very bottom of your listing bullets, usually at second or third sub bullet.
So yes, that’s an example of the dangerous mix of academic writing and professional writing, not a happy marriage.
Drew: Yeah. So for the listeners who are all of a sudden scanning their brain for what their web copy looks like and all of that, give us some of the big mistakes that you identify when you look at how an agency presents itself in writing.
Jody: Well, I think the biggest mistake is relying on the generalizations that almost every other agency uses to describe themselves.
Drew: Oh, wait. Let me see. Full service integrated marketing agency.
Jody: Exactly. Or you even get some great gems like, “We are true partners.” The amount of times I’ve seen that, that sort of makes my stomach churn when I read that just because I read it all over and over again. Frankly, that goes beyond good writing because that requires a lot of self-reflection, that difficult self-reflection to figure out how you can go beyond those generalizations.
I think fear plays a huge role as well, and fear on lots of different levels. But there’s one – just fear of putting pen to paper, or putting fingers to keypad. But I think there’s also this fear of, if you move beyond the generalization and you start to stake a claim and say something specific, well then there’s really no going back.
Drew: Right. Well, when you say you’re about something, by definition, you’re also saying what you’re not about. I think a lot of agency owners worry about leaving money on the table.
Jody: Exactly, yes. So a lot of times, I help them with that. The other thing that I see a lot on agency’s websites is just saying too much, too much all at once and not letting the work speak for itself. So those are the two things that I think can be addressed right away for most agencies on their website when they make that initial first impression for clients who are looking to find them, as opposed to the agency seeking the clients.
Drew: Right. I think a lot of times, agencies are guilty of the five pounds of information in a one pound bag, or they’re just trying to pack there. It’s interesting because this is the very stuff they counsel clients against all the time, but I think our clients, and in this case agencies, are so worried that this is going to be their one shot to communicate that they really over-communicate. Which almost ensures it’s your one shot to communicate because you’ve either dulled the senses of the reader or is just so dense that they don’t find it engaging enough to come back.
Jody: Yeah. I use, and it’s a pretty basic sales principle, is to try to limit your communication to one big message, maybe two, but ideally, you’re limiting it to one. Also, if we’re talking about a situation where you’re using the written word to prospect and build a relationship over time, the other thing I counsel my clients is to create a schedule or a campaign of communication. So yes, that’s just another reason not to dump it all into that initial email.
One, it’s not going to be read and two, now you have no other reason to come back in a week or two with more information.
Drew: Right. I think, again, agencies are graded, giving advice to clients with the idea of multiple communications using marketing automation or whatever they may be using. But not always great at following it. Partially it’s because, I think, most agencies don’t carve out enough time to do their own new business, and so they sort of end up slapping it together and hoping that one big bang will suffice because they don’t have time to prune and maintain it.
Jody: I agree. I totally agree and it’s a little…again, getting away a little bit from the writing, but that’s often what I will do with some of my clients who are struggling there. It’s helped them. So I guess it is that you’ll help them, again, come up with that schedule, then that cadence of communications that can be sustained over time. It’s great if there is some sort of automation that’s there, but you also don’t necessarily need, especially if you’re a smaller agency. Then I also advocate that you’re pursuing fewer or more targeted clients or prospects.
So you can actually do it manually, but it’s very helpful to come up with at least some kind of structure in the beginning. These are the 15, because it’s pretty scary. It can also take 15 points of communication. These are the 15 messages that we want to say. I actually about to come out with my next blogpost on a useful matrix that I’d also be happy to share with your audience.
I introduced a matrix that shows generic to specific communications on one axis, and simple to complicated on the other axis. You have your simple and generic…for want of a better term, communications which is, “We are X, Y, Z agency and we know how to reach baby boomers.” So that’s something that’s who you are. It’s very repeatable. You say the same thing all the time no matter who you’re talking to. Up to things like the simple but more complex, like a case study.
So simple because, again, you have the information there. You need to write it well, but it’s there. It’s repeatable. To some things like special offers that are a little less generic, a little bit more complex. Maybe that’s where you start to develop a special offer that you think is going to be particularly of interest to that prospect.
All of a sudden, that, I think takes the fear away of like, “Well, oh my gosh, I have to write. I have to think about 15 different ways I can carve out my message.” Well, if you’ve got that matrix showing those four clear buckets, then it makes it a lot easier. Then all of a sudden, you can start to plot out your messages a little bit more efficiently.
Common Mistakes Agencies Make when Responding to RFPs
Drew: So what we’ll do is we’ll include links to both of those matrices in the show notes. So folks, as you’re listening, I know that you’re going to want to go check out the show notes and be able to access both of those. So that will be great. What other tools when agencies are…so let’s shift away from the website and the new business thing.
When agencies are putting together proposals and they’re responding to either an RFP or Request for Proposal, whether it’s formal or informal, what are the big mistakes that they make there?
Jody: Well, gosh, where do I start? There are several. I think one is in the planning. Now, a lot of times agencies are not given a huge amount of time. So I will acknowledge that.
Drew: Well, even when they are, they don’t start usually far enough out that they have a lot of time. Let’s be fair.
Jody: That’s true, and so that’s in fact, that’s a beautiful lead into the first big mistake, is even if you’ve been given only a week, it’s still there. You can still start to organize your time in sensible ways so that you’re not pulling an all-nighter the night before. Because one of the best ways to improve your writing right away is to edit. Editing takes time, and editing also takes a fresh perspective.
One of the other exercises that we do in our workshop, and I will completely admit that we have blatantly stolen this from another writing expert named Laura Brown, who wrote “How to Write Anything” and it’s a great book. It’s almost like a recipe book for writing. But she came up with this idea of the writing spinner. Because as you were saying before, people tend to procrastinate, and I think that’s tied into fear. Not only because it’s like, “I don’t want to do it,” but it’s also something a little bit deeper like, “I don’t want to fail.”
So she says, “Look. Starting is the hardest part, but there are different ways to start. So start to get to familiarize yourself with what is most comfortable for you.” The writing spinner says, “You can start by dumping words on a page. Or if you tend to be a little bit more organized, you can start by outlining. Or you can start with brainstorming with a friend.”
But you still have to go through an editorial process. The point is to get comfortable with throwing stuff on the page. By the way, no matter how good or how experienced a writer you are, it will always be pretty horrifying. You also have to get comfortable with that, and the sooner you can get comfortable with that, and the sooner you get the garbage on the page, the sooner you can start to see the jewels emerging from the garbage. You could start to go back, start to edit out.
My writing style, I tend to…I’m a bit of a word dumper. I tend to just start writing stuff. But what I find is that rather than writing stuff and then going back to it, I find that once I get going, then the story emerges. Usually, for me, a lot of times, not all I have to do, but a lot of times, the first thing I have to do when I go back to edit is just read the first two paragraphs. Then I realize I’ve got actually something that’s in pretty good shape. So I’m sort of like the ramp up person. I need that running down the runway before I take off.
But again, other people may need to take a more organized approach to the written word. I’m going to do this, this, this. My opening statement is here. I want to make these three points and conclude here. But the point is not to get stuck, not to feel like you have to get stuck in one method that’s actually not right for you. So yeah, give yourself time. Give yourself the freedom to be messy and unsuccessful on that first try. But then go back and edit. Give yourself several rounds of editing.
Drew: What about having other people edit? How critical is that for agencies when they’re creating responses to some sort of a proposal request?
Jody: I don’t think anyone has asked me that in that form. So my first response was, “I personally think it’s very important to edit yourself.” But I think what often happens with a lot of agencies is that you will have…usually, there’s one person who’s in charge of it, and I think even with smaller agencies. There’s one person. Whether that’s the agency president, or whether they’re lucky enough to have a head of new business, or if it’s the strategy person.
But typically, there’s also sub assignments. So I may be in charge of writing 50% of it and organizing the rest, but I’m assigning things out. So is that central organizer…yeah, there’s a requirement to…you want your contributors, you want their voices to…they want them to be able to communicate with their own voice if they feel comfortable. But then you have to be the one who then edits that through the filter of the agency brand. That’s advanced, I’ll fully admit it, and it takes practice. But good new business people, that’s not something that they’ve been able to develop over time.
But for something like that, that’s a tricky thing. I’m so used to editing my own work that rarely do I have other people edit for me. I think what is really important, in fact crucial is proofreading. That’s when you definitely want a different set of eyes on your own work.
Drew: Yeah. I find sometimes even in my own writing though, that I am so clear in my own head about what I want to communicate that sometimes I will take kind of a shortcut in my writing. It’s not always as clear to a reader as it is for me, the writer, in my own head because I’ve got the whole context in the back story. So I know sometimes when we’re working on new business pitches and things like that, I may be the lead architect of the document, but it’s helpful throughout the process to have somebody else coming back behind me. Maybe not to edit, but to sort of review and go, “That’s a little unclear, or did you mean this,” or that, or catch jargon, and that sort of thing throughout the process. So that’s for us anyway a helpful way to make sure that what’s in my head actually gets on paper, and I’ve articulated it clearly.
Jody: You know what? You really are absolutely right. I suppose I’m also thinking, so often when I work with clients, often I’m in that role. So I think one of the keys is also to make sure you have someone who you trust who’s editing it for you, who is looking at it. Then also be willing to take their input. You’re willing to assess it critically, accept it and then use it if the person is right, and maybe don’t use it if it doesn’t feel right to you. The important thing is don’t let your ego get involved.
How Agencies Can Differentiate Using the Written Word
Drew: So obviously, in most cases, when an agency is submitting some sort of written proposal that other agencies are also submitting proposals. I think a lot of agencies think that their stuff is really unique, but when you see a lot of it like you or I do, I think you very quickly see that it all sounds pretty much the same. How can agencies really differentiate themselves in that sort of a written document so that their work, or their proposal does stand out from the four others that are being presented?
Jody: First of all, it does go back to be really clear about who you are and what you do best. That goes beyond the writing. It’s difficult. It’s self-reflection. It’s that painful process, but once you get there, then the writing becomes so much easier, because once you can articulate who you are and what you do well, and what that brand means, then it’s a natural transition to start to develop that editorial voice.
But one of the other exercises that we introduced to our clients is storytelling. I think that is often neglected. Again, it’s sort of ironic because advertising agencies are very good at storytelling on behalf of their clients, or weaving a story throughout a campaign. But they’re not so good when they’re talking about their own material. So we introduced the concept of a story arc, and we relate it to stories that we all know, the idea that you start with a certain level of stasis, then the surprise, and setbacks as you go on the journey, to a climax, and to a resolution. I’m only abbreviating it there.
But what we point out is that while that makes sense for something like a Harry Potter or Wizard of Oz, we then say, “Okay, let’s look at that in the context of say a case study.” I usually use case studies because they’re really the most obvious. In fact, case studies are stories. Because it starts out with some sort of stasis with the client. The client was bumping along quite happily until something happened, some trigger like a new competitor in the marketplace, or the economy tanks.
So that’s when the agency is handed that challenge of how to fix the problem, and the agency then proceeds to go on its journey during which there are surprises and setbacks. That’s throughout their research phase. That’s throughout their developing, their insights, and their strategies. That’s throughout their creative development, even the creative execution. Yeah, I think sometimes agencies can take things for granted like the fact that maybe they’ve decided for a particular client or campaign that they’re going to use a new technology, new and untested technology, or something like that, is a wonderful way to add a certain amount of tension in that story, in that case study. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a brand new technology.
So you’re telling a good story, but the underlying messages are, “We are an agency that knows how to take smart risks for our clients. We’re an agency that’s creative. We’re an agency that doesn’t say no or an agency that’s going to…”
Drew: We’re innovative. We’re always on the cutting edge of what’s new.
Jody: Without having to say, we are innovative and on the cutting edge. It doesn’t really tell them anything.
Drew: So really what you’re saying is that one of the ways to make that kind of a document different than everyone else’s is to show more than tell.
Jody: Show more than tell, and do it within a story format. Because even though your competitors may also be using story formats, they’ll be telling a different story. It’s only you who can tell your own story.
Drew: Well, and many of them, probably to be concise, are telling the story in bullet points, which to your earlier point, a, a lot of times you get the importance out of order. But b, it’s pretty difficult to put any emotion into bullet points.
Jody: Exactly. I think, again, it’s letting go of that fear a little bit. I think sometimes why the story format can be really useful is that it becomes a device also to remove some of the apprehension. Am I going to sound good? Does anyone really care about the story? He can sort of follow that path. Another thing that we use, something else that we lightly ripped off is a thing called The Pixar Pitch. I first learned about it in Dan Pink’s book, “To Sell is Human.”
Drew: Which is a great book.
Jody: It’s a wonderful book for almost anyone who runs an agency, or is involved in its development. He got it from a former Pixar story artist named Emma Coats. What she did is, she discovered that all Pixar stories can be boiled down to a really simple format that essentially goes, “Once upon a time, this thing happened, and because of that, this thing happened. Because of that, the other thing happened. Because of that, finally this came to this conclusion.”
Again, I’m oversimplifying it. I’m sorry. I don’t have it in front of me to be loyal to it. But it essentially takes in all the elements of the classic story arc, but it’s super simple. So a lot of times we’ll go through that exercise just to get people to bring new life to a case study or an agency bio, or even their own agency history. Or even sometimes their work process itself.
People talk about clients, search consultants will say, “Oh, if I have to read another five step work process, innovative proprietary work process…” Well, the fact is you’re probably never…they’re all going to have similarities.
Drew: Of course.
Jody: But if you can add certain amount of storytelling to it, then you’re going to draw in your own voice, it’s going to relate back to your reason for being in this crazy business, and it’s going to be more interesting.
Drew: So you just said something that people are interested in. Let’s talk about the agency history piece for a minute, because I work with 250 or so agencies here, and a lot of them started less than auspiciously. They started in a basement, or they started because somebody got fired or…. I think agency owners are reticent to tell their agency history story in a way that reveals the humanity behind it. How would you counsel an agency owner how to construct the history of their agency in a way that’s interesting and tells you what they’re all about, and gives you a sense of their essence in their brand?
Jody: Again, I think a lot of it does go back to storytelling, and the reason why stories are so compelling to us. Now, at the very beginning of a story, there’s that trigger that changes everything forever. So in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy was literally in that whole homeostasis of Kansas until the twister came, and whisked her off to the Emerald City, to Oz. That draws you right in. So I think one of the things I try to do is I try to, by illustrating how it works both in classic stories as well as other agencies who do do it well, to show that it’s that kind of trigger, and that kind of journey, and that kind of success born out of that journey that makes their story so interesting.
Also, usually by the time they’re pitching clients, they have moved beyond that initial trigger phase, that initial phase of upset. They are more than simply a startup agency struggling to pay the bills. I tried to point out that that also shows a certain tenacity and passion. Again, tenacity and passion, those are adjectives that can mean so much more when they’re actually shown to have happened.
Drew: Yeah, because it sounds sort of arrogant, or passion is another word that I think every agency uses when they talk about themselves. It’s sort of like if I say to you, “You know what Jody? I am an honest guy.” You wonder why I’m making a big point of telling you I am honest.
Drew: But when I demonstrate that I’m honest without saying a word, you begin to associate that trait with me.
Jody: Exactly. The other thing that we have is a checklist that I can tell you more about. It’s an easy checklist of editorial checklist. Six, no, I’m sorry. Actually it’s five. Five steps, five things that you could do to make your writing better right away, and one of them is to use adjectives carefully. I have a list of adjectives that agencies should ban forever like passionate and relentless.
The same thing happens to me. I can’t necessarily speak for all kinds or for all search consultants who review our piece, but I know that from my perspective when I read that, I do the same thing that you do. A red flag goes up, and I think if they have to tell me that they’re relentless and passionate, it probably means that it’s not true. Or it probably means they’re not quite as relentless as they’d like to be. At best, it’s an aspirational statement, but if I’m going to hand you my business and pay you a lot of money every month, I don’t want aspiration. I want to see how relentless you are.
So I tell agencies also with the word relentless, unless you’ve got ships of people working around the clock, now that’s relentless, otherwise you’ve got to show me, don’t tell me.
Drew: Yeah. So the other part about the agency history is, I think we all like to root for. I think of the story like Hercules or some other classics, the hero often is a common man or woman who rises to some sort of bravery, or excellence, or whatever. I think sometimes agency owners are reticent to show their humanity in the fact that maybe they did come from humble beginnings, not personally, but I mean the agency itself. Or maybe they have had struggles. But I think that’s part of what makes somebody actually connect with that agency, and ultimately at the end of the day, that’s what our writing is supposed to do, isn’t it?
Is to make me have some sort of a connection to you that makes me want to know more, want to be around you, or be with you because there’s something compelling about you at that very emotional level. I think when you present too pristine a picture, there’s nothing for me to attach to.
Jody: I am one of those people who believes that chemistry plays a huge part in winning a piece of business or gaining over a new client. So when you are in a later stage of a pitch and you can start to interrelate with the prospect, then a certain natural chemistry happens. But going back to this reality that your written word is usually the first thing that your client sees, you’re right. You have to take the type of chemistry that most agency owners or principals know is so important to cultivate in a live meeting, you have to put that in written form for your emails, for your RFP responses, on your website. Yeah, you have to create that connection.
The other thing that I think happens is that…so people are badly influenced by academia, they’re afraid of sounding like themselves. Then it’s also reinforced because they see their own clients write badly. So, that’s something else I try to remind my clients is that you don’t have a good example to look at on the other side of the fence. Your clients are also terrible writers.
Drew: Right. Don’t emulate them.
Jody: Right. I think when you’re younger, especially you see that. You’re like, “Well, if my client is writing with those jargon, but that jargon has technical words I should be echoing back,” and yeah, it doesn’t help things.
So my advice is, just because they write badly and overly formally and in a bloated way doesn’t mean that you have to. Also think about them. They’re human beings too. One of the things I advise when people are…this is more for about getting ready to make a sales call or even…but it also applies to writing an email, is that when you have a cold or even a warm prospect, I always say, think about them not as your best friend because that’s too familiar, but think about communicating with a stranger as if they were your neighbor, or maybe your aunt who you only see a couple times a year. So someone who you relate to as another human being. But maybe with a little bit more formality because you don’t know them that well.
But I think that sense, that idea of realizing that you’re talking to another human being who wakes up, and takes their coffee black in the morning, and had a bad commute at getting into the office, but feels happy when he or she looks at pictures of their kids. Knowing that is going to help your writing.
Drew: Right, I agree. You’ve mentioned a couple times your workshop. Tell us a little bit more about what that looks like.
Jody: Sure. Well, one of the things that when we developed it, we wanted to…first of all, we wanted to make sure that agencies felt like they could customize it for their own needs. A lot of times, we are working with agencies strictly with a new business focus. But we also did one recently for a large national agency that was more focused on their client briefs, and the inter-client communication, the client-agency communications through emails and briefings.
Again, what we try to do a lot of it is stuff that we’ve been talking about in this interview today. Introduce things like storytelling. What I want to do is I don’t want to…I think too often people walk away sometimes from these workshops nodding their heads in agreement, but without the tools to say, “Okay, now I know what to do next.” So we try very hard to equip people with techniques to actually change the writing. So things like The Pixar Pitch, one of the reasons why I love that so much is that it’s so accessible.
Drew: Yeah, it’s a formula they can follow.
Jody: Right. Or there are things like the checklist, which as I’ve mentioned, there’s nothing surprising on this checklist. It’s probably stuff that has been introduced or maybe even drummed into you throughout school. But it’s using adjectives carefully. Using the active, and not the passive form of a sentence, simplifying your words, eliminating unnecessary words, using strong verbs. All these things that we forget about when we start to get sucked into this sort of whirling of using jargon and generalizations. Again, it goes back to this idea of editing too.
On your first round, so if you use a couple of overly complicated phrases, big deal. Just give yourself the time to realize that you can simplify it, that sometimes one word will do where you’ve actually already written five. So those are also the types of exercises that we do. We also do a lot of just in time exercises. So if an agency is working on a big RFP response, or if an agency is in the middle of awards show season and they want to make sure that they’re writing the best submissions possible, we will carve out part of the workshop to break out into different teams, and actually work on the documents that, they’re live documents.
So I think it also one, gets them writing better right away, and we’re helping to improve something that they know they’ve got it.
Drew: It’s real. That’s real, right. So how do you, agencies, as a general rule believe that they’re great storytellers because it’s what they do for their clients all the time? So how do you help an agency owner or an agency new business person see that even though they apply that skill in their daily work, they don’t really apply it to themselves?
I am imagining your sales call with an agency owner or something, and you’re talking about, “Well, we’ll teach you storytelling.” I can hear the agency owner saying, “Well, we do storytelling every day.” I think they believe they do it well whether they do it or not. So how do you help them recognize, or how would an agency owner self-assess some of their own writing, or their own website to see if this is something they actually should be thinking about?
Jody: Well unfortunately, a lot of times, we get the call when an agency is just lost, they’ve been eliminated from a big pitch in the RFP round. Or to go back to the example of the agency president. We’re so distressed by the briefs that he was seeing or the emails that he was seeing. So he was the champion and said, “We got to do something about this.”
Drew: Because he wasn’t happy with his peoples’ skill level.
Jody: His peoples’. Right. It requires a champion or it requires someone to say, “You know what? I think there’s a problem here.” I think if people don’t think they have a problem, it’s very difficult for me to convince them otherwise, but it’s also one of the reasons why I try to lead with…my pitch is led with this idea of getting people to think about, on the things how we opened the podcast. Think about how often your written word is the first thing your prospects see.
Now, if someone’s convinced that their work written word is effective, then there’s not much…
Drew: Pearls of wisdom, right?
Jody: Right. But if they really start thinking about it, maybe look at their last prospecting email, or think about the struggle they had putting that RFP or the website, then I think there’s a moment of realization. But it actually is giving me other ideas like maybe what I should do is pull together…well a lot of times in the workshops too, with permission and with thorough screening, we sometimes show back the poor writing. So we will go back and say, “Look, here’s an example of some of the writing that was identified by either you, or people you work with, or who you work for, as writing that’s not meeting the grade.”
Then we work with them to, again, apply the things that we’ve taught them to show how it can be improved. So that takes a special group. That takes people who have to be really willing to admit that they need improvement. We’ve sort of developed an archive of bad writing.
Drew: Samples, right?
Jody: Samples, right. Hopefully, people will see, or people will likely see themselves in these samples even though it’s not their writing. So it’s a little bit more removed. They can sort of smile in a guilty way, but still be willing to understand how to improve it as opposed to feeling like they’re being called out. But we really try to use real examples that show like, “Here’s what you’re doing now. Here’s how we’re going to help you improve.”
Drew: Well, and I don’t care how good a writer you are. There is always room for improvement. So even if you believe your agency has some folks that are really strong writers, or you really think your agency history is brilliantly written, I would assume that there’s enough levels of improvement made that at the end of the workshop, or at the end of however somebody would interact with you, they are feeling a lot better about their writing.
Jody: Yes. Another one of the icons that we use and refer to in our workshop is an author named William Zinsser, who for many years was a writer for The New York Herald Tribune. He then was a writer for The New Yorker, and then he went on to teach writing, but nonfiction writing at Yale and then The New School. He actually just died this past year at the very ripe old age of, I think, 92 or something.
He wrote a book called “On Writing Well”, and one of the anecdotes that we used to talk about champions, is when my partner at the workshops, Ashley Milne-Tyte, before becoming a journalist, she was in the agency world and she was working at the time for Ammirati Puris Lintas back when they existed, I guess. She remembers coming in one day early, and on everyone’s desk in her department was a copy of William Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well”, with a note that said, essentially, “I’m sick and tired of seeing such bad writing coming out of this department. Everybody, this is required reading, and then apply what you learn.”
So one of the things William Zinsser dose in his introduction is he shows a shot of a late galley of the book. He shows where all the editing marks are; the cross outs, and the additions, and changes. He points out that this is the fourth or fifth time that this galley has been edited. There are still so many changes being made. The point is that it does take time. It takes rounds of revision, and there’s usually always something you can do to improve your writing.
How to Improve Your Writing Immediately (Action Steps)
Drew: So I know that a lot of people are listening, and they’re thinking whether they think their own writing is brilliant or not. They’re frustrated with maybe some staff writing, or particularly, I think, sometimes their young staff, and their writing skill. If people are listening and they want to, on their own, make some improvements in the way the agency presents itself through all facets, so from everything from client briefs and emails to clients, to RFP responses, the agency history, the web site copy, what are some things that they can do on their own to up the game of their writing?
Jody: Well, certainly there are so many great resources that already exist out there. I mentioned some of them. Zinsser’s book, “On Writing Well”, Laura Brown’s book, “How to Write Anything.” Then I would be happy to share some of the techniques that we use, make them available to your audience. So that checklist that I’d mentioned earlier. So the checklist, what I love about it is that you don’t need to think that much about it.
So if you’re following the checklist, you can do things. It makes it easier to do things like notice that when you use the word ‘utilize,’ maybe you should use the word ‘use.’ Or instead of saying, ‘due to the fact that’ Just use ‘because.’ I think what happens is if you can start applying that checklist, you don’t even have to think that hard about it. Your writing is going to improve immeasurably. So that’s the first thing that they can do. Then I’ll also make available The Pixar Pitch, which is really a fun way to start to learn how to tell a story better.
It’s sort of meant as a remedial tool. You’re not going to apply The Pixar Pitch method, and then submit that to a client. But it’s going to help you infuse a little bit of life to your case study, or agency history, or a bio that just gets you a little bit farther, infuses personality and emotion. Then you can tweak it in a more professional way for client consumption.
Drew: That would be great. All of those things folks will be attached to the show notes, so be sure that you go download all of those tools. Any other thoughts, Jody, about that?
Jody: Well, we were able to cover so much in a short period of time. So I would say that just to reinforce that, it takes practice. Like anything that you need to do well, it takes practice, and I think sometimes that can be a hard thing to say and even harder to understand, but it takes practice. It takes time.
Writing is probably 10% writing and 90% editing. Actually I’ll take that back. Ten percent writing, 80% editing and 10% proofreading. Go in it with some glee, and don’t be afraid to be yourself.
Drew: That may be the best advice you’ve given all day is, “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” I think so many times agencies trying to sound different than themselves. It’s almost they are apologetic for their humanity, and I think they completely miss the point. I’ll add one more obviously, reaching out to Jody and learning more about her workshop probably is a good plan too.
So Jody, folks want to learn more about you and about your workshop, and the other work you do with agencies.