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May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Learn the tips and tricks of great copywriting with Mish Slade, author of May I Have Your Attention, Please?, and founder of the copywriting agency, Mortified Cow. In this podcast with Byron, Mish explains the questions she asks when talking to clients, and what's essential to do when working with them. To learn more about Mish and her business, visit http://mortifiedcow.com/.

                                            Byron:                                     Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Mish.                                                     Mish, welcome.

                                             Mish:                                       Thank you for having me.

Byron:                                     Very excited to be chatting with you today about your fabulous book: 'May I Have Your Attention, Please?' I love the opening, opening with a question. That’s really brilliant. Where did you write the book, and tell us what brought you to the conclusion that you needed to put this book in the marketplace.

Mish:                                       I wrote the book, I think, it was probably about six months ago that I started writing it. And the reason that I wrote it is because I’m a copywriter and I write for small businesses. I guess my key point of difference from other copywriters is I really focus on helping these small businesses set themselves apart from the competition through writing. I just notes that there are a lot of businesses out there who want to do that. They want to get better at their writing. They want to stand apart from the competition, but they don’t necessarily know if they want to hire a copywriter or they can’t afford one. So I thought, they’d buy the book.

Byron:                                     Indeed. And tell us some of your principles. By the way, I love the quote you have from Simon on your chapter one: People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. I love that quote from Simon, that’s brilliant.  

Mish:                                       Yeah, that’s a good one. I think the main overarching principle of the book is that everyone, all companies say exactly the same thing, so it doesn’t matter whether they’re an accountant, or a plumber, or a web designer. They all have the same sort of catch on their website. They all say, “passionate about your success,” or “going above and beyond.” And then “we deliver results,” then “whether you’re a small, medium or large business we have the solutions for you.” All that sort of thing. And we just wanted to show why that’s really the wrong way of going about things. So I divided the book into 12 different chapters just kind of touching on the different things that people need to know about in order to set that company apart from competition.

Byron:                                     Why are we so chest-beating, promotional-feature-benefits passionate about our products and services? Can you explain why we’re such idiots?

Mish:                                       I think it’s probably because it’s easy. Everyone else is doing it and if everyone else is doing it, you automatically assume that it must be working. It’s just easier to just write that text and not really think about it too much. It takes a lot of work to sort of inject some personality into your copy and to think about having a real point of difference from everybody else. So I think it’s kind of, probably laziness.

Byron:                                     You talk a little bit about “niche it down.” What does that mean in your chapter two? What does “niche it down” mean? I love that expression.

Mish:                                       It’s talking about the idea that a lot of companies try to appeal to everyone in their target market. And the problem with that is they kind of end up resonating with no one. So you see it a lot where, like an accountant, they will say, “Whether you’re a small, medium or large business, you can come to us. We’ll have the solutions for you.” The problem with that kind of text is that no one will read it and think, “Oh my God, they get me. They know exactly what kind of things I want.” And so niching down is about really targeting a much smaller focal point in that marketplace. For example, if you are an accountant, you practice and maybe thinking about working with just small creative businesses who are brand new. Who have only started out and really don’t know what they’re doing. Then you can target your copy to that kind of person. And as soon as that kind of person reads your copy, they’ll think, “Oh my God, they get me. This is amazing. This is who I want to work with.”

Byron:                                     Do you think that learning to write well is something easy to do, if you know some of the fundamentals? You laid down 12 simple principles, but is writing effectively and efficiently and concisely easy to do?  Is it something you can learn?

Mish:                                       It’s something you can learn, but it takes a lot of practice. Everyone talks about you should read widely if you want to be a good writer. I actually think you need to write a lot. You definitely need to read to get ideas for what other people are doing. And how sentence structures and certain terms and ways of structuring a sentence can work. But the best way at getting good at writing is to write. And also, one of the other things to point out I think is, good writing is actually good editing. So you write, you write, you write, and then it’s all about the editing and restructuring sentences and moving paragraphs around.

Byron:                                     Is our appreciation for writing growing?

Mish:                                       Now, with content marketing and blog posts and all of that, I think the good ones are rising to the top and we’re starting to recognize what good writing is.

Byron:                                     Yeah. If you had a few of the most important secrets that people could learn from you today, what would one of them be? What is really so simple yet overlooked by people when it comes to writing great content?

Mish:                                       I think the absolute simplest one is to use contractions, which people don’t do when they write because they think it looks unprofessional. So instead of “you are” or “he is,” use “you’re” and “he’s”. And “we will,” “we’ll”. It sounds more natural. Just use contractions because that’s exactly how we speak. And people come across as quite wooden and unnatural when they use the long form, the long version. But it’s just to kind of get comfortable with using what you might think as being more colloquial words, using contractions that sort of thing. And it just comes across as so much more human and natural.

Byron:                                     Where did you learn to write?

Mish:                                       I’ve always been interested in writing. When I was at university I wrote for the university newspaper. And I did an internship at a newspaper. So I’ve always been practicing, I guess. And then all my jobs I’ve been either an editor or a writer, so yeah, lots of good practice.

Byron:                                     How did you get started with a copywriting career, particularly a lot of people are writers. People at WriterAccess, for example, are creating general content, blog post, more general writing. But the art of copywriting, the art of transforming believers into buyers, tell us where that science and art began for you. And how you might recommend other people branch out and launch into that art and science.

Mish:                                       Yeah, sure. Mine is quite an unusual one. I used to work at a digital agency in London. And then my husband and I decided to take a six-month sabbatical and live in New York. Just because we thought, “Well, we’re young. We should do it now.” And it was only while we were there that we realized that we didn’t have to necessarily come back home and get new jobs. We could actually start working for ourselves while we travel. So we’re now digital nomads, we run our business while we travel the world. Writing was all I knew how to do, so we actually started on what was then Elance is now called Upwork. So we were on Elance then we were on Fiverr, and we just started writing for clients there. And I think through the process of getting those clients in the first place, you’re competing against hundreds, potentially thousands of people in those platforms. And so you really got to stand out from your competition just to get the job in the first place. Then you have to do a good job once you’ve got it. So it was through that process that I gradually got better and in the end we moved off that platform and created our own agency.

Byron:                                     Exciting. We have hundreds of people in the very situation that you’re describing there that look to WriterAccess, of course, as a platform to find great work. But that transition to building your own base of customers is difficult to make. What do you think the greatest difficulty is with dealing with customers that don’t understand great content? Well written content? And even this wonderful distinction of writing like we talk as we really should be doing as a copy writer versus grammatical perfection, which often can sound choppy and fake, if you will.

Mish:                                       Yeah.

Byron:                                     Tell us about that challenge you have of educating and acclimating customers to really great copywriting.

Mish:                                       I think now we’re in a lucky position where the clients that we have recognize the fact that we are good copywriters and they need help with their writing. It is really difficult, especially with clients who don’t want to pay a lot of money because they don’t see the value in it, because I suppose, everyone knows how to write. It’s not like being an artist or a graphic designer, where people recognize they’re not necessarily good. From a very young age we learned how to write, so we all think we can do it. Whereas it’s a very different skill to actually be a copywriter. I think that the way, I suppose, to prove it to people who are a bit cynical is to show them the difference between attention-grabbing, persuasive, convincing text; and the text that they may write. And just show what a difference it makes.

Byron:                                     When you look at those elements of persuasion and dissect them, what do you think the core elements of persuasion are, typically with earning trust?

Mish:                                       I think a lot of it is showing, not telling. A lot of people say, “we’re passionate about your success,” or “we have excellent customer service,” “we pride ourselves on our customer service,” that doesn’t really do much to persuade anyone because anyone can say it. Everyone does say it, in fact. Anyone says it, it doesn’t mean anything. I think a lot of it has to do with showing, not telling. So don’t say that you’re passionate about success, show what lengths you go to to ensure your client’s success. Or don’t just say that you have high quality products, tell me about the love and the work that went into creating them. I think that goes a long way get the trust of your clients and persuade them that you’re good at what you do.

Byron:                                     By the way, your book is just packed with so many wonderful before and after examples, it’s really cool. Thank you for working through that torturous process of taking something really terrible and making it great. On that topic, tell me a little bit about rewriting and how much rewriting you do as a copywriter say for your clients. Are you taking drafts and then a second version, a third version, a fourth version? But the customer may not really see it until you’ve gone through it several times. Tell us about that.

Mish:                                       Okay. Are you saying when I start from scratch, how much editing do I do before they see it?

Byron:                                     Yes.

Mish:                                       A lot. I always start by, once I’ve asked them a bunch of questions and once I’ve worked out sort of the main gist of what they want, I will then send them a few ideas, certain angles, how I could approach the homepage and how I could approach the about page. Once we’ve agreed on an angle, I’ll write something, I’ll then edit it. I’ll then come back the next day, look at it again, edit it again. Send it to my husband, he’ll look through it. That happens a few times before it even goes to the client once.

Byron:                                     Do you ever read out loud?

Mish:                                       Always. Always. I think that’s really important, because you want to come across as a human being in your writing. Or you want to sound like your client would sound. So it’s so important because there’s a certain flow that you want to achieve. That kind of matches the flow of everyday conversation. And it’s very important to read it out loud because then you can recognize when a sentence is too long, or when it‘s too stunted. Or when there are two very short sentences in a row that don’t sound great together. That’s why it’s really important to read everything out loud.

Byron:                                     You talked a little bit about personality and you have a whole chapter dedicated to that. And I love the Adventure Bar example that you used there. Tell us about personality and how critical and important it is to be real and to showcase your personality. And how do you do that with a client, a customer?

  Mish:                                     With a client, I guess it’s all about talking to them on the phone quite a lot. Because a lot of my clients aren’t writers and so they don’t convey their personality in their writing. It’s my job to do that. So it’s all about speaking to them on the phone, asking them a ton of questions, recording the phone call, listening back to the phone call. Writing down keywords they used so I can use those words in the text. Some clients, they say, “I’m quite sarcastic but I want to maybe rein that in a little bit in my text.” So I have to be aware of that sort of thing. But I think it’s really important to put across a personality in your text. We've all got a personality, and you don’t want something that’s just again, sounds like it’s from a robot, not a human being. And not only that, but you want a personality so that people who are attracted to that personality are attracted to your website and attracted to working with you. So I think it’s definitely important.

Byron:                                     You have some great examples of personality, do you have any favorites? How edgy do you think companies should really get? And how is a copywriter, and how can your book help those companies realize that being a little snappy, a little creative, a little crafty, or what I call “introducing some snap, crackle and pop into your content,” I’ve done a couple of speaking venues on that very topic and I love talking about content in that regards. But how do you sell that edge to a customer or to a client of yours?

Mish:                                       I think most the clients who work with us, again, they--

Byron:                                     They want that.

Mish:                                       They want it. They come by our website and if you see our website, you’ll realize that we’re not going to get any clients who don’t want personality on their site.

Byron:                                     Right.

Mish:                                       So it’s not too much of a problem for us. I think in the past, when we were trying to push for more personality, it’s often a case of showing two examples of ways that we could write their text. We had to do this quite a lot at the beginning, we don’t have to do it anymore. And showing them just the difference and just how much more appealing and persuasive the more personality-full one comes across. It’s also maybe showing them examples of other websites that are packed with personality. When our clients go into that website, they can realize immediately, yeah, this is so much more attention-grabbing than something that’s quite out and down and boring.

Byron:                                     Theodore Levitt’s quote, I love this: Well, people don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole. Just so wonderfully-revealing.

Mish:                                       [0:15:57 inaudible]

Byron:                                     I know, yeah. Well, I’m sure there’s some great quotes in your book. Fear not, we’ll find some gems in there for sure. Tell us about this challenge of moving clients away from their benefits, and their features or their product, and being so product-centered. Is the best way to do that to just expose them to great new things by taking their content in a different direction and seeing what they think? Or do you feel like there’s research or maybe giving copies away of your book to some of our clients would be a good idea? Tell us what your thoughts are on how you educate customers and some great ways you’ve done that over the years.

Mish:                                       My book now goes out to all clients. In fact, anyone who contacts me, I just realized this is probably a bad thing, anyone who contacts me saying they are interested in my services, I’ll send them my book. That’s a good way of getting a free book from me.

Byron:                                     Yeah.

Mish:                                       I think it’s often a case of keeping on questioning them. When they talk about a particular service, I always say, “Okay what does that do for your client? Why is that good for your client? What does that mean that they can get on and do with their lives now that they have this service?” It’s all about making them realize that just saying what you do doesn’t really get to why their customers would want to work with them. It’s just you keep drilling down, you keep asking why, why, why, until you get closer to what their customer would actually get out working with them.

Byron:                                     What do you think can be done online in platforms like WriterAccess to better bridge the gap of writers and their assignments, and their work, and their pressure, and the specifications with getting inside the customer’s head? What do you think are creative ways to do that? For example, have you ever used creative briefs? Is that a critical component? Can a customer properly fill out a creative brief for you? That’s kind of what we do at WriterAccess. What are your thoughts on tapping into the head of your customer?

Mish:                                       I actually think, and it took me a while to come around to this way of doing things, I really do think that phone calls and or Skype, it’s kind of essential. I’m a bit of an introvert and I’d rather not speak on the phone but I actually realized I couldn’t run my business that way. And so I really do think it’s important to get on the phone especially because some people aren’t great at communicating by writing. You might not get their tone, you might not exactly understand where they’re coming from. So I think phone calls and having a set of really, really tons of questions basically. Asking the client everything. You know, everyone likes talking about themselves so it’s great for the client to feel at ease, and to feel like you really want to get to know them. But also, the tiny details that can come out that you can then pick up on and that can suddenly be the angle for your homepage, or the about page. Those are the things that you don’t really get when you’re asking questions over email, or in a brief. So I think it’s asking questions not just about their work but about everything: their background, their family, everything.

Byron:                                     We have for our larger customers we call the Plus and Enterprise level service customers, they're assigned a dedicated account manager at WriterAccess. That dedicated Account Manager hosts what we call a kick-off call. Do you think it would be interesting to record that kick-off call and have that as part of the file, if you will, an attachment to the order? So freelance writers, there might be some new writers that are being tested out, or new writers may come into the pool as some other writers burn out or move on. Do you think that would be an interesting concept to have more of an Account Management-type person who’s well-trained with content marketing strategy to ask some really good questions and to make that happen?

Mish:                                       I think that’s really a fantastic idea. Definitely. Even if the only thing that the new writer gets out of it is understanding a bit more about that client's personality from their tone of voice and the way that they speak. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.

Byron:                                     How many questions do you think would be worthy of asking, and what would they be?

Mish:                                       Oh, I should probably get out one of my examples of my questions. I think I have a good set of 20 questions. Hang on a second. I’ll find them…

Byron:                                     Where is it? Is it in a book or…?

Mish:                                       No. I think it really depends on the client that you’re working with.

Byron:                                     Of course.

Mish:                                       So I would find out a bit more about the client, and then ask them questions.

Byron:                                     Got it. I thought that’d be fun. Yeah.

Mish:                                       Yeah, so I think I’ve got tons. For example, we could start up with about…Where did you grow up? What did you want to be when you grow up? What do you like to do outside of work? That sort of thing. Then I ask tons of questions about their services. How would you describe what you do? How does your service help other businesses or entrepreneurs? How did you get into that career? What gets you excited about your work? Which part of it do you love doing the most? What sort of clients do you have at the moment? Where they live, what they do, who’s your dream client, male or female? What sort of business would they have? Then I also ask them questions about their existing website and their existing text? So I think, oh, goodness, I think this will be the last 30 questions they have. Yeah, that’s quite a lot. And then of course as soon as they start talking to me, there are more questions.

Byron:                                     And what’s the goal of those questions? Is it typically a larger engagement of a branding concept and are you talking here, for example, to the CEO of the company to really understand the voice from the top and the DNA of the company?

Mish:                                       The companies that I normally work with is either a very small business where I am talking to the founder or it’s a solopreneur, it’s always the top of the company but it’s always quite a small company. That’s who I work with. The aim is to really get them so that I can put it across in their website. But also to make sure that when I am writing, for example, their services page and what they can do for their clients, it’s making sure that I’ve got a really good understanding of what they can do for their clients and what their clients will get out of working with them. So it’s everything really.

Byron:                                     Got it. And how does that knowledge that you learn fuse its way into the copy that you’re writing?

Mish:                                       I guess it just takes a lot of…I read over my notes, I listen back to the phone calls. I spend a lot of time thinking about how it’s going to work. I spend a lot of time also thinking about the angles, the way into the page because I really want to make sure that every page is really attention grabbing. And kind of automatically make sure that their dream customer is going to be hooked on the page if they land on it. It’s just a lot of reading through notes, listening back and kind of coming up with the right angles and the things that I know will matter to their potential clients.

Byron:                                     I love…by the way, are you working with designers and UX professionals typically, or are you coming in after they’ve done their job and wire frames are maybe together and you’re just really focusing on the words and the content and the brand messaging?

Mish:                                       Yeah, that’s a really good question. My ideal is always to be working alongside these designers so that I can have an influence on the way the page is laid-out. Because I think it is not just the words, it's where the words are placed on the page, ideally, that’s what I like to do. And sometimes, a new client would come to me and their website is already basically being designed and I just need to put the words into it. Then I just have to make sure that I’m writing wherever they want to place my text.

Byron:                                     I love some of your quick tips by the way, about what you call “getting grabby” can you talk about a few of those?

Mish:                                       Yeah, sure. The idea again, you need to grab someone’s attention as soon as they arrive on your page. And so [0:24:43 inaudible] tips?

Byron:                                     Well, I love one of your tips is just to pay attention to other people that are writing very well. Do you really find yourself looking for examples of greatness from other people, and is that inspirational to you, and are you a person that just has like 250 bookmarks where you could go for inspiration. Or you might meet a client that wants a tone and style and you look for some references to help you get thinking in that sort of mode?

Mish:                                       Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if I…I never…I never copy anybody, but it’s really good to see styles that other people have and ways that other people have. So yeah, I use pocket, which is actually meant to be for saving webpages to read later. I actually just run and hibernate because I kind of…I get bored, it just seemed to be too unwieldy for me. So I just save attention-grabbing webpages to pocket and I think I have a tag like “grabby” and that’s why they're all in there. And it’s really good. It’s just a case of paying attention and seeing what grabs your attention and then remembering why that grabbed your attention, what caught your eye.

Byron:                                     And your example of using Wikipedia is sort of interesting, researching customers. Do you find it… again, in the platform, very often writers are faced with not knowing the actual company just because of privacy related concepts of the platform, some writers don’t want to disclose that for one reason. Do you think that’s really pretty critical to really understand the competitive landscape to therefore, stand out from the pack? How important is that to great copywriting?

Mish:                                       I think it’s essential. That again, is how I have a ton of questions and I expect them to be answered by clients. If they want me to, I can sign a non-disclosure agreement, and I have done that with a few people, I think you just need to explain to them. If you want this website to appeal to your ideal customers, then I need to know about your company. And you can make clear that all this information you will not put in the text, but it is really important for you to have the context of that company, where they are and what they want to achieve, where they've come from. It’s very important if you’re going to write the text.

Byron:                                     Do you think there’s a way to have a customer, we call them customers because we probably have so many of them. It would be kind of crazy to say, “Oh yeah, we have 20,000 clients at WriterAccess.” Turn out that’s a deeper relationship. We have 20,000 people, customers that use our platform and connect with writers and that’s a little better phraseology, at least in my mind. I was wondering if you ever thought that you could develop or design this questionnaire that was sort of like eHarmony, for example, the dating website. It has you fill out a profile and sort of, learn from you what your interests are and goals are and what your likes and dislikes are. What your needs are with a companion. Do you feel like you could ever do that with a customer that would be extraordinarily helpful for the writer? To have them, for example, see some extreme examples and to say, “Choose which one you like better.” Sort of somehow tap into their brain by asking questions and showing samples. Things like that. Do you think that could be developed?

 Mish:                                      I think it’s a really good first step. I don’t think it’s necessarily enough, because there are going to be bits of information about each person and each company that’s very different. And you want to get the specifics of that person and that company. I think showing them examples of other writing, that’s also a really great idea. The one problem I have with that is that they might not necessarily get it unless it’s applied to their own business. So if they see a point that’s sarcastic or a jaunty or a dry page, and you say, “This could maybe be the style that we use for your site.” They might not necessarily get it unless it’s using their company in the text as the example. But I think it’s a really good first step.

Byron:                                     What other tips and advice do you have that come from your book that would inspire people to want to buy it?

Mish:                                       Oh goodness, that’s a question. [laughs]

Byron:                                     I’ll give you 20 minutes to respond to that question. [laughs] Who is it designed for, really? And what value proposition are people going to get? And I’m sitting here reading it as we speak. Tell us about that.

Mish:                                       It’s the business owners who really want to stand apart from the competition. Though it’s mainly for business owners who are kind of in a standard industry. Those lawyers, accountants, all those kinds of, where you’ve got a lot of competition, basically. It’s setting yourself apart through the power of your writing. And that means through making sure that you have a personality, making sure that you niche down, making sure that you grab their attention. Every spare moment you grab their attention through text that you know will appeal to them. It’s also about sounding like a human which is an easy win. Because you’ll find that most of your competitors don’t sound like human beings on their websites. So that’s an easy one. It’s just showing you all these key principles that you just need to learn and then put across in your copy and take so far that way.

Byron:                                     Mish, I have two final questions for you. Who would you like to get a hold of you, and how can they get a hold of you?

Mish:                                       Who would I like? Ohh, any business owner who wants advice, or who wants to work with me, or who wants to ask me any more questions, that sort of person would be great. If you are a wannabe copywriter and you just want some tips, then get in touch too. That’s absolutely fine.

Byron:                                     Terrific. And how can they get a hold of you?

Mish:                                       Get a hold of me? Go to mortifiedcow.com which is my copywriting business. And there’s a contact email address and form there.

Byron:                                     And you’re also doing some co-blogging with your husband, I understand. What site is that?

Mish:                                       That’s on… medium channel, whatever it’s called. Medium Publication, I think that’s  what they call it. Code: Your Attention, Please.

Byron:                                     Nice. And I think you’re co-blogging on makingitanywhere.com, is that right?

Mish:                                       Yes, Making It Anywhere is our [0:31:41 inaudible] blog. It kind of talks about the location-independent lifestyle and how we’re running our business while we travel the world. Yeah, that’s makingitanywhere.com.

Byron:                                     Some good stuff over there too. Mish, I want to thank you for joining us today.

Mish:                                       Thank you very much for having me, it’s been fun.

Byron:                                     Indeed. Thanks for tuning in, everyone. We’ll see you next podcast.