The Frog at the Bottom of the Well

Photo courtesy of United Nations in Armenia

Once upon a time I worked as a translator. After that I worked for a time in a bilingual call center.

Although I did have conversational proficiency in Chinese at the time, I was routinely given credit for being far more fluent than I actually was.

Bear in mind that I am not of Chinese descent. I have no Chinese heritage whatsoever and didn’t start learning the language until I was 18 years old. I studied for less than three years, taking only three classes.

Yet with less than three years of study I was often complimented by native speakers on my Chinese speaking skills. Chinese are customarily very polite in social situations but I knew the compliments were more than just politeness. Those who dealt with me over the phone who had no opportunity to see with their own eyes that I am not Chinese often mistook me for being Chinese.

I’m not saying any of this to brag.

The point of the story

How did I do it?

How could I be mistaken for a native speaker of a language I learned as an adult and studied for only three years? How could I be frequently judged as being far more fluent than I actually was?


Little things mean a lot.

That sounds trite so let me explain.

There are a handful of relatively small things that I stumbled into doing more or less accidentally, that are different from what most others do, and that made all the difference in how my skills were perceived.

When I was studying Chinese, one exercise we did frequently was take a sentence in English and translate it into Chinese. This is a very common method used in teaching all languages. However one of the things I noticed was that all of my classmates translated each individual word in the sentence. That may be fine most of the time but all languages have idiomatic expressions and non-literal word usage.

Idiomatic expressions and non-literal word usage

This really stuck out for me when I’d hear a conversation translated.

Bob: Hey, I haven’t seen you in a long time. How are you?

Harry: I’m fine. And you?

Bob: Just great.

Exclamations like “Hey” don’t usually have a direct translation so students almost always stumble on them. Harry’s response would often be translated into the equivalent of “I’m fine. Also you?” And then Bob’s response would come out something like “Merely great.”

You see this often in English sentences that were obviously written by a non-native speaker or were translated from another language.

Similarly, sentences like “Don’t worry about the damage. It’s not that bad.” Throw translators for a loop. Use of the word “that” in this context actually means “very” instead of being a pronoun for the thing over there. By translating the words instead of the meaning, you end up with a sentence that sounds awkward and may even be unintelligible. (Contractions also throw some people, especially when translating into a language that doesn’t use them.)

So the above sentence might come out something like “Do not worry about the damage. It is not that-thing-over-there bad.”

The trick

My trick was to translate the meaning instead of the words. In a sense, I guess you could say that I double translated everything. First I would rephrase the original sentences, essentially translating them from English to English, and then I would translate them into Chinese.

Even if I paraphrased a little, by conveying the same meaning I was lauded for the excellence of my translations. Of course there is a fine line with paraphrasing. You do have to convey the exact same meaning and not something merely similar.

Another trick I learned as an offshoot of this was the use of idiomatic expressions in the target language. In English we use phrases all the time that don’t mean what their words literally say. We have hundreds of them. Phrases like:

  • make her weak in the knees
  • bring him to his knees
  • a ten megawatt smile
  • get off my back
  • walking on cloud nine
  • a razor-thin margin
  • up at the crack of dawn

Well guess what? We’re far from the only ones who do it. Every culture in the world has its own set of idiomatic expressions. They’re all different but if you can learn just a few — perhaps a couple dozen of the more common ones — and use them correctly, it will really set you apart from other non-native speakers.

In fact, that’s where the title for this article came from. It’s the translation of the moral to a story. Think of the Chinese equivalent of Aesop’s Fables. Every American knows phrases such as “birds of a feather flock together”, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, “united we stand divided we fall” or “slow and steady wins the race”. In fact, these expressions are so well known that you often only have to give part of it and the listener will grasp the meaning of the entire thing, filling in the blanks that you left.

Chinese fables work the same way. So, in fact, do those from Spain, Morocco and Madagascar. Throughout the world, each culture and language has some stories that are so well-known to native speakers of that language as to be essentially universal. And yet they are frequently completely unknown to non-native speakers.

You’d have to know the story behind the title in order to fully grasp its meaning.

Even then, you have to grasp the symbolism behind the story to fully get the real meaning.

The story behind the title

Briefly, the story is about a frog who lives at the bottom of a deep well. He looks up and can see only a small circle of sky. Having never been anywhere but his little well, he believes that this is all that exists of the sky; it is only as big as the opening at the top of the well.

There’s more to the story but the important part is that this phrase is used to describe someone who sticks stubbornly to a very narrow view of things. More broadly, it means to be narrow-minded or dogmatic.

Without knowing just a little of the story, one might never guess that the frog at the bottom of the well alludes to being dogmatic.

By learning just a few dozen of these stories, their morals and the deeper meanings behind them, I was able to sprinkle the morals of the stories into my speaking.

Tying this all back to marketing

I am a marketer and a copywriter. So of course this article is ultimately about marketing. The key thing is that the difference between decent marketing, good marketing and truly great marketing is almost always just a matter of a few small things.

At its core, very little of the secrets I revealed in this article should be truly novel to you. In hindsight, after reading them, every one of my tricks seems rather obvious. And yet, without my going out of my way to point them out, you might have gone your whole life without being consciously aware of them.

All the best marketing tricks are exactly the same. Only with good training and consciously paying attention to certain things (or hiring a copywriter who has the training and pays attention) can your marketing efforts go from good to great.


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Selling what you want to buy

Photo credit: Kevin Dooley

Orbitz is taking some flack for presenting higher priced options to some users, based on what type of computer they are using.

Being completely fair to Orbitz, the prices themselves are no different. Only the way in which they’re presented.

To use simple numbers, let’s say that Orbitz has 20 hotel rooms that meet your search criteria. It also knows from prior experience that users of one computer system typically prefer to book “better” rooms than users of another system.

So Orbitz checks which system you have and changes the order in which those 20 rooms are shown based on that.

All the rooms are the same and the prices are the same no matter which system you’re using. The only difference is the order.

Users of one system will see nicer (read: more expensive) rooms nearer the tops of their lists while users of another will see more economical rooms nearer the top.

All users, regardless of system, are free to change the order of the list once it’s presented.

There is a huge outcry over this.


Mostly it’s a knee-jerk reaction.

Some people didn’t even realize it was possible for a website to know what kind of computer system you’re using. They find out and then fear some kind of Orwellian 1984 world in which Big Brother is watching their every move.

Others may fear that they’re being bilked for more money than another consumer who is shopping for the exact same thing.

Not true.

To use an analogy, grocery stores place more popular or profitable cookies at eye level. Higher priced or “premium” cookies tend to be nearer the end of the aisle. In fact, not just any end but the end closest to the checkout lanes. Store brand and off-brand cookies are down near the floor.

We’ve all seen this and many even know it’s a deliberate arrangement, yet no one questions it.

The reasons are more complex than most people realize.

Certain people place a higher value on their time than on their money. At least up to a reasonable point. Having to maneuver halfway up a crowded aisle, fighting their way around other shoppers, and navigating 150 different cookie options is a big hassle. How much might they save? Forty-three cents? That’s not worth the time and stress so they’ll grab the more expensive cookies from near the end of the aisle.

(These cookies are near the checkout end for the very same reason; the people most likely to choose them are also most likely to avoid the back of the store altogether. They just want to get in and out as quickly as possible.)

I don’t see how what Orbitz is doing is really any different.

If, demographically speaking, people just like me show a much higher propensity for ordering something in red, why would you show me lots of blue ones? If you already know I’m a size medium, why show me clothes that you only have in stock in XXL?

In the future, nearly all shopping experiences will be custom tailored to the shopper. Especially online. Smart sellers are doing this already and so should you.


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Why Should I Do My Best?

Sometimes, it’s tempting to think that it’s okay to turn in a ho-hum performance. Especially when there’s “clearly” no payoff for doing your best work.

Indulging in such thinking is a trap that will sentence you to a life of mediocrity and failure.

Let me use a real-life example that happened to me recently to illustrate the value of always doing your best.

One of my primary means of promoting myself locally is through public speaking. I go out to civic organizations and other groups to give free presentations on topics related to copywriting, marketing and advertising. I never charge for such speeches and I never try to sell anything. I go there on a purely educational basis.

That alone limits my upside, right?

It gets worse. Recently I was asked to give a presentation to a Kiwanis Club in a town about thirty miles away. Of all things, they asked me to talk about QR Tags.

When I arrived, I found that the club only had seven members and all but one of them was well over retirement age!

If ever there was a case where there was clearly no payoff for me turning in my best performace, surely this was it. I could just coast through this little speech, take the free lunch they offered me and be on my way.

Instead, I told myself that a professional turns in his best perfomance every time no matter what. I would use this as an opportunity to further hone my speaking skills.

I spoke to that group as though there were seventy people in the audience instead of seven. Without treading on anyone’s vanity, I spoke loudly and enunciated clearly for those whose hearing had already succumbed to the ravages of time. I was gracious and professional. I patiently answered every single question, even when they began to go a bit off-topic.

Unbeknownst to me, one of those seven people in the audience was the Regional Lieutenant Governor of Kiwanis International. He had tremendous influence over twenty-two other nearby Kiwanis clubs in the region.

I was still blissfully unaware of this fact when I asked for a testimonial and a referral.

What I got was a glowing email sent out to the heads of all twenty-two of the other clubs in the region.

Several of them contacted me on the strength of that testimonial. I ended up doing several more free speeches. All of them to much larger and younger audiences. Audiences filled with small business owners who were still in the trenches.

Ultimately, several of those who heard my later speeches hired me to help them with marketing their businesses.

That one speech to seven elderly audience members, in which there was “clearly” nothing in it for me, has led to many thousands of dollars in ongoing business leads. All thanks to my being a professional and putting forth my best effort.

No matter what.

Your Name in Rice

I’d like to share with you the story of how I proposed to my wife. I want to tell this true story partly because it makes me look like a much better salesman than I actually am but mostly because it has a lot to do with making the sale through memorable customer service.

To understand the story, you must first realize that my then-girlfriend worked one weekend a month. There just happened to be a big outdoor arts and crafts fair going on the weekend she was scheduled to work. She was interested in seeing it so I met her at work with a change of clothes and we went to the fair directly from her workplace.

It was a typical arts and crafts fair with many vendors offering creative and beautiful items. Strictly speaking, none of the items were necessities so we were really just browsing.

We passed a tent with a sign out front that said:


I was familiar with these people who will write your name on a grain of rice then put the rice into cheap jewelry. My girlfriend had never seen such a thing and was curious. So we went in.

Then she became fascinated.

The woman inside the tent was a master at sales. She was warm and genuine. She loved what she did. She had created many display pieces including Bart Simpson’s entire family tree written on grains of rice and mounted to a cardboard tree.

She demonstrated her craft by making a grain of rice (sans the cheap jewelry) for us for free. We spent at least 20 minutes in the tent and even sold some other visitors on getting their names on rice. Then we left without buying anything.

And that’s where our real story begins…

The next day, while my girlfriend was back at work, I snuck back over to the fair and went back to the rice tent.

I asked the woman if she would write “MARRY ME” on a grain of rice.

The woman broke out in tears.

Not just tears. I think she was going into hysterics. A friend of hers plus several would-be customers who were in the tent at the time also all started crying. Apparently I was on to something here.

It took the woman several tries and nearly half an hour to create my grain of rice. She couldn’t see clearly through her tears and her hand was shaking almost violently. During this time, a crowd began to gather. She told every browser who came into the tent what I was doing and most of them stayed to watch.

Finally I had my grain of rice. But I wasn’t done yet. Not a single one of her acrylic vials that holds the rice was small enough to make a decent ring so my Plan A was out the window. Time to move on to Plan B. I chose the least objectionable necklace vial that she had but declined the cheap silver chain that came with it.

Instead I went to a real jewelry store and bought a very nice sterling silver chain.

Then, because it was rice, I went to a Chinese restaurant and got a take-out container and had them fill it with fortune cookies. I draped the necklace over the cookies and sealed it up.

I sent a text message to my girlfriend, telling her I had something for her and asking her to stop by after she got off work.

When she arrived, I handed her the take-out container.

“You got me leftovers?” she asked. “Good. I’m starving.”

She opened the container and saw the necklace. Once she recognized the vial, but before she’d read what was on the rice, she stopped and asked me, “You went back to the rice lady?” And then she held it up to the light and read what was on the rice.

And she cried.

So how does this tie back to marketing?

You have to understand that there were two sales made that weekend. The rice lady sold us on buying a grain of rice and I sold my girlfriend on marrying me.

Both the rice lady and I worked hard at creating an unforgettable experience for the “buyer”.

Neither of us spent much money. The rice lady gave us a free grain of rice; costing her far less than $0.01. All told, I spent a little less than $150; dirt cheap compared to a diamond engagement ring.

Yet in both cases, the imagination and the specialness that went into creating a memorable experience all but guaranteed a sale.

Not just a sale, in both cases the experience was special enough to make us want to tell others about it. That’s word of mouth advertising at its best.

What are you doing to guarantee a sale — and an endorsement — from your prospects?


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