Bob’s Deli, Muffler Shop and Nail Salon

Photo credit: Adam (army.arch on Flickr)

“Oh you’re a freelancer… Do you have a specialty?”

“No. I didn’t want to limit myself. I pretty much do it all.”

[Alarm bells going off] Ding! Ding! Ding! Red flag. This person is either just starting out or is just a dreamer and isn’t even doing freelance work yet. Bottom line: not successful.

Rewind. Try this again.

“Oh you’re a freelancer… Do you have a specialty?”

“I deal with small local businesses.”

“What kind of businesses? What industries?”

“Any industry. I can handle whatever.”

[Alarm bells going off] Ding! Ding! Ding!

…you get the picture.

To someone having just hung out their shingle and being freshly opened for business, it seems not just counter-intuitive but actually counter-productive to limit yourself. This is especially true when you’re still vying for that first customer, or first few customers.

The irony is that you can establish yourself faster by specializing.

After all, can you really do equally well representing a fruit stand, a clothing boutique, a welder’s supply store and a Fortune 500 conglomerate?

Marketing and sales is the life and death of any business. When you’re dealing with a life and death situation yourself, you look for a specialist. Say you had some terrible disease like liver cancer. Would you keep going to your family doctor who was just a general practitioner or would you seek out a doctor who specialized in treating your specific disease?

By choosing a specialty, you make that your primary business focus. That’s not to say you couldn’t take on other assignments if they came your way. However by specializing, those businesses that fall into your area of specialization are more likely to find you and be willing to hire you than if you were a general practitioner.

“Keeping my options open” is how most newly-minted entrepreneurs like to think of it. “Not the guy to entrust the lifeblood of my business to” is how most seasoned business people will more likely interpret it.

The first move in any creative process is to introduce constraints. (The Art of Looking Sideways, p.270)

There is a sound scientific basis for this, as illustrated by a further quote from Alan Fletcher in The Art of Looking Sideways, “…I could, the client said, do whatever I liked. Bad news. Open-ended problems need boundaries to avoid any unnecessary excursions…”

Think of a home. Have you ever walked on a cleared area that was to become the foundation for a house? Or one where a house once stood? Have you also been inside that house when it was standing on that foundation? Looking at the cleared land, it seems much too small for a proper home. It is the walls and “confining” features that give it space.

Adding impact to this whole idea of specialization as a business building strategy is the fact that even a relatively small city has many thousands of businesses. When you fail to specialize,  you lose focus trying to chase down anyone who will hire you. With a well-chosen niche or sub-niche specialty, you should find no more than a couple hundred potential business customers. This gives you a more definite target on which to focus your efforts. Even landing 10% or 20% of those clients will yield more work than you can realistically handle.

Now that’s a high quality problem to have.

Unnaturally Optimistic

I am an optimist.

I don’t think it’s bragging to say that I’m the most optimistic person I know. People who know me often comment on what a positive outlook I have.

Here’s the thing: I don’t come by it naturally.

My daughter does. She is a natural-born optimist. Which has led me to believe that optimism-vs-pessimism is largely determined by environment. I grew up in a very pessimistic environment and became pessimistic by nature.

But I trained myself to change my outlook. You might say that I became unnaturally optimistic.

How did I do it?

One thing’s for sure, it was neither quick nor easy.

A big part of it was simply deciding to change. I’m a big proponent of self-improvement. I’ve read more books and taken more courses than anyone I know. One of the things I learned is that, while we don’t have absolute control over our destiny, we do have a great deal of influence.

Since the future’s coming anyway and since your actions directly impact what kind of future it will be for you, wouldn’t you rather it be a good one. Who would ever wish for a lousy future?

Your attitude affects your thoughts and your beliefs. Your thoughts affect your actions. Your actions determine your destiny.

So one of the biggest steps was realizing and accepting that the future is going to happen whether I want it to or not. I will have a hand in shaping that future, whether I wish to or not. So I can shape it for my benefit (realizing that some things will be out of my control) or I can either passively or actively let it be shaped to my detriment.

Having my daughter also played a pivotal role. I wanted better for her than I had. That’s a pretty tall order because I had a great childhood. In fact, I had an almost idyllic childhood. But I wanted hers to be better. So that necessitated a change in my fundamental attitude.

Making it a Daily Habit

That’s all well and good but habits die hard and deeply ingrained habits are especially thorny.

I needed a new habit to replace the old one. Or rather I needed a whole set of new habits.

One of the things that helped keep me on track was journaling. I write in a journal almost every day. It has evolved over time but the latest incarnation follows a multi-part format. Let me show you the parts and then explain them all.

I do all my journaling in a plain text editor on the computer. (I use both Mac and PC systems so this is universal.) From the image above you can see that I create separate files for each month and name my files using a YYYY-MM format. This tells me the year and month of the entries in that file.

So each file will have roughly 30 entries. Some may have 31 but there are (infrequent) days when I don’t journal so most months have slightly fewer entries than there are days in that month.

Section 1 – Identifiers

  • Each day’s entry starts with a space and a short line. This helps me to differentiate the entries so they don’t get all strung together.
  • Below the line is the 5-character month and date for that entry.
  • Y: signifies what kind of day defined the previous day. This derives from a timekeeping system I first learned from Jack Canfield in which there are three kinds of days:
  1. Productivity days, where you actively work on your business or goals. This might include approaching or meeting with clients, actively working on a paying project, marketing and advertising activities, etc.
  2. Preparation days in which you read, learn, attend a class, network or do other activities which benefit your business or indirectly advance your goals.
  3. Rest & Recreation days have no work activities at all. You might spend them with your family, pursuing hobbies, playing sports or whatever floats your boat.

Section 2 – Gratitude

  • G: I list one thing I’m grateful for today. Some days it can be hard. Often I find myself being grateful for essentially the same things over and over again. That’s okay as long as I’m grateful for something.
  • O: is the biggest opportunity I think will present itself to me (or, more often, I plan to create for myself) today.
  • D: is one major thing I plan on doing today to advance my goals.
  • A: is for one person I appreciate having in my life and why. Again, I often find myself appreciating the same people over and over again. That’s not a bad thing. After all, there’s a reason they are in my life!

Section 3 – Accomplishments

Next I list 5 specific things I did the previous day to advance  my goals. There are a few days (especially if the previous day was an R&R day) when I have less than 5 but I always have at least one or two. Some days I have more than five. I add or delete numbered lines as necessary but I always start with 5 lines. This gives me a number to shoot for.

This section is key to being hyper-productive. By actually writing down what actions I took, I am holding myself accountable. There are no excuses. Even though no one but me ever gets to read my journal, I would be terribly embarrassed at myself if I did nothing to advance my goals. After all, they’re my goals. If I won’t pursue them, who will do it for me?

Section 4 – Free-form Writing

The final section is a free-form writing section where I just write whatever is on my mind. Often, I just recount events of the previous day. Sometimes I will weigh in with opinions or insights. I may rant or dream. A few days, especially if I am pressed for time, I may skip this section altogether but I do write in it most days. Length is unimportant. I write until I have nothing more to say. Some days that might be a few dozen words, others it may be more than 1,000.

How This Makes Me An Optimist

So  you may be wondering how this journaling makes me an optimist. Obviously, section two is the most crucial in that regard. Consciously taking inventory and writing down what I am grateful for forces me to focus on the things that are good in my life. When things are good, even the Debbie Downers of life become more optimistic. Nothing may make them bubbly and cheery but their outlook improves over what it otherwise might be.

Focusing on the good every day has a cumulative effect that keeps your mood buoyed.

There are other things too like refusing to hang out with negative people, not watching TV news, and consciously trying to find just one bright side to every situation.

In general, life is good. By consciously choosing to see it that way, how can you not be optimistic?

What It Means To Be A Copywriter

Theoretically everybody is capable of remembering everything that ever happened to them and perceiving everything that’s happening around them. Luckily this never occurs. … [We] only absorb what we want or need and block out the rest. … We also only notice things which are directly relevant to our daily business. In consequence, we tend to reduce our environment to visual Muzak — a perpetual symphony of shapes and patterns. Blinkered by habit we glance around rather than look with acuity. In effect the eye sleeps until the mind wakes it with a question.

The Art of Looking Sideways, Alan Fletcher, p.178

Breaking Through The Clutter

I love that passage! It stood out for me as soon as I read it.

Our job as copywriters, our goal as business owners, our aim when we participate in various social media endeavors is to break through the clutter and wake our reader’s eyes with a question. To catch their attention. (To put it less elegantly.)

Naturally the big dilemma is finding the right question that will do that.

It’s a moving target because the question is different for everyone and it even changes for the same person over time.

What you notice when you’re hungry and looking for a place to have lunch will be vastly different from what you notice when the needle dips below “E” and you need to find someplace to stop for gas. Both will be different from what you notice when you’re out shopping for an anniversary gift. Even that is different from where you’ll put your focus if you’re in a rush to be somewhere else.

All of this is true even if you were traveling down the same street each time.

Yes, there is what the eye literally sees and what the mind literally pays attention to…

If I’m hungry and looking for lunch, I will probably notice restaurants. But I may also notice grocery stores. I may notice someone walking down the sidewalk carrying a lunchbox. I may notice a tree with ripe apples on it.

There is also a more figurative focus…

I may notice a grassy park and think it looks like a nice place to picnic. I may hear a song on the radio that reminds me of food. I may think of a place where I ate once but then my mind might wander to the person I was with and then hop again to some other experience we shared together.

The Tie-In

What does any of this have to do with copywriting and marketing? Most important is that copywriting is not just about writing. If that were so, all you’d really need is a typist with good spelling and passable grammar.

No, copywriting is something much deeper and more subtle.

It’s about understanding human nature. It’s about defining your ideal target audience (hint: it’s nevereveryone“) then figuring out what is most likely to wake up their eyes.

Copywriting is fundamentally about motivating others to take action.

If I’ve woken up your eyes then the actions I want you to take right now are:

  1. To connect with me on LinkedIn
  2. Retweet just one of these passages from the article above. (All you’ll have to do is click on the link already provided for you.)

Retweet this passage Breaking through the clutter

Retweet this passage Copywriting’s big dilemma

Retweet this passage Copywriting isn’t just writing. If it were, all you’d need is a typist with good spelling and grammar.

Retweet this passage Copywriting is something much deeper and more subtle than just “writing”

Retweet this passage It’s about understanding human nature

Retweet this passage Your ideal target audience is never “everyone”

Retweet this passage Copywriting is fundamentally about motivating others to take action