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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QR Tags: Bar Codes All Grown Up

Photo Credit: Juhan Sonin

U.S. Postal Service Bar Codes

Even if they know nothing about how they are structured or how they work, everyone in America recognizes the delivery point bar codes (DPBC) that have appeared on every piece of mail delivered in the U.S. in at least the last 20 years.

Actually, the one in this image is over a year old. You can tell because all the bars are lined up along their bottom edge. Look at a new piece of mail and you’ll see that the bars now line up along a center line and can extend both above and below that center line.

DPBCs all encode exactly 12 characters and are all exactly the same length. Measure 100 pieces of mail and you’ll find little, if any, variation. That makes them 1-dimensional in the sense that only the vertical axis matters with regard to meaning.

The older code shown here only encoded numbers. The newer code has the flexibility to also encode letters and some special characters. That makes it more universal so that it can be used outside the U.S. (Most other countries use letters in their postal codes.)

Photo credit: Mohammad R. Riza

UPC Symbols

Another familiar type of bar code is the UPC code that appears on all sorts of packaged goods. Sometimes they can even be found on produce and bulk goods.

With UPC codes, it is the width of the bars as well as the width of the spaces between the bars that encodes the data. These are also 1-dimensional bar codes in the sense that their height doesn’t really matter.

UPC codes also encode about 12 characters.

Their size may vary but they are typically around 1″ square.

The Evolution of Bar Codes

There are actually many types of bar codes that follow a variety of different formats. Bar codes have enabled great strides in automation and standardization but they all suffer from one basic flaw: character length.

The two types of bar codes listed above can only contain around a dozen characters each. This is pretty typical of all 1-dimensional bar codes.

QR Tags

So what does all this have to do with QR Tags?

Simple. The QR Tag is just the next step in the evolution of bar codes. It is a 2-dimensional bar code.

A QR Tag can encode a variable number of characters ranging from a single character to somewhere around 4,000 characters. That’s enough to fit several full pages of text within a bar code only about 1″ square!

Of course, the more data that is encoded in a QR Tag, the denser it becomes. The denser the tag, the harder it is to scan. Still, the capability exists.

So what?

As a practical matter, why should you care? Well, QR Tags were invented in the early 1990s by heavy industry. For the first 15 years of so of their existence, few outside of the industries that used them had reason to care.

But something changed once smartphones began to proliferate. Someone realized that the digital camera built into smartphones could be used for more than just taking and saving pictures. It was the camera’s window into the world.

By combining the technology to take a digital photo with the Photoshop-like technology used to edit digital photos, experimenters began writing simple computer programs that could analyze the contents of a digital photo while it was still in memory. From there, it was a simple matter to make the program do things based on the results of that analysis.

So if you have one of these programs installed, you can point your cell phone’s camera at a QR Tag (or almost any other kind of bar code). When you press the button to take a picture, your camera will “scan” the bar code and then do something based on what is encoded there.

Just what is there?

Most QR Tags — perhaps 90% — simply encode a website URL. When you scan it, your phone will offer to open a web browser and go to that web page. However QR Tags can encode all sorts of other information. The one above is my business card. Scan it and your phone will add all my contact information to your address book.

Other things you can encode into a QR Tag include:

  • map coordinates
  • tweets and retweets for Twitter
  • Facebook profiles and Likes
  • LinkedIn profiles and status updates
  • FourSquare check-in locations
  • links to YouTube videos and iTunes songs
  • simple text (almost anything you want, within the Tag’s capacity)
  • phone number
  • Skype connection information
  • text (SMS) message, including the number that the message should be sent to
  • email address
  • a complete email message, including both recipient address and subject line
  • vCard (virtual business card)
  • calendar entry
  • WiFi login credentials
  • PayPal “Buy Now” link, including everything needed for a 1-click purchase

Even the seemingly simple web page URL can direct users to a page containing a video, audio file, sign-up form, download links or just about anything else that can appear on a web page.

No wonder they’ve become one of the new darlings of corporate advertisers and social media mavens everywhere.

Tell me a story

Photo credit: Bruce Fingerhood (Slideshow Bruce, on Flickr)

Any time we try to persuade someone, we are selling to them. Selling them on our idea, selling them on our point of view, selling them on joining our cause… whatever the goal, we are constantly selling other people.

It is well known and widely regarded that stories are an effective way to sell people. Tell me a great story and you’ll likely be able to sell me just about anything.

I’ll give an example of what I mean:

A few years back, I’d driven up to New York City. While there, I got a parking ticket.

Image courtesy of City of Seattle

Obviously, I did not want to pay this parking ticket. Especially since it was over $75. Since I live more than 3 hours away, challenging the ticket in court was not a realistic option.

So what did I do? I’m a writer so I wrote a letter to the court.

Recently, my wife and I drove up from our home in Delaware to spend the day with friends in New York City. Being unfamiliar with the city, we go lost trying to find our friends. We spotted a parking enforcement officer and stopped to ask directions. She told us that she didn’t live in the neighborhood and didn’t know her way around but helpfully suggested a coffee shop just a couple of doors down.

The people inside the coffee shop were able to give us directions. But imagine our surprise when we came out to find that our car was being ticketed by the very same parking officer who had just directed us to the coffee shop for directions!

There was more to the letter but notice how I was careful not to berate anyone. Instead, I stuck to the facts but told them in narrative fashion. I left it up to the judge reading my letter to reach his own conclusions.

The end result?

My entire fine was waived and the ticket was thrown out.

To be able to sell a skeptical judge who’s heard every excuse in the book, and to be able to do it via mail without being there to answer questions or objections in person, that’s the power of storytelling.

Price Insensitivity

Many of my friends are music fans.

Actually, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like some kind of music on some level. So let me rephrase that… These guys are hard-core music fans. You know those guys who go to football games in January wearing nothing but paint? These guys like music like those guys like football.

I don’t get it. I don’t even pretend to get it.

The great thing is, I don’t really need to get it. Forget for a moment that these are my friends. Let’s pretend for a moment that they’re prospects I’m trying to sell to.

The best way to sell someone is not to sell them at all. It’s a very tough concept for most new copywriters to fully grasp, since it’s a copywriter’s job to make the sale. But the very best way to get someone to buy from you is to connect with them on a deep level. If you truly connect with them and they get to know, like and trust you, they will make the decision all on their own to buy from you.

The better you know your prospects, the easier it will be to find common ground and connect with them. The more deeply you can connect to what’s truly meaningful to them, the less price sensitive they become.

One of my friends just bought concert tickets for his whole family. The tickets were over $50 each, which he called “reasonable”.

Now I’m not a big music fan. $50 does not sound reasonable to me. How long is a typical concert? 2-3 hours? There’s no way in the world I’d pay $50 per ticket to watch a movie, which doesn’t seem all that different from watching a concert. But to him that price seems reasonable.

That’s price insensitivity.

Image courtesy of

This same friend owns a dozen electric guitars. A dozen. How many guitars can one person actually play? His least expensive guitar cost several hundred dollars. He has some that cost multiple thousands of dollars.

That’s price insensitivity.

He’s not rich. He has a relatively high income, but not an astronomical one. It’s only in the high five figures. His home is worth less than $250,000. He doesn’t drive a luxury car. He doesn’t dress fancy, take exotic vacations, eat at expensive restaurants or send his kids to exclusive private schools. I’m not sure if he even knows where the country club is.

Yet $50 tickets to a concert are “reasonable” and in his world there’s no irony whatsoever in owning a dozen guitars.

That’s price insensitivity.

I should add that this friend is not unique. I am friends with at least a half dozen people who own multiple guitars each. (What is it with music fans and owning guitars?)

Now let’s say that I’m selling something completely non-musical; let’s say BBQ grills. While any one of these friends may be in my universe of potential customers, very likely none of them is my key ideal customer.

Let’s say that for some reason I want to write a promotion specifically targeted to sell to my second and third level prospects (first level being my ideal prospects who are true grilling aficionados; the guys you see outside grilling when there’s two feet of snow on the ground).

At least knowing something about where a prospect’s primary interests lie makes it easier for me to forge a connection based on common interest. Or at least to present my offer in such a way that it plays on his deepest interest.

That’s the gateway to price insensitivity.

That’s marketing nirvana.

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.