Do You Look Familiar?

I got a call the other day from my old college friend Rob, in Vancouver. (Long-time readers with steel trap memories and uneventful lives of their own will remember Rob as the subject of this 2005 newsletter.)

He and I spent a lot of time together in school but gradually lost touch. Having just dropped his own son off at college, however, Rob was feeling a bit nostalgic and, I’m happy to say, he picked up the phone and gave me a call.

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It had been at least 10 years since we last spoke. These are the kinds of questions I asked him:

“How many kids do you have?”
“What kind of work are you doing?”
“Do you live in the same house as when Linda and I visited in 1990?”

Compare the Rob conversation to the one I had yesterday with my friend, colleague and frequent collaborator, Belinda Wasser,
when we met up at the Inbound Marketing Summit in Boston.

These are the kinds of questions I asked Belinda:

“Where did you take your daughter to dinner last night?”
“Did you start work with that new client yet?”
“Are you going to finish that brownie?”

Clearly, the conversations you have with someone you see once a decade are fundamentally different – in tone, content and specificity – from those you have with someone you talk to every day.

If I asked Belinda, “How many kids do you have?,” it would be as off-key as if I asked Rob, “Where did you take your daughter to dinner last night?” Neither fits the state of our current relationship.

Interestingly, this distinction has everything to do with why your business writing, if I may, blows.

Most businesspeople, when writing for business purposes – whether that’s a web site, free report, newsletter, e-mail or whatever – default to writing the way I spoke to Rob: unfamiliar; broad topics; a view from 30,000 feet. The focus is on the exchange of information.

Nothing wrong with information, but when I write, and whether it’s for myself or on behalf of a client, I deliberately try and write as if I know the reader really, really well.

Why? Two reasons, my exceedingly close friend:

  1. They won’t hire you until they trust you. As a professional service provider, the more you write as someone who already knows the reader well, the more quickly they’ll become comfortable with you as a person they might want to work with.
  1. It makes for better reading. I’ve been talking to my wife Linda, daily, for over 20 years and it’s still interesting (usually). Connect with an old friend after 10 years, on the other hand, and after about half an hour, you’re both pretty much out of things to talk about.

    It’s the minutiae of everyday life
    – What did you have for lunch?; What song is that?; How about those Red Sox?; Is it supposed to rain later?; Who stole the remote? – that makes it interesting. 

    When you remove the mundane in the name of “not wasting time and sharing information as efficiently as possible” (a request that my newer clients often make, until I manage to convince them otherwise), you remove the juice. And it’s juice – not information – that we all crave.

Okay, so here are a few recommendations for the next time you sit down to write on behalf of your business:

  • Write in the first person. If you’re a solo, don’t hide it – write that way. If you’re part of a larger organization, be explicit to readers about who is doing the writing at any given time. You wouldn’t have “the senior leadership team” stand up and give a talk in unison (I hope); don’t write that way either.
  • Be specific. Name names (“college friend Rob”), locations (“Vancouver”), activities (“Inbound Marketing Summit”), food choices (“brownie”). Just like you do in your personal communications.
  • Interject quirky, non-businessy words, like “quirky” or “non-businessy” into your writing. More juice for your parched readers.

Here’s the bottom line. There’s nothing here that you don’t already know how to do – you do it every day with the people you know well. You just forget when it comes time to write.

Let your competitors battle it out for who appears the most “professional.” Learn how to get familiar with readers if you want your phone to ring.

(If you liked this post, let me e-mail you when I’ve written others. Subscribe here.)

Ready to make the phone ring? Who can blame you.
Enroll now in my upcoming, Expert webinar, here.

10 thoughts on “Do You Look Familiar?

  1. Dave Krajovic

    I have subscribed to quite a few e-newsletters over the years. Michael’s is one of the most authentic, down to earth and common sense ones I know of. His posts are fun to read, get to the point in a very small amount of time and often share profound insights. This post is an example of that. Thanks Mike for a job well done.

  2. Evelyn

    I’ll cop to the steel trap memory, Michael – I remembered the story about Rob because it was featured as Lesson 12 in your book It Sure Beats Working. (Don’t be that freaked out. I had to look up the Lesson #.) But the uneventful life? Not a chance.

    As for keeping my writing familiar, I use cultural references consistent with the demographics of my audience, and talk about them as I experienced them. That usually gets people’s attention and some empathetic head nodding.

  3. Judy Hanlin

    Thanks Mike. We all get tons of blah, blah, blah e-mail. Not only do I read and use your
    ideas…I look forward to getting them. I open them right away. You walk the walk. Your newsletters feel personal, they are dusted with humor and hit the high notes. Thanks for all of the insights and showing us how to do it…by doing it in every newsletter.

  4. Michael Katz Post author

    Dave and Judy — Thanks, I’m glad you like the newsletter. Publishing it is the highlight of my week!

    And Evelyn, thanks to my “paper trap” memory, I had forgotten that story was in my book! I love your point about using appropriate cultural references. Whenever I speak to a roomful of college students I find that all my “guy with kids” references fall flat — important to match it to the audience!


  5. Kim

    Another classic tale that spoke to me Michael. Thanks.

    I am one of those overeducated academically inclined persons.

    What is it about writing a thesis that contaminates all your writing? I have to start way back at the basics and make sure I write in active voice.

    I even run the grammar checker to make sure I do this, otherwise I go back to “It has been observed that….” Where you can’t actually say – I think, or this is what happened – make your own mind up about it.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I know what you mean, Kim. This whole process seems to be more about unlearning what we’ve been taught (particularly as adults) than learning something new. Maybe one benefit of all the social media / texting is that the next generation will be more adept at writing like humans!

  6. Deidre Randall

    Michael, I love your newsletters too. I saw you speak once about ten years ago in Portsmouth and I am still opening the newsletters and recommending them to others. I am thinking a lot about this latest post, because I am in the midst of writing an outreach letter. My worry is that I might put them off with an informal style. Do you think that happens? I noticed your reference to speaking to college students and making sure you match the presentation to the audience.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Deidre! On the question of informal style, I think yes, you can be too informal.

      Although I have to say that in 11+ years of doing this I’ve never once had to suggest to a client that they “button it up a bit.” Nearly everyone in the professional services world is way at the other end of the continuum, trying to sound smart, professional, reasonable. That’s fine, but it tends to add up to boring and unimaginative.

      For your outreach letter, think about who your audience is and how you’d like them to see you and/or your organization. Try and be “real.” (easier said than done, I know).

      And, in the interest of my earning money, you might want to consider purchasing my on-demand webinar on the topic, here:

  7. Michael Perry

    another great news letter by Michael Katz. I didn’t realize Michael that you have been doing this for 11+ years. It looks like you have mastered it. What you put in your work really makes one stop and think. Can’t wait to hear what you have to say this upcoming Friday, until then I have to go through some of the other stuff that you have posted.



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