The Heart of the Matter

(Listen to this post, here.)

We were up in Maine last week, cat-sitting for my wife’s friend Lori.

I have to confess, the sudden switch to “pet care” was a bit of an adjustment.

It’s not like I haven’t done it before; we had a dog for more than ten years.

But having to suddenly deal with food, hair, vomit, and poop again … well, it was like having someone hand you a toddler and say, “Feed her twice a day; I’ll be back on Thursday.”

Fortunately, it went pretty smoothly and with few surprises. In fact, the biggest surprise of the week happened at the local supermarket…

I walked in the door and sitting at a folding table was a young supermarket employee.

Next to him was one of those small, glass, hot dog-warming machines, along with a handwritten sign: “Hot Dogs: $1.50. All proceeds donated to the American Heart Association.”

Come again? You’re selling hot dogs in support of heart health?

I’m no Oscar Mayer, but it seems to me that the hearts of America would pretty much break even if they just threw away the hot dogs and sent the kid home for the day.

Needless to say, I did not buy one (that’s why, as of this writing, I am still alive).

But it did get me thinking about you and the things you write, and the problems that arise when there are inconsistencies that make readers scratch their heads.

Find Your Authentic Voice

As a small professional service firm or independent, you are the brand. It’s not your logo or your tagline or your web site.

When I think of your company, I’m really just thinking of you – who you are, how you talk, how you interact with people.

Interestingly, as a species, we are pretty good at speaking to others in a consistent, authentic way. Go to any networking event and you’ll run into nothing but nice, friendly, engaging people (well, except for that one guy).

The place where this tends to break down, though, is when people sit down to write especially when they sit down to write “marketing things.”

That’s when two diametrically opposed but equally bad things happen:

Thing One. The writing is nothing but facts, figures, diagrams, and other dry-as-dust, jargon-filled, sleep-inducing paragraphs of soulless mumbo jumbo.

Thing Two. People who are otherwise normal (and nearly always middle-aged), assume a hyper-animated, look-how-cool-I-am persona, making them sound like they just wandered out of a nearby frat party at which they sampled mushrooms for the first time.

The problem with both of these approaches? Neither is an accurate reflection of the authentic you. And it’s the authentic you that people like and want to hire.

So, if you are having trouble ringing the authenticity bell when you write, try this…

#1. Dictate

While writing in a natural voice can be hard, speaking naturally generally isn’t.

Maybe it’s because we speak every day. Or because when we talk, we hear what we actually sound like.

Whatever the reason, try recording your thoughts first and then transcribing them.

You’ll have a solid foundation of “normal” to work from and from there, are less likely to stray to either extreme.

#2. Tell Stories

We tell stories all the time.

What happened at lunch; where you went on vacation; what it’s like to take care of two cats.

There are many benefits to telling stories beyond just finding our voice, but that’s certainly one of the biggest. There’s something about relating an actual experience that encourages us to sound the way we really are.

#3. Practice

At first, few people are good at this authentic voice stuff.

If you’re older than about 35 (and if you’re not, you may be too young to be reading this newsletter), you learned to write long before we all carried phones in our pockets and spent all day texting whatever thought just popped into our heads.

Writing was a formal activity; it was a thing you set aside time to do (often in the shadow of a red-pen-wielding teacher).

So don’t worry if it feels unnatural and stiff. No one is good at pushups when they first get started, either.

The more you write, even if it’s just in a word doc that nobody else but you will see, the better you’ll get.

Here’s the bottom line.

Like it or not, when you work in a teeny-tiny company, you are the brand.

That’s a fantastic advantage relative to your larger competitors – but only if you learn to display the authentic you in the way you write.

P.S. I am organizing a bake sale for the American Diabetes Association. Let me know if you want in.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When was the last time you ate a hot dog?
  2. Have you ever wielded a red pen?
  3. How hard or easy is it for you to write?

Share your answers below…

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26 thoughts on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. Nikki

    Three + years ago.
    It is pretty easy to write. It is much harder to edit and get to good, usable copy.

  2. Randy Martin

    My best hot dog ever was on a trip to Portugal and then Spain. After a week and a half, I just needed some normal food. I got online and found that Seville had a Costco. We went there and I have a hot dog and Pepsi. I hadn’t had a Pepsi in several years, but it along with the hot dog was perfect and so tasty!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That makes sense! The last time I had one was at a baseball game a few years ago. Sometimes the situation just warrants it.

  3. Bob Katz

    Hey Michael,

    That was a pretty “heartless” commentary, selling hot dogs to benefit the Heart Association. Would you have preferred they sell, stents on a roll?

    1. Thomas Rose

      I had a hot dog on Sunday. A bratwurst last night and did so with a nurse that works in the cardiac ward. I felt like if I ended up having a heart attack I’d be in good hands. I know I have wielded a red pen but don’t really enjoy writing with it. Good for editing.
      Writing is easy and hard. Sometimes I find writing, that I’m really unhappy with as I write, ends up being some of my better writing when I come back to it.

  4. Lisa Fogg

    Being a former teacher the red pen was terrifying for my students. I started using green, purple, orange, or blue. The kids were excited to see what color they got on their paper. They also didn’t seem to mind the constructive comments either.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That is a terrific modification! I definitely still remember the redness of the feared red pen.

  5. Bill Sell

    Hot dog: this Tuesday at Fenway Park – how can you *NOT* have one at the ballpark? The hot dogs at Fenway do seem to be of lesser quality now.
    Red pen: daily, to mark off things on the to do list. That red color adds some importance to the crossing off finished items.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Maybe the hot dog quality is intended to track with the quality of the team itself? In which case, you may want to pass on Tuesday, Bill!

  6. Gina Longo

    1) More than 20 years — I’m a pescetarian.
    2) Yep, but it’s a red marker. I have a fondness for correcting mistakes on signs. 😉
    3) Very easy. I’m a writer first and foremost, and I have no problem writing in my actual voice.

  7. Brad Dunsé

    This morning, I saw a prompt in an online magazine. It’s a biggie in its niche too, but they basically said:

    “99 out of 100 people will not go past this point to donate even as little as $1. Please consider donating.”

    Uuummmmmmm. I’m no Michael Katz, but don’t 99 out of 100 people generally do what 99 out of 100 people did before them? Not many saying, “Gee, 10’s of thousands of people saw this and did squat, sounds like donating is the thing to do.”

    Most people tend to do what others do. Can we say social proofing? Plus, it doesn’t put the publication in a good light to go for the pity ad since it is pitched to their paying subscribers for the pubs benefit, not a cause they’re promoting.

    My last hot dog? Probably 5-years ago and probably the same before that, and before that…

    No red pens in my office.

    I find writing in my authentic voice way too much fun.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Good point, Brad! On that topic, I read about a study that found when hotels had signs in the rooms that said, in effect, “most people don’t use most of the towels” it led to less towel usage than a direct request for guests to be more environmentally conscious. We follow the pack!

  8. Steve

    1. Had one just a week ago, but I thoughtfully pyrchased a high end, low fat, high protein weenie, which I cooked in ultra-healthy coconut oil, before I slathered it with ketchup, relish and mustard, so obviously my heart will appreciate all the health conscious steps I took.

    2. I am an old fart, who continues to have nightmares about a school teacher who was relentless in her abuse and disrespect of my school work, with her red pen. So no, no use for red pens, unless it’s to stab a nasty person.

    3. I’m told I have writing talent, and have been told by some jokers that I should write for Hallmark cards. But… my recent and ongoing pursuit of copywriting skill has, as yet, not lead to any aha or breakthrough moments. To this point, I am certainly an expert at staring at a blank sheet of paper with my non-red pen in hand.

    And the fact that I only type about 12 words a minute probably doesn’t help.

    But…onward and upward! or whatever else those famous motivational quote guys say.

  9. Jil

    Funny enough, the last time I ate a hot dog I was at a party, on mushrooms.
    Used a red pen today while setting up a wall chart to track good habits.
    Writing has never come easily to me, despite occasional practice. My biggest faux-pas is usually to layer in an unsettling amount of metaphors. Also jargon. Lots of jargon.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I think your hot dog / mushroom combination wins the award for most on target with this weeks newsletter, Jil!

  10. Andrew Cohen

    The last time I had a hot dog was probably about a year ago. I generally avoid them now.

    I can’t remember ever wielding a red pen? I recall being told by someone in a coach/mentor role that using a red pen to grade/markup papers was very threatening and that a different color should be used. Egads! The end of the red pen industry?!

    It’s hard for me to get started, but once I do writing has become easy. Took a long time to get to that and it wasn’t until I was a few years into my career (yes, post college).

  11. Soph Lundeberg

    1. Hot dog: Most of my furniture I owe to hot dogs. Ikea sells $0.75 vegan hot dogs that come with crispy caramelized onions, pickled shredded beets, and honey mustard. I’m in graduate school right now, and I’m happy with my Ikea furniture and hot dogs.
    2. Red pen: Sometime before docusign, I filled out an entire form in red ink. Apparently that made the entire form void. I had to redo it in black or blue ink.
    3. Writing: Writing is easiest for me when I have a general sense of my audience. Writing is more difficult when the audience is, or imagined to be: vague, critical, massive or, conversely, non-existent.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Speaking of Ikea, did you hear that the CEO of Ikea is now the president of Sweden? Apparently, he’s been assembling his cabinet all week. (Sorry)

      3. Totally agree on the importance of a clear audience!

  12. Anita Cooper

    1. When was the last time you ate a hot dog?
    Depends on what you call a hot dog. Just tonight I had a Johnsonville Cheddar Brat. Does that count? It was yummy, cut up and tossed into a bowl of mixed veggies. The veggies totally offset the fat in the dog. I read that on the internet so it must be true! 😉

    2. Have you ever wielded a red pen?
    Occasionally, but never directed toward another person…

    3. How hard or easy is it for you to write?
    It depends. If I’m bored with the topic or not particularly inspired, I take MUCH longer than if I know the subject well and/or am very interested in it. Like conspiracy theories. Or aliens. Or fiction writing. Or even, crazily enough, marketing, sales and business blogs. 😀

  13. Patrick

    I had a hot dog on Saturday and another one yesterday. I’m nearly 70 years old and stopped
    worrying about what hot dogs might do to me a long time ago.

    I teach guitar and piano and use a red pencil regularly, but only to highlight things I want my students to focus on.

    I love to write and think I do a pretty good job of writing in my natural voice. Thank you for asking.

  14. Lorraine H Hovis

    1. My last hotdog was devoured about 3 days ago. Both grandbabies will eat them, but since Sierra, my daughter, inevitably cooks at least 3 too many, I eat winnie’s at least once a week. And at 67, I seldom worry about it, as long as I have taken the babies on at least 4 walks in the previous 7 days.
    2. As a graduate student at Winthrop College, I did wield a red pen for correcting and grading papers
    3. I have been told that my writing is very good in some instances. Not yet income producing, as of today, how ever. But I am not giving up on my 3rd career.


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