What My Cosmetic Dentist Taught Me About Freelance Marketing
A few years ago, I fell on my face and cracked a tooth. A front tooth. I was living temporarily in a city far away from my beloved dentist of 20 years.
Of the friends I asked for referrals, none had recommendations for a cosmetic specialist — and a few had warnings. The two dental offices in my neighborhood did not offer emergency appointments and neither was a specialty practice. Leery though I was, I called 1-800-DENTIST to find a specialist or a general practitioner who could book an immediate appointment and give me a referral.
I checked out the Yelp reviews for each of the dentists whose names I was given, and called the highest rated one. I explained that I’d broken a tooth, and the receptionist said there were appointments open the following day. He asked a few intake questions, and I revealed it was a front tooth.
“Oh!” the receptionist, “Don’t come here. Go to my former boss. He’s the best for something like that!”
Back on Yelp, I found the following review of dentist number two:
“When I broke my tooth, I called a few general practice dentists and asked, ‘If George Clooney was in town and needed a cosmetic guy, who would you send him to?’
“Every one gave me this guy’s name. He was expensive, but he did not disappoint.”
I booked the appointment. Indeed he was expensive, but he did not disappoint!
His staff gave empathetic customer service. The technician, as she set me up in the chair on every visit, said, “I am very sorry you have to have this experience.” The dentist had a true artisanal passion for his work. He commented on miniscule imperfections in the way my bite had developed, and offered to correct them for better aesthetics. He had a lab in his home where he “played” with crafting perfect veneers, and he’d worked with the same fabrication lab for twenty years.
The results? Friends who did not know I’d broken a tooth told me my face looked thinner!
While I’d rather still have my imperfect, intact teeth, and the money I spent on the procedures, I am thankful for the dental outcome — and the business lessons.
Treat people well! The receptionist who referred me to his employer’s competitor was loyal to his former employer and brazenly disloyal to his current employer. Either he liked his ex-employer personally, or he truly believed that doctor gave better service, or both. A paycheck won’t buy loyalty, and it’s a copout to label it a matter of character.
Think twice about paying money for a directory listing, and focus on quality service. My dentist evidently has a strong enough brand that he did not need a listing — even his rival’s listing led to him.
When you ask for a referral, ask for something specific and compelling. The “George Clooney” line was good, worthy of a professional copywriter.
Have you learned any marketing lessons from an unexpected source?
I want to thank you with my whole heart for your article on cats and patting them when they are eating. It is helping me save my cat’s life right now.
We found our sweet, 6-year-old baby girl swallowed something, it is still stuck in her but luckily we got her to the vet with enough time to have a real chance at saving her life. After two rough days at the vet and many IV bags and X-rays later they sent her home to spend the night here. They hoped being with her human mommy and daddy will help, and I was charged with one task… to get her to eat. I remembered your article and did something I never thought to do, I patted her while coaxing her to eat. To my great amazement it worked! I was able to get her to eat something for the first time in over four days. Tonight we will pray that the foreign body will pass naturally and eating is going to help. If not tomorrow she is back to the vet and will have a surgery.
As insightful and sweet your stories are I never thought an internet group on cats could change a family’s life… but you did. Thank you all for the great work you are doing.
“Write how you speak.” The advice is well intentioned. It’s meant to ease the fears that stop smart people from putting their words on paper. (Everybody can talk, right?) It’s meant to correct the tendency some people have of writing in a style they were taught to use for 11th grade English assignments.
The advice is not bad; it’s just misleading. To compose effective pieces, one must understand that written and spoken communications have different structures. What’s more, since increasing amounts of what is written today is stored or distributed digitally, there’s another reason to be more deliberate about structuring pieces: structure helps machines “read” your content so that it can be found by your target audiences.
When people suggest you write how you speak, they’re talking about style. They’re recommending that you match the register (how formal the language is) of your written communication with the way you would speak to the same audience, and that you match the tone (the attitude or mood you convey) with the message.
Writing a welcome letter to people who have registered for workshop, “Be A Clown: Improv for Executives”? The register should be informal; the tone should be friendly and humorous. Writing a demand letter to a customer who wrote a bad check? The register should be formal; the tone should be serious and matter-of-fact.
Style isn’t everything.
The enrollees of that improv class and the writers of that rubber check know they are reading a letter when they see the salutation, a typical feature of a letter’s structure.
Spoken communication happens in an interactive context. It capitalizes on body language, vocal inflection, and the physical environment. Written works, including prewritten speeches, trade those advantages for another one, something akin to a blueprint. When writing a piece, you rely on its structure (the organization of the ideas and information in relation to each other) to achieve the effects you want to have on people’s thinking and feeling.
• Journalists use the inverted pyramid to write basic news stories. The first paragraph includes all of the essential information, and the story trails through less and less important content as the paragraphs progress.
• Write fiction, and you will learn some version of a formula of Aristotle’s theory of plot or Fryetag’s pyramid. This structure promotes readers’ identification with the main character and immersion in the world and events of the story.
• High school students learn some version of the five-paragraph structure. That’s a way to organize a short piece to construct an argument.
These formats provide landmarks that hold — and direct — readers’ attention. Each one cues a particular state of mind and promises a specific kind of experience.
Neglect structure, and you confuse and annoy your audience.
The piece is vaguely interesting, but the reader can’t tell where it’s going until three or four paragraphs in.
The main point is buried.
The article isn’t wordy, exactly, but it goes on way too long.
A short piece uses several conflicting metaphors rather than a unifying one.
Instead of a satisfying wrap-up, the piece ends abruptly.
An instruction sheet or manual seems cluttered with unnecessary or distracting background information.
Each of these problems is a failure of structure. Most of them don’t pose a problem if you’re speaking to someone in person.
To be sure, great writers sometimes break structure deliberately, for effect. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, we think we are following the story of Marion, who’s stolen her boss’ money and gone on the lam. Thirty minutes into the action, she’s stabbed in the famous shower scene. Surprise!
In the digital realm there can be additional hiccups, like:
An excerpt on a content aggregator misrepresents the post to which it clicks through. (The lack of structure means the content hasn’t been marked up properly.)
The navigation on a Web site confuses you. The flow between linked pages doesn’t make sense. (No big picture gives order to the ideas.)
Writing how you speak is a great way to get a first draft, but the next step isn’t “polishing.” When you edit your first draft, you stop being a conversation partner and start being a maker.
Try to imagine the train of thought your readers will need to take if they are to respond the way you want them to. Imagine also their emotional reactions. Then lay the track.
Are you reporting, teaching, entertaining, convincing? Arrange your content to support the goal.
Don’t forget the concern of how people will consume the piece: From their phone while on the commuter bus, from their desktop while at work, from a bound book while sitting in a favorite reading chair, or from loose sheets of paper propped up next to a machine they’re trying to fix?
Don’t write how you speak; there’s nobody listening. Give people a route to follow.
You never know when or how something you “don’t really do seriously” will pay off.
A few years ago, I was writing for the San Francisco SPCA magazine. There was no money for photography, so I took my trusty digital point-and-shoot camera along on my reporting assignments. My editor published a photo and entered it into a contest. It won first prize.
Judges’ comments: “She captures the complex play of emotions in the cat’s face-wariness, trepidation, and ultimately, trust, with the result being that the image is indelibly printed on the viewer’s mind.”
Today the photo helps promote the cat claw clipping service of Feline Minds, a cat behavior consultancy that keeps cats in their homes and saves their lives.
Do “people” really prefer visual Web content to text?
Me, I’m an outlier. I find a long, dense block of text as tempting as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. Still I’m inclined to believe there’s some truth to the common wisdom that a majority of people absorb and retain information better when it is presented visually. So why do Web sites that feature video, dozens of photos, and very few words so often subject us to a bad experience?
Technology makes it easy to produce Web sites, video, and infographics. People seem to have less anxiety about snapping photos than they do about writing. However, most people have less training in visual communication than in writing, and it shows.
Here are the three most common errors I see in visual design on the Web:
Problem #1: Illustrated verbal metaphors. You’ve undoubtedly seen some version of this image — a pair of hands holding a mound of soil with a green sprout growing out of it. My dynamo Web designer Jessica Albon wrote, “Stock photography can be great, but more often it’s generic. If you were on a site that had a photo like [that], what would you think they did? Business consulting? Environmental cleanup? Daycare? (I’ve seen this type of photo on sites for all three types of companies–and many others.)”
It’s as if the people designing the page thought:
“What would say ‘rich, deep’ experience that grows in the customer’s mind?” or “What says ‘health’”?
“Oh, yeah, dark, fertile soil!”
And that’s not the only such cliched image. How about:
Corporate team members poring over documents (“What says ‘collaboration’?”)
Fit young woman sitting in lotus position alone on the beach (“What says ‘peaceful, healthy’?”)
There’s not much visual communication happening there; the pictures symbolize verbal ideas.A skillful writer might indeed use some combination of words to compare a sprout bursting from the soil with a growing business. The photograph is often a non sequitur.
The cure: Think like a filmmaker. Successful films tell stories through a series of visual images informed by dialogue and music. The words in the script give the director cues for things that will actually be seen. Films use symbolism, but the people and objects you see on screen are not just metaphors. Once the shot has been transformed into an image, that image can not be completely captured in words at all. This is one of the most famous shots from Citizen Kane.
Here is the passage in the script that forms the blueprint for that shot.
Camera now pulls back further, showing Thatcher standing before a table on which is his stove-pipe hat and an imposingmultiplicity of official-looking documents.He is 26 and, as might be expected, a very stuffy young man, already very expensive and conservative looking, even in Colorado.
For a peek into the minds of two master visual thinkers and storytellers, check out the film, Hitchcock/Truffaut.
Problem #2: Video that doesn’t communicate visually. Many Web sites link to a YouTube or Vimeo file of the author sitting at a desk and speaking into the camera. The shots are poorly composed. For example, the edge of some unidentifiable piece of furniture (but not the whole object) pokes into the corner of the frame. The lighting is off, with distracting shadows visible on the walls. Sometimes the video is blurry. Ironically, these authors neglect the visual dimension of the content.
Worse, this is not really visual communication at all. It’s oral communication bolstered by images. The same applies to a person reading from a PowerPoint. Even when there are a few slides of charts, graphs, or pictures, the dominant mode in these slide presentations is auditory.
The cure: Do video right or not at all. If you just want to talk, try a podcast instead of a video. If you want to give people a lot of information, written copy is more effective than an hour’s worth of reading from a PowerPoint. Use video where it adds value: in a demonstration,like how to braid hair; in a mini-story with scenes; or when your talk makes entertaining use of props. If you use video for a lecture or interview, learn good technique or hire a professional producer.
Problem #3: Lack of visual design.The visual dimension of a Web site goes beyond the subject of the pictures posted there. In fact, a Web site communicates visually with no representational images at all. Typography, layout, white space, choice of color all contribute. The style of the images matters, too. Cartoonish illustrations send a different message than realistic ones and photographs send a different message than illustrations.
The cure: Don’t stop with pictures. Even better — don’t start with pictures. If you’re a wedding photographer or painter, images should probably dominate your Web site. If you are marketing yourself as the only psychotherapist in your city specializing in support groups for narcoleptics, you probably need to explain that in words. Of course the visual quality of your site, the “look-and-feel,” should match the quality of your message. Before prospective clients or referral sources even read the text, they should get the impression that you are caring and wise and professional. They should not think they accidentally surfed to the Web site of a rock band.
Recognize when words should predominate. If that is the case, write or hire a writer.
When making a video, give people something to see.
To tell a story in pictures, make a logical connection between the image and your offer.
Finally, respect the discipline of visual design. An artist or graphic designer can do a lot more for you than a WordPress theme and stock photos.
I hope this post has been as filling — if not as tasty — as a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. I’ll spare you the picture.