From Bio Breaks to Sugar Boogers: The Definitive List of Corporate Cliches

Bitten red apple on a white background

A friend of mine works in the legal department of a Fortune 25 company where, apparently, they communicate entirely in bullspeak. Here, alphabetized for your convenience, is the best list I have ever seen of corporate metaphors, catchphrases and cliches you would be embarrassed to utter outside a teak-paneled boardroom. Bonus points to anyone who can use three or more of these in a single sentence: Continue reading “From Bio Breaks to Sugar Boogers: The Definitive List of Corporate Cliches”

You’re the Boss – Now Don’t Screw it Up

event_198250242What’s the biggest threat to a freelance or entrepreneurial business? Hint: It’s not unreasonable clients, slow pay rates or competition. It’s the big kahuna – you.

Here are three ways – learned from experience – that small business owners screw things up.

Lack of a business concept. I’m not talking about five-year plans, projections, or other doorstop-sized documents (although you may eventually need these). I mean a concept that can be written on a napkin.

Here’s mine: Provide exceptional content to clients who won’t compromise on quality.  These ten words direct everything I do. Provide:  I provide copy — I don’t necessarily write it. This makes my business scalable and gives me the capability to handle large projects. Exceptional content:  Not every project requires highly intelligent, beautifully crafted language. I offer a premium product that commands a premium price. Clients who won’t compromise on quality: Rather than marketing to a specific sector, I target the top-tier players in industries where I have experience and contacts.

Poor pricing. I know a talented medical copywriter who freelances for academic publications. She charges $30 an hour “because that’s what the market will bear.” Another writer friend, with a similar background, charges $125 an hour working for pharmaceutical companies. When he heard about the academic writer, he called and offered to outsource his overflow to her for twice her current rate. She refused because “It felt like a sell-out” and “I want to control my own client relationships.”

The moral is, maybe it’s your pricing structure – maybe it’s your market – or maybe it’s your attitude. If you are charging less than you should, chances are you’re self-sabotaging.

Failure to build the appropriate pipeline. Most of us market our services to some extent. But are you “fishing where the fish are biting” – reaching out to prospective clients who a) need your services and b) are willing to pay for them?  In my case, joining the local chamber of commerce might be fun, but most small businesses won’t be able to afford my services. I’m better off attending major conferences and building connections at well-funded, status-conscious organizations.

Are you getting in your own way as you try to build your business?

Copyright 2015 by Deborah Gaines

On Choosing Your Battles

Are you charging in the wrong direction?
Are you charging in the wrong direction?

Marketers, here’s a hard fact: You will never have enough resources to promote every new product, program or hire with the vigor its advocates think it deserves.  Instead, learn to choose your battles. Here are three I would avoid:

The Battle of New Orleans.  Remember the last skirmish in the War of 1812 — the one that was fought after the war was won? Don’t engage in the marketing equivalent. I once worked for a university that started life as a teacher training program. We were tasked with “debunking the teachers college stereotype” to a generation that had never heard the words normal school.

Pickett’s Charge.  Robert E. Lee’s classic case of hubris during the Battle of Gettysburg sent the Confederate Army — fresh off victories in Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg — stampeding into disaster.  Since then, overconfidence has sunk many a marketing initiative, from Zune to Crystal Pepsi.

The Battle of Zama.  The Romans turned Hannibal’s secret weapon — his elephants — against him in this humiliating defeat. Kind of like the Internet turned the #AskJPMorgan Twitter campaign into a bloodstained rout.

Like most disasters, these could have been avoided through a combination of research, planning, and a good long look in the mirror. Make sure your clients do all three.

You Only Need One Word to Succeed in Business

It’s “Yes.”

Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson famously said, “If somebody offers you an opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later.”  Great advice, as far as it goes. But not knowing how to do something is only one reason we turn away work. Here are three others:

I don’t have time. How many times have you shot yourself in the foot with this one? If you’re too busy to do a job yourself, subcontract it out. Recommend someone and take a finder’s fee. Or recommend someone and build a network of people who will promote you later.

It won’t pay enough.” You have nothing to lose by naming a price that works for you.  Instead of asking “What’s your budget?” try leading with, “I’d love to do it. My rate is [amount that would feel really prosperous].”

“It’s not my wheelhouse.”  Ten years ago, someone offered me the opportunity to write a legal brochure. The material intimidated me, but freelance travel writing wasn’t making me rich as quickly as I had hoped so I took the job. And actually enjoyed it. Law firm work now accounts for a substantial part of my income. Travel writing, not so much.

So next time someone makes you an offer that’s outside your comfort zone, try saying yes. (And let me know how it goes.)

5 Reasons You Can’t Find Freelance Work

My company hires home-based freelancers for corporate writing projects, so I spend a lot of time sorting through resumes and talking to people on the phone. It turns out that the freelance market is not as competitive as you might think. In fact, at least 80 percent of the candidates disqualify themselves, often in a single email or conversation. Here are some pitfalls to avoid.

  1. Don’t lead with your personal life. Just because many writers (including me) choose the freelance or entrepreneurial lifestyle in order to prioritize things other than work – such as time with our kids, writing a novel or spending winters in Mexico – doesn’t mean prospective employers need to know the gory details. One writer sent me, as her writing sample, a link to a Mommy blog entitled “So Long Suckers! Why I’ll never be on Deadline Again.” (Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. But only slight.) Another noted that he wasn’t available in February because “The powder’s waist-deep in Park City.”
  2.  Get the chip off your shoulder. Freelancers often spend years fighting their internal or external naysayers before striking out on their own. This can give you a certain edge, as though you need to shout, “Take that, corporate slime! I’m doing it my way!” to everyone you meet. This is what friends are for. Clients are fine with, “The next couple of months are blocked out, but I’ll be available March 1.”
  3.  Let go of the past. The past five years have been one long wake for the publishing industry. You don’t need to explain that you were the last man standing at the Times-Picayune or spend two paragraphs of your cover letter describing your depression when the Star-Ledger let you go. Nor are other sectors immune. I’ll back my former employer, LeBoeuf, Lamb Greene & MacRae, against anyone out there for Titanic stories, but the only relevant takeaway is that I’m good at crisis communications.
  4.  Don’t act like you’re slumming. I receive frequent variations on the following theme: “After 35 years in my dream job as Gardening Editor for Country Living, I find myself looking for corporate work.” Is anything about that pitch appealing?
  5. Showcase the benefits, not the background. One of my most skilled and successful legal marketing writers spent 20 years doing obituaries for a major newspaper. He started his cover letter, “After profiling hundreds of complex personalities from virtually every field, I believe I am well-suited to writing for law firms.”

Finally, one piece of advice: Don’t devalue yourself. Set a fee that reflects your worth and experience, even if it costs you assignments. Then give every client who pays it your absolute best work. Exceed expectations for professionalism, responsiveness and work quality.

You’ll do just fine.

Want to reprint this post? It’s all yours. But please include this credit: Deborah Gaines spent 25 years as a freelance copywriter, journalist and chief marketing officer. Her company, Deborah Gaines Associates, manages editorial projects for law firms and other corporate clients. Follow her @DebGainesAssoc

Fight flab(by writing)

Helena Rubenstein famously said, “There no ugly women, just lazy ones.” The same applies to writing.

The worst work I’ve seen isn’t poorly written–it’s lazy. Language is overly general and stuffed with cliches. Sentence structure is juvenile and/or repetitive.

Here’s an example: “Higman’s Hideout offers fine wines and good food at prices that won’t break the bank. Higman’s has everything you need for a memorable night out.”

This is the literary equivalent of a beer belly: flabby and unappealing. Yet a couple of authentic details–the kind you’d know if, say, you’d been to Higman’s–would turn it around.

I say abrasive, you say concise

According to my wholly unofficial poll, emails are more likely to be misinterpreted than any other form of business communication. The writer dashes off a friendly note, but the reader perceives an abrupt tone. You soften the message with a smiley face, and I think “What a flake.”

Here are some guidelines for friendly but professional emails:

  • Say hello, but don’t get chatty. Pretend it’s a business call. You would greet me,  but you wouldn’t ask if I was enjoying the spring weather.
  • Don’t start with a name. When I see “Deborah:”, I assume I’m going to be lectured or instructed.
  • Break out the positive language. Don’t go over the top–I recently got a direct mail piece that said, “We were unbelievably excited to see you at the conference!” But let me know you care.
  • Don’t free-associate. Repetition and long sentences might sound endearing on the phone, but they look disorganized on the page.
  • It’s okay to be a little informal. Avoid stilted language and phrases like “As per our conversation, the attached….”
  • Don’t get personal. Ever. Imagine your email on the gigantic screen in Times Square, and make sure it won’t embarrass you if the whole world reads it.

Editor etiquette

When you critique other people’s work, it’s hard not to compare what you’re reading to what you would have done. “He should have started with a quote,” you think, shaking your head. Or “Oh God, not the passive voice!”

This attitude will not make you popular with your colleagues. More to the point, it doesn’t serve the project.

If the writer is guilty of poor grammar or word choice, awkward phrasing or other laziness, you need to call him on it. But before you do, think about what’s really bothering you. Is it the way he writes? Or the fact that he doesn’t write like you?

When the writer does make a mistake, your criticism should be constructive. Scrawling “AWK” all over the piece won’t help. Neither will rewriting it–he’ll be insulted and you’ll be angry that you had to spend so much time on someone else’s work. Try to offer concrete suggestions (“rephrase as an active statement,” “eliminate repetition”) and vent your frustration somewhere other than on the page.

Passive aggressive

I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.

The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department,  we can’t get by without it.

This sad fact can no longer be denied.