Is Working for Free the Best Way to Start Your Business?

working for free stairs to nowhere

The idea of doing projects “on spec” (without pay) came up in one of the few Facebook groups I participate in.

To be more specific, a woman launching a new service business was offering to work for free in order to get testimonials and build her portfolio.

Is this a good way to start your business? Or is spec work a flight of stairs leading nowhere?

In business (almost) nothing is true across the board. What works for one entrepreneur may flop badly for another. In this Facebook conversation, I felt qualified to chime in and express my opinion, based on my extensive, often painful experience in a field closely related to the one being offered for free. Here is a slighly modified version of my comments:

I’m going to do something relatively harsh here…by recommending you seriously limit this offer (to work for free).

Having testimonials is great, but absolutely not necessary to launch your business. In a way, you’re postponing the launch of your business by clinging to the idea that you need “proof” of the value of your services.

Your time is extremely valuable. Especially since you have a family who likes having you around and “present.”

In all likelihood, doing content marketing for yourself will advance your business more than doing free work for other people, no matter how good their testimonials will be.

The thing is, there’s a huge need for the service you provide — but most of the people/businesses who need your skills do not fully appreciate that need. They don’t feel pain, so it’s hard to pry money from their hands, especially at a rate you deserve.

You would do well to seek people who already feel that need, that have a bleeding neck problem, to use the words of John Paul Mendocha.

See if you can get testimonials from colleagues and friends who already know you and are familiar with the quality of your work. Build up your portfolio working on your own website and marketing materials.

It’s also well worth your time to connect with people who might already be in touch with your target audience. Maybe you can work out a referral arrangement or a way to bundle your services together. Or subcontract work from other established people in the space you want to occupy (or an adjacent one).

Think graphic designers, etc.

And remember, don’t sell your services, as such. Instead, define the transformation you produce for your clients. How will their lives and businesses be different, better than before they hired you — or anyone else for that matter.

Define what you’ll do for them — and what you won’t. Specialize, if you can.

BTW, I’m not always right. This just advice based on my experience.

— — —

What about you? How do you feel about spec work?


A Chat with Conversation Coach Amber Wright [Video]

I wanted to share a fun Google Hangouts interview I did with the Conversation Coach, Amber Wright.

We talked about:

  • my favorite pattern interrupt for unexpected face-to-face encounters
  • writing tips for entrepreneurs who aren’t able or ready to hire copywriter yet
  • how to get unfrozen when you’re trying something new (specifically writing)
  • how (and why) I learned to craft (i.e. fake) extroversion
  • the only 2 steps you can take to become a better writer
  • why feedback is critical for effective communication in any medium
  • the importance of confidence — and how to start building some
  • how being a copywriter has impacted the way I communicate with my wonderful wife
  • and plenty more!

Here’s the 47-minute conversation:

You’ll also get a chance to see my comical side. I think I’m pretty darn funny.

I didn’t realize how badly I need a decent camera for interviews like this, but hopefully you’ll get some value from the chat.

And when you get a chance, check out all the great content and resources Amber shares on her website.


6 Painful Reasons You Can’t Rely on Headline Analyzers

headline analyzer

A colleague of mine shared this tool in one of the Facebook group I’m a member of:

I don’t spend much time at all on Facebook, but I happened to see this post, and I couldn’t pass by without adding my two cents. Here’s a slightly modified version of my response:

This IS a cool tool, Jamal.

I’d just note that there are several important factors that this analyzer doesn’t take into consideration:

1) Whether a headline is strong or not is determined as much by WHO YOUR AUDIENCE IS as by the words you choose. Vegans won’t click on articles about making your steak tender and delicious, no matter how interesting the title looks.

2) Are your claims believable, or do they scream “Hype!”? It’s impossible for a machine to figure that out…

3) The formula used by the tool doesn’t know whether or not the headline is nonsense. As long as you put the right words in there, you’ll score high.

E.g. “how to startling orangutan spine surprises surprisingly” scores an 80 — but it doesn’t make any sense.

I entered the title of this post “6 Painful Reasons You Can’t Rely on Headline Analyzers,” which scored 66. When I switched “Analyzers” to “Awesome,” the score went up to 72 — even though the change destroys the headline.

(Both versions get an A+ for “structure, grammar and readability.”)

4) Some of the “right” words (“emotional” and “power” words listed in the free download Coschedule gives you when you opt in) are less powerful than you might think. “Awesome” is so overused that it will fall flat in many cases.

Again, you can’t know the right words unless you know who you’re talking to.

For example, financial copywriters know that “the Fed,” “Yellen” and “rate hike” have emotional punch that may not really work in any other industry.

5) As far as I can tell, this tool and the accompanying article focus on getting cold traffic to click on a blog post. It doesn’t — nor could it — calculate familiarity, relationship, name/brand recognition, etc.

The degree to which your readers know/trust you, enjoy your style and know you deliver value has a huge impact on your readership.

For example, if two articles have the exact same headline, who wins: Joe Schmoe or Seth Godin? More to the point, who wins a showdown between Seth Godin and Rachel Ray?  Of course, that’s a trick question. It depends on the audience and topic.

Many of you have heard that one of the most opened and responded to emails sent during President Obama’s reelection campaign had “Hey” as the subject line.

“Hey” gets a zero on the headline analyzer, and as a blog title seen by cold traffic, maybe it should. But to people who know the Prez (or whoever), it sounds personal and really makes you curious to know what he has to say.

Email is a different animal, so keep that in mind.

6) If it sounds like you’re trying to sell something, you’ll have a different response than if it seems like you’re just sharing content.

If you’ve ever tried selling anything online, you know what I mean.

Having said all of that, I think the tool could be very helpful in helping your strengthen you headlines.


Now, this critique is a bit of a nasty sandwich. One slice of positive at the beginning and end with a pile of negatives stuffed in between. I DO think tools like these can be helpful in making writers think creatively about how they’re crafting headlines and openers.

Just keep in mind that a you can communicate with your audience better than a machine ever could.




Need Your Content to Sizzle and Sell? Here Are Some Tips

Write Content that Sells

Just in case you missed it…

A couple weeks ago, Jeff Zelaya and I did a Google Hangout on Air to talk about “How to Write Content that Sizzles and Sells.” There’s a ton of mediocre content out there, both online and in print. We talked about getting ideas, honing your craft and writing stuff that doesn’t suck.

Because you’ll never bore anyone into buying, subscribing, or even reading your next paragraph.

Check out the replay:

Jeff also wrote a terrific recap of the Hangout at 13 Tips to Make Your Content Sizzle and Sell on Triblio’s blog, distilling the interview down into 13 actionable (and tweetable!) steps. Smart writing on his part, without a doubt.


How to Write Sizzling Content

Sizzling Content and Copy

“If the woman howling from the backseat of Agent Carson’s black SUV weren’t already dead, I would’ve strangled her. Gladly.”

So begins Darynda Jones’ latest book. But the book is captivating even before the opening line. The title instantly sends your mind on a journey of curiosity.

Seventh Grave and No Body.

To be fair, I haven’t read anything other than the first page of the book. The book cover caught by attention yesterday at Barnes & Noble. My imagination isn’t ready to stop thinking about where the story might go.

That’s what sizzling content does. It grabs your attention and puts it in a headlock. It activates the movie screen in your brain and reaches down to pull on the ol’ heartstrings, at least a little bit.

This is not the kind of writing we were taught in school. The style we mastered between K and 12 is almost the polar opposite, when you think about it: matter-of-fact, even clinical in it’s lack of emotion. Without personality. Yet, a large percentage of business owners and marketers carry this dry, academic style over into their attempts at sales and marketing.

Then they wonder why no one opens their emails.

Now, I know YOU don’t have that problem. But there’s a good chance that you feel like your writing could be stronger. You’d like for your content to be more persuasive. You want your marketing to pack more punch in whatever media you’re using.

If so, I hope you’ll join Jeff Zelaya from Triblio and me for “How to Write Content that Sizzles and Sells,” a Google Hangout On Air tomorrow (Monday, November 17) at 1 Eastern. We will discuss turning your articles, blog posts, video scripts, etc., into “page-turners” your  potential clients will have a hard time ignoring.

Check out the Event page for more details. You can even ask content marketing, writing or persuasion questions and we’ll try to answer them.

Hope to see you there!

P.S.  I want to quickly emphasize a takeaway we learn from the book I mentioned in the beginning of this post.

The title Seventh Grave and No Body, is pretty interesting all by itself. Even more than the words themselves, this title is engrossing because of the mental associations the reader carries while he reads. The title doesn’t mention anything about crime scenes, tricky murder investigations or elusive serial killers. You read that into the words on the page. The pictures created in your mind have more to do with your own personal experience than anything else.

The meaning of a word is greater than its definition.

Leveraging the power of mental associations is an advanced writing technique we’ll be covering during the Hangout. You’re not going to want to miss this.


Why I Only Teach One Kind of Telepathy

Did you see the marketing prank Sony did to promote the movie ‘Carrie’ last fall? It’s very clever and quite amusing when you know what’s going on. If you’ve never seen it, you should watch it. The video is less than 2.5 minutes. Even if you have seen it, you’ll probably enjoy watching it again.

[ The prank is about telekinesis, not telepathy, but I’ll come back to that because I teach one form of that, too. ]

Telepathy is transmitting a message from your brain directly to another person’s brain. And far from being confined to the fantasy world of sci-fi and horror movies, it is real. It is the force that moves nations as well as individual citizens like you and me.

“It’s amusing when you stop to think about it – for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists…and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open… All the arts depend upon telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”
~ Stephen King

Plato’s Republic. The Communist Manifesto. The Bible. The course of history has been shaped by the words written in these books.

Advertising words have also influenced culture, changed perceptions and built empires:

“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” (Who can forget that one?)
“Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.”  (At the time of his death Forrest Mars and two of his sons were the 29th, 30th and 31st riches Americans)
“A diamond is forever.”  (In 1939 only 10% of engagement rings had diamonds. By 1990, 80% did, largely because of the marketing efforts of the De Beers diamond cartel)

You Are Telepathic, Too…

…but you have to be intentional about it. Rule number one of selling is that nothing sells itself, no matter how good it is.

The people who should be your customers

  • don’t know you exist
  • don’t know there’s a solution for their problems at all
  • are already buying from the competition or
  • aren’t ready to buy yet.

The survival and success of your business depends on you proactively fixing each of those issues.

You need to get your sales message your should-be customers’ minds. That’s telepathy.

Then, you need to get those people to take action based on the message you delivered. That’s telekinesis.

The telepathy part
Create an appealing message. Consider what will appeal to those should-be customers; that’s more important than what you think is cool about your product. The approach most likely to get the right kind of attention is to address, in an interesting way, a topic that has a big impact on them.

Very few things get our attention like problems we’re facing right now.

(Check out the P.S. below for a partial list of ways to deliver your messages)

In that first instant, you must identify who you’re talking to (your should-be customers) and why they should continue paying attention. You can plainly state what kind of benefit they’ll get or you can tease them along with mystery. Both work well in certain situations.

Keep them interested by continually letting the reader/viewer/listener what’s in it for him. In the case above, the reader will have a happier wife, more productive communication, less time sleeping on the couch, etc.

The telekinesis part:

Let should-be customer know how to take advantage of your offer. Make the decision as easy as possible for him; remove as many obstacles (real or imagined) as possible. Help him see what he’ll be missing if he doesn’t take action.

Of course, not everyone will receive the message you’re sending out, and not everyone will move the way you hope. That’s just how these things work. But you have to realize that people everyone has needs and desires, and there’s a segment of the population for whom your product or service is the perfect solution. You would do them (and yourself) a disservice by not trying to get your thoughts into their minds and help them make choices that are in their best interest.

I’ll be sharing the best insights I’ve got on this topic during tonight’s Irresistible Offers teleseminar. If you’d like to improve your telepathic and telekinetic abilities, head over to to get registered. (I refuse to under-deliver, and my money-back guarantee confirms the fact).

P.S. Here’s a partial list of telekinesis delivery methods, in no particular order:

Writing blog posts or articles, on your site or other sites your target customers is likely to follow
Write for magazines, newsletters or trade journals
(Self) Publish and promote a book
Build and communciate with an email list. Or “borrow” someone else’s list
Real mail
Interview or be interviewed in traditional media (radio, TV, newspaper), Google Hangout, podcast, etc.
Youtube or Vimeo. Not (necessarily) being cool or funny, but educating, offering value and being helpful
Banner ads online
Space ads in newspapers or magazines
Pay-per click
Radio or TV commercials
Make phone calls
SMS mobile marketing
Social media

If you need help figuring out which of these channels will work for you, or if you’re not sure how to best use them to communicate your message, feel free to get in touch.



Turning the Lights On

Writing Turns the Lights on

Many people think of writing as putting together a series of nouns, verbs and punctuation marks. Some think of stating facts or even telling stories.

While these people aren’t wrong, their ideas about writing come far short of the truth. Writing is so much more. Consider the following quotes:

“The pen is mightier than the sword” – Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

“A mighty pen is mightier than the mightiest sword.” – Perry Marshall

“Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.” – John Maynard Keynes

“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” – Rudyard Kipling

“A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words…the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” – Mark Twain

One of my favorite novelists, Ted Dekker, put it like this: A good writer is one who can take those rather blunt instruments called words and string them together in a way that turns lights on. Good writers can illuminate any subject with their own special light.

Words are mighty weapons (for good or evil); they’re powerful drugs (stimulants and depressants).

A skilled writer uses words to make magic.


The goal of a marketing copywriter is to use words to sell stuff.

The most powerful marketing actually changes the product or service being sold into something else in the minds of the prospect. J. Peterman turns a mere shirt into an exciting identity. Rolex turns a timepiece into an unmistakeable status symbol.

Copywriters call this “transubstantiation,” literally turning one substance into another. Transforming features into tangible lifestyle improvements and products into unforgettable experiences.

That’s what I’m here for. I hope to help you yield mightier pen.

Maybe we can even turn it into a magic wand.


Quote of the Week 63

“I think that some of the direct mail I get is spoiled by the old-fashioned sin of pride…it’s all too easy for us to start to feel superior to the great multitude of readers out there. And sometimes, without really meaning to, we write down to them. I think that this shows through in the finished product and turns readers off. So when I’m working on my stuff, I try to keep in mind two things from the Good Book of Direct Response. One: Write unto others as you would have them write unto you. Two: Pride goeth before a flop. – Martin Conroy


Better Writing in Just Six Decades

Here are 6 tips from legendary author George Orwell, writer of 1984 and Animal Farm. Use them to punch up your own writing.

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

These directions come from Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It’s 65 years old, but the content is just as valuable and applicable now as it was when it was written. You can read the entire piece here.


Framing for Failure

If you’re anything like me, you find yourself “framing” quite a few of the statements you make in day to day conversation. This can be constructive or detrimental, depending on how you do it.

Framing is simply saying something to prepare your hearer or reader for what you’re about to say. For example, “Listen up! What I’m about to tell you is important.” That’s an example of positive framing.

You can do some harm to your cause by setting up your comments with something like “This is gonna sound really dumb, but…” (I’m really bad with that one.)

I had thought about this topic before, how negative framing such as the second example hurt your chances of being persuasive or sounding authoritative. Why do I talk like that? Why does anyone do it?

It all came to a head when I was looking at a letter my sister wrote yesterday. She used the other “bookend” to frame her argument after she had said what needed to be said. It was something like “This may not sound like the best idea, but I believe in it.”

So, why do we talk and write that damaging stuff? Here’s my thinking on the subject.

We lack confidence in our position. We think something is wrong with what we want to say. Or that the audience is going to shoot us down.

So we choose to soften our statements by framing them. It’s more for the us than for them.

Rejection will come easier because we have prepared everyone for it.

Imagine using these kinds of remarks in a sales pitch. “You may not like this product, but here it is anyway.” “Most people choose the competitor, anyway.” “You don’t really want this additional feature, do you?

See how much that hurts you?

Negative framing is something that I’m going to work on eliminating from my speech and writing immediately. I encourage you to join me. Let’s get some guts about ourselves to make strong, bold statements without feeling the need to cushion them. No more self-destructive talk.