Reflections on one year in business

© rockvillephoto - Fotolia.comA year ago today, I was in the process of setting up my social media accounts, ordering business cards and reaching out to nearly everyone I knew to announce the launch of my new business. I had wrapped up eight years as editor and content developer at my old job and, after 16 years of working for other companies, I was ready to branch out on my own.

Starting my own business took a lot of courage, and I had to summon all my inner strength to trust that the work would come.

I was fortunate to know several people who had launched freelance businesses before me. Each of them assured me that the market needed business writers and editors. They said I would be amazed at how doors would open up for me once I took the leap of quitting my job and announcing my new practice.

I am thrilled to say that they were right.

In the past year, I have had the great pleasure of working with clients in diverse industries. My clients have included businesses in commercial real estate, banking, hospitals and health care, nonprofits, law firms, a dental practice, engineering firms and restaurants. I have written website copy, blogs, brochures, social media posts, newsletters and feature articles. I have edited annual reports and a novel. It has been an amazing year full of interesting work.

As I look back on my first year in business, I am struck by a few key realizations:

  • I am doing work I love
    Starting a business can be daunting because you don’t know what you don’t know. From legal and tax business filings to marketing and self-promotion, I faced a lot of unfamiliar territory as a new business owner. However, I have confidence in my skill as a writer and editor. Not only that, but I love the work. Having the ability to do that work and to serve my clients well is at the core of my business, and it is what keeps me plugging away at the operational side.
  • Variety keeps me ticking
    I started out thinking I would target clients in a particular industry, but I decided early on not to hem myself into that narrow niche. I am so glad I didn’t. I have realized that I absolutely love researching and writing about real estate one moment and writing about a restaurant menu launch the next. Variety is what keeps my creative juices flowing, and I always look forward to the next client project as a result.
  • People are cool
    As an writer and editor, it is often necessary to close the door, put my head down and focus on the work at hand. I thrive in those focused moments. On the flip side, as a business owner, it is necessary to get out into the world and meet people. That has been one of my greatest joys from the past year: I have met such interesting people. I am glad that I get the opportunity to branch out into the community and connect.

So, as I step into year two in business, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment mixed with anticipation for what’s next. I am a little more confident and a lot more brave. I know what to expect, but I am ready for the unexpected.

Mostly, I am thankful for the people who have guided me along the way and the clients who have partnered with me this past year. I so look forward to the next year of interesting work.

Amy J.V. Atwell is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She works with businesses to grow their brands through high-quality copy and content. Read more at www.heirloomcommunications.com.

Quote of the Day

Perfect thought for today as I work on both my business and novel-writing goals.

Coach John

“Those at the top of the mountain didn’t fall there.”

– Unknown Author

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Blocking out noise to focus

Distractions can divert you from your core message and business purpose

Photo by: yellomello, fotolia.comNoise could be on my mind today because of the contractors who are tearing out a tile floor the level above my office. Or because of the gale-force winds that have been ripping through Denver and keeping us up at night.

Yet, I have found a way to sleep in spite of the howling, and I am now at my desk writing in spite of the loud bangs and crashes above my head. So, it got me thinking about the various forms of ‘noise’ that can happen in our daily business lives.

As communicators and news lovers, I think PR people and writers can be especially prone to allowing noise to seep in and distract us from our core work and purpose. We want to be in on all the conversations, we want to participate in the latest Twitter chat, and we don’t want to miss out on the next big trend. That desire to be in the know can lead us down any number of rabbit holes and, when we come back to our original task, we wonder “Ok, now, what was I doing?”

Right. What are you doing? What is the purpose behind your work today? If you can’t come up with an answer, then it’s time to start at the beginning: strategy.

You don’t need to spend days at a retreat to come up with this strategy, but you do need some time away from all the ‘noise’ that distracts you. Sit alone quietly or grab a few key team members and discuss some answers to the question: “What is the purpose of our work?”

(Check out these articles for some inspiration to help drive this conversation: “Purpose: The Secret Ingredient that Drives Business Success,” Forbes; “5 Tips for a Useful Mission Statement,” Inc.)

Once you have given words to your reason for existing – once you have named your purpose – you can put those words to use for you. Those words begin to have meaning and can give you focus as you put them into practice.

For example, if you own a cupcake shop and you have decided that your purpose is to “share the joy of crazy flavors and killer frosting with the best community in the world” (I may or may not be craving cupcakes right now), then those words should guide your decisions about where you spend your time and what information you share.

Your time and your messages will focus on interesting flavors and perhaps the sources of those flavors. You will focus messages on your local community, why you chose to live and work there, and how your business fits into that vibe. You will not waste time talking about the noise of celebrity gossip or the latest national political debate. Stay focused on your purpose and let it drive your communication decisions.

Of course, as your business grows and evolves, your purpose may change. Be sure to revisit it once in awhile to ensure that it both sums up and inspires your work.

Happy Word Nerd Day

© andtam1 - Fotolia.comA friend and former PR colleague informed me yesterday that January 9 is designated as Word Nerd Day. How this glorious day dedicated to my brethren escaped my notice before now is a mystery, but I had to write today in its honor.

As a self-described Word Nerd, I do have a bit of a reputation. Friends post grammar-related humor to my Facebook page, and I have been known to carry a red pen in my purse (ok, I almost always carry one). I can’t read signs and restaurant menus without mentally correcting them, and I would love to banish the oft-misused apostrophe from any word resembling a plural. Don’t even get me started on its vs. it’s.

That said, I also don’t consider myself a hard-core grammar nazi, and I generally prefer simple, clear words to the five-dollar variety.

For me, the written word is the most perfect form of expression and communication. I can’t paint or draw – or do more than plunk out an easy tune on the piano – so writing for me is the most straightforward way to organize my thoughts, which tend to tumble over each other in my brain faster than I can speak. It’s a way to put a bit of me out into the world.

Most of the writing I do is for business clients. Plenty of professionals dread writing for business and find it dry, but I love the challenge of choosing just the right words to convey a business’ brand and tone. It’s a never-ending game to me as a lover of words and communication.

This year, however, I also intend to make good on a promise to myself to finish writing my first novel. I started it during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this past November, but work and other commitments distracted me and pulled me away. Word Nerd Day is the perfect time to put that promise in writing and to hold myself accountable.

I look forward to the tens of thousands of words I will write this year, both for clients and for my novel, and I wish all you fellow Word Nerds happy writing.

Election Day lessons for business communicators

© Foto-Ruhrgebiet - Fotolia.comElection Day was yesterday, which was met with little fanfare in my area. With no presidents or governors to elect, the off-year election doesn’t carry the same sex appeal for the media as even-year campaigning.

Still, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Two local candidates for city council were slinging mud, and the ads for one major ballot question used soundbites and incomplete information to push an agenda.

I am not a political writer, thank goodness, so I won’t get into the details of the politics. The politics are not really the point of my post anyway.

I take seriously my right to vote, and I voted in this election as I have in every election since I turned 18. Before I vote, I read a lot. I read the full text of ballot questions, as well as the pro and con arguments. I read letters and websites from organizations I trust about why they are for or against an idea or candidate. I read candidate websites. I even read the dozens of mailers dumped on me in the weeks prior to Election Day, although I can’t say I find much value in those.

In all of that reading this year, I was reminded again of some basic rules of communication that everyone should follow. Even if the politicos will not follow these simple rules of courtesy and clarity, business communicators would be wise to heed them – assuming you hope to inspire respect and loyalty.

Think beyond the headline or the soundbite
The headline, soundbite or subject line is meant to hook your audience. It tells the audience that the content to follow is worth reading or hearing. It is not the entire message. If you don’t back up your hook with useful information, your message is flimsy. Give your audience enough detail to help them understand your product or brand a little better each time they read or hear a message from you.

Assume intelligence among your audience
I’m not talking about using five-dollar words. I am talking about assuming your reader not only wants to learn more, but has the intelligence to understand the full scope of the information and make a decision accordingly. It is your job to make the content digestible and easy to understand, but it is not your job to think for your audience.

Details matter
If your website is riddled with typos and errors (school board candidates, I’m looking at you here), I will judge you. Even if your reader doesn’t actively judge you, those mistakes water down your message. At best, they distract from the professionalism you want to convey. At worst, they give your potential customer a reason to check “yes” next to your competitor’s name and not yours.

Amy J.V. Atwell is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She works with businesses to grow their brands through high-quality copy and content. Read more at www.heirloomcommunications.com.

Print vs. electronic communication

© bloomua - Fotolia.com

Having worked in this business for more than 15 years, I have seen communications vehicles, such as newsletters, swing from predominantly print pieces to electronic and back again. My previous employer had even been sending one of its newsletters by fax before I took the job (that was more than a decade ago).

I recently met with a law firm to discuss creating a newsletter that it plans to send to its clients and business contacts, and we decided together that print was the preferable medium for the firm’s needs.

Electronic newsletters and e-mail marketing pieces still have their place, of course, but it’s helpful to consider the benefits of each medium before proceeding:

Benefits of print communication:

Visibility and readership
I checked my own e-mail inbox and counted no fewer than two dozen different senders of e-newsletters and e-mail blasts. I requested each of these subscriptions, and they all contain material I want to read. In reality, though, I read maybe three or four of those communications each week – and only on weeks when I am not crazy busy. In fact, this week’s headline on one of those issues is “9 Ways to Get Your E-mail Opened” (and I do intend to read that one).

The print magazines and newsletters I receive, however? I read every issue.

Reader-friendly layout
No scrolling. No browser-specific layout glitches. No words smashed up against photos. All the information is laid out in easy-to-digest sections.

Professional feel
Paper quality, high-resolution photos, layout and color schemes help create a professional feel. In addition, print often allows for more in-depth coverage of issues. For some industries, such as the law firm I mentioned earlier, those professional touches go a long way.

The coffee-break test
Unless I am meeting with a friend or client, I rarely take a lunch or coffee break without reading material. Sometimes that material is on my smartphone or Kindle, but more often than not, it’s when I take the time to read my magazines and professional newsletters.

Benefits of electronic communication:

Timeline
Without print deadlines to consider, e-mail communications can be sent almost immediately, especially if minimal graphic design is required. E-mail marketing systems make it easy to lay out and send a marketing piece or newsletter immediately and often.

Cost
Depending on the size of your business and e-mail list, using an e-mail marketing system can be quite cost effective. Graphic design services and flipbook software for sending high-quality, larger pieces like e-magazines, can get more pricey.

Links
If one of your primary objectives is to drive traffic to your website, an e-newsletter can be a simple way to link your readers to more content there.

Ability to track readership
E-mail marketing systems allow you to pull reports on number of e-mails opened, links clicked, content shared and more. That information can be invaluable for future marketing and communication efforts.

For most businesses, a mix of both print and electronic pieces makes sense. Which one do you tend to use more and why?

Amy J.V. Atwell is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She works with businesses to grow their brands through high-quality copy and content. Read more at www.heirloomcommunications.com.

The human element in business storytelling

Woman holding a touchpad pc, reading a newspaperby Amy J.V. Atwell

Interviewing interesting people is by far the best part of my job. Over the years, I have had the chance to talk with CEOs of Colorado companies, engineers, community leaders, scientists, analysts and experts in a variety of fields – among so many others.

These interviews are the heart of the storytelling I do. Research, reviewing articles and websites, and gathering data is important, of course, but the human element is what makes any story interesting.

I interviewed a source last night for a human-interest article that will be featured in a corporate newsletter. The conversation started off a bit stilted, as is often the case, and the source seemed a little nervous and self-conscious. As our chat went on, though, she relaxed and her passion for her work began to shine through. That moment is the sweet spot of any interview – the moment when I get true insight into what drives a person and what, in turn, drives the person’s work.

I have seen a similar sweet spot when sitting in on photo shoots. The subject often starts off shy or tense, but a good photographer just keeps talking, asking questions and helping the subject feel at ease. As the person’s shoulders relax and the spark returns to his eyes, that’s the moment when a winning shot happens. That kind of image radiates warmth from the page and draws a reader into the story.

The art of storytelling ­– whether through the written word or visual images – takes a reader beyond the brass-tacks facts about a business’ widget. A compelling story gives a reader a reason to care; a reason to relate. The next time you share a story about your business, think about how you can tie in a bit of that human element.

Amy J.V. Atwell is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She works with businesses to grow their brands through high-quality copy and content. Read more at www.heirloomcommunications.com.