Category Archives: Communication

On encountering another smartest person in the room

One of the problems with being the smartest person in the room is that you learn to expect that no one else in the room has anything of value to add, and that <sigh> you have to expend soooo much energy getting those people who keep speaking up to just stop talking and listen to you and understand that your way is the right way.

I’ve been the smartest person in the room enough times to appreciate that.

But one of the other problems with being the smartest person in the room is your automatic response to treat other people’s ideas and thoughts as inferior competitors to your own—to be ignored, or shouted down, or rebutted—instead of contributions that just might add some value.

The unfortunate result is that you never get the benefit of that potential added value. You are condemned to produce work that is only as good as what you can envision yourself—or would be that good if only everyone else would cooperate.

And you never get to experience producing work that is better than you could have imagined if you hadn’t limited yourself to being the only valid source of vision and ideas and thoughts.

I still find myself in situations where I feel like I’m the smartest person in the room. (As a college professor teaching undergraduates, sometimes it feels as though I’m the only awake person in the room.)

But I’ve learned a few things in recent years, and they were not all easy lessons.

Sometimes I’m not the smartest person in the room. (Statistically not likely, but at least once in a hundred rooms it is probably true.)

Even when I am the smartest person in the room, several people in the room probably know more about some things than I do. (Contemporary music fans and Facebook users come to mind immediately.)

As smart as I am, I don’t have eyes in the back of my head, or ten feet in front of me, or around the next corner. I can’t see how I am appearing to others, or hear whether I am making sense to them based on their experiences and backgrounds. I can’t see what they are seeing with their eyes or from their points of view.

While I may be extremely, incomparably, brilliantly smart, my intelligence does not cancel out the value and wisdom carried by everyone else. A three-year-old child knows more about some things than I do. I have blind spots. I also have “I didn’t consider that” spots.

I have many really, really smart ideas. They might, in fact, be better than all the individual ideas of everyone else in the room. And if developing the best ideas were an individual competition, mine might win.

But most work projects—and most human interactions (and most lives)—are not individual competitions. Every single one of my really, really smart ideas can probably be made better by adding value from other people’s ideas. Or to them.

Of course, I can’t envision it, because I’m only as smart as I am. If I were smarter, I might be able to see that, working together, we can create something better and greater than any of us can envision. Even the smartest person in the room.

The Last Word on Improving Patient Satisfaction

You’ve improved your patient-care processes and outcomes but you’re still not happy with your patient satisfaction scores. And now, with CMS reimbursements increasingly tied to those scores, the pressure is rising to raise them.

Fortunately, the fields of psychology and behavioral economics may offer some easy-to-implement solutions to improve patient satisfaction scores both coming and going.

Start at the beginning

People’s memories are selective. They remember the beginnings and endings of things far more vividly and intensely than the middles.

The beginnings are particularly important, because they set up the patient’s expectations for everything that is to follow. It’s called “affect priming.”

If the beginning is stressful and unpleasant, the rest of the stay will have much repair work to do. Therefore, it is best to address patient satisfaction from the very beginning—the patient’s arrival at the hospital.

Address the parking situation: Worrying about finding a place to park is an issue that affects patients as well as their families. A free valet parking service can remove this worry and help create a caring first impression.

Careful maintenance of parking lots—to make them easily accessible, clean and safe— and liberal parking validation policies will also address this important opportunity to make a good first impression.

Greet everyone with a “Hello, can I help you?”  Even people who spend a lot of time visiting hospitals can have a hard time finding their way around. Making every visitor feel welcomed and taken care of must become everyone’s priority.

Specially trained volunteers and/or dedicated staff “Welcome Ambassadors” can make a real difference in visitors’ experience.

Add some branded swag to the intake and admission process: In addition to making people feel welcome, giving them some branded items at intake can help them feel a stronger and more positive connection to you.

The act of accepting the gift of a branded pen (and/or other items such as tote-bags, socks, tee-shirts, baseball hats etc.) creates a sense of endorsement and mutual regard on the part of a patient. (It also helps if the intake and admission process is streamlined and friendly, of course!)

Your Last Chance

Research by Daniel Kahnman and Donald Redelmeier1 has shown the power of happier endings. They found that adding a period of greater comfort to the end of a painful experience influenced subjects to remember their pain levels as less intense.

Even when they made the overall unpleasant experience longer, ending it more pleasantly made the whole experience seem more pleasant.

The takeaway from this research is simple:  Making the last few hours of a hospital stay more pleasant can change a patient’s lasting impression of the entire stay.

Here are a few last-day strategies that can pay big patient satisfaction dividends:

Special last day meals: Food is always one of the most memorable things about a hospital stay. Special meal treats on the last day before discharge , like an extra specially made desert, can help make patients feel as though they have been treated with special care.

Special last day farewells: It is easy for a patient to feel anonymous, especially in a large institution like a hospital. Post the discharge schedule at all unit stations, and make it a priority for all members of every shift – and every discipline, including support and non-clinical personnel – to review the list and stop in to offer some “goodbye” best wishes.

The 30 seconds it will take will yield long-lasting and highly positive memories for the patient—and for your staff members as well.

Special last day treats and gifts: The same discharge schedule can be used as a distribution schedule for more branded swag items like those mentioned above in association with intake.

Tote bags are especially handy at discharge, especially if they are needed to carry some parting gifts—all carrying your hospital’s logo imprint, of course. Specially branded cookies and cupcakes (decorated with your logo as icing) can also help patients leave with good memories of their stay.

Health care includes showing you care

We’ve all seen studies that show that patients who have good communications with their care-givers rate the quality of care they receive higher. That’s another area worth focusing on for raising patient satisfaction scores (and certainly worth a few future posts).

Good communication makes for good relationships, and both circle back to the “affect priming” mentioned at the beginning of this post. If you start by showing people you care about them, they will feel more cared about.

You show you care by being interested—genuinely interested—in how they feel and what they have to say. Which means that it’s not enough to start off that first contact with, “Hello, can I help you?”

You also need to listen to what comes next.

References1
Kahneman, Daniel; Frederickson, Barbara L.; Schreiber, Charles A. & Redelmeier, Donald A. (1993) When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), pp. 401-405

Redelmeier, Donald A. & Kahneman, Daniel (1996) Patients’ memories of painful medical treatments: real-time and retrospective evaluations of two minimally invasive procedures. Pain, 66(1), pp. 3-8

Can you punctuate a quote?

How good are you at quotation punctuation?

Everyone who writes news releases for a living knows the value of quotations.

But surprisingly few people graduating from college today can actually punctuate sentences with quotations in them.

Can you?

Here are 10 punctuation challenges. A pro should be able to get all 10 correct.

(1)   im proud to be an american citizen said afrim defiantly

(2)   our company was founded on the principles of quality and value he said

(3)   what do you mean said Johnson raising an eyebrow

(4)   responding to the question CEO robert johnson said theres no evidence linking my company to those accidents

(5)   you look like you like pizza said luigi you came to the right place

(6)   the only difference between my generic product and theirs said johnson is the name on the label

(7)   i want you to read the raven a poem by edgar allen poe said the professor

(8)   the professor turned suddenly and said I want to make sure you read the raven

(9)   have any of you ever read the raven he asked

(10)  in a long quotation said professor gans find a way to let the reader know who is speaking as early as possible the professor drank some amber liquid from a flask he had hidden in his pocket and continued no later than the end of the first sentence he said

 

How did you do?

To download the quiz and answers in pdf form, click here.

 

Reducing Risky Behavior

Risk Communication Can Be Risky

Environmental Safety and Public Health Policy-Makers Often Make Matters Worse

Communication of science-based information to the general public…particularly health-related information…is a well-studied field.

This may be because it is so often done so poorly.

Many public behavior interventions, especially those based on intuition, “common sense,” political persuasion or religious belief, tend to focus on presenting a rational, logical argument for complying with a specific behavioral request.

Researcher Timothy D. Wilson cites “D.A.R.E.” and “Scared Straight” interventions…famous and widely adopted programs intended to reduce crime and drug use among young people…as examples of programs that “make perfect sense, but… are perfectly wrong, doing more harm than good. It is no exaggeration to say that commonsense interventions [such as these] have prolonged stress, raised the crime rate, increased drug use, made people unhappy, and even hastened their deaths.” (Source: Wilson, 2011, Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change. New York: Little, Brown & Co.)

Unfortunately, this “boomerang effect” is too common in public policy communications. Public policy communicators would do well to read the government’s own manual on risk communication, which ought to be stapled to every keyboard in every PR department in every science, health and environmental organization in the English-speaking world.

Risk Is Attractive

Nike’s 5-minute animated World Cup commercial urges its audience to “Risk Everything,” basically because the safe route is boring. And clearly, there are a lot of risk-seekers out there.

While the animation and execution are exquisite, the storyline is predictable to the nth degree—but who cares? As an exercise in appealing to its targeted demographic: GOOOAAAAAALLLLLLLL!

The product shots are also very appealing. These are not the soccer cleats I wore in high school, and the shirts and shorts look as though world-cup-worthy pectorals, abs and glutes are included at no extra charge.

All this being said, the spot ought to be worrisome to conservatives, control freaks (including many sports coaches) and public health advocates. The reason it should be worrisome is not because of the spot’s likely influence on an easily-manipulated demographic—actually, soccer players are a rather stubborn lot. This spot is not going to change them in any way except maybe to increase their motivation to buy another pair of cleats.

No, the scarier scenario is that the spot is an accurate reflection of the risk-seeking ethos of an entire generation. In the spot’s storyline, risking everything is the only way to beat the practiced but predictable perfection of the clones (who could also be the minions of the Matrix, or the Man, or your parents).

But in real life, the associated behaviors are:

  • Going for the low-percentage spectacular dunk rather than the safe but boring lay-up
  • Riding the motorcycle without the helmet
  • Not buckling those seat belts
  • Not vaccinating your kids
  • Not stopping to unroll that Trojan
  • Not settling for the status quo.

Small wonder so many campaigns aiming to reduce risky behaviors actually serve to increase them. Maybe the control freaks and health communicators would do better if they positioned those undesired behaviors as something other than risky.

How about stupid? Or shameful? Or embarrassing?

As Nike is trying to tell them, risky is just too attractive.

The Paradox of Political Humor

Q:  Is political humor always anti-establishment?
A:  Only if it’s funny.

Humor tends to be diminishing. When it diminishes others, it reflects poorly on the character of those who deliver it—unless they are professional comedians. And even then, it can be received poorly.

Whether political or not, humor directed at people who are weak, unfortunate or unpopular comes across as cruel and demeaning. Not that this kind of humor has not always had an audience… how many offensive racist, sexist, and ethnic jokes have you heard in your lifetime? Imagine how often they were used before harassment laws were enacted.

There is a bit of an exception to this position: the jokes about enemies. Stereotypes of fat sausage-and-sauerkraut-eating Germans and near-sighted buck-toothed Japanese may have helped the Allied WWII efforts by further defining the “Us against Them” scenario.

In the absence of war, this kind of humor still tends to perpetuate the Us against Them values held by racists, sexists and xenophobes.

On the other hand, when humor is directed at oneself—self-diminishing humor—it tends to show an appealing side to the self-diminisher’s character. You’re going to like me more if I make myself the butt of a joke rather than you.

You’re going to like me more if I make myself the butt of a joke rather than you.

There’s always room for self-deprecating humor from the Establishment. The endearing enduring jokes from political heroes tend to be mocking of themselves:

[from comedy-zone.net]

“I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can’t get my wife to go swimming.”
—Jimmy Carter.

“I have orders to be awakened at any time in the case of a national emergency, even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.”
—Ronald Reagan.

“I’m glad I’m not Brezhnev. Being the Russian leader in the Kremlin, you never know if someone’s tape recording what you say.”
—Richard Nixon.

“I have opinions of my own – strong opinions – but I don’t always agree with them.”
—George W. Bush.

“Politics is supposed be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
—Ronald Reagan.

“You can tell a lot about a fellow’s character by his way of eating jellybeans.”
—Ronald Reagan.

“People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
—Abraham Lincoln.

Considered by many to be one of our best Presidents, Lincoln was certainly one of our best Presidents with a punch line… and this was before the era of Presidential joke writers.

Here are a few more of Lincoln’s most famous lines:
[from www.basicjokes.com]

“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.”

“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

The Politics of HPV Vaccination Advocacy

Who would YOU listen to?

A study of the influence of spokesperson expertise

Picture1 (640x480)

NYSCA conference award for best graduate student paper
2013 NYSCA Conference “Top Paper” Award

My paper, “The politics of HPV vaccination advocacy: Effects of source expertise on the effectiveness of a pro-vaccine message,” was recently accepted for publication in the 71st Annual New York State Communication Association Conference Proceedings. The conference was held in Ellenville, NY, on October 18-20, 2013.

The paper received the conference’s award for Top Graduate Student Paper.

HPV (human papillomavirus) is a worldwide scourge that causes cervical cancer and thousands of deaths each year. Who do YOU think would be more influential in persuading people to support vaccination against HPV?

Most people would guess the authoritative-looking woman doctor on the left. After all, how much influence could a non-expert like the Middle School student on the right be expected to wield?

That was the focus of my study of spokesperson expertise.

Universal HPV vaccination would save more than 3,000 lives annually in the United States, and more than 350,000 worldwide. It makes sense. Its benefits seem almost inarguable. But there is a huge amount of opposition, largely distributed along political and ideological lines.

The intersection of health, science and politics

Mistrust and disbelief in evidence-based science and the recommendations of scientists are widespread and distributed along partisan lines. It is hard to prove any immediate life-and-death consequences to rejection of evolution or denial of the possibility of human agency in climate change. But with HPV and cervical cancer, the consequences are clear, present and immediate. We can document that partisan opposition to HPV vaccination is killing people right now.

The results of my study suggest that people who are inclined to oppose HPV vaccination are more likely to listen to and be influenced by pro-vaccination messages from an obviously non-expert spokesperson (in this study, an innocent-looking middle school student) than from an expert (in this study, an authoritative-looking woman doctor).

Three test groups: Expert, Non-Expert & Control

In my study, 474 adults were randomly divided into three groups. One group was instructed to read some basic, neutral information about the HPV virus and a pro-vaccination advocacy message attributed to the woman doctor.

A second group was instructed to read the same basic information about the HPV virus and the same pro-vaccination advocacy message, but for this group the message was attributed to the middle school student.

Expert vs Non-Expert
Expert vs Non-Expert

The third group (the control group) read the same basic information about the HPV virus, but received no advocacy message. Members of all three groups were also instructed to rate themselves politically as either Progressive, Centrist or Conservative.

After completing their reading assignments, the subjects were surveyed about their attitudes toward HPV vaccination.

The attitude-scores of the control group (the ones who read only basic information but received no advocacy message) showed how attitudes toward HPV vaccination are skewed along partisan political lines. The more conservative the individual, the more opposed to HPV vaccination that person was likely to be.

Subjects in the control group received no advocacy message
Subjects in the control group received no advocacy message

Displaying the results for all three groups side-by-side (see chart below), it is clear that Centrists and Conservatives—those more likely to be opposed to vaccination—are more positively influenced by the Non-Expert spokesperson than the Expert.

For both Centrists and Conservatives, attitudes among those who read the advocacy message from the Non-Expert were significantly more positive than among those who received no advocacy message. There was no such significant difference in attitudes of those who read the advocacy message attributed to the Expert.
Picture8

With Centrists, in fact, attitudes toward vaccination among those who received the advocacy message delivered by the Expert were virtually identical to those who received no advocacy message at all.

Among Progressives — who tend to favor HPV vaccination to begin with — attitudes toward HPV vaccination were more more positively influenced by the Expert than the Non-Expert.

Since virtually all pro-vaccination campaigns are spearheaded by people who favor vaccination, it seems likely that the tendency to rely on expert authorities as public advocates for vaccination may be the result of unexamined and untested assumptions that what influences Progressives will influence everyone.

Overall, these results suggest that HPV vaccination advocates would be more successful if they would enlist more non-expert spokespeople in their public information efforts. The results also suggest that information about scientific and politically charged subjects might receive greater attention from doubters if the information is delivered by spokespeople who are not immediately identifiable as expert advocates for the other side.

Someone seeing the serious-looking doctor knows another authoritative persuasive argument is coming and tunes out before any persuasion can happen. With the non-threatening middle school student, there is more chance that the persuasive message will be heard.

Some persuasion is more effective than none!

Reverse Psychology?

Yes, apparently you can actually get people to do something (or maybe NOT do something) by encouraging them to do the opposite.

There is a growing body of research that shows people can be discouraged from doing things they find pleasurable by paying them to do those things.

Theorists believe it demonstrates one of the major differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

When people do things because those actions give them pleasure or fulfillment, their motivations are intrinsic. Performing the actions becomes intertwined with their sense of identity: they do those things because of who they are.

When people do things because an outside force is compelling them to take those actions – by paying them, or forcing them or shaming them into it – their motivations are extrinsic.  There is not the same kind of connection with the sense of identity.

With extrinsic motivation, there is often an undercurrent of resentment – psychological reactance – and a lost sense of freedom that can sap the pleasure out of an action that may have once been performed for fun.  Extrinsic motivation tends to dampen and can even extinguish intrinsic motivation.

Putting this strategy into practice may be difficult, however. The chances of convincing any organization that must answer to public opinion to actually use this human tendency in an intentional way is pretty slim.

For instance, I don’t think we can convince the government that a good way to combat obesity would be to pay fat people to eat more.

But what about gun control?

Given the climate in the Republican-held House of Representatives, we are far more likely to pass a bill offering people financial incentives to own as many guns as possible than to pass a bill restricting gun rights in any way.

If we could get the government (i.e., the hated government, from which no good can ever come) to pay people to own guns, maybe this would work better to discourage gun ownership than trying to legislatively take away people’s right to bear arms.

By the way, on the subject of gun control, people on both sides of the debate could gain additional perspective on the matter by reading the classic science fiction novella, “The Weapon Shops of Isher,” by A.E. van Vogt.

Calling all racists

So you think we live an a Post-Racist Society? Well, what was your gut reaction to the title of this post?

I’m a fan of Cognitive Friction. It happens when you take two sets of facts or ideas or ways of looking at the world and you rub them together. For instance, many people think we live in a post-racist society, but the act of cognitive friction can reveal something very different.

unconscious leanings and biases
We are often unconscious of our leanings and biases

The evidence of Harvard’s Project Implicit shows that the overwhelming majority of people in the United States – whites and people of color, young and old, rich and poor – harbor a deep-seated bias against darker skinned people. They persistently and unconsciously associate lighter skin on the positive side and darker skin on the negative side of the continuum on all the following sets of characteristics:

Smart vs Stupid

Good vs Bad

Safe vs Risky

Peaceful vs Risky

Lawful vs Unlawful

Beautiful vs Ugly

Likable vs Unlikable

Positive vs Negative

Self examination can lead to self awareness
How well do you know your own biases?

Okay, you might say, that may be true but it is just an unconscious bias that we all have learned to overcome because we do not agree with racism, we do not approve of racism, and we do not believe we are racists. Our conscious decisions about how we choose to act serve to mitigate and eliminate the effects of this racist bias. And it is, after all, our conscious choices that define us.

But if we rub the evidence of Project Implicit up against the evidence of a growing number of studies of elaboration likelihood (i.e., whether people are likely to engage in rational, conscious thought about something), we might start to worry.

These studies of conscious vs unconscious processing demonstrate that perhaps 95 percent of our actions are performed unconsciously, without intentional rational deliberation. Like the way we drive our cars, we mostly operate on autopilot. We may think we are thinking about something, but usually we are paying as little attention as possible while actually thinking about something else.

When these sets of findings are considered separately, there is little cause for alarm about the human condition, or about the persistence and pervasiveness of racism in the United States. But taken together, they suggest that even among people who abhor the idea of racism, 95 percent of their decisions and actions are undertaken under the unmitigated influence of a broad and deep-seated racist bias. Yes, racism is alive and well and we are all contributing to its expression.

Want to check your own degree of racism? Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ and poke around.

Lost on the information superhighway?

Writing for the web is not like writing for an ad

Your objective is not to intrude on people’s lives and attract the attention of people who are busy doing something else.

In web writing, your audience is actually busy looking for you.

Here’s a little driving analogy. Suppose you are driving (without a GPS device) on a busy superhighway through a large city, looking for the proper exit to get to the Museum of Website Design.

You’re not going to care about the sign that says “One of America’s Great Cities,” or the one that says “GAS FOOD LODGING.”

You’re not going to be interested in the billboards advertising the city hospital’s new Cyberknife cancer treatments, or the neon signs giving the latest prices for gasoline, or the blimp hovering above you with the picture of Snoopy on it.

But if you see a billboard with the words “Museum Exits” on it, you’ll be all over it.

If it turns out that the sign is for some other museum, you will be disappointed, and probably a little frustrated. You’ll be less trusting of future “Museum Exits” signs, but you’ll still be looking for them.

This is same mindset of most users of the Internet. They are traveling at high speed, looking for specific information, and not interested in all those unrelated bits of information and advertising that pop up. They appreciate clarity and brevity. They are frustrated by distractions and disruptions.

Their eyes are attracted to any clues related to the object of their search. And they ignore everything else.

Reward the successful searcher

If you are lucky enough to attract a searching set of eyes to your website, don’t abuse them with distracting hokum and overlong hunks of mind-numbing verbiage.

Give them clear, quick links to the real pieces of information they are looking for. Make the information easy to find and easy to understand.

Be brief. Be clear. Make it easy to find out more.

Make your content easier to read, and you will get more readers. Make it easier for your readers to place an order, and you will get more orders.

So you want to be a writer?

Musée des arts et métiers, Paris. Machine à écrire portable Corona, 1920.
Instrument of the devil?

Have you ever dreamed about the freelance writer’s romantic, adventurous, carefree existence? Me, too.

But like in that movie, Nightmare on Elm Street, be careful what you dream. It might just come true.

Now before we get into all that Freudian stuff, let me get a few things answered for you right away. There are people out there making a good living as freelance writers. You don’t have to live in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. And you can sleep late without horrible moral consequences. At least I think you can. I haven’t really tried it.

If you really think you want to go down that road, here’s a quick overview of what it’s like to be a freelance writer out in the great wide world of mortgage payments, health insurance premiums, telephone bills and estimated tax.

First, let me tell you a little bit about myself. In addition to teaching a few college courses, I am a full-time professional freelance writer. I live in a big old house next to a cornfield about 20 miles southeast of Albany, NY, in a rural county known for fox hunting, horse farms and genteel poverty. I make enough money to pay for my mortgage, my son’s college loans, gasoline to run two cars and a riding mower, food for the table, and thanks to President Obama’s much-maligned Affordable Care Act, an only moderately expensive bare-bones health insurance policy.

In the past few years, people have paid me to go to places like the outer banks of North Carolina, Bermuda, British Columbia, and scenic Schenectady, New York, to help them get things written.

Right now, I am working on four books, a fund-raising campaign for a health care services organization, two sales training videos, a medical services brochure, and about 10 articles for various online and print magazines.

So…you’re thinking to yourself, “Cool! If this dweeb can do it, so can I!”

Well, that may or may not be true. But here’s the first important question:

Why would you want to?

FI Lighthouse-175
Every introvert’s dream job.

Understand this: Writing is the loneliest profession on the face of the Earth. Even lighthouse keepers can have company while they work. They can play the radio. They can listen to the news. They can share the moment.

Writers do what they do alone. Even those of us who are disciplined enough to be able to write when someone else is in the room have to be able to isolate ourselves in our minds. There’s no teamwork. There’s no camaraderie. There’s just you and the empty page. Of course, these days, it’s the empty screen.

And when you’ve written something, you have to let it go. You can’t expect any immediate gratification from it. You can’t eat it or wear it. You can’t show it to your friends and have them go, “Oh wow that’s beautiful” like you could with a painting or a sculpture. They have to read it first.

And then, when it comes to what you have written, everyone is qualified to be a critic. Everyone you know speaks English. Everyone with a pencil is going to have a suggestion for how you should have written it. And by the way, there’s a typo on the first page, and whatever your position on serial commas, most people don’t agree.

So you still want to write for a living?

Mark Twain once said, “If you want to be a writer, write. And keep writing until someone’s willing to pay you for it.”

Hey, it worked for me.

1. HOW TO GET STARTED

Gather a portfolio of your writing, aimed at the audiences you want to write for. If you want to write software documentation, write some software documentation. If you want to write TV commercials, write some of those.

That way, when people ask to see samples of your work—and they will—you’ll have something to show them that they can relate to.

When I went looking for my first writing job, I carried around a pile of poems, essays and short stories. The guy at the TV station was polite enough to pretend to look at them before turning me down. The guy at the ad agency just said, “You got to be kidding.”

Buy a book on freelance writing. There are a lot of them, and most of them are full of good advice. Learn to make your writing look as though it was written by a professional.

A good beginner’s strategy is to learn how to write a competent news release, and then volunteer your services to charitable organizations. This is a good way to get some experience and to prove to yourself that you can actually get your writing published.

2. GET A DAY JOB

You’ve got to eat. The best training to be a freelance writer is to write professionally. Failing that, write for free and do something else to live. My first writing job was for a weekly newspaper. I worked for free, although the editor kept promising me a few bucks. But I wrote things that got published every week. Meanwhile, I worked in an engraving shop for spending money.

After college, I worked as a Probation Officer for seven years and wrote hundreds of case histories based on investigations, but that didn’t really prepare me for freelancing. I learned that lesson the hard way, after I quit to become a freelance writer. I moved to a cabin in the woods outside the little town of Woolwich, Maine. My rent was 50 bucks a month. And I did nothing but write for six months. After gathering a huge pile of rejection slips from most of the nation’s magazines and book publishers, I finally sold a short story to Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, a national publication. It was a story about a quirky town constable in an isolated community in Maine. Along with the notice of publication, the magazine sent me a check for 15 bucks.

I had spent more than that on postage.

The next day I went out and found a day job. I kept writing on the side, and eventually sold a number of feature articles to a local weekly newspaper. Somebody in the ad agency business saw some of the articles and offered me a job as a copywriter-trainee. He paid me very little at first, but however much it was, I wasn’t worth it. It took years before I understood that my job as a writer was to help the audience satisfy its objectives, not impress them with my cleverness.

3. BE USER FRIENDLY

Your writing should be accessible to the people you are writing for. Spoil them. Make every sentence so clear that your audience can’t possibly miss your point. Include facts and opinions so interesting that your audience will be eager to turn the page without falling asleep. Make your writing as short as possible, so you won’t scare your audience away from the sheer weight of type on the page. And don’t try to impress anyone with how clever you are. Your goal should be to be invisible—a ninja writer.

The same principle applies to your approach to the people you work for. Be user-friendly and accessible. Prima donnas don’t get a lot of repeat assignments. Revisions are an inevitable fact of life in the writing business. Don’t argue with them. Expect them, listen to them, cherish them.

The easier you are to work with, the more eager people will be to have you write for them again and again. There may be a lot of people in the world, but you can’t afford to work for all of them just once.

4. HOW TO FIND WORK

Be creative. Whether you want a job or freelance assignments, put a customizable portfolio together. It helps to have a portfolio to brandish while you present yourself, but remember—you are your most important product. Prospective employers and clients want to know if you can help them do their jobs more easily and more profitably, if you can be trusted, and if you would be pleasant to work with.

There is no law that says you even have to open your portfolio during a get-acquainted interview. Your goal should be to start building a relationship and to walk away with an assignment—even an unpaid one—as an opportunity to prove yourself worthy of additional assignments.

The secret to success as a freelance writer is establishing a roster of clients who give you multiple assignments, so you should relish every opportunity to prove your mettle.

Places to look for paying work:

Ad agencies, PR agencies, radio stations, software companies, website designers, technology-based companies, professional associations, engineering companies, construction companies.

Places to look for volunteer experience:

Human services agencies, hospitals, charitable organizations, nursing homes, colleges and universities, youth sports and recreation organizations.

Chair-200
If you’re going to stare at a blank screen 8 hours a day for 40 years, you don’t want to do it standing up.

A final bit of advice: Put your ass in that chair

Google all the meanings of Setzfleisch. Whether you want to write for a living or for your own self-gratification, the important verb is the fifth word in this sentence. The only way to get better at it is by doing it. So get yourself a sturdy and ergonomic but not too comfortable chair, and start molding your nether regions to it. And god help you.