Why those funny church signs explain the two essential writing skills for success at work today
Learn these because they'll never go out of style.
The witty church sign and the sermon inside are a great model for writers to aspire to, especially in the Internet age.
Be quick and persuasive enough to get people in the door. But deliver on the message well enough to keep people coming back.
Picture it: you’re driving by the church and there’s a 3-5 second window for them to catch your attention. And whoever’s in charge of the sign has some creative constraints to work with, too:
Language needs to be church appropriate
Limited space on the sign
All text, no images
If the sign succeeds and gets people in the door, then what? They are free to go at any time. But what is it that makes them stay? A great sermon of course. If it is powerful enough, it will get people not only to come back, but to bring family or friends, too.
The church sign and the sermon are the perfect analogy for the two writing skills required for success at work today, whether you are a founder, employee, freelancer, or anywhere in between.
Here are the skills: writing messages that you send to people, and writing messages that send people to you. Yes it’s that simple.
Do these two things well and you can have whatever you want.
Here are two abbreviations I’ll use going forward. Writing messages that you send to people = outbound. Writing messages that send people to you = inbound.
Learning this lesson for myself
One day after teaching in 2013, I started a free Wordpress site on a whim. I wrote my first post, and wrote a Tweet sharing the link. The post was about an education book I’d used that day.
Within an hour, the book’s author had liked the Tweet, and left a comment on the post. It clicked: writing online was how I could create more opportunity for myself with the time and resources I had. In that case, it was inbound. I published the post, and the author came to me.
Over the next few years, I continued to publish articles about teaching and learning on my site and other education sites. When I published a book, though, it was not because the opportunity came to me. It was because I wrote a pitch to my publisher (the venerable Mark Barnes of Times10 Publications), and he accepted my idea. This was an example of outbound, or writing a message and sending it to someone to go get an opportunity.
A few years later, I started freelancing. This meant more outbound. I started by sending cold emails and LinkedIn messages to EdTech CEOs. After lots of testing, I discovered that the subject line “A real teacher to help you” was the most likely one to get a response.
From what I can find, here is one of the first of these messages I sent out:
And it did get a response!
This was effective, but it was time consuming to find the emails and personalize them for the recipient. I knew I needed a more scaleable approach, i.e. an inbound strategy. I started an email list and then started sending messages to them, even writing a daily email for almost a year. At the same time I was posting on LinkedIn. At this point, I started getting emails or DMs asking for copywriting help. The inbound was working.
There was still one last hurdle. It was difficult to reach the exact CEOs or founders I wanted to work with. So instead of asking them if they needed copywriting help, I started a podcast and asked to interview them. This was an example of combining strategies. I did outreach to book guests (outbound), then published the content, which led people to reach out to me (inbound).
Throughout this story, I relied on the two skills. Write persuasive copy to get people to consider me and my ideas. Creating long form content to share those ideas.
That's one of the reasons I started a Substack. So I can return to writing long form content on a blog, and sharing it via email.
The same thing I was doing about 10 years ago, ironically. Enough about me. Here are suggestions / lessons learned after a decade of practicing these two skills.
Outbound: How to write short, persuasive messages that get people to read and respond
Write less than you think. Almost every outreach message is too long. There is an art to writing a message that is short, persuasive, and clear. You can Google and follow templates online, and those may work in certain situations. I find that it’s more powerful to start by assuming your message is way too long, and practice cutting it down to its bare essence.
Make it all about them. Unless your accomplishments are so impressive and credible (hard to nail both) that they alone will pique curiosity, your message is too much about you and not enough about them. This is such a simple point, yet it is overlooked all the time, even by people who do sales and marketing as a job. People have needs, wants, desires, and problems. The more you can frame your message as a painkiller, i.e. something that will help them solve an immediate, pressing problem, the better chance you have of getting a foot in the door.
Make the ask clear and easy. Do you click a link to book calls with strangers who email you? Do you sign up for special opportunities that people present in your DMs? No. We are conditioned to view this approach as scammy and spammy because it so often is. To get around this, you need to include a simple, easy call-to-action in your message. Often, it can be as simple as asking the person to respond with a yes or no, e.g. you end with are you interested in talking more? or does any of this resonate with you?
Test variations. If you are doing outbound, track your results. Test along multiple domains. Let’s say you are reaching out to startup founders for an internship or part-time work opportunity while you are in college. Test the subject line, the send time, the channel (email/LinkedIn/Twitter), short vs. long message, personalized video or text-only, etc. That list is longer than you need. Pick one of those items, track and test it, and you will get better results than you expect.
Again, make it all about them. Worth repeating. Research the people who you are messaging. In 5 minutes, you’ll find relevant information to make your message more persuasive and fun for the recipient. This also breaks up the monotony of you.
Inbound: How to make good content, build an audience, and have opportunities come to you
Originality. There are 720,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube each day. People have choices. Since everything has already been said, do this by being uniquely you. If you are not talking about a new topic, or taking a new stylistic approach, then share your personal stories and experiences related to your topic to make the content original. No one has lived your life.
Hook people in the beginning. The idea of attention spans getting shorter is not true. Yes short video is popular on Tik Tok and Reels. But people play video games for hours. They watch shows for hours. They listen to 3-hour podcasts.
The attention span is not the challenge to overcome for your content. The consideration span is. That means, people have to choose to consume your stuff. More on that in the section below. But one way to do it is to make sure your writing/video/audio is interesting from the beginning. Do this without making clickbait and you’ll be off to a good start.
Pursue your curiosities. This needs to be balanced with your goals of course. If you are working on building up your Etsy store with handmade NFL-themed tailgating tables, then don’t expect your social media account featuring posts of the brunches you had over the past few weeks to move the needle on that project. But keep in mind that you can create content about any of those topics (Etsy, NFL, tailgating, or brunch) and find a bunch of diehard fans to subscribe to you if you are good enough.
You can’t be too specific. As I hinted at with the example above, the Internet makes this true.
Now a few closing thoughts.
The byline / the from name: the most important part of your message
I mentioned above that the hook is important. Getting attention is crucial for both outbound and inbound. However, after you get to a certain point, that changes.
For example, if you subscribe to someone on YouTube or your podcast app, you’ve pre-selected to receive their content. If you eagerly await the drop of a new season on Hulu, you’re already hooked for episode 1. And if you open an email right away because the name sounds very familiar, then you understand this concept.
As they say in email, the most important part is not the subject line, it's the from name.
That’s why you need to…
Combine these skills for maximum effect
When you are creating good content, people are primed and more familiar with your name. Then, if they see a message pop up in their inbox from you, they are more likely to read and respond.
At the same time, outbound prospecting can complement your inbound in a few ways.
By testing different variations in your outbound messaging, you can get a better sense of the messages and offers people are most interested in.
When it comes to sales or other business opportunities you are trying to generate, outbound also gives you some breathing room. When you can create results through outbound, you can have more patience to keep doing your inbound content creation, which can often take longer to bare fruit.
Volume wins. Is that good or bad? Your choice.
Whether you are reaching out to people or publishing your own stuff to generate inbound, you can’t go wrong by producing more.
At this point, the work smarter crowd wants to say that this is not necessary. When the people who work smart also produce more than you, they will win.
For outbound, volume wins because you get more data points, which lead to more insights. For inbound content creation, volume wins because you increase your quality faster.
If you are wondering what skills to acquire to accelerate your career or business, learning to write persuasive outreach messages and create interesting long form content will never go out of style.
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