How Much Should You Write?
DAVID C. BAKER: Well, it's my turn to kind of pick your brain today, and I want to talk about your recent experience in writing. You did an experiment last year and did some analysis. I've read about your analysis. Tell me about that, give me a summary of what you did and then I've got a bunch of tough questions that are going to make you squirm, not really, but they're tough question. For somebody that hasn't been reading give us an overview of what happened.
BLAIR ENNS: I launched Win Without Pitching about 14 years ago and when I launched it I went about Lee generation the only way I knew how and [notice 00:01:10] just start writing, so I wrote a book that was self published, and committed to writing an article a month at average length of about 1,200 words, and I did that for a long time and then in 2010... So I was at this pace of 1,200 words a month for many years and then in 2010 about almost 10 years in I published through your publishing company RockBench the Win Without Pitching Manifesto and the manifesto, it's still available winwithoutpitching.com.
DAVID: That was our first book by the way-
DAVID: ...And it pisses me off because it sells better than mine but go ahead.
BLAIR: Thank you for mentioning that. Blair 1, David 0. When that book came out I put it out there for free on the website as a bunch of [content 00:02:07], it's 24000 words. It's a fairly small book, but I thought okay, I'm going to take a little content vacation and so my frequency of writing dropped and I mentioned this in the article, I've forgotten what the numbers and what the dates were but there were a couple of years where I published four articles a year.
DAVID: 5000 words you said for 2011 and then again in 2012, 5000 words each year.
BLAIR: Yeah, and then I realized that the vacation turned into kind of... What's beyond a vacation is a sabbatical and anyways I was just I this rot. Business was still going in the right direction, I was doing a lot of speaking and obviously the book carried me, but I could see the web traffic going down, and I just decided at the beginning of 2015 that I would try to publish every week so go from... Yeah I think it was the year before in 2014, I think I published six times.
I was trying to go to 50 from 6 to 52 at the same word count and in the end I think I published 36 new pieces of my content over the year, and I forget what the math was on that, but it was a significant amount of words.
DAVID: Yeah 45,000 words.
BLAIR: It was a really interesting experiment. I learned some lessons, I wrote about that and since I wrote that article, I think a month or so go six weeks maybe I don't know. I'd even learned more from there so I'm so glad I did it. I'm really glad I did it. It was one of the most worthwhile experiments I've ever done.
DAVID: Are you going to tweak the goal for 2016? You wrote 36 times for 45,000 words about... Looks like 1,200 words on average. What are you going to change for 2016 in terms of quantity and length.
BLAIR: Well this is fairly new. Like in the last 10 days or so I've realized that I'm on a bit of a content treadmill and this talk is probably going to bleed into you know, like role, like what is that I should be doing because I've realized my job is to think, think and write primarily, so I'm trying to create space in my business, so I can think more and write more. I've just did some math before this, and I realize if you count up my content obligations today, if I continue to write an article a week of 1,200 words, and the other things I do, I'm producing 35000 words of content a month.
BLAIR:... And it's unsustainable. I'll just do the quick math here. At an article a week at 1,200 words is 4800 per month. I do a webcast every month, and I have for almost 10 years now. I don't write all these words, but when you take the transcript afterwards it's about 9000 words.
DAVID: That's for an hour webcast?
BLAIR: Then on the average I deliver a speech a month of some kind and so that's another 9000 words. Both of those are cheating a little bit because a speech it's rare that I'll do a whole new topic in a speech so that's a little bit of cheating and webcast doesn't take me as long to write an article... My article I published last week was 2000 words, and it took me between 14 and 16 hours to write so that's a significant part of my week.
The webcast are far more efficient in term of writing time because I don't write them. You wouldn't write out your webcast, you don't write out a speech. You outline it and you think through the points that you want to make and then you speak to those points, so it's not like writing, but every week now I do a weekly focus call, which is a 20 minutes conference call for everybody in the Win Without Pitching program. A bunch of firms attend live and then some of them listen to recording later.
I just take on principle about selling and I talk about that and I have clients try to focus on that for the week. That's about 2500 words a week times four and then I'm also producing content for our training program at a pace of one module about 3000 words, probably a little bit more than 3000 words every three weeks so about 4000 words per month and all of that adds up to about 35000 words a month and it is-
DAVID: Which is one and a half times your first book.
BLAIR: Yeah, every month so I've come to the realization that it's unsustainable and then on top of that I have two book projects that I'm actively working on and I've hired somebody to help me with those book projects. I realized those two books are... That's where I'm creating transformational value. You could look at these other things that they do in those various levels of importance and obligation like the new training modules every three weeks.
Our entire business and delivery mechanism is built around that so that can't go away but the other things, the things that are going to have the biggest impact on the largest number of people and the biggest impact on our business it's going to be those two book so right now I've committed to these two book, I'm working with people on the but all these other contents getting in the way.
DAVID: You did all this writing in the last year 2015. When was the anniversary when you switched from consulting to a training organisation? When did that occur?
BLAIR: Began in the beginning of... We started adding training in 2014, and it was at the beginning of... Sorry beginning of 2013 and I think it was the beginning one year later. Maybe it was the beginning of 2015.
DAVID: I'm just wondering what the correlation is there. Like did one lead to the other like you made the decision to be a training organisation and then you committed to doing the writing probably because that required it. You had to be producing so much content, but also probably, because you really needed to stay in regular touch with prospects and this would be the logical way to do it. Was there a connection there?
BLAIR: Yeah, you know I hadn't thought about it but I think there is a connection because timing wise I decided in late October or early November of 2014 that I was going to drop consulting. I was on a plane flying to work with a client and I decided this is my last client and I locked him at a room and said you are my last client. I do these things, I make public proclamation, that's a way to kind of forcing myself to kind do what I think I should do and then I went home and wrote a 3000 words article about it saying to the world I'm out of the consulting business.
Shortly after that it was a couple of months, a month or two after that or even just a matter weeks where I decided I was going to write more and so clearly I... Not getting... I still travel a bit and most of my travel has to do with public speaking now and not consulting so it has freed up some time but on the other hand, as you know, airline travel that's great writing time.
DAVID: I've taken trips just to write, you know, they call a mileage runs too where near the end of the calendar year you need to get a few more segment or something and you also need to get sometime away so I flown to LA three times now a round trip and get right on the plane and come back.
One of the things that we've talked about with plans we share that are getting ready to embark on some writing venture is like a book typically, is this idea of whether they should use a ghost writer or not and both of us have said maybe we phrased it differently but both of us have said to those clients, no because you get smarter in the writing.
For one thing the ghost writer is never going to be as intelligent but mainly it's that you won't become more intelligent if somebody else does this writing and that coupled, what drives people to even think about using a ghost writer because they don't feel comfortable writing and you are an unlikely writer by your own admission and that you've gotten good at it but it's taken work and it didn't come naturally until more recently.
Have you gotten smarter at a faster pace during 2015 than you did in the past because of the writing?
BLAIR: Without question. There is nothing I value more than learning and growth, nothing. I just think that's why we are here to learn and grow. I can look back at some of the years where I was busiest like 2012 when I was so busy but I don't know what I liked, my personal balance sheet didn't grow in terms of what I knew-
BLAIR: Yeah. A great example of this of what you just said about how important is it to write. I did a webcast on last Thursday and I did it from my hotel room on the road. I was traveling to do a speech, I did a weekly focus call, I published an article that took me almost 16 hours to write, I did a speech and then I did a webcast from my hotel room. Basically all on the road within a period of four days, that was a lot of content I was responsible for.
The last thing chronologically, I had in a week running this Thursday morning was to write and deliver this webcast and I delivered it this Thursday morning and it was one of those topics and they're not all like this but it was a topic where there reason I choose the topic was because I didn't know anything about it.
It's not that I didn't know anything about it, I had a problem in this area so I committed to doing a webcast on the topic and then I thought okay, now I've committed publicly, people are paying me money to sit in this webcast, I had better figure out this problem. I didn't have the problem figured out until the night before and I didn't have the webcast written until I started writing it three hours before.
DAVID: I call that diving into an empty pool and venting water on the way down.
BLAIR: Yeah, and I've heard you say that. It's a great line and that's not how it felt in this... My brain was working on it subconsciously and I enlisted the help of some of my team members, some of the coaching staff. I just happen to have dinner with my entire coaching staff the night before and so we worked on the problem together.
In fact one of them pulled an iPad pro and a pencil, we were just sketching the whole time and by the time what we were done it was like, wow. I could see the problem, I broke the problem down into three different categories and not just I, we. We did this as a team, first time I'd done this. It was just clear the way of thinking about solutions was just so obvious, so it's a great example of if I decided I can't do a webcast on that topic because I don't know... I can't think about the problem clearly and I can't see, I don't know what the solutions are then I never would have done it.
I choose the webcast because I knew there was a... I chose it because I was having a problem in this area. I knew my clients were having a problem in this area. I knew that within me somewhere I had the answer. It's not a complicated topic but it's just something that had been tripping me up and if it's jut something clearly I hadn't thought, I hadn't thought kind of a clearly and an organized manner logically long enough about the problem so by committing to the topic I forced myself to solve the problem and therefore, by midday Thursday I'm smarter than I was than I was Wednesday.
Now, back to David and Blair.
DAVID: I started consulting in 94 and I remember in 99 it just hit me that I was being asked similar questions repeatedly and I didn't have a clear point of view. I was like hemming hawing around, stumbling, you know I just didn't have a defendable point of view of on certain topics, so I just got tired of it because I just hate incompetence. In competence really drives me to solve it completely so I just wrote down all the topics that I felt that I needed a point of view on and it came out 55 topics, scary number.
The next stop was okay, well, how I'm I going to ever develop a confident point of view on these and that's when I decided to start persuading that publication. It was six pages a month and it was $360 a year, almost the same sort of rational for your webcast thing. You need to solve it so this is a good opportunity to do it and like you, I was thinking, once I solve this I will tweak my point of view over time but I'll have something to think about. I would have leapt over this barrier. So I wrote 55 Issues of persuading and then I quite the publication.
Now since then I've had to develop points of view on lots of other things but it's really helpful. Those issues were 3,400 words. You've been writing 1,200 words and I never would have said this back then or may even until recently but 1,200 words almost seems... Do you think two years from now 1,200 words would be the right number for you or do you think it would be shorter?
BLAIR: I think 1,200 has been the average for me over 14 years.
DAVID: So it's not likely to change?
BLAIR: It's not likely to change. My best work is usually around 2,000 words. Every once a while you need to write something... I feel like I need to write something that is more digestible. Some short kind of lively once to get people thinking. Almost like it's for a different audience, but I feel like I need to... Anybody can fake anything for 400 words, probably 600 words, may be 750 words. It's like when you go over 900 words you kind of have to know what you are talking about.
I can still fake my way through a topic up to about a 1000 words but if you've got about 1,200, 1300 of like edited down to the essence you get rid of the extraneous stuff, which is sometimes difficult for me, but if you've got 12 or 1300 well edited words, you have to know what you are talking about or you're going to lose your audience.
DAVID: When you look at what the Win Without Pitching book did for your consulting business which was 20... I looked it up 23,056 words. When you look at what that did for your business would you've been better off last year to have taken half of what you wrote put it towards another book and then left the remaining portion in the regular blogs?
BLAIR: I don't think about it that way last year because I've have the seeds of various book projects that every once in a while I pick one up and work on it and then I put it down and thinking, nah, this isn't right, this doesn't feel right. I've always been working on the next book and it's only in the last six months, maybe a little bit longer where I've basically been fully committed two different projects, to the point where I've hired somebody to help and I'm actually collaborating with that co-author on another one, so I'm completely committed to these.
I think without that complete commitment to the project... Like if I'd had the complete commitment it would have made sense to channel my writing into the book projects, but I have absolutely no regrets. I'm so glad I did, I learned a lot. I've gotten faster as a writer. Now you wouldn't know that by me saying it took me between 14 and 16 hours to write this 2000 words article. This one took a long time and I also read three books but I... You know different ways to read books.
I read three books over four days and I'm not counting the books reading time to write it. One of the books is a book I've read before and another book is a book that summarizes the body of work of some economist that I've read. There are books so a lot of it is fairly quick reading, highlighting just pulling stuff out. That aside that's kind of an anomaly. I don't put that much time into a weekly article. That aside I've become a much faster writer.
I can write 1,200 words in as few as four hours and I mentioned in this article I wrote about the experiment that... I conducted a survey with friends of mine who were writers including you and I asked how long does it take you to write 2000 words and I was really surprise how quickly people wrote. I think you said, like 45 minutes or some crazy thing and my answer was 16 hours. The average answer was two hours and I thought okay, I'm eight times slower than all of these people whose work I really admire.
DAVID: But that's one thing has changed over the last years is that you are writing faster than you did.
BLAIR: Yeah, way faster and then every once in a while just like there is different ways to read a book and some you savor every word and every sentence and some you just kind of speed read and highlight you write the same way too. Some you just bang off and some require a deeper type of writing.
DAVID: Last year, my intent was to write something, a new piece of insight every month. As it turned out I didn't it was actually like eight times instead of 12 times, and they averaged about 800 words and of course I'm not including the speeches and some other stuff but in terms of like fresh new content through my email blast.
This year I'm trying another experiment. I'm being motivated by a couple of thing and that's why I'm writing twice a week, so eight to ten times as frequently but shorter. So I'm writing about 5 to 600 words. I'm mean they're publishing that on Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. One of my fears is that I'd run of things that I really thought were worth writing about.
DAVID: It hasn't been the case at all. I've actually found that my net list of unwritten topics is growing. I don't know, I'd be interested to know how you answer this but when I come up with most of my topics it's when I'm either on the phone with a client or in person with a client talking and just some idea hit me. It's like, "Oh then that will be a great topic" and I just jot it down.
The question is, what is the setting when you most frequently get good ideas for topics?
BLAIR: The big one is when I'm writing. The mistake is the more you write the more ideas you get. We're doing this podcast and every once in a while we kind of think, oh, that would make another interesting podcast. If you don't write that down, if you don't capture it, there is probably a greater than 50% chance that it's gone so I use Evernote and just have list of topic ideas.
DAVID: That's what I have too. I've got 170 some topic ideas right now, I never know and then I have a little red book, it's about the size of a three or five card that I have on the table next to me with a special pen. Oddly enough I sound like the guy in As Good As It Gets. A special pen and whenever I have a topic idea I write it down, and the client doesn't know that's what I'm doing. They think I'm taking notes that I'm going to expand on later but, yeah, because I mix that.
Let's say that one of the say 250,000 people listening to this podcast, try not to snicker.
DAVID: They're listening to this, and they're saying well, I don't... You know, and they're undifferentiated firm. Talk about the struggle you would have, or they might have if they were trying to generate this level and frequency and [adopt it inside 00:24:32] if they were a non differentiated firm. Like what would you write about.
BLAIR: I can't imagine. Like does the world need another article on branding or a book on branding? Really. First of all it's easier to write... It's a bit of a contradiction, but it's easier to write when you have a narrow focus. They are like crevices or niches as we say in Canada. Like you craw in through this crack, and you think it's a tiny world, and it opens up into a [Narnia 00:25:03]. It's just this massive place with all this nukes and crannies and all this different places that you can go and explore, so first you have to get through that kind fear of narrowing and then it becomes easy, and the key is go very narrow in your subject matter and deep.
I've talked about this before but probably the most important thing is to have a perspective. You need to have a point of view on this stuff. You can't just do a book of list or an article of list the fewer the things you should do. I'm sure you do this too. I think you just wrote about this recently. You need to be able to... I read our clients stuff we would need to be able to... You want to be able to put in the kind of the sea of the competition and pick it out and read somebody's and go I know who that is because I recognize their voice. That's the importance of perspective.
I will say adding perspective is like going through puberty. Your voice changes, so you need to have a point of view. I have very little sense of obligation to right in my thinking. It's not my job to be right.
DAVID: Yeah, I noticed that actually. You don't seem burdened by that at all.
BLAIR: David 1, Blair 1. No, it's not my job to be right. I am in the courage business, I'm in the empowerment business. It's my job to give people the courage to take action. It's my job to provoke and to get people to think about things differently. I'm fighting, tired of horrible ridiculous conventions, right when it comes to selling creative services and so it's my job to shatter conventions to get people to think differently to give them the courage to try something different.
It's not like I'm comfortable being wrong. It's not about being right or wrong, it's really about having a point of view and thinking, provoking my audience to think about things differently. I can list here the 10 things that you should do in situation x but if eight of those aren't things that you thought,"Wow, I wasn't expecting that" then I am not doing my job.
DAVID: It's a very inspiring... I appreciate you letting me pick your brain about this. Just the last thing here. You jot your ideas down in Evernote, which you [inaudible 00:27:20] write, and you can access it from your phone or computer or the internet somewhere at the hotel lobby. What do you write in? What application do you write in?
BLAIR: That's changed. I use to write in Evernote. I own Scribed now I've never used it. I bought it with the intent of writing in that. I actually write in Google docs now.
DAVID: I write in Folding Text.
BLAIR: Hmm, never heard of that.
DAVID: I really like it. Do you ever scan your writing for keywords as you are writing? I don't, some people do. I trust Google to do their job right. I'm just going to write my insight. I'm not going to worry about SEO stuff.
BLAIR: I have somebody in my firm who is in charge of SEO. Good SEO is pretty straight forward. You just write about what you think. If you are writing for the purpose of SEO, then I think it just feels wrong.
DAVID: It's boring stuff to read.
BLAIR: Write what you are meant to write. Just channel whatever this magical source is and write what you are meant to write and after wards think, Okay, the person who would be interested in this what would they be typing into Google and then you frame your key four big areas. You can makes sure that some... Not keywords but you make sure you're using the proper words in those four areas of basic SEO.
DAVID: Let's revisit this a year from now and see what you've learned this year in writing and see how we can take this topic further. Thanks for your insight Blair.
BLAIR: Deal, thank you David.