2016: A (writing) year in review.

Globally speaking, I’m beyond ready for 2016 to beat a hasty retreat. Seriously.

Professionally, though, I’m still marveling at what a great year it was. Seriously.

I was fortunate to collaborate with a number of longstanding and new clients, broadening and deepening my portfolio of writing about food and wellness. My work fell evenly into two camps: writing for publication and online marketing content. The subjects were inspiring, the teams fun to work with, the finished projects stuff I’m proud of. A few high points:

A visit to one of my top clients. After working together — closely, on lots and lots of projects — for two years, I traveled to connect in person with my colleagues at the Produce Marketing Association. We’ve worked together to promote dozens of global events for growers/suppliers/retailers in the fresh produce and floral industry. It was so neat to meet the PMA team face-to-face. And 2017 looks to hold even greater collaboration.

Giving life to local food coverage. Call me old-fashioned, but I still love reading the local newspaper over my morning coffee. And my recipe file is full of old clippings from newspapers’ food sections. So when editor Amy Wilson asked if I’d regularly contribute to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s weekly food coverage, I jumped at the chance. I got to write about the pleasures of eating breakfast for dinner, shared delicious ways to enjoy summer tomatoes, and declared that making your own butter is just about the best thing ever. Coolest encounter of the year: Running into an Enquirer reader, toting my recipe for herb and spice cashews that she’d cut from the paper, as she was buying the nuts at Dean’s Mediterranean Market. Local food — and local media — for the win!

Tackling a new medium: recipe videos. You know those 1-minute recipe videos you see in your Facebook feed all the time? Turns out, those take about 2 hours to film and are a whole lot of fun to create. Working with Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital, we’re rolling out a series of quick recipe videos.

Supporting local food producers, farmers and retailers. Serving as editor of Edible Ohio Valley remains a passion and pleasure, as we get to tell the stories of people who are working hard to bring beautiful, healthful food to our tables here in Cincinnati. One of my favorite stories to write this year was a feature on farmers’ markets and their importance to our community, economy and our collective health.

Here’s hoping you had a productive and fulfilling 2016, and that 2017 will bring you more of the same!

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Do people (really) know who you are?

I’ve spent the past several months deep in biographies. I’ve read Beryl Markham’s “West With the Night” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” — but that’s not the kind of biography I’m talking about here.

Let’s discuss the Professional Biography, shall we?

Hello My Name IsAs part of my event-marketing work for clients in the creative and food industries, I’ve edited/revised/rewritten hundreds of professional bios. Hundreds. And you know what? Most professional bios are awful.

If you work in any leadership capacity, in any market, you need a well-crafted biography. It gives prospective clients information on your expertise. It tells potential employees who they’ll be working for. It shares your bona fides with people who want to invite you to speak at professional events or write for industry publications.

Your bio lives in many places, in many formats. It’s the written version of the spiel you use to introduce yourself in a professional setting.

Why are so many bios impersonal, clinical, incomplete? (I suspect it’s because many people find it incredibly difficult to write about themselves.)

Here’s what a professional bio should — and should not — be.

It SHOULD be personal. A strong biography marries your professional credentials with your personal characteristics. It conveys your experience and credentials, yes — but it also hints at who you are as a person. It can include your non-work interests and passions (best placed at the end of the text). What are you like to work with? What are your values? What fuels your fire?

It SHOULD NOT be a resume. A potential employer needs to know your career history. A prospective collaborator or client needs to know your expertise. These are not the same thing. So many bios I’ve “fixed” are simply lists of past job titles. Instead, your bio should convey your skills and capabilities. What are you great at? Where do you shine? What’s your essential expertise?

It SHOULD be unique. Take your name out of your bio; could it describe at least one other person you know? That’s why the resume approach doesn’t work — a list of past positions makes you sound like everyone else in your market. What do prospects get in working with YOU that they don’t get from anyone else?

You need three versions of your professional biography: long form (for your website’s About page), mid-length (for speaking engagements and other external uses), short form (for social media).

In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s my professional biography.

Here’s one I wrote, for Enrich Creative principal Gretchen Schisla. Note that it describes Gretchen’s entrepreneurial spirit, connecting her with the type of client her firm thrives on working with.

And another, for NYC food photographer Evi Abeler. It references Evi’s childhood in Germany, setting the stage for her artistic vision. We recently worked together to update it.

Take a look at your bio. Maybe it’s due for a refresh? I can help you with that!

Rethinking your elevator pitch.

Don’t you just hate talking about yourself?

Earlier this year, I had occasion to give a talk about my career and my work to a group of retirees as part of a senior-learning program sponsored by Miami University. I focused my talk on The Clara Project, a series of posts on my recipe blog, writes4food.com, inspired by a collection of 1930s recipes, which were previously owned by a woman named Clara Shenefelt, and which I discovered in an antique shop nearly 2 years ago. (As it happens, Clara lived at this retirement complex until she passed away earlier this month at age 98.)

I was unusually nervous and self-conscious about the talk. Giving this presentation felt like giving my “elevator pitch”—but, like, for nearly an hour.

But I learned something very important from this experience, something that I think is relevant to anyone who works in the creative field:

Whatever it is that you do for a living, if you speak of it with authentic enthusiasm, people will be interested in hearing about your work.

And that goes whether you’re pitching to a prospective client or meeting the friend of a friend at a party.

Aside from the few elderly gents who dozed during the presentation like they were in church, the audience seemed genuinely appreciative. They wanted to know what I write about, and how I do it. They loved the story of The Clara Project. And I found that expressing my genuine excitement made it so much easier to talk about my work.

image via creative commons license

You may have worked on your own “elevator speech”—that one-sentence pitch that describes what you do and for whom. It probably follows some kind of formula:

I do _____ for _____ who need _____.

And while the formula can help you structure and hone how you speak about your work, it has its limitations. It can sound a little stilted when you utter the words, like you’ve memorized a few lines of poetry. It can be a little jargon-y, which might play well in a business setting but might be out of place in a social interaction. And it can be a little restrictive.

Instead of memorizing a set pitch that you repeat over and over, try these tips when you’re talking about what you do:

Keep it flexible. The standard version of my pitch is: “I’m an independent journalist, copywriter and content developer, and I focus on food and wellness, creativity and design.” Recently, I spoke to a group of olive oil producers, and I introduced myself by saying, “I write about food for magazines and food brands.” When I spoke last month to a group of design-firm principals, I said, “I help creative agencies tell their stories.” Your pitch should flex depending on who you’re talking to.

Have a shorthand version for social settings. At a party, if I’m asked what I do, I simply say, “I’m a food writer.” Invariably, I’ll get a follow-up question: “Oh, so who do you write for?” When you’re in a social setting, can you come up with a short-and-sweet description of your work that prompts additional conversation?

Let your enthusiasm shine. Whether you write about food or you develop B2B websites, there’s something about the work you get really geeked about. Tap into that when you’re talking with someone new about your work.

My, how this year has flown!

Are you startled by the fact that it’s December? Scratching your head at how quickly the year’s gone by?

Me too.

One way that I’m able to make sense of time’s flight is to look back at the year that’s passing, to take stock of accomplishments and experiences. Mentally cataloging these 12 months makes them seem somehow less fleeting.

What a remarkable year 2013 has been!

I won’t give you the “what we did in 2013” rundown of my personal life that some of our friends feel compelled to send with their holiday cards. But it seems relevant to share a professional recap.

Published articles in local and national media: 34
Web pages developed for creative businesses: 30
Brochures written for creative clients: 4
Content created for clients’ blogs and newsletters: 47
Marketing articles and whitepapers written: 19
Original recipes developed for clients: 25
Recipes posted on writes4food.com: 110
Book deal signed: 1
Weeks of vacation taken: about 6

I’m proud of the work — every last letter of it. But what’s most remarkable about 2013 is all the collaborations that have yielded these finished projects. I’m grateful for the opportunities, the challenges, the feedback and the satisfaction of work well done that the year has brought. I’m grateful to you.

With my best wishes for a peaceful holiday season and exceptional 2014,

Hey, summer: where’d ya go?

Do you ever fall asleep on an airplane only to wake up when the wheels hit the tarmac? In a mental fog, you’re thoroughly flummoxed by the realization that you’ve arrived at your destination.

I feel the same way as I sit here in mid-October and look back at the summer. I rub my eyes. I think, “Where did the time go?” “How did I get here?”

Prior to starting my writing business, I’d heard tell of the “Summer Slowdown,” when many creative firms and indie professionals found that business tapered off. And sure enough, I’ve come to recognize that pattern in my own workflow: After a busy first and second quarters, projects came more slowly in July and August. And then …

On the Tuesday after Labor Day, the phone started ringing (or, rather, the e-mails started flowing in) with new projects. In just he first few weeks of fall, I’ve:

  • helped my good friends at Rule29 in Chicagoland redevelop the content for their shiny new website
  • worked with the team at Enrich Creative in St. Louis to write copy for their new business development campaign
  • contributed short pieces to Cincinnati Magazine’s annual “Best of the City” issue … including a profile on the city’s best local bacon. Yes. It’s a difficult job.
  • developed original recipes for a new customer magazine for Kroger.
  • begun leading the content marketing strategy for the 2014 HOW Design Live event next May in Boston. (If you’re a creative pro, this should absolutely be on your radar. HOW’s taking a rad new approach to the program and has landed some superstar speakers.)

We who own small businesses understand that there’s a natural ebb and flow to our workloads. Assuming that we’re doing the marketing work required to prevent those “feast or famine” scenarios when there’s absolutely nothing on the horizon, we have to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes we’re less busy. And that’s OK.

In fact, that slowdown is essential — it offers opportunity for us to take a break, to rejuvenate, to work on our own projects. In addition to playing several midweek rounds of golf in July and August, I worked with the immensely talented designer Jill Anderson to overhaul my recipe website, writes4food.com. I skipped a couple of months with my own marketing newsletter, but I updated my online portfolio. I read books related to my work (Michael Pollan’s excellent “Cooked”) and not (Dan Brown’s page-turner “Inferno.”)

Two and a half years into running a small creative business, I’m finally seeing those ebb/flow patterns. And I’m giving myself permission to do my own stuff — or heck, to knock off early — when things slow down.

What about you? How do you fill those quieter, non-billable hours? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Speaking of writes4food.com … I invite you to check out my newly redesigned recipe website, with better searchability, new recipes and a fresh new look!

Food for thought: The refrigerator project.

What’s ON your refrigerator?

No, I didn’t ask, “What’s IN your refrigerator?” What’s ON it?

Remember when you’d dash home from the bus stop after school clutching an A paper or a favorite drawing from art class? What happened next? That’s right: Your mom or dad would tape or magnet your masterpiece to the refrigerator door. For many families, the refrigerator is a kid paper-and-artwork Hall of Fame, a shrine to creativity and success.

Now you’re all grown up. And you’re still doing great work. How do you celebrate it?

I call the work that I’m button-busting proud of Refrigerator Projects. They’re rare beasts, these jobs. Special. Worth showing off (and writing about in your newsletter).

Think about the hallmarks of your Refrigerator Projects:

  • they may challenge you to work above what you think you’re capable of
  • they harness your deepest creative energy
  • they often involve collaborating with people you’re interested in
  • they garner great feedback from clients, collaborators and the public

Chances are, you know the Refrigerator Project when you’re in the thick of it. You get in the zone, where you feel confident, skilled and strong, where you do your best work.

My most recent Refrigerator Project? A feature story for the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Food section that highlighted The Clara Project. (Read more about my ongoing recipe and cooking exploration through a serendipitously acquired collection of vintage recipes.) With some persistence, I finally managed to pitch the story to the section editor; when the story ran (in my hometown newspaper!), I felt like I’d hit a home run.

Three pivotal things came out of the story:

  1. I was so proud of the work, I couldn’t wait to show copies of the story to my family.
  2. I made a wonderful and meaningful connection with the daughter of Clara Shenefelt, the woman whose old recipes inspired me.
  3. And national media picked up the story, resulting in booming website traffic, new readers and some interesting project leads.

Do you love your Refrigerator Projects? Want to do more of them?

I think there’s a karma to doing great work. Great work begets more great work. Great work gives you confidence. It lets you speak with energy and enthusiasm about what you do, and prospects respond to that. Great work builds your portfolio. Great work is, at its core, a blast.

What’s ON your refrigerator?

Worth Reading

Rethinking the Case Study—If you’re doing great work, you need to tell everyone about it. This super-smart article from Newfangled talks about how to write a great case study.

Great Case Studies—In the spirit of sharing good work, here’s a selection of project case studies I contributed for Enrich, a creative group in St. Louis focused on food and wellness companies.

 

Downloading after the Creative Freelancer Conference.

I’m scratching my head that it was more than 2 weeks ago that I was in beautiful San Francisco for the Creative Freelancer Conference and HOW Design Live.

The interim has been hectic: First, my little vintage recipe project on my food blog scored some national media attention, which derailed work for a few days (in a very good way; more on that to come). Then, there was a holiday-shortened week. Now, as I’m about to head off for vacation, I’m swamped.

I was humbled that Ilise Benun of Marketing Mentor, the brains behind the operation, asked me to present at CFC for the first time, after 5 years in various hosting and programming roles. The session was, at its core, about roadblocks—in the form of money (the harsh realities of billing for your work and paying taxes), minutes (the ups and downs of the freelancer’s workload) and marketing (that we need to be realistic and not too hard on ourselves).

I talked about how well-prepared I thought I was when I launched my freelance writing business, and about how I’ve nonetheless run into all the roadblocks I thought I’d drive right past on my way to fame, glory and success.

In fact, my CFC presentation was a metaphor for its content: I hit a roadblock, in the form of technical difficulties that prevented me from seeing my notes on the podium laptop and left me rattled. I didn’t meet my own (perhaps overly lofty) expectations for the presentation, and I was disappointed.

But I learned two lessons: 1) print your notes, knucklehead! And 2) expect and prepare for technical difficulties.

What is a conference if not a learning experience, right? Even though this was my sixth CFC, I continue to glean nuggets of wisdom from it. Here are some ideas that really stuck with me:

The Arc of Failure: Intro and closing speaker Luke Mysse talked about the progression we go through when we’re reaching for a goal, no matter how big or small. We start off at launch with a lot of momentum, work uphill until we reach a plateau … and think: I’ve worked so hard; now what? Why isn’t this as good or interesting as I expected? We then enter a downhill slide into disillusionment, at which point we have two options: recommit or settle. What do you do when you hit that plateau?

The Importance of Values: Supersmart Sarah Durham talked a lot about values, both personal and professional (and the intersection of the two). Values—like balance and decency and collaboration—should drive business decisions, underpin the work and unite the team and client. Note to self: Add a list of my top 5 values to my website.

You Be Cool, I’ll Be Cool: The wildly talented illustrator/designer Jessica Hische (who’s also ridiculously cute and funny) talked about this as a guidepost for every contract. In fact, it pretty much informs any client relationship.

Content, content, content: Good thing I love to write, because Mark O’Brien says we should all be adding 2,000 words per month to our websites, through blog posts, white papers, pages, etc. I figure this post gets me a quarter of the way there for July.

And then there was keynote speaker Austin Kleon, a writer who draws and author of “Newspaper Blackout” and “Steal Like an Artist” (upon which his presentation was based). Wow. I was so incredibly inspired by this guy (and images from his session appear throughout this post). Austin gave everyone permission to be inspired by work done by the people who’ve gone before us, to borrow the best from our creative heroes and make it our own.

Worth Reading

I’ve seen a number of great recaps of CFC and HOW Design Live, including:

From Jill Lynn Design (my web design partner)

From Loretta Robinson

See what you missed via Pinterest

Presenting: What you learn when you teach.

I’m just back from Edible Institute in Santa Barbara, a 4-day gathering of food magazine editors and publishers, foodies and locavores. My people. The conference had two parts: an informational meeting for folks who own and publish Edible magazines (there are nearly 80 of them throughout the country), and an issue-oriented conference for those interested in local food.

I was thrilled to present two sessions during the editors/publishers’ meeting, where I shared strategies and tips for making the editorial process run smoothly. It was an incredible experience. And I discovered that by teaching, I learned a ton.

Presenting = giving. I was super nervous about this presentation. If you’ve been to a HOW Design Conference in the past decade, you may know that in my host role, I’d welcome participants to the event. But let me tell you: Standing before 4,000 people to say a quick ‘hello’ wasn’t nearly as knee-knocking as presenting—with slides and handouts and everything—to 40.

My session targeted an audience of Edible editors and publishers, nearly none of whom had magazine experience. Magazine experience I have in spades. So I worked very hard to prepare a professional-looking Keynote presentation (with slide backgrounds created by talented designer Jill Anderson).

Most important, I aimed to share a ton of great information. I approached the presentation from a position of giving; I knew that the attendees struggled with getting their magazines produced, and I knew I could help. An opening slide read, “My goal is to minimize your pain.” I shared “insider secrets” for producing a magazine. And people told me throughout the weekend how much they valued what I had to offer.

Presentation is rooted in the word ‘present.’ This has a double meaning: 1) give freely of your time, expertise, information, ideas, and 2) be there, be fully engaged.

Presenting inspires clarity. As you gather information to share during a workshop or conference presentation, you dig deep into the material. The process of researching, organizing and editing clarifies your own thinking about the subject. When you have to explain how something works or decipher a complex topic—particularly a subject that you’re very familiar with—you have to look at it from the perspective of a novice and make the information accessible to everyone.

I stuck around after my presentations (back-to-back sessions on Friday) for the rest of the weekend’s program. And I’m glad I did. After expending a lot of creative energy Friday, it was great to recoup that by listening to inspiring speakers from the food community.

We need to refill regularly. As creative professionals, we pour ourselves into our work. No matter how rewarding the project, it still takes from us. And we need to make time to refill. That’s why conferences rock. Being among your peers, among people with shared passions, among people you can learn from—the energy boost is immeasurable. It’s hard to allocate time and funds to attend an event like Edible Institute or HOW Design Live (use my discount code BRYN if you’d like to register for the Creative Freelancer Conference).

Maybe it’s not a big conference every year. But it’s critical to refill the well regularly, whether it’s by attending a conference or a smaller, local gathering that can inspire you.

We can make a difference. One of the highlights of Edible Institute was Marion Nestle’s keynote presentation. Dr. Nestle is a nutritionist and one of the nation’s leading voices advocating for healthier diets and changes to our food economy. In our current socio-political-economic climate, where supersize portions are the norm (did you know that a Double Gulp soda has 800 calories, nearly half our daily intake?), food labels are deliberately misleading and food companies are ever-pressured to deliver shareholder value, “it’s impossible for people to practice personal responsibility.” But we’re not stuck. We have a lot of power as individuals to spark change. We can “vote with our forks” by choosing healthful foods, supporting local growers and producers, and sharing our tables with family and neighbors.

 “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

— Orson Welles

Why business cards still matter.

With so much business-related interaction happening in the digital realm, you might wonder whether such old-fashioned niceties as a well-designed business card still matter.

They do.

A great business card design makes such a strong impression. These days, it’s not so much about handing someone your card in hopes that they’ll stash it in a Rolodex for future use. A business card is part of making a great initial connection. It says you’re serious. It shows you care about the little things. It’s part of your image.

Ordering a set of business cards was the second thing I did after I launched my recipe website writes4food.com in 2010. And it was the second thing I did after I launched my business website in 2011. I requisitioned my business cards from Moo.com, the UK-based printer of business cards, stickers and postcards. Why Moo? First, I loved the diminutive card sizes—Moo mini cards are about half the size (horizontally) of traditional business cards. They’re printed front-and-back, and you can upload practically countless photos for the back of the cards. The Moo website is ridiculously easy to use, and the brand’s persona is ultimately charming. (My order arrived in a box with a sticker proclaiming “Yay!” on it. Yay, indeed!) But the best thing about my Moo mini cards is the response they elicit from people I hand them to—everyone is universally delighted by their cute smallness.

More recently, Moo launched a Luxe line of business cards—a full-size model that’s printed on deliciously double-thick cardstock. My friends at Mohawk Fine Papers, which provides the stock for Moo’s Luxe line, presented a not-to-be-missed opportunity to try the new product.

I asked Jill Anderson, who created the fabulous website you’re perusing right at this moment, if she could design the cards—I knew I wanted something really special, given the weight and finish of the Luxe cards. We came up with the idea of picturing a writes4food recipe on the back, with a QR code that links directly to the recipe.

The cards arrived yesterday in a lovely bespoke box, and I have to say: I’m thrilled with them. They’re beautiful, substantial, impressive. (And my photos don’t do them justice.) I can’t wait to start handing them out.

Want one?

 

On being helpful.

photo by Marc Falardeau, used under Creative Commons license

Once, while working on a Habitat for Humanity building project, one of the construction pros volunteering on the job told me, “You have good worksite awareness.”

I took it as a compliment … and then asked what he meant.

Good worksite awareness is about paying attention to the work and workers around you, anticipating what needs to be done and offering to pitch in however you can. It’s about being helpful.

‘Help’ is sort of a loaded word. Shouted in panic, it signifies danger. In a certain context, it identifies those in a position of servitude. Some people have trouble asking for it, for fear it demonstrates a weakness.

In business, though, ‘help’ can be a powerful word. And I’m seeing this four-letter verb more and more as I research and collaborate with other creative companies that exist to serve clients. Maybe the word sounds soft to some, isn’t aggressive enough, doesn’t demonstrate strategy.

But all manner of business relationships—client relationships, customer relationships, co-worker relationships, employee-manager relationships, vendor relationships—would be more successful if at least one of the parties entered in from a position of service and giving. And if we’re not in our chosen profession because we want to make some kind of contribution to others and to the world, then why are we?

How to Be Helpful in a Business Setting

Think of every business transaction or conversation as an exchange of assistance: You’re busy. I can help. You need a product or service. I can deliver. You have a question. I have the answer.

Ask, “Can I help” or even better, “How can I help?” Initiate a new-business relationship in a positive way by asking your prospect what they need (and then offering a solution). “How can I help?” is a question that can reveal challenges or pain points; it’s a great research query.

An offer of help is a great lead-in to a conversation that can close a sale. “I’m ready to help” is much more powerful than “Are you ready to buy?”

On your website and in conversation, frame your work as it assists your clients, solves their problems, improves their business, makes the world a better place. Demonstrate how you help.

Finally, when you need help, ask for it. Shouldering a crushing workload or struggling with a problem that’s a little over your head serves no one. Open yourself to the knowledge and wisdom of others. But don’t assume that someone will jump to your aid; you have to ask for help.

I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful—collecting these shards of spirituality—that we may be helping to bring about a healing.
—Leonard Nimoy

Worth Reading

How to Be Helpful—A 7-point list, including my favorite bit of advice: Don’t be more trouble than you’re worth.

Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful—If you think being helpful means being a pushover, this article from Harvard Business Review (about delivering constructive criticism) will help you walk that line.

Worth Eating

Peanut Butter and Jam Thumbprint Cookies—Where I come from, an offer of help is likely to be accompanied by a batch of homemade cookies or soup. Help yourself to this recipe for classic peanut butter and jam cookies.