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Which Matters More: Your Aptitude or Your Attitude?

This is a guest post by Jonathan Rick.

You can tell a lot about a person from the way he emails.

Who would you want to have a beer with?

That question kept racing through my mind as I read the replies to a solicitation I recently sent out. The emails, which within an hour numbered more than a dozen, ranged from the pedestrian to the eloquent.

I’m publishing a representative handful to correct a widespread misperception among consultants in every industry: from publicists to painters to pet-sitters, what ultimately separates the winning vendor from the runners up isn’t the quality of your work. It’s whether people want to work with you. In other words, your likability.

Indeed, according to outplacement experts, in evaluating potential employees, employers value personality, passion, and proficiency in that order. The classic example is Charles Schwab, who in 1901 became the first recipient of a million-dollar salary. He earned this distinction not because of his expertise in steel, but “largely because,” Schwab recalled, of his “ability to deal with people.”

Keep this maxim in mind as you eyeball the below emails. After all the interviews and case studies and estimates and reference checks, most decisions in life come down to a single sensor: one’s gut. So before firing off your next pitch, think like the client and ask yourself that quintessentially American question: who would I want to have a beer with?

The Cut to the Chaser

1. “Do you have budget?”

It’s a legitimate question, but as the leadoff one, it’s a turnoff. Just as you wouldn’t ask a woman about her bank account on your first date, so your icebreaker to a prospective client shouldn’t be about money. No one wants to work with someone whose immediate—and seemingly only—concern is what you can do for him.

2. “My firm probably could do this. If you’d like to chat I’m at [redacted]. Website is [redacted].”

Love the confidence: we “probably could do this.” Equally inspiring: the description of your firm and a reason for its relevance to this project. No, wait…

3. “[Redacted] based out of Austin, TX is a great choice! Fast, quality work. Not sure of their schedule, but it can’t hurt to check.”

While the tip is intriguing, it’s incomplete. Care to make an introduction? How about identifying your contact here? At the least, give me an email address.

(If you’d prefer not to introduce me in your initial email, maybe offer to do so once I reply affirmatively? See reply #8.)

The Lou Avery

4. “[Redacted] emailed me that you may need a short video project. I am [redacted] from [redacted]. Let me know if we can help. Our demo reel is at [redacted].”

These straightforward sentences call to mind Lou Avery, Don Draper’s replacement in Mad Men. The new creative director is immortalized with this faint praise: “Lou is adequate.” So is this pitch, which is perfectly fine if you’re comfortable with average work.

5. “[Redacted] forwarded this to me. [Links to his videos.] What’s the project? Short turnarounds are rarely a problem (although I do have a current video for another client and a shoot with [redacted] to work on this weekend). Would love to know more, though.”

I appreciate your honesty. It’s admirable. At the same time, letting me know I won’t be your top priority isn’t the best way to commence a relationship. Reserve any potential problems until you’re asked or have established a rapport.

The Storyteller

6. “You might try [redacted]. He was at [redacted] and has his own business now. I know [redacted] has also used him. Everyone that I know who he’s worked with has been super pleased with the results. His email is [redacted].”

Solid. A strong recommendation coupled with a couple of name drops. And an email address is provided, so I can simply forward the message.

7. “Hey [redacted], Wanted to introduce you to Jonathan Rick. He is currently looking for a production team to help him with a video that needs to wrapped in the next two weeks. The budget is also fixed at $12K. Mentioned some of the details to [redacted], but Jonathan can fill you in on the rest. Know the budget is tight but hopefully you and Jonathan can figure something out.”

Excellent. Introductions like this reduce my workload—a surefire way to win my wallet. As a result, the burden now falls on the other party to follow-up.

One suggestion: tell me something about the other party.

8. “I can suggest an utterly brilliant award-winning filmmaker and producer, with a very quick turnaround and ridiculously affordable rates, who has won numerous awards for his professional filmmaking prior to his turning his attention to work for the [redacted] movement. Problem is, he’s in Australia. If it’s something that can be arranged off location though, let me know, and I’ll put you in touch…”

“Utterly brilliant”? “Ridiculously affordable”? Sold! Even though the location is a deal-breaker, I still want to meet this superstar. You never know when another opportunity will arise.

Six Principles

Fielding the above “cover letters” made me feel like a recruiter receiving rounds of resumes. Amid this deluge, six principles of salesmanship quickly took hold:

1. The early bird gets the worm. With a tight turnaround, the first few replies will attract maximum interest. With each subsequent email, my attention wanes.

Similarly, the further away you get from the initial request, the less the client remains in buying mode. If you can’t reply within 48 hours, what does this say about your responsiveness?

2. Follow instructions. The quickest way to eliminate yourself is by ignoring instructions. If a Word doc is requested, don’t send a PDF. If I ask for a one-paragraph description of your firm, don’t refer me to your personal LinkedIn profile.

My friend, recruiter Claire Kittle Dixon, shares this story: “If you think I’m a stickler, you should talk to my clients. The most common reaction I get from clients is, ‘If the candidate can’t follow simple application instructions, how will he perform on the job?’ They also say, ‘If the candidate doesn’t care enough to read the instructions, he must not be very interested in the job.’ It’s hard to argue with either point.”

3. Tell me about yourself. I don’t need your bio, just your elevator pitch or a memorable detail. Do you specialize in a certain facet of the field? Did you recently win any awards, get some nice press, or finish a particularly exciting project? Do we have any mutual friends or interests? (I may not recall your name, but I’ll remember that we both worked in the Bush White House.)

4. Offer advice. One reply I didn’t reprint contained this pearl: “I especially like the fact that [the video] is scripted and not documentary-style, and that they want to turn it around quickly. There are too many projects that drag on forever.” When every pitch is basically the same, demonstrating your expertise (showing rather than telling) goes a long way. Also, flattery never hurts.

(What happened to this pro? He failed principle #2—instructions.)

5. Make it easy for me. This is my biggest pet peeve. If you’re recommending someone, it’s best to gauge that person’s interest and availability beforehand. Once you’ve prequalified him, then introduce us via email. (See reply #7.) This saves me the trouble of repeating the project parameters.

6. Get excited. There’s no better way to stand out than with enthusiasm. If you’re confident you could knock this assignment out of the park, find an appropriate way to say so. Just as we remember a receptionist who greets us with a smile, so we remember the emailer who expresses eagerness and exudes enthusiasm.

A Master of All Trades

Some will accuse me of being persnickety, of foregoing a talented producer because of a lackluster initial email. If the guy can deliver a killer video, does he also need to be Shakespeare?

To this charge, I plead guilty. I want to work with people who are not only great at their job—be it videos or vehicles—but who can also communicate their thinking in a clear and logical way. I want to work with people who not only think creatively, but can also elucidate the principles behind that creativity to a nonexpert. I want to work with people who make me smarter.

Perhaps no one grasped this philosophy better than Steve Jobs. Whether the thing before him was a glass of juice or a potential employee, he refused to degrade his standards. As he told a pair of interviewers in 1997,

“The dynamic range between what an average person could accomplish and what the best person could accomplish was 50 or 100 to 1. Given that, you’re well advised to go after the cream of the cream … A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.”

Years later, regarding his cofounder at Apple, Jobs added: “What I saw with Woz was somebody who was 50 times better than the average engineer. He could have meetings in his head.”

Is this a lot to ask for in a mere introductory paragraph? Sure is. But when the competition is stiff and the pay is good, don’t give anyone an excuse to pass you over. Give them a reason to look you over.

Jonathan Rick is a digital communications consultant in Washington, DC. The above lessons result from seven years of running the Jonathan Rick Group,, where he’s written and responded to more RFPs than he cares to remember. Tweet him your pet peeves of pitching a prospect at @jrick.


The Power of Passion

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This is a guest post written by Jonathan Rick.

“We’re gonna make your logo pop! We’re gonna make the IPREX globe spin! And we’re gonna make the buttons beautiful!”

“A button can be beautiful?” asked a skeptical Susan.

“Oh yeah!” beamed a confident Jesse.

It was at this moment that Jesse had Susan. He’d been muddling through the meeting, but this burst of bravura, energy and passion was sincere and infectious—a gust of fresh wind that won him the contract to redesign

Similarly, when I myself interviewed with Susan, things coasted along for the first 15 minutes. She asked about my experience; I provided conventional answers. Then she deployed her pet question: “If you were an animal, what would you be?”

”That’s easy,” I grinned. “I’d be a dog.” It was at this moment that I had Susan. With great pride and obvious pleasure, I regaled her with stories of my miniature schnauzer, Wyatt.

One final example. I was one of three interviewing a potential subcontractor for a Defense Department project. It was clear this husband-and-wife team could do the job, but they lacked fire in the belly. And because it wasn’t clear that they really wanted the gig, it wasn’t clear if they’d be fun to work with.

Sensing this, my boss’s boss changed direction and pinged the pair with the following question: “Can you tell us about any of your extracurricular activities that relate to the military?”

The husband tilted his chair back, searched his memory, then tilted forward. “Sure,” Chris said, as he proceeded to uncork a heartfelt narrative about a recent weekend when he was home playing video games. When his wife returned, she told him about a veterans charity she had just read about. The story so moved Chris that he dropped his controller and stayed up all night voluntarily coding for the nonprofit.

“If these guys can sacrifice their lives for their country, I can sacrifice a night’s sleep,” he said with a gleam in his theretofore sleepy eyes. It was at this moment that he had us.

To an artist like Jesse, attention to the seeming minutia of Web design was no big deal. To a PR guy like me, naming five national reporters mattered more than discussing my dog. To an engineer like Chris, proposals ought to be won or lost on their merits, not on what the bidders do in their spare time.

Yet what all three of us failed to appreciate was the import of passion. Fortunately, we each were tossed a soft ball to rectify this. Not everyone is so lucky. It shouldn’t take prompting to light your fuse.

Passion, of course, isn’t a substitute for talent. It is, however, a key differentiator, revealing what makes you tick, what drives you, what you’re capable of achieving in the right circumstances. To exude such enthusiasm is to show character. To withhold it is to be average.

So, the next time you’re in an important meeting—be it an interview, a sales pitch, even a date—relax that uncomfortable façade, slacken your stilted smile, and unbottle your passion. No doubt, you’ll be more comfortable. And more successful.

Jonathan Rick, a social media strategist in Arlington, Va, blogs at No Straw Men and tweets at @jrick.

Photo courtesy: Pink Moose

Beware the Candidate Who Doesn’t Follow Instructions

Please do not sit here door swings out

A guest post by Jonathan Rick.

In the current edition of her e-newsletter, Claire Kittle, who runs the Talent Market staffing agency, recounts an anecdote that immediately rang true for me. With Claire’s permission, I’m reprinting the story, which I’ve edited slightly.

“I get dozens of applications every day, and you would be amazed to see how many seemingly intelligent candidates do not follow instructions. If I had to put a number on it, I’d estimate that 50% of applicants fail to send me what my clients request.

I used to give all candidates the benefit of the doubt. I would follow-up with them and ask for the information they neglected to send the first time. But I learned that those same candidates often still fail to follow instructions on the second (and third!) attempts, and worse—they frequently get belligerent about being asked for more information!

Here’s a sample scenario:

Me: “Are you free for a phone interview Friday at noon? If so, what’s the best number where I can call you?”

Candidate: “Yes, that will work!”

Sigh. Now I’ll only throw the life preserver to candidates with very strong resumes, but I still file away the fact they didn’t send the right information off the bat.

All this prompts the question: If a candidate can’t follow instructions for a job application, how will that person perform on the job? Will he take direction? Will his work be sloppy? How will he treat your customers? It’s hard to say for sure, but the initial data points don’t bode well for his future as an employee.”

Indeed, although I don’t work in HR, I encounter this bugbear routinely. A recent example:

Vendor: “Please provide profile details.”

Me: “Can you let me know if you can’t get this info from the document I sent this morning?”

The vendor’s response? Silence. Apparently, she could; it was just easier to ask someone than to find a previous e-mail herself.

I learned this passive-aggressive technique from an old boss. Rather than explicitly point out a mistake I had made, he would take the mistake to its logical conclusion. For example, if I wrote that a campaign would run from April-March (rather than March-April), he might reply, “When did our month-long budget get extended to a year?” While my first reaction was, Huh?, upon reflection I appreciated the humor—and gentle guidance.

So, what can we do to minimize these miscommunications? While people will always and forever be lazy, the principles of Web writing suggest separating out anything crucial from the body text. To wit: Any questions or requests should be put in (1) list (2) format, or  at least be bolded or highlighted. The extra time this takes upfront will save you from wasting time down the road.

Jonathan Rick is a social media strategist living in Arlington, VA. He blogs at No Straw Men and tweets at @jrick.

Photo credit: Richard Masoner

The Post-Interview Follow-up Dance

This is a guest post by Jonathan Rick.

If ever you've interviewed for a job you didn′t get, no doubt you've bumped into this unpleasant experience.

You interview, you send a follow-up letter"”maybe even with some writing samples or references"”and then you wait. A week or so goes by, and you check in, yet hear nothing. Another week passes, and your frustration mounts.

If you're lucky, eventually you receive a form letter that the position has been filled.

Excuse me, but what the fuck?

If two parties take the time to schedule and meet for an interview"”in addition to conducting any background research"”doesn′t common courtesy demand acknowledging subsequent communications? Is it that burdensome to respond with boilerplate such as, "We'll let you know if we decide to move forward"? Keeping people in limbo is just plain rude.

So what to do? A recruiter might advise you to keep your chin up and plug along. E-mails being ignored? Pick up the phone. Calls going to voice mail? Leave a message with an assistant.

Let me suggest an alternative. If a prospective employer refuses to give you the time of day, then check that company off your list.

Too often, we strain to craft the polite but pointed e-mail. "Just want to make sure you have everything you need?" "Was wondering if I should plan to uncork a champagne bottle this weekend?" "Thought I′d touch base"¦"

Instead, spurned job seekers would do better to take their talents elsewhere. Just because prospective employers tend to have the upper hand doesn't mean they should abuse it. And just because prospective employees need jobs doesn't mean they should let themselves be taken for granted.

Granted, many job seekers do not enjoy the luxury of being so choosy, especially when the unemployment rate stands at 9.8%

Sharpe's Peril ipod

. Yet this advice not only serves your self-respect; it's also practical, grounded in the experience that if a company is interested in you, it will get back to you, usually promptly. When that doesn't happen, rarely does  following-up change minds.

Jonathan Rick supports clients across the federal government on the strategy and execution of various digital initiatives. He blogs at No Straw Men and tweets at @jrick.


Personal Branding vs. Accomplishments

This is a guest post from Jonathan Rick.

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Would you hire this self-described Internet strategist? He rarely blogs, doesn′t much tweet, and uses YouTube for quick and dirty videos filmed with a Flip camera.

Would your mind change if you knew he were a veteran of Microsoft and Yahoo, whom the Washington Post described as "one of the elder statesmen in the "¦ class of online political operatives"? What if credited him with expanding the Republican National Committee′s e-mail list from 1.8 million to 12 million, and "dramatically improving the party's social media outreach"? His name: Cyrus Krohn.

What about this guru? He, too, rarely tweets, much less blogs, and enjoys only 285 Facebook friends. Yet he′s spent the past two and a half years building, from scratch, what the Politico ranks as the fourth best e-mail list in politics. Last year, PoliticsOnline and the World E-Democracy Forum named him one of the "Top 10 Changing the World of Internet and Politics." His name: David Kralik.

Finally, unlike Cyrus and David, our third executive is active on Twitter, yet has only 271 followers. He suspended his personal blog more than a year ago, and only rarely comments on the blog he helped found, RedState. His day job? Executive Vice President at Edelman, the largest independent pr firm, where he runs the digital public affairs practice and his clients include Wal-Mart and American Petroleum Institute. His name: Michael Krempasky.

Clearly, these guys are major players in the digital media field. They speak at conferences, command sizable salaries, and boast enviable records of accomplishment.

Yet their efforts at personal branding"”their own PR"”are relatively lackluster. In short, they′re behind-the-scenes operators, who keep their heads down. They′ll give a quote to a reporter, but client work is their priority.

And yet, if these folks were job searching, a recruiter no doubt would advise them to raise their own profile"”to beef up their LinkedIn page, optimize the search engine results for their names, and start publishing thought-leadership pieces.

This advice is well taken, but perhaps overdispensed. Even if you work in digital media, you need not have 500 Facebook friends, as David All asks of his potential employees. In fact, you′d do just as well to help a client gain 10,000 Twitter followers than to attain this feat for yourself. As Sean Hackbarth can attest, even being a well-connected blogger since 1999 does not guarantee gainful employment.

Put another way, Show me what you′ve done for others, and I′ll discern who are.

Jonathan Rick supports clients across the federal government on the strategy and execution of various digital initiatives. He blogs at No Straw Men and tweets at @jrick.
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