By Callie Oettinger
Published: April 22, 2016
If you want to master communicating and building relationships with the gatekeepers, tastemakers, potential customers, etc within your industry, the first step is to leave your industry.
About ten years ago, I ran across Michael J. Critelli’s Harvard Business Review article “Back Where We Belong.” I kept a copy of the article, surprised that a Pitney Bowes executive had mentioned the book The Sling and The Stone. I was repping the title and it was not a business book, nor one I had considered pitching to a business audience. However… Critelli’s attention to the defense world as a part of his “ear to the ground” strategy made sense. (It’s even more interesting to read now, as Critelli wrote the article during a time of great upheaval in the shipping industry, which plays into shipping today.)
A few takeaways from the article:
1) I needed to pay more attention to cross-over audiences. Who else might be interested in the projects on which I was working?
2) I needed to learn the language of different audiences. I could speak defense and history, but was not fluent in business and other potential crossover industries.
One of my college roommates used to tease me for saying everything twice. For example, if someone asked my opinion, I might reply, “You’re right. You’re definitely right.” If they needed to learn how to do something, I might say, “You need to go to the store and buy x, y and z first. You can’t do it without buying x, y and z first.” I didn’t pay attention to my looping dialogue until her good-natured teasing, but I’ve self-edited ever since.
Digging into the legal industry has been helpful as clarity is key within the legal world, where wordiness and poorly-thought-out letters can lead to trouble. You’ve got to get to the point and edit out the distractions.
Letter to the Stranger
Among the best advice I’ve read about writing letters (both within and outside the legal world) is in Pam Wright and Pete Wright’s book From Emotions to Advocacy. I’m partial to the book’s “Letter to the Stranger” section, in which the authors ask readers to:
Assume that before you mail your letter, your letter slips out of your notebook and falls into the street. Later, a Stranger sees your letter and picks it up. The Stranger puts the letter in his pocket and takes it home to read. What impression will your letter make on this Stranger?
The authors offer the example of seeing “couples arguing or parents disciplining their children in public” — something we’ve all experienced. They then ask:
What was your reaction? If you are like most people, you felt uncomfortable. Perhaps you had a stronger emotional reaction. You did not like it! You felt sympathy for the person who was being humiliated. People have the same reaction when they read angry letters.
In a previous article, “How to Pitch,” I shared a number of e-mails/letters that Steve and/or Black Irish Books have received, with examples of what to keep and what to avoid within the e-mails/letters. I didn’t include “Angry Letters” as a section, but what the Wrights wrote about angry letters applies to all categories of letter writing.
Strangers receiving your letter are viewing one slice of you/your project. They don’t have the full context, just as you don’t have the background for the couple fighting in the park. That couple’s appearance in your life is similar to your letter’s appearance in the life of a journalist (or potential customer or anyone else). It is unexpected, and often unwanted, contact. Your letter can not turn off the journalist the way the arguing couple turned off passersby. You want to engage, not push away.