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The NEEDSer BLOG

Bashful Blagger raves on the ups and downs of life in the fast lane of freelancing. 
Enjoy!

stephenmugshotBy Stephen Johnston

From the outside in, my working life has looked like a series of strange moves. Waiter. Rock musician. Well, those normally go together. Research scientist. Okay, weird jump. Then editor to copywriter… not so unusual. And now trainer, my absolute passion. The one continuous thread? They are all learnable skills.

Statistics are a rollicking good time. Not.

When I moved from Canada to the Netherlands in 1997, I was a research scientist with a background in experimental psychology. In fact, my first job was at the GGD in Amsterdam. And what did I do all day? Statistics. And more statistics. Then, just for a lark – an extra heaping helping of statistics. It was mind-numbingly boring, and because I was working in the real world, it was also fraught with erroneous data and colleagues who had, shall we say, “limited” social skills. It was clear that my days there were numbered.

The only thing that kept me sane was the 5% of my time in which I actually got to write up my research. I loved to write. And guess what? It turned out I was pretty good with words. Soon my colleagues started asking me to help them write their stuff. And that was it. I decided to turn the 5% of my day that I actually enjoyed into 100%.

I quit.

I’m an editor? Hey… I like this!

I was lucky – within weeks, I found a job at KPN editing responses to Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and made the transition into the corporate world quickly and easily.

Whoa! Hold the phones… that was a big fat lie.

The truth is that I made lots of cringe-worthy mistakes… but eventually I settled in, got into a groove, and even wrote their style guide.

Then I heard about a KPN spin-off company that was looking for an experienced copywriter with telecom experience to write their brochures. I had never written a brochure in my life. So naturally, I contacted them, and told them I was exactly who they were looking for.

I’m a copywriter? This is fun!

You know that expression “fake it until you make it”? That’s exactly what I did. I simply told myself I could do it, and I did it. And I learned that copywriting was a cinch – you listen to what the client wants, put it down on paper, and voila!

Um… yeah. That would be your basic whopper too.

What I did realize quickly was that there are a lot of copywriting techniques that can be learned, and I set about doing just that, and then applying them as I went along. When the telecom bubble burst, I was lucky yet again, and found myself writing and editing for an international strategic consultancy firm while starting my own copywriting company on the side. This combination introduced a fun and incredibly steep learning curve, and soon I was an expert writer in a wide variety of fields and industries.

Seriously. This time it’s true.

But there was a lot I didn’t know. I began to understand this when I joined a team at the consultancy company, creating a global business writing course for consultants based partly on the work of Barbara Minto. Minto had recently rocked the business world with her book The Pyramid Principle, which outlined a highly effective technique for writing any type of text clearly and easily.

It transformed the way I looked at my own writing, and the writing of others. Of course, the company made the material different enough to call their own, and soon I was delivering writing workshops throughout Europe. I discovered I was a natural, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

Man. I lied again.

I’m a trainer standing in front of all these people… um… what?

I wasn’t a natural. I talked too fast. I looked at the slides too much. I danced around at the front like I had 17 cups of coffee coursing through my veins. But I had a couple of things going for me. First, my experiences as a waiter made me comfortable with people. Second, my years as a rock musician both in Canada and here in the Netherlands meant that I was relatively comfortable standing in front of crowds. Or more specifically, standing in front of crowds and making mistakes. Third, my experience as a scientific researcher and writer meant that I could absorb and work with detailed information.

I began to learn slowly.

Okay… yes... I am a trainer

Then I took a course in actual presentation delivery style. I call it the Wizard of Oz course, because it opened a doorway into a world I hadn’t imagined. I started to apply the techniques over and over, and they became second nature.

Now I have my own copywriting and training business, and I mix corporate writing theory with what I know about fiction and storytelling, as well as the lessons I have learned about copywriting in general. I still run training workshops across Europe, but I do it on my own terms, with my own material, and I love it.

I can tell you without hesitation that training is a completely learnable skill.

Here’s what I mean.

Yay… a top ten training list!

Here are some things you can practice to make your training session succeed:

1. Tailor your material to your audience. Target each course for that specific audience, their abilities and of course their needs.

2. Get to the location early. There is nothing worse than arriving to find too few chairs, a projector that doesn’t work, or the most terrible disaster of all… no coffee.

3. Manage expectations. At the beginning of the session, ask each participant why they are there and what they want to learn, and then write it down on a flip chart.

4. Speak to each participant. Scan the audience, making eye contact with each participant over and over again. You can do this randomly, or use a “lighthouse method”, moving from left to right and back again.

5. Control your posture and gestures. Stand at a base position that is relaxed with your hands down at your sides. Gesture appropriately and purposefully (and sometimes backwards – if you say “from left to right”, then gesture from your right to your left, which will be left to right from the audience’s perspective).

6. Control your voice. Speak slower, louder and with more cadence and expression than your normal conversational voice.

7. Control the atmosphere. Here’s an example. When you are dealing with questions, try doing these four important things:

• Walk slightly towards the class with an open, receptive posture, such as having your arms slightly spread.

• Look at the person asking the question and listen intently.

• When they finish, rephrase the question, allowing the rest of the participants to hear it, gently nudging the content in the right direction if needed.

• As you wind up the answer, look at anybody but the person who asked the original question. This eliminates a one-on-one repeat question dialogue with a dominating participant.

8. Use a combination of theory and exercises. Participants have a limited attention span, so mix things up with individual and team-based activities. This is especially important after lunch, when participants get sleepy. And it is absolutely vital after a lunch at which wine has been served, when participants want to nap.

9. End the course by showing what the participants have learned. This is easy – go back and review the expectations written on the flip chart at the beginning of the session.

10. Ask for a written evaluation. And listen to the feedback to make sure you are learning too!

A work in progress

I have left the consultancy company, and now I have my own copywriting and training business. I also run training workshops for lots of different companies across Europe, and on my own terms, with my own material.

I love copywriting. I love training. And now that I’ve written the above list, it seems I even love training people how to train!

But when somebody tells me I am a good copywriter I smile. Because I definitely remember when I wasn’t. When they tell me I’m a natural trainer, I laugh out loud. Because I remember all of those mistakes.

Heck… I’m still learning. Aren’t we all?

© Stephen Johnston 2013, Scribe Solutions.

 


esense Issue 29 | April 2013

Reprinted with kind permission from the online newsletter for members of SENSE (Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors). Based in the Netherlands, the society serves as a professional networking community for nearly 400 members, who work as editors, translators, interpreters, copywriters, and teachers of English writing skills.