How Not to Write a Value Prop

Whether you’re working to get your startup off of the ground, or hunting for a new job, you have to be able to sell yourself–which means you need a value proposition. But here’s the catch–your value prop should not start with “I” or “we.”

Nobody wants to hear someone talk about themselves—and nobody wants to be sold to. People buy from people—and people hire people. Ultimately, they want to know what’s in it for them—and you have to figure out a way to make them a part of your story, and make it engaging.

So what makes a great value prop or pitch? Aside from being stuffed with adjectives, here are four things it absolutely shouldn’t be.

  1. Vague. Let’s pretend you own a dry-cleaning service. If your tagline is “getting your clothes clean every time” (as opposed to getting your clothes clean only half of the time), you need to be more specific. What does Jane think when she drops off her clothes? It’s more than just trusting you’ll handle her garments with the utmost care. It’s making her picture dropping off her clothes with you while she’s juggling full-time work, picking up the kids at daycare, and hitting the gym for an hour before the big interview tomorrow. Thanks to you, she’s not going to have to worry about what to wear. She’s going to walk into that interview feeling like a million bucks because of your fast turnaround and quality work.


  1. A mad lib. Your value prop should not be interchangeable with your rival’s. Here’s an example: “Get your bachelor’s degree at John Doe University and get the tools you need to advance your career.” The first problem with this value prop is that it isn’t not in any way specific to John Doe University, and the second problem is that it’s stating the obvious. Of course you are going to advance your career with a degree—otherwise, you wouldn’t be shopping around for schools (and nobody would expect to graduate from college without the tools to get the job). Instead, tell your prospects what’s unique or different about your school—something that nobody else has to offer. If you can’t think of one, conduct some focus groups with current customers. What do they love? What don’t they love? Chances are, there’s a value prop living in their answers.


  1. Perfect for everyone. The “one size fits all” mantra might work great when you’re buying socks, but it doesn’t help if you don’t know who you are really targeting. If you don’t have a targeted audience, you don’t have a product—much less a pitch. Consider this: If you don’t know who your audience is, how will you know what they want? And if you don’t know what they want, you can’t even begin to define your value—and how it’s better or different than the competition. To define your audience, look at demographics. Who do you want to buy from you? And, more importantly, who is already buying from you? What’s their typical age range, occupation, income level, education level, etc.? If you don’t know, maybe it’s time to do some more research.


  1. Poorly communicated. I’m a firm believer that good copywriting causes readers to take action (and in a perfect world, tugs at their heartstrings and makes them feel vulnerable), but for all practical senses, good copywriting should be short, succinct, and clear. It should focus on what you offer and why it’s better, and leave the product features (such as available discounts, size, or “here’s what’s included”) for the bottom. If you can’t engage your customers right away, it won’t matter how small your pores will be when you use this makeup, or the fact you will get half off when you buy two widgets, because most customers will have already stopped reading. And if you’re giving your elevator pitch in person, there’s no exception. Chances are, you’ll be nervous when you pitch—but remember, it’s not about you. It’s about them. So ask them questions if you get stumped—people love talking about themselves. Then, you can use their words to tell your story.




How to tell if your cover letter sucks


I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately about how the cover letter doesn’t matter, and it’s been bothering me a lot.

Maybe in some fields–where you have recruiters working for you or your jobs are simply based on word of mouth–the cover letter doesn’t matter. But for all things communications, and marketing, it does.

Here’s the thing: if you can’t tell your OWN story through a simple 1-page cover letter, how in the WORLD are you going to tell someone else’s?

I’ve been involved in several hiring processes at my current and former jobs. And while some people might toss that cover letter aside in favor of something else, I always look at it pretty critically. Now, I’m admittedly not the greatest cover letter writer myself, but here’s some things I’ve noticed over the years that you absolutely should not do when applying for that dream (or even not so much a dream) job.

  1. Use bad or outdated grammar. This goes beyond basic grammar you learned in middle school. I’m talking about the use of passive voice, verb tense agreement problems, and basically anything that makes you sound like someone who should not be promoting the brand of the company you’re applying for. (And while this is not necessarily grammar related, the “Dear Sir or Madam” greeting just makes you sound totally dated). Bottom line: Be professional, but conversational, and someone I’d like to talk to.
  2. Spell out everything on your resume. You should not be copying and pasting all of your job descriptions in the cover letter between “Greetings” and “Sincerely.”
  3. Fail to tell me how you can actually fulfill the requirements listed in the job description. Just because you have a journalism degree doesn’t mean you can write. Show me how (through past accomplishments or any other relevant anecdotes) how your newswriting skills can give you what it takes to come up with an amazing e-mail subject line in a short amount of time.
  4. Refuse to give me a sense of your personality by telling me an interesting story about an extracurricular activity or volunteer experience. Did you run a homeless shelter for a couple of years or run 10 ultramarathons? Mention it. Most people have lives outside of their work, and I want to hear about it. Cultural fit is everything.
  5. Forget to link to an online portfolio of clips, or forget to update your personal blog or website. For writers and designers–your writing and design skills are obvious from the resume and degrees, right? Wrong. Give me a link to your online presence and make sure the links you’re giving me actually work and are relevant to the job you’re seeking.

Now, there are exceptions to every rule. But for the most part, employers want people who have taken the time to ensure their materials are written well, edited well, and properly reflect what they can bring to the table.

And if you’re sloppy in your cover letter, I’m going to assume you’re sloppy in that e-mail copy you’ll have to write.

How “friends with benefits” applies to copywriting


See how quickly people are moving these days? Nobody has time to read ads in depth.

You know the phrase, “friends with benefits?” Yeah, we’ve all been there (most of us, anyway).

The great thing about friends with benefits is that there’s always something in it for you without any kind of commitment. The same is true with writing.

“Benefits first” copywriting is nothing new…yet, there are times when this “benefits first” approach is ignored, at risk of disengaging a potential customer.

Here’s why “benefits first” is so important. Let’s say there’s a journalism course you’re interested in taking. And the course description is something like this…

Our expert faculty members at this very prestigious university have all worked for large-circulation daily newspapers and have many years of experience in the field. One of our faculty members is even friends with Barbara Walters! Don’t miss this amazing class! You will learn:

• the 5W’s of good writing and reporting
• the basics of good grammar and AP style
• interviewing techniques
• shorthand and much more.

Now, to some people, this might sound like a pretty decent course description.

For me, not so much. Here’s why:

  1. It’s nice that you pointed out “expert faculty,” but would you really hire someone at your prestigious university who wasn’t an expert? And if they are experts, isn’t it pretty clear they would have many years of experience in the field? If not, I wouldn’t be expecting them to teach this course.
  2. You can teach me all you want about the 5W’s, but what am I really going to get out of it? I’ve never taken a journalism course before, so the 5W’s means nothing. Tell me how you’re going to make me a stealthy reporter who will stop at nothing to get the story out quickly and accurately.
  3. The basics of good grammar and AP style. These are lifelines for journalists. I wouldn’t expect anyone to teach bad grammar or AP style.
  4. Interviewing techniques. This sounds good, but what am I really getting out of it? Tell me I’m going to learn how to ask the same question three different ways in case my source is tight-lipped on a controversial topic. Or, how I can get the information I need quickly from my sources when I’m working furiously on election night.
  5. Shorthand. Just tell me you’re going to teach me how to write at lightning speed, so that if I’m covering a murder trial and my iPhone battery dies, I’ll be able to quote the DA’s every word.

I’ve been guilty of writing descriptions or sales copy that sounds like this. Most of the time, it’s because the information I received just wasn’t enough to create a solid benefit. If you find yourself in this trap (and I do often), ask yourself– if you can’t come up with a good benefit, is it even worth promoting?

Just like friends with benefits, everyone wants to get something out of said promotion–otherwise, they’re going to disengage after reading the first sentence. After all, statistics show readers don’t commit–they bounce around online from one page to the next. Leave the features–like expert faculty, AP stylebooks, and other things–for the very end. Those items aren’t really “selling” the object at hand–they’re just providing a little something extra once the consumer has decided to buy what you’re selling.

And don’t confuse the reader with technical jargon or something that’s just completely out of scope for a newbie. Be realistic. Tell them how you’re going to change their careers or their lives, whether it’s by helping them learn a skill that will result in a promotion or saving their company tons of money. Whatever it is, they have to get something out of what you’re selling. And that’s the real benefit.





New boots, new blades…

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 11.12.18 PMAbout a week and a half ago, I was forced to retire my old figure skates. Why? After about a year of carrying screwdrivers with me to every competition in fear of chasing down loose screws during warmup (which was always a regular occurrence during practice) I decided it was time to upgrade to some new, stiffer boots and some new blades.

I’ve been skating about five years on a pair of boots that are roughly two sizes too small (resulting in stabbing foot pain that occurs at really random times, even when I’m off the ice) and blades that are not big enough for the “advanced” moves I’m learning. Don’t get me wrong–I’m no Gracie Gold, but at least now we have the same blades.

The first time I put on my new skates I was, unusually, not in any pain. Most skaters spend 2-3 weeks breaking in skates with bloody blisters, sores, and just a general feeling that something isn’t right. You suffer the “bent knee” syndrome because the boot’s tongue is cutting into your shins, preventing you from bending your knees (something that all experienced skaters naturally do) and your feet feeling as though they’re being squeezed by somesort of press. Me? My old skates were so painful and ill-fitting that my new skates felt like I was literally skating on a cloud.

Except for the blades. I ordered Pattern 99’s, which are easily the best in the business right now for all advanced skaters. However, Pattern 99’s have a HUGE rocker and toepick, and compared to my old blades (basically just a pathetic step-up from rec skates at an outdoor rink) it was a tremendous adjustment. In fact, when my coach instructed me to skate backwards for the first time in them, I wiped out immediately, landing on a spot in my hip that has already taken a beating in past backspin attempts.

But I persevered. Despite the fear I felt doing simple turns I could almost do in my sleep, I skated all of my normal practices without skipping out early. Now, about 10 days later, I’m chomping at the bit to resume my normal jumps and spins.

New boots, new blades. A new outlook? I’m working on it. I’ve got a lot of awkwardness to smooth out in the next year (or five) and I’m ready to tackle it.


figure skating love

Figure skating life lessons: sprained ankles and risk-taking

Roughly two months ago, I sprained my ankle while figure skating–trying to land an axel, to be exact. Instead of landing on the flat of my blade (or slipping off my heel, which I am NOT supposed to do), I landed toepick first. Which means all of my body weight came crashing down on that one point, causing my ankle and related tendons and ligaments to twist and pull as I came crashing downwards. The aftermath? At first my ankle didn’t hurt–but the accident took my breath away as I imagined what else could have gone wrong. While I walked out of that ice rink without a limp, over the next couple of hours, however, my ankle began to swell up and I spent the next couple of days hobbling around.

Against the advice of my family and friends, I took only three days off of the ice. When I came back, I resumed slowly, practicing mostly moves in the field and spins on my good leg. Instead of skating 5 days a week at 110% effort, I skated 3, with about 80% effort. Even though I knew it was risky, I also knew I needed to maintain what I had been working so hard to accomplish.

Not being able to skate the way I normally do–which includes jumping with my usual “reckless abandon,” was heartbreaking. There were actually several days when I left the ice fighting back tears because I couldn’t do my usual flips and lutzes. It hurt some days when I tried wimpy waltz jumps–and when I finally did ease back into my usual jumps, I had to cut my practices short as soon as I sense my landings were off for fear of re-injury.

Now, I’m pretty much back to normal. My physical therapist has confirmed that my ankle is healing normally, and I’ve even started running again. The butterflies in my stomach that would creep up as I set up for a single loop jump (where even a slightly forward landing could mean disaster) have disappeared.

Even though I was probably playing with fire a bit those mornings I skated with slight soreness, I’m glad I didn’t take any time off. I’ve somehow progressed even more since I got injured, and while I still haven’t landed any axels, I will most likely soon.

Skating has taught me a lot of things–discipline, how to get up early in the morning (6 am ice time, which means landing lutzes when you’re half-asleep), but mostly, to take risks and never give up. I think these life lessons have translated over to my career in some ways–though getting up early for work is still not my forte, risk-taking is. Sometimes, you just have to follow what you think will have the best outcome, even if it’s not the most popular decision. Because sometimes, you might surprise yourself.

How good writing is like a bad breakup

Breakups. We’ve all been through it. Whether you were the dumper or the dumpee, and  the relationship ended in person, over the phone, or by e-mail, chances are, it went something like this…

“I’m really busy right now, and I just don’t have the time to dedicate to our relationship right now.”

“It’s not you, it’s me.”

Or, there’s no explanation at all, which is probably the worst.

So why do relationships really end? Chances are, there are any multitude of reasons that are not listed in any of the above explanations. But do you tell someone that? No, never. Most people prefer to be vague to avoid being “mean.”

When it comes to writing, however, you need to employ that bad breakup strategy. When I was a TA at UW-Madison 10+ years ago, I learned about this analogy, and I think it’s genius. And it was particularly effective with students, especially those who had been dumped with little to no explanation.

Here’s why you can’t write the same way your ex explained your relationship ending: Because it’s vague. And nobody wants to read something that is open to interpretation.

We live in an age where, thanks to the Internet and other distractions, attention spans are at an all-time low. You only have a few seconds, and a few words, to captivate your readers. If what you’ve written is in any way confusing, or doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for, chances are they will move on to something else. But, unlike a breakup, they won’t spend hours poring over your writing trying to find out what your words really mean. So be bold. Tell them what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it. You’re doing them, and yourself, a huge favor.

5 words that always get my red pencil

red pencilPart of my current job is to proofread copy for marketing materials like brochures and sell sheets, many of which are used to advertise technical science courses. I’ve always been a somewhat ruthless editor (dating back to my college newspaper days when I did actually use red pencils, and reporters would groan when they realized they needed to run their copy past me before heading out for the evening) but I’ve learned lately that you need to pick your battles. Nonetheless, here’s a list of my least favorite word choices (and I would love it if people would stop using them!)

1. “In order.” Unless you’re counting out specific steps for something, you don’t need it. And why would you need to point out your steps are in order anyway? (Would you actually give someone steps out of order?)

Here’s an example:

“This exercise will demonstrate your ability to read technical jargon in order to find out if you’re a good candidate for this job.”

If you remove the “in order,” the sentence meaning remains the same, with a smaller word count!

2. The overuse of “very.” Very is an adjective and an adverb that is usually unnecessary. Sure, we use “very” when we speak (and many of the things we write we aim to be conversational), but it’s not needed. A former boss once told me that if you have to saturate all of your copy with adjectives (“very” being a common offender), then you need to improve your writing skills.

3. “Expert” and “expertise.” Now, this is a tough one. We all would like to consider ourselves an expert at something, but if you’re writing a biography and state that you have 30 years of experience writing advertising copy, do you really need to state that you’re a writing expert? If you’ve worked in advertising for that long and people don’t trust your writing skills, you’ve got some problems.

4. “Key,” in reference to things like “key steps” or “key objectives.” When I think of “key,” I think of the object that opens my car door. I realize that some people might use “key” instead of “important” because it’s shorter, but when you’re talking about the steps to complete an equation, for example, aren’t they all important? (Would you give someone a list of steps to complete a procedure that aren’t actually necessary?)

5. This is a phrase, but “Have an Opportunity.” Example: “You will have an opportunity to talk with a therapist about your problem.” Why not just say, “You can talk with the therapist about your problem”? I realize that “opportunity” might sound more grandeur, but these days, we’re fighting (literally) for every second we can keep a reader’s attention span before that person clicks elsewhere (or tosses your direct mail piece in the trash). Keep it short. Readers trust copy that sounds more honest.

This is just the short list, (and I guarantee I’ll offend even my own writing rules by using one of these or letting it slip by in edits) but I think it’s always helpful to step back and take a look at what you can do to make your writing even more succinct.