Episode 8 - James DanielPlease answer the door to the cable guy. Making Conversations about Copywriting Count!
James Daniel – Copywriter
Making Conversations about Copywriting Count
Joining us in this episode is copywriter James Daniel.
He describes himself as ‘That old guy who writes copy – you know, the beardy one with glasses.’
We should point out there could be other old guys with beards and glasses out there!
It’s easy to like James’ style of writing because he’s a conversationalist who realizes that people don’t speak geek or tech.
He doesn’t talk jargon when he explains great copy.
Talking with James about his pivotal moment peels back some interesting layers that some would shy away from…
Listen to other episodes on your favourite platform…
Full Episode Transcript
Making Conversations Count – Episode 8
Wendy Harris & James Daniel
December 10th 2020
00:01:30: The power of conversational emails
00:02:19: “Do you talk like that at home?”
00:04:00: Maintaining a natural voice in conversation
00:07:28: James’s pivotal moment
00:14:40: The value of initiative
00:15:15: From journalism to sales
00:18:22: A (sneaky) second pivotal moment!
00:20:37: Final thoughts
Wendy Harris: Welcome to Making Conversations Count, the podcast where we have business leaders share their pivotal moments to help aspiring entrepreneurs on their journey. Today in the studio, I am joined with James Daniel. He is EarthMonkey Media and does copywriting. So, James, it’s good to have you here. Tell everybody how we met.
James Daniel: Thanks, Wendy, it’s great to be here, thank you. The first sort of contact that we had, I think, was via LinkedIn, wasn’t it? You’d been reading some emails that I send out every week with copywriting tips and marketing ideas, and I heard from you and I know you were particularly taken with one email that had some totally bizarre suggestions about a hippopotamus, I think, wasn’t it?
Wendy Harris: Yes, I remember that clearly! It certainly made me read the email when I saw hippopotamus in the text, which meant I had to reach out. I actually thought, that’s really clever, since I post generally on a weekly basis about hippos somewhere along the line; I squeeze my love of hippopotamuses in for everybody to share with me and I thought you’d written it especially for me.
James Daniel: I had, yeah! No, it’s a funny thing, that injecting a little bit of humour and some vague stuff that doesn’t really seem to naturally fit with business, it just gets people reading, so you draw them into your content. That’s how I like to write emails. But, yeah, that was our first contact of course and since then, we’ve just been chatting and thought it would be a good idea to have this talk about how I sort of got to where I’m at now in my copywriting career.
Wendy Harris: It’s purely that conversational style over that email. I’d seen some of your posts, which is why I’d subscribed in the first place, because I thought, here’s somebody who really gets it, who understands that having a conversation through copy is the way to build relationships; so, I subscribed and I’ve just been a lurker of those emails really.
When that one was just for me, I know because it said something about hippos, I’m going to take it that it was just for me, I just had to reach out because that is what copy is meant to do; it’s supposed to speak to people.
James Daniel: Yeah, it’s the power of conversation. My first book that I wrote is called, “Do you talk like that at home”, and it’s based on a conversation that I had with somebody once. This is not what I want to talk about with you —
Wendy Harris: This is not your pivotal moment?
James Daniel: No, this is not, no!
Wendy Harris: But, interesting about a conversation.
James Daniel: Yes. Somebody at work who was talking, we used to spout all sorts of corporate garbage and we were talking about a process or other that was going on, something that needed to change, and he said to me, “Yes, I endorse that”. And I said to him, “Look, I’ve got to ask you, do you talk like that at home? If your mum says to you, ‘Do you want spaghetti hoops for tea?’ do you say, ‘I endorse that’, or do you say, ‘Yum, that sounds good to me, mum’; which is it?” It’s conversation.
We’re not robotic machines, we’re human beings. We talk like this in natural sort of warm, human language, as if you’re sat in a coffee shop with your friends; not writing a letter to the Bank Manager. And, that’s an obsession of mine, is that conversation is key to everything.
As soon as you can make people feel that you are talking to them one to one, exactly as we’re doing here, exactly as your whole podcast is about, then you instantly build bridges; you build a relationship, a connection with them. It’s based on, I say, that human, that sort of warm touch and it’s incredibly powerful. What you say is every bit as important as how you say it.
Wendy Harris: That must be the common thread through everything you do, through running a business and helping your clients with what you do in business as well?
James Daniel: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I’ve sold everything from hearing aids and mattresses to skin care treatments and an industrial safety harness, you know.
Wendy Harris: I’m glad you said that, because I was waiting for you to say, “Snow to Eskimos”.
James Daniel: Oh, no.
Wendy Harris: And, “Sand to camels”.
James Daniel: No. If you try to sell snow to, it’s an Inuit, isn’t it now? If you try to sell snow to somebody who’s surrounded by snow, then you don’t understand sales. You should be looking to try to sell elsewhere.
I’ve worked in this wide range of industries but, whoever is reading your copy, whatever sort of hat they happen to be wearing that day, as a consumer, as a business buyer, they’re still a human being. You might alter the tone of your conversation a little, just the same as I might talk to my best friend in one way and, say, my auntie in another way, or something, and client in another; you’d alter that.
But, it’s still conversation so it still needs to be the natural voice that you would adopt in that conversational environment, rather than thinking, oh, I’m writing now so it needs to be something different, like when they did English essays in school.
Wendy Harris: I understand completely; that tonality. When you have to put your posh voice on, because you pick up the phone and you need to say this … My best friend, when I ring her, she answers the phone, “Yes, hello?”
James Daniel: Like Hyacinth Bucket?
Wendy Harris: Yes! So, it’s just a standing joke now that when she rings me, I answer the phone, “Yes, hello?” and it’s meant to be off-putting to the person if they’re trying to sell something, or get something, because they don’t really know you; that puts them off. But, it’s still that conversation, isn’t it? If I was to just say, “Yeah, hello?” it’s a bit more inviting.
James Daniel: It’s having less pretence, really. We’re human beings. Whatever your religious stance, we’re basically all shaved monkeys underneath. We take ourselves too seriously and if you recognise that whoever you’re talking to, we’re mostly a meritocracy these days, whoever you’re talking to, they’re no better, no worse than you are; they don’t deserve reverence; they deserve just basically politeness and curtesy. You talk to them just one to one, just the same as you would talk to anybody; that’s so effective.
Wendy Harris: I think you’ve just conjured up the phrase to me that we come into the world and go out of the world in exactly the same way as each other, and it’s just what happens in between that makes us different. I’m going to have to look up that word that you just said.
James Daniel: Meritocracy?
Wendy Harris: Meritocracy; I’m going to have to look that up. That’s not a word I’ve come up against, so well done the copywriter.
James Daniel: Well, no, that’s a cardinal sin for copywriters actually to use a word that somebody doesn’t know, because you’ve failed in your job then!
Wendy Harris: Listeners, send in your comments; what’s your interpretation?
James Daniel: By meritocracy, I mean that we get where we get on merit, rather than through advancement that isn’t naturally due to us. Obviously, there are big conversations going on around the extent to which we have a meritocracy even today. But, I don’t think anyone would deny that we’re far closer to meritocracy now than we were, say, 100 years ago, 200 years ago; we’re certainly edging in that direction.
My point in that really is that the days of having to treat people with reverence because of status that they were born into, I think is long gone.
Wendy Harris: Do you think that that’s a little bit like, “Do you know who I am?”
James Daniel: Yes.
Wendy Harris: Yes, it’s that, isn’t it?
James Daniel: Yes, it’s entirely that. Yes, I do. You’re a human exactly the same as I am.
Wendy Harris: You’re somebody that I’ve been talking and chatting to over time and is successful, however you measure that, to the point that I can’t now actually get anywhere near to have a conversation, and you just go, “Well, you’re still the same person”?
James Daniel: Exactly that, yes.
Wendy Harris: Interesting that this should come out today. So, James, conversation clearly is something that matters an awful lot to you? I think you could probably adopt my strapline of “Making Conversations Count”, in all the things that you do in your copy.
Every guest that comes on, I ask them to share one pivotal moment for the listeners; so, now’s your big moment?
James Daniel: Do you know, I struggled with this, because I narrowed it down to about two or three. So, there is one that is absolutely pivotal that I will share with you, but it was painful to sort of whittle down the list; I can tell you that.
Wendy Harris: You’re not on your own!
James Daniel: So, you’re kind of like, do you remember Roy Plomley from Desert Island Discs? He would say, “You can have one luxury and that’s it”, and he would be really vicious about it.
Wendy Harris: Yeah, it is hard, isn’t it? It’s hard to think of that one thing.
James Daniel: It really is. But, the one I’ve settled on is a conversation that I had back when I worked in the corporate world with the MD of the Welsh region where I was working. So, I live in Cardiff and I was working in the cable industry. I’ll give you a little bit of background before I get to this.
So basically, I’ve been a writer for 32 years now, between journalism and writing for radio, TV, children’s books, etc. And writing, particularly in the early days, doesn’t pay especially way. As you become more established, you can make a living but through those early days, really you can make a part-time income at best.
When I got married, I was working as a journalist and decided, no, this isn’t working for me; I’m not particularly enjoying it; the money’s terrible. So, I decided to take a sales job just to make some decent money and I could focus on my writing work in my spare time. I was trying to break into writing more for TV, that sort of thing.
So, I did that in the cable industry and I spent two years working door to door, just knocking on doors, saying that, “We’ve brought the cable network into your area; let me tell you about what we can do with your phone and your TV, etc”.
Wendy Harris: It’s a tough job.
James Daniel: It is, yeah. I mean, in good weather, when you’re going into a new area where everybody wants it, it’s fantastic; but, when you’re in an area that’s already been marketed several times before and it’s raining and it’s dark and it’s cold, that’s a hard slog, you know. But, surprisingly, I was doing quite well with this, because I’d never seen myself as a salesman at all, but I am good at tailoring solutions for people. But, anyway, I digress.
So, I’d been thinking a lot during this time around how we can improve the business, and one thing that really occurred to me was, when we were going into these new areas, we were sometimes the enemy, because the engineers had been in to put the network into the streets; they’d dug up the streets; they’d made a bit of a mess; there’d been a lot of upheaval. And then, we were coming in to say, “Okay, now can we sell you something?”
So, it occurred to me that what we should be doing is building ties with the community before we begin the sales process. And, we had a community TV channel at the time, called On TV. So, it seemed to me that we could use that channel to strengthen ties, and it could be as simple as, we’re going into this area so let’s go to the local high school and see if we can film their school’s sports day, or their school play, or something like that; or, some kind of event that’s happening in the heart of the community.
Then, first of all, we build up good vibes with these people and secondly, we’re actually putting something on the channel that they could only get through the cable network, so we were also giving a reason to take the service.
Wendy Harris: Reason to switch on, yeah.
James Daniel: And, I think the intangible good will is the more powerful aspect of that, but you know. So, it just occurred to me that would be a good thing to do. And, by this time, after two years of selling, I was also thinking, wouldn’t it be great if they could give me a job running that channel locally.
Wendy Harris: Just a quick question though, James; was it VHS then? Could they record the channel onto a video cassette? We’re going to blow some people’s minds with that.
James Daniel: Well this was back in the late 1990s, so it was probably all still done on Betamax or steam, or something like that; I’m not sure. No, it was still the VHS days.
So, I put a proposal together. Now, our MD, Terry, still is the most amazing leader that I have ever known. He was incredible and he had 600-odd people working there for him and any one of them would have walked through fire for him. He didn’t bully his way through business; he just inspired. He had an open-door policy.
I walked up to him one day when he’d given a talk to the sales team and said, “Could I make a time to come and see you; I’ve got a couple of things I’d like to discuss with you?” He said, “Yeah, brilliant, absolutely”. And I took this proposal to him. He loved the idea, but more than anything I think he loved the way of thinking.
So he said, “Look, I don’t think that we’d be able to get a budget to do something like this, as much as I like it, but I really like what you’re thinking of here and I like the way you’re approaching the issue; that you’ve identified a problem and come with a very detailed solution to it. Everything’s fully costed and loads of programming ideas”. He said, “Leave it with me”.
Ten days later, I was called in to see my immediate boss, who was the Sales Director, who said to me, “Okay, so we want you to go onto a three-month secondment to our Head Office in Farnborough. Like I said, I’m in Cardiff; Farnborough is two to two-and-a-half hours away. It’s a long commute, as I found out, because I spent eventually seven months driving back and forth from Cardiff every day; that was fun. I got to know every pothole on the M4.
He said, “Look, we’ve got you this secondment”, and it was Terry, the MD, who’d had this chat with my boss and said, “Okay, let’s keep an eye out for opportunity”. As it happened, we had a new Marketing Director in corporate, who decided that the marketing team’s approach there was all a bit ivory tower, and they wanted somebody from the ground level, who could come in and give a different perspective.
Wendy Harris: What you’re faced with when you knock the door?
James Daniel: Exactly, yeah, rather than keeping things abstract and clever and witty, as corporate marketing often does. So, there were about 1,000 advisors around the country, you know, sales advisors, so to be picked out of that, I’ll be honest with you, it was very fortunate; the timing of knocking on his door and saying, “Here’s a proposal” just when that opportunity was about to come up. I was very, very fortunate with the timing there.
But, the result was I got the three-month secondment. At the end of that, they actually gave me a job as a National Project Marketing Manager, so I was on a different career path. After about four months there, I was moved back down to Cardiff, thankfully, and it eventually became sort of Business Development Manager, eventually covering half of the UK network as the company grew.
We took on acquisitions, other cable companies, so eventually I was managing half the network across Belfast and Glasgow, and across the north of England, all from that one conversation. So, it’s thanks to that conversation that I have the house that I live in today and that I started to learn so much more about the marketing and the business development process.
It’s just from having the initiative really and recognising that opportunities do not land in your lap, as such; you’ve got to go out and make them. And, I acknowledge that I was fortunate to an extent in this, but it’s only because I made something happen in the first place.
Wendy Harris: Yeah, initiative’s a good word, I think, James, because a lot of people don’t probably value the initiative that is needed. And, on the face of it, that idea that you had that you went in with didn’t happen, so it doesn’t matter how good the idea is, it’s just the start or seed of an idea that grew into something else.
James Daniel: Yeah.
Wendy Harris: It’s a bit like planting something and not knowing whether you’re going to get tomatoes, potatoes or onions. It really doesn’t matter what it is that’s going to grow, it’s the fact that you’ve put yourself out there to say, whatever happens, I’m your girl, or I’m your man, or whatever?
James Daniel: Yeah. It’s sowing seeds, it’s making connections, it’s showing people what you can do, rather than hoping that they’re going to sort of say, “Right, who wants to do this?” because, if that had have just been put out right across the country, then I would have been one of hundreds and hundreds of people putting myself forward for it.
But, yeah, I think there is a good lesson for anybody in a career or in business which is, you’ve got to knock down your own doors; knock down the barriers yourself and pick what you want and start having those conversations.
Wendy Harris: The standout for me is you said that you left a journalist job and went into sales. I bet it wasn’t half what you thought it was going to be and it was hard work to get even near the money that you wanted?
James Daniel: I mean, in my first month in sales, I earned three times what I’d earned as a journalist, and it was only about 20% as stressful.
Wendy Harris: Really?
James Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. I hated my life as a journalist, so that would be one of the reasons; but also, the money was just so much better. It was a relatively easy product for me just because I’m a lifelong telly addict and I just like talking about it.
Wendy Harris: There’s not many people that would say, “Hands up”, at school, “I’m going to be in sales”. You would say, “I’m going to be a journalist”. But, take the money aside from all of that, it’s interesting that the skills that you had as a journalist have actually helped you shape into this new career path as well. So, don’t ever underestimate the skills that you’ve got.
James Daniel: Oh, no, not at all. In fact, that was the thing that made it work, because when I began the secondment, the first thing they asked me to do was to find out why customers were leaving, so it was a project. Why are they leaving us, either by disconnecting or by running up a bill so that we switched them off?
I said, “Well, okay, I’m completely new to the business environment here. The only thing that I have that I can apply is my journalist skills. So, if I treat this as an investigation, I can do it and I can report everything back to you”.
Wendy Harris: Was it what they thought, or was there another reason?
James Daniel: There were different people dotted around the country who had different theories and it was my job to travel around the country and talk to everybody and compile their theories on what it was, and then look at the data and see how that aligned to the different theories and try and make some rational sense of the whole thing.
Like I say, it was a completely new kind of fact-finding exercise for me; nothing I was used to at all. I’d never even used PowerPoint at the time and had to put it all into a presentation. Yeah, it seemed to make a different, because then the senior managers had me travelling all around the country again delivering the presentation and delivering recommendations off the back of it.
So, it was very much to do with the journalism side. And of course, when I left that job after nine years, everything I’d done previously in journalism married with all the stuff that I’d been doing in that job really to take me into the next part of my career.
In fact, this was the other conversation I was going to try and sneak in.
Wendy Harris: Go on then, James!
James Daniel: The second most influential conversation is one that I had with a recruiter not long after I left the cable industry.
He looked at my CV; I was about 36 at the time. He looked at my CV and said, “It looks to me like I’m talking to two 30-year-olds, because I don’t know what you are. Are you a writer, a creative person?” By this time, I’d had a few TV shows on as well. He said, “Are you this creative person, or are you a sales, marketing and business development person?”
That really hit home, because of course I’d had very little sense of direction in my career. I’d just been, I like writing, I’m good at writing, this is what I’m going to do, and I was just drifting. This was where I finally settled on becoming a copywriter. But, it’s the only thing that makes sense of that diverse background that I’d almost fallen into.
Most copywriters come to it as a second career. It’s not a good first career; you need experience in either sales or journalism or marketing, and I’d managed to pick up experience in all three.
Wendy Harris: A golden shape?
James Daniel: Yeah, exactly. So, I decided to retrain, add qualifications and then start the business. But, that second conversation there was all about, okay look, choose a direction now, use what you’ve done, focus, move forward. So, that was also pivotal.
Wendy Harris: Yes. Well I would agree with why you would choose that as a backup to everything that you’ve done. Certainly, with the way the conversation has gone now, is that you’ve laid all your skills out, but everybody’s encouraged to do that, aren’t they? Put everything down, put everything out there, tell them what you can do.
But, if that then leaves you with a confused picture and you can’t tell the story in your head about how to then utilise those skills going forward, it was a great comment and remark for you to go, “Hmm, I hadn’t realised I was giving that image off of myself”?
James Daniel: Exactly. And now, when I tell my own story, if I’m meeting a client and they say, “Tell me about yourself”, or if I’m writing a biography, I will very often start with that conversation with the recruiter; that critical moment.
Wendy Harris: James, it’s been a blast having you on the show. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your pivotal moment.
James Daniel: Thank you.
Wendy Harris: If people want to pick up the conversation with you, where can they find you?
James Daniel: They could go to my website, which is jamesthecopywriter.co.uk and you can get a free copy of my latest book there which is called, “Before you JFDI”. It’s about, you know, everybody’s telling you to just jump in and do something, anything; and I’m saying, well, look before you leap. A little bit of planning before you strap on a blindfold and say, “Okay, let’s try this”, will go a long way.
Jamesthecopywriter.co.uk, NOT .com, because another copywriter called James beat me to that one by an hour to register that domain, so don’t go to him!
Wendy Harris: Oh, no!
James Daniel: Don’t go to him; it’s .co.uk.
Wendy Harris: But, you’re on LinkedIn as well under jdcopywriter as well?
James Daniel: That’s right.
Wendy Harris: We’ll put all the links in the show notes. Thank you so much again, James. For the listeners, don’t forget to send us your comments; we do reply to every one of them. Share this with your friends and family and don’t forget to subscribe. The link, as always, is www.makingconversationscount.studio/podcast. Thanks for listening.
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As well as an insight into the human character, you’ll learn just as much on how to hack your day-to-day business operations.
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