The wording of the storefront sign in downtown Manhattan was so transparent it was jarring. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and it occurred to me that pitch writing would benefit from the same surprisingly honest approach.

My family just completed a 17-day tour up the East Coast from Williamsburg to Boston guided by, of all things, the musical “Hamilton.” My four tweens-and-teens are obsessed with that show, have the soundtrack memorized, and have read a book about its production.

So when we got to the NYC area, of course, we had to hit such atypical sites as the dueling grounds where Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton and his grave outside Trinity Church near Wall Street.

While the kids were looking at his tombstone, my eyes wandered to the permanent sign outside the shoe store across the street:

(If there’s a problem with the image, it says, “We are probably the lowest priced in the city.”)

In the midst of being bludgeoned by thousands of hyperbolic ads on cabs, buses, bus stops, and more, the honesty was more than refreshing – it was captivating. My mind raced – “Do they have really strict lawyers who wouldn’t let them say ‘lowest prices in the city?’ Or are the owners just old-fashioned? Or are the marketing people doing it on purpose to be ‘authentic?’”

Regardless, at least for me, it worked. Are you the same way? When you encounter direct, forthright communication, does it stand out from the deluge of overly promotional wording?

Most journalists and bloggers are cut from this cloth. Think of it – all day they open emails that say, “New users are flocking to our best-in-class UX and raving about their delight on social media.”

What if yours was the email that said, “Our site just launched, so there’s no way we can compete – yet – with the user experience of sites with more resources like AirBnB or VRBO. But the one way we are different – which is why users are trying us out anyway – is our . . .”

I know, your initial reaction is that your marketing people might have a fit. But maybe they’re so sick of fake promotional language, they’ll hear you out and sign off on an experiment.

If you want to get noticed, go against the grain.

And next time you’re in downtown Manhattan, you now know where to get your shoes :).

On a recent East Coast trip with my family, I saw a sign on a downtown Manhattan store that was so transparent it was jarring. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, and it occurred to me that pitch writing would benefit from the same surprisingly honest approach.

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Last week a few readers emailed me links about a new software startup that is going to “disrupt” the public relations industry by automating much of the pitching process.

This used to happen about once every two years. Now the emails come about every six months. Investors are really into artificial intelligence replacing humans.

I love it when this happens for two reasons. First, because it would be awesome if someone could get this right someday. Second, because that day is a loooong way off, when people are chasing this dream that means less competition for those of us who still believe in “old-fashioned” one-to-one relationship building.

The start-ups tend to go like this. A software engineer sees a bunch of people who want content (journalists and bloggers) and a bunch of people trying to give it to them (us). But the exchange is super-messy, with lots of unwanted emails flying at the wrong times. To the engineer, this appears to be a marketplace like collectibles were before eBay came along. The engineer thinks, “If I can be the one to unify this market onto a platform that smooths out this exchange of information, everyone will be better off, and I’ll win.”

They usually start by creating some artificial intelligence that processes jillions of articles and posts and tweets around the world to determine who covers what. This is the part of the process that I’m looking forward to someone conquering. Right now, when we build media lists we basically have two choices – pull a list from a subscription database built by humans, or apply our own “mental algorithm” to our own Google searches.

After identifying the targets, the engineer’s process typically involves a smoother communication process for the gatekeeper, like some sort of opt-in platform where they can quickly click “yes” or “no” after receiving a pitch. The engineer is looking to build a walled garden where everyone wants to be.

And this is where the approach breaks down. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly in the 15 years I’ve been training on media relations. The startups haven’t been able to get a critical mass of journalists or bloggers to join their system.

It’s telling that the only such effort that’s worked has been HARO, the platform where influencers can query PR people to ask for sources for stories they’re working on. That succeeded because the journalists are the ones driving the process, on their time and their terms.

And if the engineer pivots and tries an approach that doesn’t require permission from the influencers, it requires too much human expertise to be cheap enough to sell at scale.

Until I see a system that is invisible to the influencers that captures the same nuance as the savvy media relations pros I work with every week, I won’t believe that software can replace PR pros. I sure hope it can get better at the repetitive tasks associated with pitching, such as combing for producers of relevant content.

And I’ll continue to be excited whenever one of these new approaches builds momentum, because the more common it becomes for influencers to see outreach handled by a computer, the easier it will be to stand out by simply being human.

Last week a few readers emailed me links about a new software startup that is going to “disrupt” the public relations industry by automating much of the pitching process. Here are my thoughts on AI coming into the PR industry and why I would be happy if it did.

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Why would a time-starved journalist make the time to accept an in-person meeting when they could just as easily get information from you by phone or email?

That was the question that came in various forms during the virtual training meeting I held for my Inner Circle members this week.

We heard from two Inner Circle members who are making media visits work:

 – Maureen Carrig has conducted five media trips over the past 12 months for her large company to top-tier business press. One of those trips alone has yielded articles in the WSJ, USAT, AP, Bloomberg and counting.
– Jane Putnam works for a scrappy consumer tech startup and booked visits for her CEO with CNBC, Good Housekeeping, Fit Pregnancy and Parents. They took a redeye to New York, went straight into the visits, and flew home that night – a 24-hour trip with no sleep. It paid off, as the CEO was an in-studio guest on CNBC a few weeks later, among other placements.

Maureen and Jane generously shared the planning timelines, briefing book tips, and actual email pitches they used for these successes.

But still the question kept popping up: why would busy influencers accept a meeting invitation?

And I understand. We see journalists on Twitter all the time expressing how full their schedules are, and occasionally criticizing the way some PR people approach them. Plus, when you take the question at face value, there ISN’T any reason why a busy reporter, editor or producer would block out time for a meeting when they could just get the information by email or even phone.

To find the answer, you look deeper than that question.

These busy influencers aren’t taking the meeting to get information. They’re taking the meeting to begin a relationship. They’re looking beyond an immediate story and realizing that the executives Maureen and Jane are connecting them with will be valuable resources in the long run.

There’s another layer to this, too. Maureen and Jane didn’t say this, but after I reviewed their outreach in detail over the past couple weeks, I observed that they provided so much value THEMSELVES that the influencers – consciously or subconsciously – must have realized, “She’s got it together. She’s helping me do my job better. If she thinks I should meet this guy, I’m going to do it if I can.”

These two PR pros thought of every little reason why their sources and their companies mesh with these journalists’ goals, and communicated that with just the right balance of helpfulness and tenacity.

In short, the way that you see journalists taking the time to do things they don’t normally do – talk on the phone, accept meetings, thank you for sending five follow-up emails (true story) – is to know their needs so well that you can provide unmistakable value.

That’s when you shift in their minds from a faceless “PR person” – or even “flack” – to a valuable “source” they look forward to meeting.

Why would a time-starved journalist make the time to accept an in-person meeting when they could just as easily get information from you by phone or email? That was the question that came in various forms during the virtual training meeting I held for my Inner Circle members this week. Here’s my answer.

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During our hike in the mountains Saturday my wife pointed to some dandelions beside the trail and said, “I keep thinking these are weeds, but up here they’re wildflowers.”

What’s a weed? A plant that grows on its own, without nurture, that people don’t like.

What’s a wildflower? A plant that grows on its own, without nurture, that people DO like.

The same idea came to mind when I noticed Melody’s question on our private Inner Circle forum. She described a promising idea she had to contact a reporter. But she was conflicted because it was outside the journalist’s published preferences: “Is this being resourceful or being annoying?” she wondered.

My answer to her: “If the reporter likes your pitch, you were ‘resourceful.’ If not, then you might have been ‘annoying.’”

This ambiguity might seem frustrating at first, but it’s actually a great thing. It means you can develop the judgment and experience to ignore “rules.” Those have limited applications and can be arbitrary at times anyway. Rely instead on your expertise when making pitching decisions.

Today you can learn more than ever about the media you hope to contact – not only can you review all their recent work instantly, you can get a great feel for their personality via the clues they drop on social media. You devour as many examples of successful pitches as you can get your hands on to expand your vision of what’s appropriate or even possible.

When Media Relations Masters say they “trusted their instincts” or “followed their gut” when explaining how they succeeded with a contrarian approach, what they really mean is that they paid the price to develop a deep enough perspective that they knew which rules to ignore and which to follow.

Know your targets up and down, know your story cold, and seek out great pitches to learn from, and you can eventually show up like a wildflower every time.

During our hike in the mountains Saturday my wife pointed to some dandelions beside the trail and said, “I keep thinking these are weeds, but up here they’re wildflowers.” So what’s the difference between a weed and a wildflower?

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I totally get why journalists and bloggers vent their frustrations about PR people online, and why people would think that could be a valuable source of intelligence about how to better connect with them. But the frequent negativity dampens your confidence, and their generalizations can even lead you away from the very tactics your peers are using to get results.

This was reinforced to me after I recently spoke earlier this month at a conference of PR agency owners. After my speech, the attendees shared stories of their discussions with their teams about boosting their pitching results.

Three of them mentioned a version of this of conversation:

Owner: Have you tried calling them?

Staffer: Well it says on (media database, Twitter, their bio) that they want to get pitches by email.

Owner: Of course it says that – otherwise they’d be overwhelmed with calls.

These business leaders, who sink or swim based on results, naturally understand that earning more than your share of success requires going against the grain. Now depending on your comfort level with the phone in general, you may be recoiling that I’d dare suggest that calling reporters is a good idea.

I happen to think it is, but this isn’t a message about phone pitching. It’s about not ceding your freedom of choice to what journalists and bloggers say or post to faceless masses. It’s about determining what actually works when you do it right.

I don’t blame journalists for making those blanket declarations – I’d do the same in their shoes. But I’d be remiss if I parroted those back to you in these posts when I’m seeing savvy pros reap success by doing the opposite.

No technique is dead – it’s all in the execution.

For example, which would give you a better chance of actually getting noticed when reaching out cold to a top-tier reporter? An email, or a hand-written note?

Sure replying to a handwritten note is harder, but I guarantee you’ll stand out from the pack. Try sending one to your hard-to-reach contacts, then time your email for the day after it arrived.

My takeaway for you is that when you’re seeking insights and resources about pitching better, you should turn to people who are doing it successfully. They’ll be constructive and encouraging, and in addition to the new or vetted approaches you’ll learn, you’ll leave those interactions with confidence and enthusiasm.

I totally get why journalists and bloggers vent their frustrations about PR people online. But the frequent negativity dampens your confidence, and their generalizations can even lead you away from the very tactics your peers are using to get results.

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Stop the PR insanity!

PR pros are pretty hard on themselves…

You want to succeed; you have tons to do and very little time to do it.

Today, I’m going to offer you a secret that will “stop the PR insanity” almost instantly.

It will give you MORE time, give you MORE energy, and give you much more CLARITY about how to go through your days and weeks.

So first, a definition: what is “PR Insanity?”

PR insanity is when you stress about things OUTSIDE of your control.

The solution should be pretty obvious: develop the discipline to stop doing this.

Easier said than done!

Understand that this is a habit you’ve developed over YEARS, so that little voice in your head is probably going to have a FIT when you try to make a change.

For example, think about how much PR pros stress about getting responses from journalists.

Is THIS something you control?

Well, you control how well you write the pitch, how focused it is, how valuable it is, how attractive it is, how strong the relationship you’ve built is with your network of influencers.

But as for whether or not you control what the journalist does?

YOU DON’T.

So stressing/complaining/getting annoyed/dejected/depressed about what journalists do is a complete waste of time.

And yet, we do it. And it becomes a prison of our own making. We spend an enormous amount of energy doing this. And we end up feeling worn out, overwhelmed and worse.

The solution: FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CONTROL.

As you probably know, the Inner Circle is accepting new members through tomorrow.

This secret I’m talking about today is something we use in the Inner Circle to get more responses and placements.

We have an approach to PR that focuses our attention and effort on the things under our control.

We don’t waste energy obsessing over things we have no control over.

And the magic is that by shifting our focus to what we control, we get better results.

If you’re one of those PR pros who “has no time,” then know that you have been brainwashed. “No time” is a lie that you choose to believe or reject.

If you choose to believe it, then you choose to allow life to happen TO YOU instead of YOU happening to IT.

If that’s what you want, fine. That’s your choice.

But if you want more, then I can show you an effective way to create it.

The sad part is that the average PR pro will choose the pain of the same over the “pain” of change. That’s actually the most frustrating part of my work.

They would actually prefer, at some level, to continue focusing on things they don’t control instead of actually addressing the real obstacle standing between them and the success they want.

The REAL OBSTACLE is the work required to get so good that journalists and influencers CAN’T ignore you.

But I take my own medicine: I focus on what I control and don’t freak out about the rest.

What I control is making sure you know that the opportunity for joining the Inner Circle is coming to a close TOMORROW.

I’m even offering to put 100% of the risk on my shoulders that you’ll double (at least!) the responses you’re getting from journalists within 60 days of enrolling.

From there, I stop stressing and return my focus to another thing I control: helping members get more responses and placements.

So the ball is in your court. What do you want to do?

If you’re coming in, here’s the link to register for the Inner Circle.

No matter what you decide, don’t forget the secret: focus on what YOU control.

What is “PR Insanity?”PR insanity is when you stress about things OUTSIDE of your control.The solution should be pretty obvious: develop the discipline to stop doing this. Easier said than done!

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My biggest failure

What’s your biggest failure?

That’s become kind of a trendy question to ask yourself. Various TED talks espousing the merits of failure have gone viral. “Fail faster” has become the battle cry of Silicon Valley.

But I’ve never liked failing. Doesn’t taste good.

So I’ve been pondering this question. Reflection seems natural lately, because I recently passed two milestones:

 – my fifteenth anniversary of my first speech to PR pros on boosting media pitching.
– my fifth anniversary of cutting the employer cord and running my own business full time.

Thinking back to that first speech is crazy, because at the time I had no idea what a fork in the road that would be. If that day finished out the way it started, no way would I be writing this post.

I had barricaded myself in my hotel room – okay, I even locked myself in the bathroom inside my hotel room – because I was too scared of going down to the meeting room to give the speech.

Took me about two hours to get up the nerve to head to the elevator. Upon arriving outside the meeting room, I stood in the hall away from the guests as they filed in. No one recognized me – I’m sure they were wondering who this Michael Smart guy was on their programs. I was too scared to speak to anyone before the training, so at the appointed time I just burst through the door and blurted out my memorized opening line. Makes me laugh now.

Fortunately, the audience was receptive – I think they sensed my nerves and were emotionally cheering me on. We ended up with a powerful exchange of ideas, and they sent me off with kind applause and generous speaker evaluations.

Paid training gigs soon followed, then multiplied. Before long industry organizations were putting me “on tour,” setting up pitching workshops around the country for me to deliver. Land in Boston at midnight, do a full day training the next morning, fly to LaGuardia that night, full-day in NYC the next day, then on to DC, Chicago, LA, and so on.

People liked it. Their placements climbed. So did my rates.

So why did it take me TEN YEARS from that first speaking success to take the natural next step and go all-in on my own training business?

Even after I took that plunge five years ago, I can now look back and see decisions that should have been natural for me that I delayed. My big leaps forward have been rewarding, but with hindsight I realize they would have come a lot quicker if I hadn’t procrastinated taking the first step for so long. I’ve been very fortunate, but would have been able to help more people – faster – if I would have acted instead of waited.

And that, I’ve realized, has been my biggest failure.

So I’ve been working on that. I’m cramming a bunch more of those delayed decisions all into this calendar year. I want to help more people achieve more media relations success instead of holding others back by my reticence to grow.

One of my big leaps of faith is a dramatic upgrade of my Inner Circle program. I’ve been spending the first part of the year crisscrossing the country, learning new skills from new coaches and putting them all together into this new version of my most popular offering.

The enhancements are designed to get everyone who joins quickly up to speed with the veteran members, booking quick wins and re-programming their perceptions of their own value right from the start.

The new stuff gets unveiled next week. You’ll see it in on my site Tuesday at 11 a.m. ET, after the people who requested my Inner Circle success manual get first dibs on Monday. Click here to be taken to the Inner Circle sign-up.

Check it out, and if it’s right, don’t wait. Big growth requires big action.

So I’ve been pondering this question. Reflection seems natural lately, because I recently passed two milestones: 15th anniversary of my first speech to PR pros on boosting media pitching and 5th anniversary of cutting the employer cord and running my own business full time.

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Completing the trilogy

My last two posts on not using hedging words in emails to journalists and instead relying on your belief in your purpose seem to have hit home.

Among the many responses I got, reader Carly M. helpfully asked:

“As someone who is always ‘just’ trying to get a story placed, this really hit home. My question is: how would you begin a pitch or follow-up email alternatively to make it come across as stronger and more important?”

So after two messages that emphasize what not do, I am now “completing the trilogy” on this topic with some specific tips on how to do this right.

1. For a cold pitch, the status quo is to start with something like this:

Just wanted to reach out, hoping you can take just a minute to see if there’s something that might interest you here.

Instead, prove your worth and get right to the point:

I know you cover workplace trends such as managing millennials. Here’s what one company has found after upgrading their IT to match digital natives’ expectations . . .

2. When following up after initial interest appears to wane, here’s a common example:

Sorry to bug you. Just wanted to check in and see if you might still be interested in this idea?

But you convey the same point with much more power when you simply write:

Checking in to see if this idea is still alive?

3. After a few follow-ups go by, you want to give yourself one last shot. So don’t water it down like this and hide behind someone else:

I know you get bombarded with pitches like these and I don’t mean to pester you. Just want to get a feel for your interest level on this one so I can let my [boss/client/expert] know if this might still happen.

Instead, you can still show empathy and acknowledge reality, while still being clear that you believe strongly in your story idea:

I know you are juggling so many stories constantly and can’t possibly pursue all the worthy opportunities you come across. Can you let me know if this is still on your radar, or should I move on and take it elsewhere?

If those specific examples help you, great.

But really, the principle is not in the granular semantics of the email. It’s about how you FEEL when you write it. If you feel like a reluctant pest who has nothing of value to offer, that’s usually how you’re going to come across. If you cover up that feeling by choosing more powerful words, that helps a little.

But the real change happens when you re-align the way you view the dynamic between you and the journalist. When you know you have something of value that will help her do her job, that sense of intention will jump off the screen and make you stand out.

I’ve told you what NOT to do in my last two posts, now here are three tips on how to convey confidence when reaching out to journalists.

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I boarded my connecting flight last week, eased into my aisle seat in row 25, and unzipped my bag to pull out my laptop.

But it wasn’t there.

You know the feeling when a sudden crisis hits. Your brain goes into rapid-fire. Here’s the staccato of thoughts that coursed through my head, all in a split second:

Where is it? . . . It’s still under your seat on the plane you just got off!

That plane is going to take off and return to Salt Lake City in ten minutes!

The hardware is replaceable – but it will cost $2K!

The files for this trip’s speeches are backed up on Google Drive – but you don’t want to deal with borrowing a computer and stuff not working.

This aisle and jetway are full of people to climb over – but every second that passes it will get worse.

It’s crazy how you open your mind to a principle and the universe keeps giving you chances to learn more about it. Last week I wrote you about diminishing words like “just reaching out” and “sorry to bother you.” Writing or talking that way weakens the perceived value you have to offer journalists and coworkers.

And then here comes this crazy experience while making that connection in the Atlanta airport (why does this stuff keep happening on trips to Atlanta?).

I am not the type of guy who muscles his way into things. I do not line up for doorbusters on Black Friday. I do not edge my way in front of other people so I can get off planes faster, even when I have a tight connection.

But in that split-second when I resolved to GO GET THAT LAPTOP OFF THAT PLANE, I had a conviction firm enough to do something that normally would have made me uncomfortable. In this case, it didn’t embarrass me at all.

I threw my bag over my shoulder, picked up my roller suitcase with both hands, and just bulldogged my way up the aisle. “Excuse me . . . pardon me . . . I need to get off the plane . . . thanks so much.” Banging shoulders the entire way.

It’s amazing how much room is actually in those aisles when you push the limit. Took about 10 seconds.

You’d think people would be offended or at least annoyed. But nobody was. When I looked at their faces as they saw me coming, there was no frustration. They just leaned out of the way. After a few seconds, the people in the front of the plane started stepping out of the aisle. The flight attendant even threw my suit jacket to me from the closet, otherwise I would have forgotten it.

It was like they all assumed, “Wow, he must have a really good reason to get off this plane” and didn’t judge. If anything, the expressions they gave me were more like, “Hope everything turns out okay.”

I got on the train back to the A Terminal, then ran the length of it (of course the gate was all the way at the end). Arrived just in time to see the gate agent seal the jetway door shut.

She looked at me scared, assuming I had just missed the flight and would be ticked at her.

Lungs heaving, I wheezed out, “Laptop?”

Her face softened into a smile, and she walked over and pulled it out from under her desk . . . where she had placed it after the kind, unknown fellow traveler had turned it in.

I knew I had a good reason for acting like I did. And because I demonstrated that knowledge through my words and actions, the people around me believed that I did, too.

It’s the same when you write your follow-up emails. If you view it as simply “following up” because you have to, and even use those very words, “follow up,” it rarely works. The recipient has no reason to believe there is anything different about your outreach from the hundreds of other formulaic emails he’s received recently.

But if you really believe in your story, and that to the best of your knowledge it will help him do his job better, then you don’t hedge your language to avoid offending or annoying. You simply state what you have to offer. Your certainty of purpose comes across. Whether he accepts your idea or not, he doesn’t think less of you for offering it.

P.S. I got rebooked on the next flight, and three hours later I was eating barbecued ribs in Memphis.

I boarded my connecting flight last week, eased into my aisle seat in row 25, and unzipped my bag to pull out my laptop. But it wasn’t there. Here were my thoughts and actions when the crisis hit.

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I know you’re busy 🙂 I just wanted to reach out and hopefully offer something that might help . . .

Insert screeching-to-a-halt sound. Does my title and opening sentence feel right to you? If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you noticed a difference. Or at least felt a difference from how I usually approach you.

It’s true – I do know you’re busy. And I do want to help. But I’ve learned – over a long period of time and through lots of emotional growth (even occasional anguish) – that the best way I can help is to not devalue what I have to offer by quasi-begging you to read it.

That’s what subtle words like sorry, just, hopefully, and might communicate. That I’m not sure of myself enough to expect you to pay attention based on the value of what I’m about to give you.

That previous sentence was hard to write because if you go back to my original pitches, and even to the early days of me posting these articles, that’s exactly how I used to express myself. I was basically bleeding insecurity all over the page.

And that’s precisely how most PR pros write pitches today, and especially follow-up emails. Many unknowingly do it in their regular workplace conversations as well.

As I’m writing this, I’m on my way to give a keynote about this very topic. In preparation for the speech, I sought input from friends I respect about their transition from “pleaser” to “value-deliverer.”

One of them in particular nailed it. Here’s how Natalie Ipson responded to my inquiry (she didn’t know I would share it, but has since graciously granted permission):

I read an article once about how people tend to use diminishing words like “just” to hedge their requests, and it changed the way I communicate, especially through email. I like the message you’re trying to convey because journalists expect that PR professionals are going to contact them. In most cases, they want you to do it. That’s the relationship. So don’t apologize for doing the job you’re expected to do. 

That being said, there’s another point of view that “just” can be a polite gesture that says you know you’re asking someone to do something they don’t have to, which is where PR pros get tripped up. They want to be polite, because there’s no obligation for the reporter to cover their story. But that’s why it’s important for the PR pros to believe in themselves and believe that their content is truly valuable. You should only be apologetic if you have poor content. And if that’s the case, you need to do more digging to find the value before you reach out.

Couldn’t have said it better myself – thanks Natalie!

I know you’re busy 🙂 I just wanted to reach out and hopefully offer something that might help . . .

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