Jason and Jeff finally agree on something. If you want to be seen as an expert, you have to produce intellectual capital. Writing may not be your strength, but professional services experts must write. Here’s why.
MC: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, divergent thoughts on marketing and growing professional services firms. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki and Jeff McKay.
Jason Mlicki: So Jeff, do you have a pen and paper handy?
Jeff McKay: Always.
Jason Mlicki: Good, because I want you to write something down.
Jeff McKay: Yes, sir.
Jason Mlicki: Okay. Experts write.
Jeff McKay: That’s what I’m writing down?
Jason Mlicki: That’s what you’re writing down. That’s the topic of today’s episode [crosstalk 00:00:32].
Jeff McKay: So does that mean that I just wrote that, that I’m an expert?
Jason Mlicki: I guess so. I guess you are now officially an expert.
Jeff McKay: [crosstalk 00:00:38]. It’s like you putting your sword on me and knighting me.
Jason Mlicki: That was a little bit much.
Jeff McKay: If only it were that easy.
Jason Mlicki: If only it were that easy, yep. So it was funny because after we recorded last time, you mentioned to me that you had just finished reading Blair Enn’s book, Win Without Pitching, which is one of my favorite business books really. It’s been kind of a inspirational read for me over the years. Whenever business isn’t going the way I want, I’ll often pull that book back out and then kind of give it another read. And I think Blair’s so eloquent in that book. Anyway, one of the elements in that book is the critical end, if you want to be an expert in any domain, to write, and the reasons for that. And so in our conversation we were chatting about that, and then we said, “Okay, that’s the next podcast episode.”
Jason Mlicki: So here we are. Experts write. I have some thoughts on where to take that, but I’ll let you decide if you have things you want to start with.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. I had this image in my head of people clicking off. Oh, you’re going to talk about writing? Sounds like my kids talking about it. But I don’t think there’s a more important topic in professional services, marketing, really when you think about it, because it comes down to ideas and your ability to not only think up new ideas but be able to articulate them. I don’t know, was our last podcast- I don’t even know if it’s out yet. Our clients are stupid?
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, yeah. Well, it’s probably because in the setup of that podcast we put a question mark at the end. It was an exclamation and a question mark, meaning that is this a question or a comment? And I am actually going to say we might want to do the same thing here because as we dig deeper into this topic my opinion on this particular topic is shifting a little bit. Not to discount anything you just said because I agree with everything you just said, that the discipline of writing is a critical form of learning. That kind of goes back to the notion of when you teach something you learn it better. So I’m always forcing my kids to teach me stuff that they’ve learned in school, “Tell me what you learned.” And half the time they teach me stuff I didn’t know, the other half of the time they teach me stuff I did know but they’re learning in the process of teaching me and telling me what they’ve learned, right?
Jason Mlicki: And that’s, to me, the essence of why writing is so critical for call consultants and other professional services practitioners, is that it’s how you’re going to develop your thinking to serve your clients.
Jeff McKay: So your thinking is shifting on this, and you are such a shifty little man.
Jason Mlicki: Little?
Jeff McKay: Such a shifty young man, right?
Jason Mlicki: Young? No adjective’s there that I would use to describe myself, but anyway keep going.
Jeff McKay: Okay. So how is it shifting? Were we going to talk about how your ideas are shifting, or are you going to set it up kind of the conventional wisdom and then we’re going to knock it down with your shift?
Jason Mlicki: Well, yeah, we’re going to get there. I believe it’s shifting, and we’ll talk more about that as we get to the end, but I do think it’s important to talk about where the notion of experts write stems from and why it’s critical, and I think you add a couple of layers to it. One is certainly the development of thinking, shaping arguments and shaping points of view on the world around us. So if you’re going to be a successful consultant or a successful practitioner, I would argue of any kind, an architect, an engineer, whatever, using the written word as a way to frame your thinking and develop your understanding of concepts is critical.
Jason Mlicki: I mean, I know a lot of times when we’re planning an [inaudible 00:04:08] calendar, we’re thinking about the things we’re going to write as an agency for the marketplace. There are times I purposely pick topics I know nothing about, and the whole purpose is really to force me to learn about that topic and then establish a position on it. [crosstalk 00:04:21].
Jeff McKay: Well that shouldn’t be hard, to come up with topics then for you.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, it’s super easy. It only takes five seconds. The universe of things I know nothing about is massive.
Jeff McKay: Would you stop serving up softballs and get to the point?
Jason Mlicki: I think I made the point, didn’t I? That’s reason number one. Reason number two, of course, you’ve argued through the years, is writing gets you found, especially in a Google world. Our Google episode, the importance of writing as a means to connect with clients, either through search or through trade journals or whatever else. Ways for clients to find your firm for your expertise, so that’s a critical piece of it. Other things that make writing critical in your mind?
Jeff McKay: I think you covered these somewhat in your comments. I think the writing and the logical next step out of writing is sharing the writing, is a really important element because it allows us to test the waters with our ideas. I think it creates humility because there’s a vulnerability in sharing some of these ideas because when you put them out there, they are going to get beaten up, but that’s what makes them stronger. I guess the other thing I would add is, just take the risk. There is risk associated with this, but it’s a very worthwhile risk because you test the market, your ideas get stronger. It’s almost like academic peer review, or me just sharing a point of view with my wife and her…
Jason Mlicki: Picking that to shreds?
Jeff McKay: Yeah. I do love her. I do love her.
Jason Mlicki: So one of my closely held belief systems for a while, Jeff was really that in order to be promoted you have to write. In order to be- the path to partner requires writing, and you shouldn’t promote people who don’t, and it should be mandatory. Do you agree?
Jeff McKay: Absolutely.
Jason Mlicki: Shocked.
Jeff McKay: Absolutely.
Jason Mlicki: I was for sure we’d disagree.
Jeff McKay: Well, there are two schools of thought, and it’s kind of basic economic theory, comparative advantage. You should be doing what you do best better than anybody else. And if you’re better at selling than you’re better at producing intellectual capital, then go sell and don’t produce intellectual capital because they’re different disciplines in most people’s minds. That aside, if the capability is so desperate that you can bifurcate it like that, yeah that makes sense. But generally speaking, I agree with what you just said. You need to be producing intellectual capital.
Jason Mlicki: If you’re going to be a partner of the firm. If you’re going to be a senior leader you need to be at the table doing that on the whole. There’s another sort of little retort I’ve thrown out over the years, and that is- and this came out of the AE community as well, is you see a lot of firms and they have this badge they call seller, doers. So they say, “Oh, we don’t have any full-time business around here,” or this or that, or whatever it is that they claim is bad they have, we’re all seller doers. I mean we’re out there selling the work and we’re doing the work as well, and I’ve said I think that’s a horrible thing to aspire to have.
Jason Mlicki: You should be aspiring to have, I call them thinker sellers. So people that are voracious consumers of other people’s ideas, adamant developers of their own, are constantly looking at the landscape of issues, trends, points of view, and establishing a clear point of view for the firm on those things, and then using that position to sell. And that they can’t do that in a doer capacity, hence don’t be so proud of having seller doer’s, strive to have thinker sellers, people that are out of the doing. That’s been met with resistance in some pockets, but in general, that’s an extension of the experts write mentality to me.
Jeff McKay: I like that. I really like that thinking. The one question I have for you, and I wonder if this gets pushed back that you get, how can you be a thinker if you aren’t a doer? Isn’t being a doer keeping your finger on the pulse of an issue or a market or capability?
Jason Mlicki: Well, a couple of quick comments on that. One, you’ve read our stuff over the course of the last seven or eight years on and off. Have you ever sensed times in that journey when I was less in touch or more in touch with the types of clients we deal with, from just your cadence of occasionally reading what we produce?
Jeff McKay: Oh, I never feel like I’m in touch with you.
Jason Mlicki: It’s true of a lot of people.
Jeff McKay: No. I would say that you have your finger on the pulse. Now you’re going to tell me, “Well I don’t do anything.”
Jason Mlicki: Well that’s not true, but I go in and out of that, right? I go in and out of the doer role. So there are times I’m more in a doing role, and there are times I’m less in a doing role, but it doesn’t change anything. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is if you think about this notion of a thinker seller, it’s the seller part that’s so critical because in the doing capacity you might work with a couple of clients. In the selling capacity, you interact with 20, 30, 40, 50 in a year. You might interact with lots of clients, potential clients that may or may not become clients. So you actually have a better landscape of what’s happening in the market in the selling capacity than you do on the doing capacity.
Jason Mlicki: So it’s the selling capacity to me that’s actually probably more critical in terms of being able to understand market dynamics and client issues. It gives you a wider survey of what’s happening. At the end of the day, I would also say, I’m not saying they shouldn’t be doing anything, I’m just saying I don’t think you should have the strive and have this badge of honor that you’re leading projects. That’s not healthy. You should have other people leading projects if you’re the partner of a firm. You might steward the relationship and that’s great, but you shouldn’t be leading the work itself.
Jeff McKay: I really like that image. I like that image, I like that image. I see a Venn diagram, the seller in the center and thinker on the left and doer on the right, and the things that they have in common all go through selling. And I love your point about the exposure to the market in a much larger sample than just by doing. I think that’s excellent. Now there may be some people in regulated industries that say, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy but I’m the partner and I’m the one who’s signing off on the audit so I have to be doing it,” or whatever. Or I’m the engineer, but I think your point is a really good one. I like that thinking Jason. I can’t believe I’m saying that and I’ve said it a couple of times.
Jason Mlicki: Are you having an internal battle, meaning that you feel like your body’s rejecting an antivirus?
Jeff McKay: My neck and head are twitching.
MC: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal, divergent thoughts on growing your professional services firm. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki, principal of Rattleback, the marketing agency for professional services firms, and Jeff McKay, former CMO and founder of strategy consultancy Prudent Pedal. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us by telling a friend and rating us on iTunes. Thank you. Now back to Jason and Jeff.
Jason Mlicki: Let’s shift gears again because those are sort of my deeply held beliefs. This notion that experts write and that you should strive to be a thinker seller, that that’s the ultimate, to me, the apex of success in the professional services environment, is you’ve extracted yourself from the doing, you’ve established really great people that can execute on the doing in incredible ways. You’re maybe a steward of client relationships, you’re maybe not, but you’re operating above the landscape and you’re sort of voraciously consuming everything around you and you’re helping to frame that for both your firm and your clients. So you’re sort of making this picture that makes sense of everything that’s going on in the marketplace for your clients in ways that maybe they’re struggling to do on their own. So that’s my long-held beliefs.
Jason Mlicki: Now here’s where my I feel like I’m standing on quicksand and things are shifting a little bit and I’m starting to change in my opinion. The core premise of experts write is that on some level the act of developing intellectual property, compelling points of view has to start with a pen and paper or a laptop. It starts with writing, and I’m coming to the belief that, and you and I’ve talked about this in the content shift, the shift in the content continuum away from written content to interactive content, multimedia content, that we have to look at this differently than we’ve done in the past. So, and I’ll just use the analogy then I’ll say where we’re flipping it upside down, in a few years we’re going to say, “Boy, why didn’t- this was a pain for the office.”
Jason Mlicki: So the analogy right now is if you think about the editorial process that a firm has, it’s developed the idea, produced the white paper of the article, the written piece of content that’s going to shape it in the marketplace, and then back that up with whatever derivative content you might want to produce; a video, speaking at an event, whatever. The article essentially is a catalyst for all these other things. In the world we’re in right now, in the world we will be in in the next five years, we need to behave differently. So we have to say, “Okay, let’s develop the idea and the argument, but the first interaction probably is going to be an interactive or multimedia piece of content.” It’s going to be a video, it’s not going to be an article, and whatever written content follows that is not a derivative of- the video is not a derivative of the article. The written content is an extension of the video or digital asset, and it’s an inverted way of looking at it.
Jason Mlicki: And my sense is that the people coming in behind you and me, that is going to be entirely natural to them. And to think that you would’ve started with the article and then gone from there is entirely going to be crazy to them, and they’re probably already listening to this saying, “That is crazy, why would I do that? Why wouldn’t I start with the interactive asset?” And so I’m sort of changing my thinking on this and saying well, I’m not so convinced anymore the experts have to write, but I am convinced experts have to produce. They have to produce intellectual capital, that doesn’t mean that they have to write it. What do you think Jeff? Thoughts on that?
Jeff McKay: Oh, we should tell our listeners that we’re having one heck of a time with this episode because it’s October in Chicago and it snowed, and the power keeps going out. So what is this, our 100th attempt at this? We should’ve-
Jason Mlicki: I’ve lost count. But it’s 60 in Columbus, so it’s beautiful here.
Jeff McKay: Oh.
Jason Mlicki: A little bit of rain, but anyway.
Jeff McKay: Oh my gosh.
Jason Mlicki: So who knows where we are. I lost track.
Jeff McKay: If any of our conversation seems repetitive or incoherent, you now know that it’s not us. It’s the recording. So you had asked me about this shift, and I knew you were going to go there and I think you’re spot on. I would argue however that it probably hasn’t shifted as dramatically as you might think because people are already kind of doing that, first impression, throw it out to the market in an interactive way already, using your thinker seller and seller doer model as sellers, and putting those ideas out in front of clients one on one and getting feedback to them. What’s great about the video or other interactive, like a podcast, is the feedback comes in mass and much more quickly. But I think it still accomplishes the same ends that writing does in a different way, and that is exposure. It gives you an opportunity to refine an idea or formulate arguments around your ideas and refine the narrative.
Jeff McKay: How do you tell the story in a way that resonates with people so that they remember it? And you say all the time it’s not the facts, it’s the story, and you never know what story is going to resonate. And the interactive is so much better at reading an audience and communicating with an audience than writing is I think. So I agree with you to a degree.
Jason Mlicki: Well, yeah. There’s a couple of nuances to what you said. When the act of idea development and content development are paired together in an individual, as we’ve talked through most of this podcast, then yes. They’re sort of testing those ideas in every sales interaction and then it might get formalized in an article or a video or whatever the format is chosen to be. But a lot of firms, especially firms of even a mid-size or larger, the act of content development and of idea development are separated, meaning that much of the thought leadership that I’m armed with as a partner may not actually be produced by me. It may be produced by someone else entirely inside the firm, meaning I may have contributed to shaping the argument but I may not have been the one to actually produce the end physical content. There’s a whole team built for that, right?
Jason Mlicki: So in those instances, then it is a big meaningful shift because the people that are stewarding these ideas have to look at things much differently than they have historically, and the skills and approach are different. So there are layers of gray on this as there always are, but I do think it’s a meaningful and different lens that people need to bring to bear on around what they’re doing and recognize that the way we’ve taught ourselves to develop our ideas may need to change pretty dramatically pretty quickly if it hasn’t already. So I’ll leave you at that. As you said, given our technical difficulties today I’m hoping this strings together into one complete holistic episode for all of our listeners, even though it took us five or six takes to get there.
Jason Mlicki: And I’m going to say goodbye, and I will talk to you next week. We’re going to have a special guest joining us in our next episode, so I look forward to that. I think it’ll be a good discussion.
Jeff McKay: See you, buddy. Go do some thinking.
Jason Mlicki: All right man, see you, Jeff. Go do some selling.
MC: Thank you for listening to Rattle and Pedal, divergent thoughts on marketing and growing professional services firm. Find content related to this episode at Rattleandpedal.com. Rattle and Pedal is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.