Brian Clark is a writer who loves to write about his craft, and it shows. His blog, Copyblogger, is one of the most popular sites on the Internet for writers and fellow bloggers of all stripes. The site has also been his launching pad for several other successful online ventures designed to help others improve their skills and online presence. He is a much sought-after speaker on the Social Media circuit not only because of his know-how, but also because of his quick wit and insightful observations.
I recently caught up with Brian to ask him a few questions about the craft he loves, his influences, and his life as Copyblogger.
Terry: Brian, thanks for sitting down to chat with me today. I remember something you said at your SOBCon09 presentation about positioning a blog via a personal brand, and if one was going to try to go that route, they would need to “go to extremes”, because “no one talks about nice people” (that one started a lot of discussion!). I believe your point was to be able to “stick out” in a crowded blogosphere, but in this day and age can’t “niceness” actually be a game changer out there – like what Chris Brogan, Liz Strauss, Chris Garrett and Jonathan Fields (just to name a few) are doing, for example?
Brian: <Laughs> That comment was an off-the- cuff aside that unfortunately became the entire focus of the discussion. In that sense, I wish I hadn’t said it, because I think it proved to be a distraction from the main point.
What I mean by “nice people” are people who try to please everyone. This is an affliction that affects a lot of people (including me, many years ago). If you take a stand and say “This is who I am, and this is how I view the world,” you’re naturally not going to please everyone. Some people won’t like you. Some might even despise you.
But the people who do identify with your personal stand (which is another way to say personal “brand”) will identify with you even stronger. And that’s golden. Trying to please everyone is a quick shortcut to obscurity online, and none of the “nice” people you mention are guilty of that (even Liz, sweet and community-minded as she is, doesn’t try to please everyone… and that’s why she’s the Liz we know instead of the Liz no one knows).
Terry: Copyblogger, to me, is the “Headline King” of the online world – every time I think you’ve exhausted all of your clever ones, you surprise me with something new. What impresses me the most is how “confident” they typically come off – meaning, they use powerful adjectives like “killer” and “rock solid”. I’d bet a lot of writers are hesitant to do that (myself included). Is this something that can only be tried after you’ve established what you call authority, or can you come right out of the box that way?
Brian: Funny you mention clever, because “clever” headlines that are less than instantly clear is a quick way to write a bad headline. We may occasionally write audacious or provocative headlines, but we try to avoid clever.
One thing we do that may seem clever is the use of unique analogies – making a connection between the topic and pop culture, or historical figures, etc. But this is really a great way to create instant understanding with more people, rather than trying to be clever and obscure. Start with a frame of reference that people already “get” or find interesting, and the real lesson goes down smoothly.
As far as the “confidence” issue, I think it’s critical. While everyone has things they don’t feel comfortable doing, often it’s really just a lack of confidence that keeps us from putting out the perfect headline. If you’re not confident in what you’re doing, why should anyone else be?
Terry: I see you are also a stickler for grammar and proper word usage (and I think I’m putting that lightly)– I especially loved your “The Inigo Montoya Guide to 27 Commonly Misused Words”, inspired by the movie “The Princess Bride”. Where did this come from? Your background as a lawyer? A particularly intense English teacher in grade school? I’m curious.
Brian: As I admitted in my first ever grammar post, I don’t know the rules of grammar. I have no idea what a gerund is, and I’m not even sure I could give you the definition of a dangling participle on the spot.
But I can tell you if a sentence or phrase is wrong, and I can fix it. This comes from voracious reading as a very young child. I suppose I learned to write from reading.
So when I write grammar posts, I’m actually teaching myself the “why” behind what I know from a whole bunch of general reading. Quite a few people admitted the same thing in the comments (and legendary ad man David Ogilvy had the same issue, which I think allowed me to admit it in the first place).
As for being a stickler, I’m an advocate of knowing when you’re breaking the rules, as opposed to doing it out of ignorance. Good copy and content is conversational, and most of us don’t really follow the rules when we speak.
So break the rules of grammar if it aids communication. Just don’t do it on accident.
Terry: I know music is a great love of yours – was their a song or an artist that really kicked it off for you? I’ve always liked how you cleverly integrate it into Copyblogger via your lessons. Are there bands or artists that you’ve really wanted to connect with on a post, but haven’t been able to? Or are there a limitless supply of writing lessons to be found in the world of rock?
Brian: I’m not only a big music fan, I’m a big fan of knowing the details related to the music. I’m always driving my wife crazy by quizzing her on what I consider common knowledge, which she of course regards as obscure rock trivia.
So that knowledge helps you see connections that allow you to make musical or pop culture analogies. If you just say to yourself “I want to write a post using The Pixies as a analogy before you spot an actual connection first, you may end up frustrated, or worse, with a strained, weak analogy.
For example, in the Inigo Montoya post you mentioned earlier, I was watching Princess Bride for probably the 5th time and cued in on a particular running gag. The character Vizzini keeps saying “inconceivable” every time something didn’t go his way.
Since these events were certainly within the realm of conceivable, Inigo finally says:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Right then, I saw an angle for another grammar post, this time focused on misused words. So, I didn’t set out to write a post based on The Princess Bride; instead, a post was revealed by watching the film.
It’s really important to read and watch things unrelated to the content you produce. This allows you to see interesting connections to your topic that might not be apparent to others until you reveal it.
Terry: Speaking of rock, here’s your chance to tell the world why you believe a certain 90’s grunge band was one of the most influential in R&R history, and I’ll add another challenge to it – do it in the form of a 140 character Tweet.
Brian: Nirvana caused a huge shift in popular music by combining hard rock and punk to make something fresh. All great content is an intersection.
Terry: For me, my favorite post of yours was the one about your subdural hematoma and brain surgery, and how it really changed your life – what led you to want to share that with your readers? And a more practical question – how can others act on your lessons without having to face death to do it?
Brian: I’ve always been reticent to get personal on Copyblogger – it’s always about the readers first, and about building something bigger than myself second. So I tended to fanatically avoid revealing too much personal information.
Then I watched Wendy Piersall at SOBcon deliver the most raw, personal presentation I’ve ever witnessed, and I guess it struck a nerve. I headed to the airport, upgraded to first class so I could write, and told the attendant to keep the wine coming.
I wrote that post because I needed to get it out. Luckily, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
The funny thing is, most of that response was based on how my experience helped them, even though I wrote it for myself. What I had to be bashed in the head to learn was that the only limitations I had were created in my own mind. Sure, we all face other obstacles, but most people don’t achieve a fraction of what they’re capable of due to imaginary barriers we erect for ourselves.
When I woke up from surgery, those barriers were dismissed for what they are – my own false creation. I’ve been on a hell of run since.
Terry: Brian, thanks again for answering my questions – here’s one more: With Copyblogger, do you think you’ve built the perfect blog, and if you are still working on it, what’s left to accomplish ?
Brian: There’s no such thing as a perfect anything, in the sense that you can always do better. The key is to do what’s “better” for the people who make it all possible – your readers, viewers, listeners, fans, followers, etc. That opposed to being driven to the next step by your ego.
I never expected Copyblogger to turn into the hub of a multimillion dollar enterprise, and I’ve put a lot of other things I want to do on the backburner as a result. I think the entrepreneur in me refuses to move on until I get this thing to a certain point.
We have a development plan over the next 6 months that will transform Copyblogger into something bigger and better. And yet new and interesting opportunities keep popping up that may send me in a different direction.
All I can say is that it’s an adventure. If the adventure is still exciting to you, keep going further.
Amen to that, Brian! Keep learning, teaching – and making us all better. For in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “the maker of the sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into chaos and old night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight”.