Episode 309 – Fearless writing with Robert Kelsey

Robert Kelsey‘[Writing] is a craft. It’s no different to knitting or painting by numbers or whatever, you just have to learn the craft. It might take practice and it might take learning a few rules, but, you know, they’re not that scary.’

For Robert Kelsey, writing is an essential business skill in the knowledge economy. And he won’t accept excuses. In this conversation he shares his fear-free approach to effective business communication, and his tips for getting started and keeping going.

We also talk about the new landscape of publishing, and the extraordinary resilience of the printed book. 

Energising and insightful listening. 



Robert’s Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Robert-Kelsey/e/B0034Q15II

John Wilkes: https://www.johnwilkes.co.uk/

Robert on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobertKelseyJWP

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

WriteBrained: A 28-day exploratory writing adventure: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=writebrainedcourse

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge April 2022: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Robert Kelsey, who is the best-selling author of a series of self-help books. He’s a former banker, magazine editor and journalist, and in 2002 he set up his own PR agency serving some of the world’s most prestigious financial institutions by helping them convert their expertise into fantastic content.

He also taught scores of young trainees how to write compelling copy, before selling his agency in 2019 to FINN Partners, where he remains a consultant. In 2013, he launched The Think Tank: The Centre of Entrepreneurs with serial entrepreneur, Luke Johnson, who was also his partner in his latest venture John Wilkes Publishing.

And his latest book, published by John Wilkes Publishing, is Writing Well for Work and Pleasure: The new writer’s guide to producing fearless content.

It’s a great CV Robert, tell us a little bit about how it all hangs together.

Robert Kelsey: Well, yes, I’d say some wouldn’t say it was a great CV. Some would say it was a bit of a disaster of a CV, but…

Alison Jones: …multi-hyphenate isn’t it. That’s…

Robert Kelsey: …yes, but it all does join. In my mind, it all joins up as sort of a narrative of just me getting to where I want to be really. And I mean I left school, and I think this will probably come up again actually when it comes to the writing side of things, I left school. I was 15 when I left school, I had one O-Level. I went to a very, what was very much seen as a failing comprehensive later on.

And so felt very bereft of both education and opportunities. And so I’ve really spent my entire adulthood trying to overcome what I saw as a gap in me.

And I think one of the upsides of that, is that now, you know I’m in my mid fifties, I realize that what that engendered in me was this notion of self-improvement, of adult education, of constantly being, of constant education. It never ends, it never stops. And so there was always this sort of teleogenetic process with me where I was always heading towards goals and actually what I found frustrating was actually almost achieving those goals.

And that would leave a sort of empty feeling if you like and feeling that the next thing had to be there. Unless there was frustration or a sense of frustration, I felt I wasn’t, I was bored. And so in some respects, you know that’s why it zigzags a bit, but for me it’s actually a process of learning, of skill acquisition, and of just that sort of constant frustration and feeling that there’s something, there’s something more, something better, something you know just more fulfilling out there really.

Alison Jones: It’s really fascinating isn’t it. And leaving school, as you say then, lean and hungry. It’s amazing how that shapes the direction of your life. There’s a sort of an emotional thing underneath it all.

Robert Kelsey: Yes, I think, I mean the moment for me was, I mean I guess I didn’t quite realize just how, what educational poverty I was in. And it was only when I actually ended up working at a West End, a very posh West End surveying firm in the sort of early 1980s. And everyone else that was there had been private educated and I turned up. And the reason they employed me was because one of their biggest clients was North Thames Gas and those days the gas department had huge number of houses where all the gas fitters worked and they employed me because they thought I could talk to the gas fitters.

And so everyone else was dealing with likes of the Duke of Westminster, et cetera, and I was dealing with the gas fitters. But of course, what I realized, they sort of took me on as a bit of a sort of, Ah isn’t he sweet, this little Essex boy, you know, sort of a bit of a mascot for them. And then they said to me, slowly said to me, you know what, you’re just as brainy as us. You’re just like, you know, there’s nothing you have, you’ve just been shortchanged in your education.

And I think it was them, I owe them an enormous debt actually, this sort of little gang of public school boys that basically said you’re as good as us and you need to get, you know, you’ve been shortchanged, and that’s sort of stuck with me the rest of my life really.

Alison Jones: And then where you take it after that is up to you, isn’t it?

Robert Kelsey: Indeed it is, it is, but none the less, and again, one of the things The Centre of Entrepreneurs taught me and again I think this is very relevant for your business audience, and the reason I got involved in The Centre of Entrepreneurs is that, and actually the reason I became an entrepreneur ultimately, is that if you look at entrepreneurship, the excluded groups are the people that end up setting up companies.

An enormous number of immigrants, an awful lot of women, there’s people that are hitting glass ceilings, often working class people that don’t have the educational background, an enormous number of them become entrepreneurs because they’ve got no choice.

Alison Jones: And neurodiverse a lot as well, and neurodiverse people as well.

Robert Kelsey: Yes, absolutely, enormous number of dyslexic people, a huge number. It’s people that can’t cope with just that normal process. I’m not saying it’s a, it’s not necessarily a class thing, although it does, it sort of goes across all sorts of barriers. You know, it is as well, but it’s not entirely and it’s not entirely a gender thing or an ethnic thing or anything.

It is actually just people who aren’t quite suited to that, the corporate ladder, if you like. And you know, and obviously things are changing in the corporate world in that respect, but certainly my generation, you very much see that sort of exclusion. Not quite, you know, it’s not clubbable, I didn’t even know what that expression meant, you know, but you know, do you see what I mean?

He doesn’t quite fit in, you know, and there’s all sorts.

Alison Jones: We’re a motley crew. I love that. Writing often is a casualty, isn’t it of as you say, educational poverty, because, and I’m going to to come on to that idea about fearless content, because often one of the reasons that people don’t write is that they aren’t confident about the grammar, about the spelling, about the things that should have been instilled or, you know, they should feel that they have a grasp on when they leave school.

I was an adult basic education tutor for a while. You know, I worked with incredibly bright entrepreneurs who faked being able to read and, you know, got around not being able to write and stuff.

So what would you say to people who are afraid of writing, frankly, because it doesn’t feel like it’s in their skill set?

Robert Kelsey: Well, I think that’s exactly what the book’s all about, is overcoming that fear. Hence why the word fearless is in the subtitle, you know, how to produce fearless content, because I know from experience that the biggest thing that’s preventing you is that fear. Now, you know, I open, the book opens with a quote from Christopher Hitchens who’s, you know, God rest his soul, and actually is someone I adore actually.

 I think his take on the world is brilliant actually. But he basically said everyone has that book in them but for most people that’s where it should stay. And I really objected to that because I think that, you know he wasn’t the only person to say that, but I really object to that because I think that was someone with a private education, Oxbridge you know, et cetera.

And there was something very snobby in that statement. And so my book is really an attack on that, from page one to the last page, it’s really just saying that’s not true. You know, everyone does have that book in them, absolutely. And it’s absolutely possible to produce it yourself. You don’t need a ghost writer, et cetera. You can do it yourself.

And it’s not just books, it’s white papers, it’s articles, it’s blogs. What is extraordinary I think, is that the world’s become very visual, but it’s all, you know, there’s a lot of digital communication out there, podcasts now, you know videos, et cetera.

But what is another element that’s also occurred is that writing has also exploded as well. And it’s particularly exploded in the workplace and the number of marketing departments or PR departments, that are putting pressure on their executives to produce content, to produce blogs on LinkedIn, or to produce white papers, et cetera.

What they realize is the world, as we moved to the knowledge economy, what are we selling? Well, we’re selling knowledge, we’re selling expertise. And so that expertise needs to get out there. And I’m sorry, but you know, a podcast gets you so far or a video gets you so far, but actually you need something to thump on the table and say we’ve done the thinking here, you know what I mean?

There’s something behind us, this podcast, there’s something behind it that says we’ve done the thinking, we’ve done the research. And it’s that, it’s the written word and there’s no substitute for it. And therefore, PR departments, marketing departments are putting a lot of pressure on people who may be salespeople, they may be engineers, et cetera.

And they are, they’re just suddenly thinking, God, this is just not my skill. I hated English language classes at school. You know what I mean? I was the maths guy or, you know, the rugby player or whatever, and so I hated it. And now suddenly this skill is required and you can see why they would be absolutely you know, scared by it. I don’t blame them.

For everything you say about what does Christopher Hitchens mean by that? What he means by saying that’s where it should stay is that it is within them, is by saying that these people don’t have the skills to put their thinking and their thoughts on the page and sorry, but there’s nothing innate about those skills, it’s a craft, there’s no talent here. This is a craft.

It’s no different to knitting or, you know what I mean, or painting by numbers or whatever, it is simply a craft. And you just have to learn the craft. That’s all you have to do and it might take practice and it might take, you know, learning a few rules now. Fine, but they’re not that, you know, they’re not that scary. They sound scary, but they’re not that scary.

And actually, you know what, it’s the last thing that matters. Like I said there’s a process and the bit that’s scaring you, is what I call style. And the process, which I call angle, content, structure, style, which is those I always say, people have said make it a mnemonic or whatever, but I said I don’t want to make it a mnemonic.

It’s because you need, I want you to remember those four words, angle, content, structure, style, and you do it in that order. So therefore style comes right at the end. You’ve worked out the angle, you’ve worked out what you’re going to say. You’ve researched and collated, brought all together the content that you’re going to do, you’ve then structured that content, worked out what’s in, what’s out, what order it comes in, what order within the bits it comes in, structure, structure, structure. And then, and only then, does style matter. You’ve already, probably from the structuring, produced a first draft that you know, is a dirty first draft.

It can be terrible. It can be absolutely appallingly written, it doesn’t matter. It’s a first draft. The last bit is style. That’s all you have to worry about, by which time you’ve got 50,000 words, it’s all there. It’s well-structured, it’s a good angle. And you’ve just got this last, this last hurdle, and that will get you over the fear. You know, and I think that what happens is people approach these projects and they’re facing this cliff edge. And the cliff edge is style and grammar and you know, and that’s where the fear kicks in. And that’s where, you know, God rest his soul, but Christopher Hitchens I think is utterly wrong because you know, his thinking it’s all about style and I’m sorry, but it’s not, it’s the last thing.

Alison Jones: Right, I want to pick up on loads of things there, picking up in your wake there. One of the things is about fear, which is just an observation, which I think that there’s various flavours of fear because yes, so much fear is around coming out of ‘I can’t do this.’ There’s also a fear of how vulnerable you are when you write and people can read your words. So there’s something that we might come back to.

Robert Kelsey: Oh, I think that’s absolutely true. Yes.

Alison Jones: Yes, another thing that I just thought was really great about your approach actually, is that you start with angle and I think an awful lot of people jump into content straight away and just taking that step back, because angle forces you to think like a journalist, doesn’t it?

It’s like, how am I going to grab people? What’s in it for them? Who is it for? What do they care about? And I think even just that step before you launch in is a really important one.

Robert Kelsey: I think that’s right. On that I just think with fiction, I think it’s very different to fiction in that respect. I remember reading a book about writing fiction and he basically said, you can just start at the beginning and see where it goes. You don’t need the plot fully outlined before you start, it can be, you know, just a moment standing on the beach with a friend or something, you know, and nonfiction is the absolute opposite of that.

Alison Jones: And that’s what I wanted to come on to, so performative non-fiction, where you’re writing for other people and you’ve got to communicate or influence or persuade or inform, but you also talked, I thought this was fascinating, about your diary, that you always keep a diary. And I’m guessing that you don’t use the angle there, you just actually start writing and use the writing to process experience.

So just what’s your reflection on those different types, where you’ve got content that is really consciously crafted for an audience, and then the writing that you just sort of do in a more exploratory way.

Robert Kelsey: Yes, well, I think because one of the key concerns you’ve got three bits of process problem. One is starting, two is keeping going and three is avoid writer’s block, as they say, which is it’s a real thing. It does happen, there’s no doubt about it. And actually, this is all about overcoming one of those and one of those barriers.

And so things like the diary or just having notes, I even have the sort of 6 x 4 white cards and even a post-it note, you know, anything like that, it can be useful in terms of thoughts when they come, jotting them down, getting it in the structure.

My favorite would be a big, A4 book like this, where you can then go, okay, this is chapter one, these are the notes underneath. This is chapter two. These are the notes underneath. And they’re just bullet points, they’re very rough. They are just things that need to be, that need to be there. You then start thinking about what order they should be in. And before you know it, a structure is starting to emerge.

The diary is important, I think, for things like writer’s block, because what you’re trying to do there is you’re trying to change the perspective. There may well be elements where you really can’t get it over and the reason you can’t get it over or get it down, sorry, the reason you can’t do it is because you’re obsessed by your audience and you’re concerned that having to write for this audience, you need to get it particularly in the right way, you need to formulate the right arguments and you’re having difficulty. So I’m saying forget that, change the audience and so it could be you could write a letter to your mum or an email to your mum these days, you know, or you could just write it in a diary going, God, what a terrible morning I’m having, I just can’t get this down. I’m trying to get this across and this across and this across. And actually you’re suddenly getting it across. And the only reason you’re doing that is because you’ve changed the audience.

Alison Jones: Yes, and you’re taking the pressure off yourself.

Robert Kelsey: You’ve simply taken the pressure off yourself and maybe you’re asking questions about it rather than trying to provide answers and whatever, you know. And I think the order of it I think should be, first of all it should be you and you doing it to yourself, then it should probably be you maybe to your spouse or to your partner or to your mum, you know, and then third, perhaps to a colleague.

And the reason I’m saying in that order is about jeopardy. In that, you know, because you said you’re vulnerable as a writer, you are absolutely vulnerable as a writer. One of the things I noticed is, you know, I’ve written six books now and published them all and had different responses from different people.

And one thing I’ve noticed is that there are people that would never, ever think of ever writing a book. And, you know, they’re some of the most critical, because they won’t put themselves out there. Do you see what I mean, so they’re very happy to criticize the book and you do feel like saying, you know, I’ve had it before, I remember doing some talks on one of the books and got kind of really furious criticisms from somebody, from a particular person that was in Northern Ireland and I just came away and I sort of got very defensive about I’m just defending a point.

I just felt like saying in the end, you know, why don’t you spend a year researching a book and then six months writing it, and six months editing it. And then going through all the process of trying to market it, why don’t you come up and do that, and then maybe I’ll come and criticize you.

Alison Jones: It’s like Brene Brown, isn’t it? Brene Brown talks about being in the arena and not listening to the people in the seats. I’m only interested in your opinion, if you’re in the arena.

Robert Kelsey: No, absolutely. I mean, I’m interested in everyone’s opinions, obviously that’s part of my audience and I’ll take the criticism, but actually the fact that they were so sneering when I tried to defend a particular point of view, I can’t remember what the argument was about now, but you know, but obviously, you are vunerable, absolutely. And this is just different ways of overcoming that vulnerability, of doing it anyway. There was, you know, Susan Jeffers book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It’s a good, actually the best thing about that book is the title.

Alison Jones: An iconic title isn’t it? You’re not just content to write the books though are you, because this time you’re also publishing them. So tell us a little bit about John Wilkes.

Robert Kelsey: Well yes, I just felt you know, I’ve had various publishers over the years with the books and I felt that I could do a better job actually. I don’t think they in particular my last publisher, John Wiley, I don’t think they did a bad job, I think they were great. But the imprint they were using Capstone seems to have, I wouldn’t say it’s gone, but it seems that they’re not pushing it the way they did push it.

And so I felt that, well, if I wanted to write another book, you know, why not try self-publishing? And so I started looking at that route and then I started thinking now, hang on a minute, there’s actually a real opportunity. One: self publishing doesn’t produce the quality of book that you really want, that you get off the shelf, et cetera, because the print quality is just not there. It’s always digital printing, et cetera.

So I wanted to explore it. And then I felt actually, no, hang on, there’s more to this because I think there’s a lot of books that could be written that aren’t being written at the moment, because I think a lot of the publishers are scared of a lot of subjects.

And I also think that there’s, I think the publishers often don’t get behind the books the way I would like to see them do so, maybe because they are too large, they’ve got so that it’s a volume game, they have got a lot going on. You know, they’ve got a lot going on and you’re just one more writer and you’re hardly Stephen King, so they’re not going to necessarily invest in you.

I felt that there was a way of doing it, of looking at getting some really strong ideas going that may be the publishers wouldn’t be interested at the moment, getting behind the books on the PR front, because obviously I understood PR having spent a long time producing a PR firm and getting to the point of selling it.

 And then using the mechanics in the middle to learn about the process of publishing a book and also to outsource where we could. We’ve got a very good distributor now. We’ve got a fantastic PR person on board. And so…

Alison Jones: Ruth?

Robert Kelsey: That’s exactly right. And you know, she’s the best as far as I’m concerned, I remember her from my days with my books from John Wiley.

So you know, so as far as I’m concerned, we are just creating the mechanics and we’re going to try, and it’s just typical of me really, just to think it’s not just about producing a book, let’s do something more with it, and let’s see what we can do. We’ve got a couple of books coming up I’m wanting to talk about at the moment, but we’ve got the slush pile, as they call it, starting to build. And it’s very exciting, it’s nice to learn a new industry.

There’s nothing, you know, in the end, the barriers to entry aren’t as great as you think they are. Well, one thing I am learning actually is that I always was frustrated by why it took them a year to turn around a book whenever you went to the publishers and I’m now learning.

Alison Jones: Now, you know why. Yes, it’s not the production time. It’s the supply chain, yes, absolutely.

Robert Kelsey: supply chain, right, that’s exactly right.

Alison Jones: And the cycles. yes.

Robert Kelsey: Yes it’s exactly that. So I’m learning, in some respects becoming a bit more sympathetic now and I’ve bought a tweed jacket and I’m, you know…

Alison Jones: Oh, you’re halfway there. That’s brilliant. Love it.

It’s really exciting actually, you know, books, which were predicted to die several times over the last couple of decades, are just having such a renaissance. I think people are really turning to them more and more, and the number of young people discovering books for themselves, BookTok and, you know, it just really kind of make your heart glad as a publisher, because you know, it has looked as though we were on the wrong side of history for awhile.

Robert Kelsey: I think that’s absolutely right. I mean, I’d say to people if you go back to 2000 and you put a DVD, a CD and a book on a table and then say one of these is going to survive and prosper into the 2020s, which one is it? You know, and it was the one that was in the 1920s and the 1820s.

So, you know, I think that’s absolutely brilliant actually. And you know, it’s a great format. There is no, you know, here’s my book, it’s a brilliant…

Alison Jones: It’s a great technology.

Robert Kelsey: …way of communicating information. You just couldn’t make it up. It was already a perfectly nice, tiny little format. It worked, put it in your pocket. It absolutely works.

So I’m delighted with it really. And I think that Kindle and audio books are all part of that mix, I think, I think they can help and they’re great. And they expand it.

I’ve always thought every time I’ve had an audio book I’ve really liked, I’ve immediately gone out and bought the book just because I’d wanted to reread it or pass it on or have it on the shelf.

Alison Jones: I know, it’s just a joy that there are different formats for different situations and the same person will, I think they said, I saw a survey recently that said 65% of Americans go absolutely kind of seamlessly between the three contents of readers, which I thought was great. Yes.

Robert Kelsey: Yes, that’s very good.

Alison Jones: I’m keeping an eye on the time, because I’m very conscious that we’re pushing at the edges and I want to get your tip out of you because I know it’s going to be really, really good. So if I held a gun to your head and said out of all the things in the book, one best tip for a first time business book author, what would you say?

Robert Kelsey: Process, it’s focusing on the process. It’s not looking at it as, you know, 50,000 words that have got to be written and they’ve got to be written well and perfectly, and et cetera, et cetera. It’s working on that process. Spend an awful lot of time thinking about the angle and, you know, so what we mean by that, what’s the point you’re trying to make.

You’re not just trying to relay information, you’re relaying a point of view. And what is that point of view? Does it stack up, et cetera, and then think about the content next, you know, so do it in that order. What’s the angle, what content supports that angle, that content process is your research process, you know, it should just be gathering, gathering information, and then you’ve got to sift it. Work out what’s in and what’s out. Obviously that might change your angle, might question your angle and I think you should be open to that process. You know, it might well be, you know, there’s no point producing something that could be easily refuted. So if there’s something that actually does undermine your angle, you need to take that seriously.

Then you just need to structure it, work out what order it comes in. And then, and only then, do you need to focus on the writing and that would be my tip, is to just look at it that way, angle, content, structure, style.

And I always make people remember that, when all the people that come through our office, the youngsters, particularly graduates, and they’ve never really been taught to write and think in that way. And it’s the first thing I teach them and they love it. We actually had one, one of my guys just absolutely didn’t work out, hated my guts and just really didn’t like me. And as he got up, he left, he just turned around to me and said, you know what? The only thing I wish is that I knew how to write this well when I was at Oxford. And I said to him, another happy customer.

Alison Jones: And it’s a great portmanteau tip, so well done. Squeezing a huge amount into your tip there. Love it.

Robert Kelsey: Yes, sorry about that.

Alison Jones: No, don’t apologize. It’s brilliant. And the book that you would recommend, let’s have a fearless book recommendation from you. Not your own, obviously. Sorry.

Robert Kelsey: No, no, obviously. But, well, I think that probably the book that had the most influence on me which I read late but I realized there was a lot in there and I quote it constantly and people start rolling their eyes when I bring it up again which is Stephen Covey, Seven Habits.

And I just think it’s the best self-help book ever written. I think it’s completely unbeatable in that respect. I think there’s things about, it sorts you out mentally, things about the circle of influence and circle of concern and things like that. It just absolutely blows you away in that respect.

I think it’s incredibly written. And yes, so I can’t help it. I think that every time I come back to that book,

Alison Jones: Yes…

Robert Kelsey: …so…

Alison Jones: …I’m with you all the way. You’re not the first to recommend it. You won’t be the last. If anybody has been living under a stone, it’s Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and it just stands the test of time, doesn’t it? It’s so foundational to so much of the work that’s come later. Yes. Yes

Robert Kelsey: And there’s plenty in here that really, because he’s on about process as well. And about those seven habits build and there’s plenty in here that has been influenced by that.

Alison Jones: Yes. I was thinking that, there’s really good stuff about habits as well. And that sort of protecting your time stuff. Yes, brilliant, wonderful.

It has been such a joy talking to you and it’s so rich that, I think people need to go back and listen to it three more times, making notes all the way. But if you want to find out more about you, Robert, and more about the book and more about the books to come in the future, where should they go?

Robert Kelsey: Well, my Amazon, obviously there’s a, if you put me into Amazon all my books come up, this one hopefully comes up top these days. And there’s obviously some profile on me on the Amazon site. John Wilkes, it’s still early days, but we do have a website, johnwilkes.co.uk and you can actually buy the book from John Wilkes as well as on Amazon et cetera.

So, I guess those are the two, otherwise, I mean, there was a Robert Kelsey website, but I’m much more interested in the sort of companies I create and that sort of thing than I am in in just pushing my own name really. So johnwilkes.co.uk is probably the best place to find out about us.

And then, yes, the Amazon page gives you more about my author journey and the various books I’ve written over the years.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Well, I’ll put those links up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as usual.

And thank you so much for your time, Robert. I just enjoyed talking to you so much and we didn’t have nearly long enough to more than scratch the surface, but thank you. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book as well. Thank you.

Robert Kelsey: Great, oh, well, I’m glad you did. Thank you very much. Thanks Alison.

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