‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s a myth. What you do is you sit down at a keyboard and you type a letter, and then you type some more letters, you have a word. Then you type some more words, you have a sentence. A few more sentences, you have a paragraph. What you write is better than you think, but what stops people is the self-editing, this little person in your head who keeps critiquing you. You got to kill that person, you just got to flick them off your shoulder, stomp on them ’til they’re bloody. You have to sit down and write, and stop worrying whether people will like it. Just write for yourself.’
Alan Weiss’s approach to writing is bracing. If you’re getting bogged down in endless rewriting or self-critiquing, this is going to be uncomfortable listening. Uncomfortable, but essential.
Alan Weiss’s website: https://www.alanweiss.com/
This Book Means Business table of contents: https://docs.google.com/document/d/19VcymKlxPtgee1WQrPkrp9JhowVVHQCBzx74Y4YfAAA/edit?usp=sharing
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 20 March): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m here with Alan Weiss who is the author of Million Dollar Consulting and more than 60 other books including Breaking Through Writer’s Block which is particularly relevant for people listening today. He’s a consultant, he’s president of Summit Consulting Group, he’s the host of the annual Thought Leadership Conference, and he’s also a regular speaker and a contributor at the highest level of business and management thinking. He’s also the mentor of Robbie Kellman Baxter, a previous guest on this show who recommended that I invite him and I’m delighted that he accepted and he’s here with us today. One of the really interesting fact, he’s the only non-journalist in history to have received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Press Institute, so welcome to the show, Alan.
Alan Weiss: Thank you, Alison, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alison Jones: Great to have you here, and I think what’s particularly fascinating about that astonishing roll call of achievements is, I think everybody will be going “Sixty books? Really?”
Alan Weiss: Yeah, there are 48 I think. I think it’s 48 original works, and then if you add in the newer editions and the translations it comes to around 64 or 65. For example, Million Dollar Consulting is in its 5th edition right now, but still, 48 isn’t bad either, is it?
Alison Jones: It’s pretty impressive. You’re a prolific writer.
Alan Weiss: I like to think of myself that way, yes.
Alison Jones: Did you start off that way or did you train yourself to become that way, and why do you do it?
Alan Weiss: That’s an interesting question I’m rarely asked. In grammar school, when I went to grammar school, we were taught English very carefully. Diagram sentences, put words together in a certain way, grammatical usages, and I took to it because I thought the order and structure were very important to express yourself. I wasn’t fearful at all about writing with that kind of discipline, and so I’ve always written. In high school I was editor of the school newspaper, in college I was editor of the school newspaper and I won eight awards doing it, so it always came naturally. Then when I went out on my own, when I was fired many years ago, I was asking myself, “What am I really good at?” I’m good at speaking and writing so I just kept it up, so yes, it’s been a lifelong endeavour.
Alison Jones: What does it do for you personally? We’ll come onto the professional aspect, I’m always interested in what people get out of the process of writing for themselves.
Alan Weiss: You and I are speaking at 9:00 in the morning, my time, and I’ve already written one column and posted about six things on my blogs and so forth on the internet. I like to write because it helps me vent, it helps me express myself, and the important thing is that you love to write and you write truly when you do not self-edit. I find that people who find writing laborious are constantly self-editing, I do no self-editing.
Alison Jones: When you write the books, is it the same as writing your blog, which I know you do pretty much everyday as well, or is it more a conscious thing now, do you get somebody to do the editing piece?
Alan Weiss: No, it’s head to screen and the editing that’s done by say McGraw-Hill or Wiley, or whomever it is, is for grammar and formatting. I’ve written, I don’t know, 23 million words and I still don’t remember the difference between that and which, so they correct those things, but in most of my books they might tell me, the editor might say, “You’ve repeated this story twice,” or, “This is not exactly clear. What did you mean?” They never really change the content at all, they simply do some editing for grammar and consistent with their style.
Alison Jones: It’s a real demonstration of the power of doing, doing, doing, isn’t it? Because you’ve just honed it, now you know what you’re doing, you don’t have to reinvent it every time.
Alan Weiss: That’s true, but it’s also the power of self esteem. It’s the power of not worrying what people think about what you write. It’s the power of writing for yourself and not being popular, and it’s the power of success over perfection. Perfection kills success, it kills excellence, and so if you’re constantly asking yourself, “Is there a better way to write this?” You’ll never write anything that’s really good. If you want to write, there are four points important in selling, and then you stop and say, “Well, should it three points or seven points?” You might as well get another job.
Alison Jones: One thing that Robbie said about you that really struck me was she said that not only do you write prolifically, everything you write is original. Part of me thought, well you shouldn’t have to say that, that should always be the case, but actually it’s not, is it? What do you think about that?
Alan Weiss: No. It was not a fact. I wrote something not long ago pointing out that too many people are derivative. When the book Chicken Soup for the Soul came out, I know both of those authors, they’re master marketing people, the book’s really a compilation. Within three months you had a Turtle Consommé for the Kidney, and so forth, and everybody was trying to cash in on this but nobody was successful because they were all derivative. Yes, you do have to be original. That could mean taking things that already exist and structuring them in new ways because technology changes, the economy changes, demographics change, that’s okay, but simply to copy … Somebody just put out a book on process visuals which plagiarises one of my books. That’s worse than derivative, but that’s because that person has no creativity whatsoever, and no one’s going to read their book.
Alison Jones: I wonder how much it’s to do with writers and how much to do with publishers because publishers are very anxious about profits. It’s very risky business, and as soon as they see a success they’d like to carbon copy it.
Alan Weiss: You’re right. Publishing has changed dramatically from when my first book came out in 1988 to today. The changes are vast. Today niche publishers are very popular and very effective. Million Dollar Maverick, my last book, came out last year, reached its fastest, highest sales of all of my books and reached number 708 on Amazon in combined fiction and non-fiction so niche publishers are very popular. The larger publishers, there aren’t that many of them anymore, are basically scared. You’re right. Some are owned by venture capitalists and they’re looking at the bottom line very closely.
Alison Jones: It’s interesting, I think once you’ve established yourself with a publisher, you have a kind of freedom, and if you’re taking the new route of self publishing you have a kind of freedom, I think it’s very hard if you’re trying to get the traditional publishing deal and you’re an unknown, to do something original.
Alan Weiss: Yes, I think you’re right, but it still could be done because people are doing it, but you’re right about the basic point. My next book, called Lifestorming which comes out in a few months, it’s co-written with Marshall Goldsmith, I sold that book to Wiley on the basis of 14 lines and that was it.
Alison Jones: Yeah, because they know you were a deliver and they know you.
Alan Weiss: Exactly, and they know we have audiences. Writing … if you want to look beyond writing to publishing, publishing’s about having a platform. Publishing’s about convincing a publisher that there are people out there who follow you and want to read what you have to say.
Alison Jones: I couldn’t agree more, now let’s explore that because that’s where I wanted to take you next actually. Which came first for you, the book or the platform? I know it was a long time ago and things are different now, but just talk me through how they work together.
Alan Weiss: When I was fired in 1985 from the consulting firm where I was president, I found myself in the United States amidst 400,000 consultants and I said, “How can I stand out?” As I mentioned, I said, “Well, I’m good at speaking and writing,” you always go with your strength, you don’t try to correct weaknesses, and so that’s what I did. My first three books were on innovation, strategy, and behaviour because that’s what I was consulting on. I figured those books would help me get business, and they did. A lot of people who never read the books, but saw them, they’d see my name on a book along with McGraw-Hill and Harper-Collins, they said, “Well, must know what he’s talking about.”
The books and my work concurrently built this platform, and then Million Dollar Consulting came along, my fourth book, and changed my world because over the next 10 years I moved from what I call a wholesale business, a corporate business, to a retail business, to an individual business. That’s the power of a book. It can help define who you become.
Alison Jones: I want to follow that up actually. You talk about being a retail business, and looking at your site, one thing that struck me and almost made me laugh actually, you have everything on there from every price point. You’ve got the free stuff, you’ve got the blog, you’ve got the lovely video clips, really like the writing on the wall stuff. Then you’ve got a basket where you can buy products for tens of thousands of dollars, and there’s everything in between.
Alan Weiss: Don’t forget, when you look at high price points you’re not talking about products anymore, you’re talking about time with me. It’s just like Tony Robbins can get people to pay 50,000 or whatever they pay to fly to Fiji and see him, you can get things from me on my site, on my blog for free, audio, video, text. You can pay a few dollars and join my subscription programmes. Right now my subscription programme for Million Dollar Maverick and for my live streaming series are very popular. People join those for a few hundred dollars, but I can draw … you talked about Thought Leadership before, we’re in our eighth year, and I drove big names to that so 35 people will attend that, which is my cap.
They’ll each pay $12,000 to be there, so I have that kind of draw myself in that I can draw extremely attractive people and I can draw a lot of participants. I call this the accelerant curve. You get people interested in you with a great ease of entry, no barrier to entry, and as they become much more involved with your brand and they trust you, they tend to invest much more money.
Alison Jones: Yes, I did an interview a little while ago with Nicholas Lovell who’s written a book called The Curve, very much that principle, and he made the point, which I thought was beautifully demonstrated by your site, very few people allow their super-fans to spend serious amounts of money. They stop small, and I love the way that you have that full curve to the point where somebody who absolutely loves what you do and just wants to spend time with you can do that at a price point that works for you.
Alan Weiss: Yeah, I have my own credit cards, they’re called the Bentley Card, the Buddy Card, they’re named after my dogs, and then I have a card called a Rolls Royce card. For $100,000 you can buy a Rolls Royce card and people do that. There’s no limit, really, to what people will invest if they see great value in you, and if they perceive that their success can be enhanced by continued work with you. What you said earlier about continued new and original value, IP, intellectual property, that’s the key to that kind of a curve.
Alison Jones: Yes, and it’s that move, isn’t it, between as you say a product and a relationship, really, more than a service.
Alan Weiss: That’s right. Products or commodities. If you’re in the consulting business, if you are a solo consultant or in a boutique firm, and you don’t know who I am, there’s something wrong with you. You might not like me, you might think I’m arrogant, you might choose not to read my stuff, that’s okay, but if you don’t know who I am you’re an amateur.
Alison Jones: Million Dollar Consulting is a brand, obviously. Alan Weiss is a brand. Can we just talk a little bit about the brand components and one thing, I’ve never seen anybody use their dogs and their car so effectively in a brand-building thing. Talk about those for a minute and why.
Alan Weiss: People expect a certain lifestyle from me. I don’t just tell people to create a business and to market better, and to write books and so forth. I help people to understand how to live, and so people are interested in my lifestyle. They’re interested in exotic cars, they’re interested in my travels, they’re interested in how I choose to live. I happen to love dogs and I get a lot of lessons from dogs, I write a lot about the lessons I learn from dogs, and when you write, of course you need to find analogies and metaphors. I’ve made them part of my life and when I coach people, I tell people all the time, if you’re into music … One woman I coach is a classical pianist, she’s a marketing expert. I said, “Use your music in your business. The more you involve your passion in your business, the better you are at it, it’s as simple as that.”
Alison Jones: It also makes you … well, I don’t want to be rude, it makes you more human. It’s that sense that you are a real person with your own unique passions, and that doesn’t always come across in the professional branding.
Alan Weiss: That’s very true. First of all, let’s define a brand. I have two definitions. The first is a brand is a uniform expression of value, so you always know what you’re going to get. Nobody goes into McDonald’s to browse, they know exactly what they’ll find in there, so it’s a uniform expression of value. The second thing is though, a brand is how people think about you when you’re not there, and that’s very important for us because timing is everything. We have limited resources, we work on our own, and so we can’t be all places at all times. People need to think of us when we’re not there. The ultimate brand is your name. You want people to say, “Well, get me a great strategist,” and my name’s in the hat, but you’d rather have them say, “Get me Alan Weiss,” which is what they’ve been saying about McKinsey for all these years for example. The ultimate brand is your name, but beneath that, covered by that umbrella, you can have a multitude of brands that appeal to a diverse amount of people. That to me is the secret of effective branding.
Alison Jones: Tell me about how Million Dollar as a brand works within that. Obviously, originally it was a book title, Million Dollar Consulting. You’ve taken that and expanded it, and played with it in a number of different ways, it has, I think become a standalone brand. What are your thoughts on that?
Alan Weiss: Let me just take a minute to tell you how it arose. I had written a book called Confessions of a Consultant, which it was rejected 15 times, and finally McGraw-Hill said, “Look, we’re interested in this guy,” they said to my agent, “if he can demonstrate how he makes a million dollars a year working alone.” My agent said, “Well, he can do that,” and so I wrote the book but they never changed the title because of the bureaucracy of McGraw-Hill. The book’s about to go into production, I’m sitting in the editor’s office in New York, she says to me, “Now, Alan, what are we going to call this? It’s not Confessions of a Consultant.” I said, “Betsy, I don’t know, I’ll think about it.” She said, “Don’t even get off your chair. You’re not leaving my office until we’ve got a title,” and I said, “Betsy, you know, it’s about million dollar consulting. What can I tell you?”
She said, “There’s the title,” and so Million Dollar Consulting was born fortuitously, accidentally, and jus became a star. Like I said, it changed my life. If you think about it, Million Dollar Consulting is the perfect metaphor. Somebody wrote a book called Six Figure Consulting, now, would you rather read Six Figure Consulting or Million Dollar Consulting?
Alison Jones: Right? Isn’t that odd?
Alan Weiss: If you write a book called Billion Dollar Consulting, nobody will believe it, but Million Dollar Consulting is the perfect metaphor. For some people the perfect life might be $650,000, for some people it might be $2,000,005, but nevertheless, the metaphor stands. People are drawn to that and they’re drawn to it sceptically which is great but once they can appreciate that not only can I make well into seven figures a year on my own, but I can help other people do that they become believers. The psychological research on this is brilliant in that former opponents, when they convert and support you, are much more passionate backers than people who supported you from the beginning. That’s how brand power grows.
Alison Jones: I suppose the church has been using this for a long time, hasn’t it?
Alan Weiss: That’s exactly right. I’m a convert myself. Let me tell you, that’s true.
Alison Jones: I also noticed, as a publisher, I noticed the music in Million Dollar Consulting, it’s quite important that a title rolls off the tongue, which it does beautifully. What I haven’t noticed until you said it was that implicit question. “Really?” There’s a sceptical thing there that hooks your attention, it’s very clever.
Alan Weiss: If you’re in the business you can be sceptical about that which is fine but you can’t afford not to hear more about it. Once they start to hear more about it they realise that it’s quite doable. You can accomplish it, and they can talk to people who indeed have done so in my global community. The sceptic suddenly says, “Okay, I want some of that,” and we’re in.
Alison Jones: This is where I reveal my ignorance because I haven’t read the book, I’m really sorry, but do you talk about writing in Million Dollar Consulting?
Alan Weiss: I talk about it in nearly all my books, especially since Million Dollar Consulting is in its 5th edition which came out last year, the 25th anniversary. I talk about it in all my books because it’s one of the principle forms of communication of course. Most communication is really in writing. Whether its electronic or hard copy, or whatever, English has become, defacto, the world language. Try to get an air traffic controller to give you directions in a different language, that doesn’t work, so consequently I’m convinced that if you’re not writing and writing a lot, you’re missing a key opportunity. It doesn’t mean you won’t be successful, but boy you’d better make up for that big time in other areas.
Alison Jones: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. That’s so important. Thank you. That’s really fascinating. There’s going to be lots of people listening to this podcast who haven’t yet written their first book. What advice would you give them?
Alan Weiss: First of all, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. You talked about my book Breaking Through Writer’s Block before, which by the way I originally wrote hard copy and now is totally electronic. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. It’s a myth. What you do is you sit down at a keyboard and you type a letter, and then you type some more letters, you have a word. Then you type some more words, you have a sentence. A few more sentences, you have a paragraph. What you write is better than you think, but what stops people is the self-editing, this little person in your head who keeps critiquing you. You got to kill that person, you just got to flick them off your shoulder, stomp on them ’til they’re bloody. You have to sit down and write, and stop worrying whether people will like it. Just write for yourself.
I do a weekly column, my Monday Morning Memo, and it creates more feedback than almost anything else I write on a regular basis. People say, “I don’t always agree with you but I love reading this,” and my reaction is, “I’m not writing this for you. I’m writing this for me. If it provokes you, that’s good.” You’ve got to be able to hold opposing thoughts in your head and still function. Don’t worry about pleasing people, just please yourself.
Alison Jones: It sounds really simple advice, but really that is the core of it because I know that what blocks me is immediately thinking, oh, does that sound right? How will that be received? Will people understand that? Does it sound arrogant? Whatever.
Alan Weiss: Women are worse at this than men, so it’s an interesting commentary you just made. William of Ockham created this theory called Ockham’s Razor and he said, “The easiest path’s usually the right one,” and he’s absolutely correct. The easiest path is to sit down and write what you believe, not what you think will sell, what you believe and that pleases you, and stop worrying about whether others think so because that’s a hopeless pursuit of external validation. It’s like the speaker who demands high ratings on these stupid smile sheets or wants a standing ovation. They are seeking external validation. You have to be able to provide self validation.
Alison Jones: I think that also comes back to our point about originality, it reminds me of a great quote by C.S. Lewis about trying to go for originality is completely pointless whereas if you just say what you think without worrying about originality, you will, by definition, become original.
Alan Weiss: That’s right, and if you try to jump on the bandwagon you’ll find that there are so many people on it that you yourself lose your individuality or the bandwagon’s about to crash at the bottom of the hill and it has no brakes.
Alison Jones: Yeah, fantastic. Is there anything that I’ve not asked you that I should ask you?
Alan Weiss: I never ever answer that question, ever, but I will tell you this, just as a comment to your listeners. Since your programme is about writing and you interview people who have been very successful at it, I would tell your listeners that they too can be very successful at it if they don’t create an impossible high bar for themselves. Start with a weekly column, start with a regular blog, but if you go into blog, don’t blog twice a month, blog four times a week, make it a regular thing. One of the secrets of having people follow you is that you appear consistently at the same time and the same place, then work yourself up to larger and larger works, booklets and things. By all means, when you’re ready to write a book, when you say, “By God, I have to have a book out there,” sit down and start it because you want to and stop worrying about what everybody else thinks.
Alison Jones: Thank you for not answering that question so eloquently. Fantastic.
Alan Weiss: You’re welcome.
Alison Jones: I always ask my guests to recommend someone that they think would be a good guest on this show, so somebody with something interesting to say about business books and the business of books. Who do you think I should invite?
Alan Weiss: I have a colleague, I facilitate something called The Elite Retreat, 10 very successful people. We just met for our January meeting in Florida, and there’s a fellow named Bruce Turkel who wrote a book called It’s All About Them. His expertise is in advertising and marketing, and he writes very well about how to influence others, and mistakes people make. He might be somebody you want to talk to.
Alison Jones: Thank you, I will approach Bruce and say that you sent me, and that sounds great. We’ll hopefully have him on the show soon. I can’t thank you enough, Alan. I’m going to suggest that people listen to that at least three or four times because it was very concise, very to the point, and so much wisdom in there. Thank you.
Alan Weiss: It’s my pleasure, and if people go to my website or my blog, there’s all kinds of free material, text, audio, and video that they can avail themselves of.
Alison Jones: Actually, they should go and not just look at your material, they should go and look how you’re doing it because they really could learn an awful lot from just how you put everything together. It is superb. I will put the link up on the show notes.
Alan Weiss: That’s great, thank you.
Alison Jones: Goodbye then. Thank you.
Alan Weiss: Bye, thanks.