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Personal Marketing: Shake Hands with Flesh and Blood

The following post is an entry by one of our spectacular finalists in our Awesome Engagement Strategies ContestFinalists showcase their ideas, and whoever gets the most traction (i.e. comments and social shares) within five days of publication will be crowned the winner! This was a wonderful contest with lots of great entries – you can see all of the winners right here!

personalConsider a photograph of a person caught in a shark’s mouth in open waters.

Gruesome, yes, but where does your eye go?

Not to the churning water, not even to the shark’s fearsome teeth.

No, most people would fix on the face of the trapped person. Our empathetic nerves would trigger, we’d sense some of the pain, some of the fear, some of the horror. We do that because we are human, and our humanness first reaches out to other humans.

Consider a more benign picture, say one of those great Bierstadt western panorama paintings, which often depict towering cliff-sides falling to a deep river valley, one filled with gigantic trees, with a tiny rider on horseback on the valley floor. Where does your eye rest? Indeed the vast cliffs get attention, as does the rushing river, but the eye-and the heart-go to the rider. What is he doing in that vast space? How does he feel? You wonder this because you project your own self, your own vulnerable sense of place in an open world into the place of that rider.

You do it because you are human-you share the boldness and the foreboding.

Those feelings are threaded inextricably through our nature, from endless iteration from hunter-and-gatherer times, where cooperation proved to be key to move the individual, family and the group forward. And what does this have to do with personal marketing? Just this: there are a thousand and one SEO tricks, a hundred headline hacks, and ebook giveaways by the gangham. But before all that, before all the strategies and the schemes is a basic: being more human with your audience is more engaging than a bushel of WordPress plug-ins.

Pray tell, how does one be more human with their audience? No rules, but just a few thoughts:

Be yourself

Be conversational, whether you’re selling time-shares or time machines. Don’t explain every whiz-band feature with techno-talk before you say hello, and ask how it’s going. This isn’t to say that you stock your communications with your every sigh and wheeze, but that you just loosen up. Let your customers into your world and they might venture into your store. And don’t be afraid to let your feelings show- emotional marketing can really set you apart.

I think of Chris Brogan, who has talked frankly about his depression in his writing, exposing some bone. Watch his videos on Google+ or his site, and see a guy who lets you know what drives him, what upsets him, what inspires. And it’s not just the good business stuff he’s putting out there-he’ll make you laugh with stuff about his Camaro or the comic books he loves. Brogan sends out a Sunday email that’s the essence of a conversational style, and he’ll unfailingly answer your responses to that mail. That kind of personal element is what sets his marketing, and his business, apart.

Be curious (and share the cupcakes of your curiosity)

Ask questions of yourself and of your customers, out loud. There’s always more to learn. If you’re presenting information, don’t do it from a position of absolute knowledge and certainty-there is no absolute knowledge or certainty. Try to discover more about your customers and how you can serve them will, curiously, lead you to understand more of yourself and your strengths. And by god, make it fun. Business without fun is, well, no fun.

Jonathan Fields is a kind of intellectual adventurer in his work, blending science and sinew in his books and writing. He’s never afraid of asking questions out loud on his blog about life issues, where it’s clear he’s searching for answers as much as his followers are. His current Good Life Project, a series of videos where he interviews interesting (and often extraordinary) people on their life pursuits-and what constitutes a good life-is a stirring example of sharing his curiosity in a vivid, affecting way.

Say thanks

Surprise your biz peeps. Send ’em a special discount, a signed postcard of well wishes, a photo of you in your underwear. Well, maybe in your Santa outfit. Let them know you appreciate working with them, that you appreciate their very themness. Saying (and meaning) a sincere thank you is liberating. It frees you from grinchiness. Being grateful is being more open to being alive, more human.

I’m reminded of Seth Godin’s recent blog tribute to his mentor, Zig Ziglar, which shimmered in simple appreciative truth. Godin has always quick to give thanks where it’s due, whether to people who work directly with him, or to his many followers. He’s repeatedly given generously of his writings and thoughts for many years, but he’ll often redirect the attention given to those toward sincere appreciation of his audience. He may have an action figure, but he’s a real guy.

Simple stuff, to be sure, but it’s remarkable how authenticity in business allows us to connect with those folks that do it right. There are lots of people-Sonia Simone, Johnny B. Truant, James Chartrand, Leo Babauta, the homeboy here, Danny Iny-who all seem real, curious and generous, and even in blog posts read by thousands, leave you with the feeling that they’re talking to you.

When we get caught up in our business dealings and deadlines, and are hit with bills or ills, we lose sight of the things that originally brought us to our business: the passion, the play, the wonderful elation that comes from seeing an idea bear fruit. We forget those human pleasures, lost in unnatural goals and dry numbers. But if you take time to focus back on where you came from-your humanity-you can feel the resurgence of blood and feeling back to, and from, your business.

So, to summarize this humanization stuff:

  • Loosen up: Small talk can really be big talk. Letting your customers and your colleagues know that you collect Roman antiquities, memorize lacrosse scores or always have five chocolate chips for breakfast might seem like meaningless palaver. But letting anyone peek over your wall lets you see them too. Humans like to see one another.
  • Mean it, when you ask what’s up: Before the pitch, before the sale, ask those “Hey, howya doings” that might seem lame on the surface. Be genuinely curious (without being a freak, of course) about their chocolate chip breakfast. Curiosity has led to the greatest things-like, well, chocolate chips.
  • Thank your mechanic, thank the mail person, thank even the clients that drive you batty: Saying thanks (and meaning it, duh) is disarming. People appreciate being appreciated. Thanks are that little lagniappe, that something extra, the gift that imparts a little glow.

Personal marketing doesn’t have to mean getting face to face with every person you do business with – it just means not letting the marketing get in the way of your person!

Being human – it’s only natural.

About Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is a business writer and editor, a fiction writer, and an essayist. (He does not play banjo.) You can see examples of his services, his published writing, and his lurid website confessions at

33 thoughts on “Personal Marketing: Shake Hands with Flesh and Blood

  1. It takes a lot of courage to draw back the curtain and let people see you. As you say, it is so worth it. It’s what separates the bloggers we all know from the ones we don’t.

    Thanks, Tom, great advice. I can do it, too, right?

    • Frances, I suspect you are already doing that in your work, but you have full permission from me to get after it! But yes, so many times I have been affected (to the point of tears, tough guy that I am) by posts that share emotion, where you can hear the doubt or the pain or the grace in the writer’s voice.

      Of course, you probably don’t want to bring your customers to tears, unless it’s over the joy of using your products or them savoring your skills with grammar, but I’d venture that customers/clients stick around longer if your particular story touches them in a human way.

  2. I made the mistake of being too formal when I first started blogging, but I eventually realized that was the wrong approach.

    And, for the record, chocolate chip cookies (with toast and cream cheese on the side) is one of the world’s great breakfasts.

    • Jodi, as you know, I can sometimes face-plant the other direction, towards excessive informality. Balance is better, but actually showing your face in your business makes for better business (even if your face has a goofy grin).

      Your breakfast advice is flawless.

  3. This post reminds me how much I love what I do for a living, which is act as the voice of my clients through writing. By reaching through my words to engage with and touch my readers, everyone becomes more human. Thanks for getting me started today, Mr. Bentley!

  4. Alice, you bring up a tricky thing: as a copywriter, you both reflect and steer the client’s voice. It can be a subtle thing to know when to clout the cymbals and when to use the soft brush on the snare drum of client copy. And to know what volume is going to make the audience lean in, not draw back. Being human helps in knowing how to offer all that good stuff.

  5. What a wonderful article. Your words and advice might seem commonsensical and innate to some, though we all can use gentle reminders of the profound importance of reining in on humanness during our hectic day-to-day lives. I really appreciate your thoughtful insights, Tom. Thank you!

  6. Nancy, though my mother might question the depth of my common sense pool, I appreciate your statement. It made me consider that the very obviousness of being human in our dealings could be lost on us because it’s so obvious. It’s weird to think that we might have to make a conscious habit of being human in business and pleasure, but perhaps we got in the habit of NOT extending our better selves—and those bad habits can be replaced by good.

    Wow, I think I just saved myself some money on a therapy session.

  7. And now it’s going to look like I’m just trying to stuff the comment box (hey, maybe I can be Tommy2 and TomTom and …), but I have to give large props to Megan Dougherty of Firepole for her work with my post. I thought my first draft—hah! some editor I am—was good, but she pressed me on expanding and improving it. And pressed me more than once.

    Her pressings made this post’s fabric so much smoother. Megan, you are seriously OK. Seriously.

  8. In client relationships, it’s often natural and probably essential to “peek over the walls.” Knowing and reflecting a client’s interests and preferences is what will keep your relationship jelled. What’s far more difficult is for the creative team — not just the copywriter — to produce material that squarely meets the marketing objective and at the same time has both an authentic and appealing tone.

    • Stephanie, it’s been a while, but I’ve been in the employee editorial corner of a few corporate entities, and yes indeedy, there are projects where all the respective departments seem to be speaking a different language (and sometimes one that looks like this: $#!!@%$!!).

      Creation by committee can produce camels riding skateboards rather than a unified, artful marketing campaign, but if you are on a team that joins hands smoothly, the results can be lovely. (Although now that I think about it, maybe an ad with camel-riding skateboarders could have a place somewhere.)

  9. Thanks for the article. It is actualllt super important especially now, as the liars and the crooks are being uncovered by the dozen.

    We still want heroes but we are more accepting that heroes don’t need to be flawless. They need to be passionate, living an amazing life, and contributing in some way.

    People are also tired of being sold to, general crap that’s been going on, and most of all, living disconnected and discontented lives.

    You have some well known names in your examples and I feel that people like to see that these very successful people are human. Super but still human. It not only allows the readers to connect, but it also gives them hope and inspiration that they too can succeed and make their visions and dreams a reality.

    It’s about balancing intimacy that connects with sharing results and lessons from being human. Being real is is about showing up as you all the time and consistency is the key.

    • Hey Sandra, liars and crooks—how do you know my family? (Just kidding, mom!) Yes, there are constant revelations (Lance Armstrong, sigh) of deceit, inauthenticity and much worse in the public sphere. And then there are the daily mistakes and miscues us regular folks make—you are right that heroes don’t need to be—and probably can’t be—flawless.

      By extending and offering our humanity, particularly in the business arena, we can all demonstrate that there’s an alternative to the monolith of the “cold corporation.” And that it’s warmer inside.

      Speaking of the well-known names I mentioned, Jonathan Fields talks with Leo Babauta in his latest Good Life project interview—it’s a double-header!

  10. Despite the powerful effect it has when others do this with me, I forget sometimes to let my readers see beyond my brain, down to my heart. Quick to share what I know, I hold back from saying much about how I feel.

    Your examples in the opening remind me that we always look for the human face, and why. Super.

    Oh, and when you’re finally ready for those banjo lessons, just let me know.

    • Joel, I’m with you—It’s embarrassing how often I find myself going through the motions in business and in my personal life. It’s just that it’s so easy to go, “Yeah, yeah, next case, next conversation, move it along.” It causes more friction to have to consider things on an individual basis, to really think and feel in the moment, but it’s that kind of sand/oyster/pearl friction that’s often so good. (Or maybe it’s just a rash.)

      Hey, I love the banjo! I will begin my finger-stretching exercises in anticipation of our lesson.

  11. Great stuff. Really interesting way to bring your point across by relating to a person being caught in a shark’s mouth. And whether selling time-shares or time machines was funny. I really need to try more engagements with people who stop by my blog and take time to comment or follow.

  12. What, you don’t think I was serious about the time machine? Why, I have a deluxe, fur-lined model that will blow you away! Oh, never mind…

    Seriously, Jevon, thanks for the nice words. It’s fun to take the governor off your imagination and let it footsie around a bit, and then to share it. I just looked at your “Fake Your Writing Till You Make It” and I thought it was quite personal and engaging. Keep checking out sites like Firepole and Copyblogger and their ilk—lots of good advice on getting people to respond. (And I need to take more of my own advice here.)

  13. Thanks for your article, Tom. Common sense, really, but we’ve gotten so far from it on some levels, it seems like new stuff! You are my hero for validating what I want to do, but don’t always do because of the perceived (ill-perceived) “biz norms” of late. And thanks, Jodi, for the breakfast tip. I’ve had the ch-chip cookies for breakfast, of course, but haven’t tried the toast and cream cheese side …

    • Ava, I believe “biz norms” are actually shifting towards at least acknowledging (which sometimes only means paying lip service) toward a more human-centric, conversational exchanges between corporations, their clients and customers. The institutionalized “We sell, you buy” is pretty brittle these days, when a Twitter storm can have a business backpedaling on its heels because they muffed something up and didn’t come clean. But yes, there’s a ways to go.

      Hey, I never get to be a hero! I will buy a new outfit immediately. As for Jodi’s breakfast, one does wonder what lunch wonders laugh on her plate.

  14. As clever as your sister, oh Human Tom.
    As I use to say in advertising review classes,
    alwys thank your clients for the chance to work on their business.
    Totally charming, completely disarming.
    Clients are people, too.

    • My sister? Are you one of her henchwomen, Alice? But much agreed: when you charm, you CAN disarm. (Thank God! There’s no explaining it, but I had the song “To Sir with Love” in my head all day—I’m going to replace it with “totally charming, completely disarming” and it might go away. Thank you!)

      And thanking clients really is the bow on the package: that extra bit of sparkle that seals the deal. By the way, if that cussed iPad is really bothering you, just ship it to me for punishment. You can get my address from my sister…

  15. Hi
    Great advice for anyone…
    Very well said…not always thoughtful
    enough to actually put it in practice…
    I will work on it…to become the best
    I can be….

    • Thanks Larry. Your comment reminds me of what I was trying to express earlier: it’s easier to gloss over the niceties of our business dealings (and sometimes our personal ones), just to get to what is perceived to be the meat: did you make the sale? Did you get 1,000 visitors to your page in a day? Did you buy the requisite flowers and candy for your beloved so your quota of flowers and candy was reached?

      But making a conscious habit (and believe me, I often fall back into easy unconsciousness) of being present to the whole spectrum of our dealings, as people, can make the quality of those dealings so much sweeter.

  16. A potential online customer or client, like me, needs to keep it real too.

    So here’s my ugly little secret, folks.

    When I’m slogging through blog articles, email newsletters, podcasts and videos, sometimes a marketer’s emotional sharing, that ‘peek over the wall,’ not only doesn’t attract me – it can repel me. To hijack your metaphor of emotional magnetism, Tom, it’s like that person and I are in opposing magnetic fields.

    And as a result, even if I was initially interested in the idea, product or service that that person is marketing, I’ll probably choose to opt-out.

    But as your article beautifully underscores, it’s not (just) the commerce, stupid. It’s the humanity you bring to the commerce. Authenticity, curiosity, attentiveness and appreciation are at the core of that, as the engaging marketers you’ve mentioned seem to understand intuitively. Is that kind of understanding, and the effective expression of it, something that most people can learn? Or is it more hard-wired? That’s a big question-mark in my thinking.

    What I do know for certain is that I opt-in for ideas, products and services that promise to fill a need I have, from people who engage me, and gain my trust, because I perceive them as authentic, decent, helpful and relatable (even in a Santa suit).

    And as you said, being human is only natural, but so is the experience of being in attracting magnetic fields with others. It can’t be forced. So in marketing, and everywhere else in life, might as well be your best real self, right?

    Thanks for this thought-provoking offering, Tom!

    • Annie, yes, many are the times I’ve gone to a site (or seen an ad, or heard a talk) and my initial reaction was the Monty Pythonesque “Run away! Run away!” There’s no doubt that some servings of human are going to stay untouched on my plate. The Brussels sprouts of non-engagement! So, some pitches just ain’t gonna be caught, because the pitcher isn’t reading your particular signals. Have I tortured enough metaphors yet?

      As to whether people can learn to generally bring more of their authentic selves to the arena, I’d venture “yes.” First the consciousness that there’s something tight about your message, then the perception that a button or two can be loosened. And then maybe everyone relaxes. Or you’re arrested for pornography. Thanks for the note!

  17. I just want to say that I am impressed not just with your post here, but by the extensive and heartfelt comments you gave to each and every person who commented on the post. By example, you have demonstrated your sincerity. If I was in the market for a copyeditor and was unsure who to choose, such commitment to your readers would seriously tip the scales in your direction.

  18. Kim, that’s gracious of you to say, and thanks for it. Really though, the replies to people’s comments are the fun parts for me—I enjoy the play of language as much as the next guy or gal. And despite the inundation, the dailyness of Internetness through so many lives, it’s still rather amazing to me that we can exchange thoughts in this and other disembodied forums, react to ideas (or not), wish each other well. Zowie!

    Thank you for the warm words.

  19. I love this. Just this morning I sent a thank you card to my stepmom, without whom I would not be where I am today. She taught me about the importance of self-education and being an entrepreneur.

    I also just added a “Welcome” and “Thanks for reading!” note to my newsletter. The idea that popped into my head was to welcome each of the new readers by name, although I recognize that that could get difficult as time goes on. Perhaps the best idea would be to set up an autoresponder with a thanks and what can I do for you message.

    The chocolate chip breakfast is my favorite part of networking. People always ask me if I’m a reporter or a journalist. And I say, “Nope! I’m just curious!” I’ve always wanted to get to learn more about people. Everyone has a great story to tell, whether they think so or not.

    I often get comments from people expressing their gratitude for my honesty in posts. In fact, my most popular post was highlighting the downs of my past (suicidally depressed, eating disorder, isolated, unhappy, etc.) and how things have changed for me now (happy beyond belief, social, comfortable with food, loving and living life, etc.) There is a power to sharing your unique story that builds credibility AND connection.

    • Hey Shannon, glad the piece resonated with you. I’m sure your step-mom will dig the card—handwritten messages are rare (and often treasured) items these days. And I’m sure you can set up an auto-responder that feels like the voice of a human (that being you).

      It can be tricky to decide how much of your personal life you’re going to share in a professional context, but it sounds like you took the measure of that, and acted. People really do respond to emotion and sincerity—and when those currents are couched in a creative way, they respond even more. Thanks for writing!

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