Tell your clients what you think is right, not what you think they want to hear.
This week I was reflecting on an influential experience I had a few years back: I met Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad. Background: I am an obsessive about this show. A portion of my office is a shrine to the series. I own props seen on screen. The name on my office door plaque is Walter White. I've met writers and cast members, too.
I enjoyed a few minutes to speak one on one with Vince. I had my questions ready. After I thanked him for several things I’d learned from his writing techniques, I asked him for direction in getting my own screenplays and show ideas in front of people.
“A couple years ago, it was all vampire movies, so everybody started writing vampire movies. Don’t do that,” Vince told me. “Write what you think is interesting. Even if nobody else thinks it is. Stick with it. Fight for it.”
On the practical side, you’ll never stand out if you’re writing what everyone else is writing. By the time you get something ready, the trend will probably be over. Whatever's popular at the movies at any given moment is the product of ideas that were being accepted at least 18 months before.
On the creative side, if you write what you think will sell instead of what you’re passionate about, it’ll come through as inferior quality. You write better when you care and it shows. My screenplay (and, later, a play produced on two New York stages), How to Save Your Own Life, is as out of the mainstream as you can get: a high school savant tries to cure his terminal disease in a most unusual way; this while balancing an insane romance and a bizarre, perhaps mystical ability. Yet this weird work has finished near the top of competition after competition, including as a finalist for the grand prize at the Slamdance Film Festival screenwriting competition. I wrote it because I had something to say. I figured that if it was interesting to me, it would be interesting to other people. I was right.
How does this apply to those of you who write exclusively in business, PR, and influence?
The temptation is strong to simply take dictation—to give them exactly what they want, send an invoice, and move on.
But to do so is to miss an opportunity to improve a client’s ideas and reception, and to create a more enriching experience for yourself as a writer.
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May 26. Click here for more.
Remember what clients sometimes forget: they’re paying for your expertise, and that includes not only how ideas are presented but also what supports and expands those ideas. If you think you can sharpen the presentation of an idea by going beyond the client’s request, make your case. Make it even if your suggestion is unorthodox—especially if it’s unorthodox. If the answer is no, then fine, nothing lost. But one of the most powerful ways you can separate yourself from the fast-growing crowd of people who think they can make a living as a writer is to bring value in the form of original ideas.
Take Vince Gilligan's advice, bless 'im: give them what you think is best. Oh -- and don't just sort-of do it. Sell your idea with confidence, not apologies. In the words of Vince's character, Mike Ehrmantraut, no half-measures.