Anyone who writes a book called “Outsmarting Google” has my attention.
Combine this technical expertise with a gift for storytelling and we move to a Q&A.
Meet Evan Bailyn, founder of First Page Sage.
I thought this passage on Evan from a Forbes feature was particularly revealing:
All I do is I’m able to get people to agree to link from their websites,” he says. “It’s a people skills type of thing.” His ability to persuade webmasters to link to his sites, often through a well-crafted note, has enabled him to earn top ranks for terms like “doll” (for a paper doll site he once owned) and “personal injury lawyer” (for a client).
Even the seemingly mundane task of requesting links can be elevated through language.
Here’s our exchange on the topic and storytelling techniques.
Lou: I assume that webmasters and the like get pummeled with a gazillion requests for links. I also assume they probably take less than five seconds to decide if they’re going to read on. What’s the key to getting past the five-second filter?
Evan: Your assumption is partly correct. Certain webmasters with very public blogs get a ton of requests for links. Many others don’t. However, very few webmasters get high quality requests for links. Therein lies the secret to getting past the five-second filter: write something with a personal hook that shows you know about the website you’re writing to. Picture the person on the other end reading your e-mail and saying “So… what’s in it for me?” Answer that question in your email.
Lou: What do you think is the No. 1 mistake people make in crafting a letter that asks for something?
Evan: Using a barely customized form letter. There are several things wrong with this approach. First, these emails often sound like form letters. Second, it robs you of that “blank slate” moment where you get to decide how you will make a connection with another human being. Without at least a moment of serious thought about the actual person who’s sitting on the other side of that computer, you have a very low chance of getting what you’re seeking.
Lou: Once you have their attention, what type of language cultivates persuasiveness?
Evan: I am a big fan of sincere, slightly emotional language. When I say “emotional,” I don’t mean sentimental or cheesy. I mean something like“ This blog expresses an idea I’ve thought about ever since I was young. I’m hoping that you, too, see how exciting it is.” Another approach I often advocate is talking to the person on the other end like they’re a good friend of yours. Casual language is much more persuasive than formal language.
Lou: Keep it conversational?
Lou: Does storytelling play a role in your letters? If yes, can you share an example?
Lou: For example?
Evan: I might advise a non-profit client to send:
Hi Bill —
My name is John Smith. I came across betterlife.org recently and have become fascinated with your organization. I see that you started your work in South America, which is also where my parents were born. I imagine every new project feels personal to you with all that you and so many others have been through.
I am writing because I have recently taken up blogging personal stories about my travels to Ecuador as part of a project at nonprofit.org/blog. I believe the readers on your own blog would find our stories close to their hearts. Would you be interested in covering some of our stories on your blog? I would be more than happy to do the same in exchange.
Thanks in advance for your time, Bill.
Notice that in John Smith I have created a character – one with passion and a highly specific and relatable connection to Bill’s website. I also refer to my own blog entries as “stories” since that is more likely to get Bill’s attention. Of course, when writing to webmasters, you have to actually be able to feel what you’re writing – if you don’t at all relate to their site for any reason, you shouldn’t reach out in the first place. Very likely though, if you search yourself, you can find what is most interesting to you about that website.
Lou: Anything else that might be useful for business writers?
Evan: Just that persistence and organization are key. Even a great writer who takes her time and is authentic as possible may slip through the cracks if she doesn’t follow up a few times. Also, keeping a spreadsheet of who you reached out to, whether they replied, and if so what they said, is very important.
Lou: One last question- what’s your national ranking in Scrabble?
Evan: My Scrabble ranking is around a 1260.
Lou: I bet you’re pretty good at hangman too.
Evan: My wife always kicks my ass at hangman. The Scrabble ability doesn’t translate.