Find A Photographer Find An Assistant Join ASMP Join the Mailing List

Attaining Awesomeness

Inspiring Words From Colleen Wainwright

© Shawn G. Henry

Electric and inspiring are descriptors that barely scratch the surface of Colleen Wainwright’s keynote during ASMP’s Strictly Business 3 conferences. “She really got my adrenaline going in a positive sense, and I could feel the excitement in the room,” Philadelphia attendee Felicia Perretti notes in a blog post. “It almost felt like a class full of students waiting to be dismissed for recess, when actually everyone was heading to their desired workshops.” To continue the conversation Wainwright started onstage, we prepared this Q&A to share her insights with the full membership. An abbreviated version of this Q&A was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the ASMP Bulletin.


ASMP: You began your keynote with a story about Chris Guillebeau and his book/blog The Art of Nonconformity. How did you first become aware of Chris and his work? What’s the most significant lesson you’ve learned from his example?


CW: It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure I discovered Chris in a Seth Godin blog post about Chris’s first free PDF manifesto, “A Brief Guide to World Domination” in June 2008. I loved it, followed links back to his blog, loved that and became a regular reader and commenter. By the time we met in November of that year, I felt like we were already friends: the magic of the Internet!


He remains a constant inspiration in his steadfast refusal to do things the conventional way “just because.” He’s built an extraordinary platform, business and life on forging his own path and has helped thousands of other people change their own lives through the information he so generously shares, as well as by providing living, real-time proof it’s possible.


ASMP: You had a past career as an advertising copywriter. Can you share any details or experiences about how photographers were (or are still) perceived based on the roles and relationships that exist within that industry?


CW: What’s always fascinated me is the gulf between photographers who wanted work and the photographers we clamored to work with. Once you’re working at that level — shooting for major ad campaigns — technical expertise is not the differentiating factor. It’s something that’s hard to articulate: a kind of wanting to jump into the photos, or to eat them. We’d get all kinds of pretty pictures in the mail (well, the art directors would), and after a while, our eyes would glaze over. Too much pretty. We’d wonder how we’d ever choose one.


But eventually something would jump out and grab you by the throat. I realize now that it’s been the same with every kind of selection process like that. Exactly the same thing happens in a casting session: good, good, good, fine, good, the occasional freak horrible, good, good — Holy cow, who is that? We must cast them!! They just exude “it.”


All things being equal, booking boils down to a combination of confidence in one’s voice and rightness, a lack of need for the gig and complete engagement. People who really, really love what they’re doing are incredibly exciting to be around. They’re also polarizing. Occasionally, we’d have to fight for a shooter or an actor. But we’d do it because we knew they’d make the ad.


ASMP: In your keynote, you describe brand as “an emotional aftertaste” or “how people are talking about you when you’re not in the room.” With these comments in mind, can you recommend any tips or exercises for photographers to consider in refining or developing their brand?


CW: It’s really hard to see yourself ever, but it’s especially hard at first. So anything you can do to get a little distance is going to help. One great strategy is to keep a file of examples, great and egregious. Who is doing a bang-up job? Who’s made steam come out of your ears? For me, in terms of broad, corporate examples, Virgin America falls into the former category and AT&T the latter. But the gold is in the small brands you interact with every day. Did you experience awesome customer service with a small vendor? Does reading this consultant’s Web copy make you want to read more? Whose blog posts do you feel impelled to pass along and comment on? Whose newsletters can’t you wait to open? Keep a file of this stuff until you train yourself to notice these things naturally. Even then, it’s great to clip examples for future reference.


By the way, it’s Ze Frank who came up with the “aftertaste” line. Credit where credit is due, plus, if you haven’t yet discovered the rich treasure of Ze’s catalog, you’re in for a treat!


ASMP: In addition to your background in advertising, you’ve also done a lot of work with actors. What strategies from this field would you recommend as most accessible to (and helpful for) photographers?


CW: There are many, many parallels between the two professions. Fortunately, I think most photographers are smarter than most actors and can extrapolate the lessons. Sadly, actors usually need to be spoon-fed. I’m guessing it has to do with off-the-charts levels of narcissism.


Anyway, to build on what I mentioned above, I think that whatever you can do to take away need is a good thing. I say to actors what smarter folk than I said to me when I was trying to go pro: Do whatever you must to not need that gig when you walk into the audition. Partly, that means learning to manage your finances so each job is not the one that’s going to save you from living in your car. Partly, it means keeping yourself fed as an artist. Several of the SB3 workshop leaders talk about the need to create interesting personal projects — you can’t just rely on stuff that clients will bring you because it’s almost never going to be where you can really stretch and grow as an artist or even a technician.


Another really simple but effective strategy is to have something to look forward to every day. Actors should always have some fun, cool thing they’re going to after the audition; the audition should never be the high point of their day. I think you can apply that same strategy to client calls, interviews, even daily marketing chores. If you’re not doing one fun thing per day, you’re doing it wrong.


ASMP: In recent years, the photographer’s role has generally expanded to include a broader skill set. There’s also been a shift in terminology from photographer to visual communicator. Do you see this change in terminology as having a positive impact in terms of branding for one’s business and, more important perhaps, in terms of self-image?


CW: It’s funny — if you really think about it, the descriptor is even broader than that and always has been. Really, aren’t most creative people problem solvers at heart? Or maybe a better word is translators — converting notions into real, live things? Terms like photographer or visual communicator or copywriter or type designer are there to make it easier to find each other and to provide a focus for the discussion.


I guess some purists might balk at the idea of something not being pure photography, but I say bring it on! I love that someone can bring his or her full self as an artist, as a communicator or as a translator to bear. I love working in different media and to have my training in acting or design inform my writing or speaking work. I think it helps to keep things fresh, mixing it up: Sean Kernan and Judy Herrmann are great examples of that. The stuff you learn in one area enriches the other. And I definitely think that experience in mixing and matching a few modalities can help in carving out a niche.


That said, I think one needs a really strong point of view to make disparate things work together in harmony. Otherwise, you’re just a crazy, mixed bag o’ skills — not very compelling and actually potentially confusing.


ASMP: You describe awesome as the new normal and identify three components: be useful; be specific; be nice. In an environment that’s increasing in complexity (and competitiveness), what suggestions do you have for attaining (and maintaining) this quality of awesomeness and of managing the associated expectations within the context of business relationships?


CW: Figure out how to add more hours to your day. Easy-peasy! Seriously, I think the key probably lies in focusing. More than ever, you need to get hyper-clear on whom you can best serve and exactly how. You cannot provide a 360-degree experience of awesomeness with everyone; there’s not enough “you” to go around.


If you know exactly who your ideal client is and exactly the thing only you can provide, it’s much easier to gracefully say no to people who aren’t Your People, leaving you time to lavish on the people who are. You’ll also get better and better at serving them because you’ll have more time to spend really getting to know them: what keeps them up at night, what additional value you can provide, how you can tweak every aspect of their interaction with you so it blows them away.


And it’s not all about only serving the market with money. Motel 6 does a great job of providing what it does, of managing expectations and marketing with a clear, homey, on-target voice. (Love that Tom Bodett!) Whereas the Four Seasons doesn’t even try to provide any experience at all for the Motel 6 customer. They are hyper-focused on providing what their own clientele wants, and they keep making it better and better.


ASMP: You mention that utility has three different prongs: to inform, to support and to entertain. Given the fact that the recent economic climate has cast many business relationships in a rather serious light, are there any particular strategies you can recommend to assist imagemakers in cultivating the role of entertainment in their business relationships?


CW: I take some pains to assure people that “entertainment” doesn’t have to mean being jokey or even light; it means being authentic, definitely, and maybe a little off-point here and there. I do not want my dentist to entertain me, but I also would be pretty cheesed off if, after all we’ve been through together (I’m cursed with weak gums), she couldn’t talk to me about something besides flossing and my poor, crumbling teeth.


Entertain can mean something as simple and non-hilarious as taking note of a client’s birthday and interests, then sending a friendly, personalized greeting, maybe with a lightly (i.e., “safe”) funny story. Having a Google Alert set up on them or their industry and forwarding an article of possible interest, but not in your Sunday Go To Meetin’ voice. Sharing a relevant personal story in your newsletter. (Michael Katz is the king of this, and you should subscribe to his newsletter immediately.)


I realize that comfort levels between people vary and that some industries don’t lend themselves to as much jollity. But most people are, I think, overly nervous about sharing a bit of the real “them.” We’re all human!


ASMP: In the midst of your keynote, I found myself thinking of expressions such as “I’m beside myself,” or more specifically, the French version of this (possibly my favorite expression ever!), which translates directly to English as “I’m standing beside by feet.” With this expression in mind, how would you suggest that creatives jumpstart the process of getting outside their own experience?


CW: Do something outside of your current area of creativity. It’s helpful for actors to write, for writers to take a painting class, for photographers (or anyone) to take an improv class. It becomes much easier to see patterns in a modality outside your current one.


And again, if you can afford it, consider hiring a coach or consultant. Not even me — whomever you like! But this is why coaches have coaches: we can’t see ourselves as well as someone else can, either.


ASMP: What methods can you recommend to assist creatives in achieving focus or consistency, especially those with ADD personalities?


CW: As much as you can, simplify your life. I have a few (ahem) focus difficulties of my own, and I find that having certain days (or parts of days) designated for certain things is a huge help. I’ve also automated what I can: Anything I find myself doing a few times (that’s not creative), I try to find a system for handling automatically or at least streamlining and simplifying. Sometimes this means taking a little time up front, but in the long run, it can be a huge help. Also, the more you can get your “stuff” into a trusted system, the better off you’ll be. Legions of nerds swear by David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) system for productivity management. It takes a while to get the hang of, but a few things — like having a convenient “bucket” in which to dump ideas on your mind so you can get back to work, and a regular review process — are instant gold.


Clarity comes from goals, and I have not yet found a better system for goal setting than Jinny Ditzler’s Your Best Year Yet. It takes far longer than the four hours she suggests to get through it (more like four days, the first time), but the results are fantastic. Consider getting some support too. Coaching is great for this, but a carefully selected group of peers — the mastermind model, as outlined by Napoleon Hill — can work wonders as well.


ASMP: You mention the 95/5 percent rule for providing useful information vs. engaging in shameless self-promotion. What methods can you suggest for integrating these two elements in a pitch so they support each other or appear seamless?


CW: This is hard to do outside of an example. And if you’re talking about a direct pitch, where you’re meeting one-on-one with a prospect, then you’d better be selling!


Even so, nattering on about yourself is boring to the client. If you want to talk about your features, your experience, figure out a way to do so in the context of their problems, their pain. I don’t care what kind of camera or lighting setup you use; I care that you can solve my problem of having a decent headshot to use for the next three to five years. And I’ll be blown away (and far more likely to think well of you and hire you, all things being equal) if you can illuminate problems I may not even have foreseen, and solve them for me.


ASMP: Are there any particular actions or behaviors that you’d recommend imagemakers avoid in order to successfully apply the 95/5 percent rule?


CW: This is going to be highly controversial, I fear, but I’m pretty anti-watermark for this reason, at least with smaller-sized, low-res images such as those you’d share on Flickr or Facebook. But beyond my selfish motive — i.e., watermarks are about you “protecting” your work at the expense of my enjoyment of it — I will add that I’m far less likely to share a photo with a watermark. On my blog and in my presentations, I use photos released under a Creative Commons attribution license; there’s no way I’d use them to illustrate posts or a point on a slide with a big, old watermark. If, on the other hand, a photographer followed a link back to my site (easy enough to do by setting up a Google Alert), they could continue the dialogue I’ve started by sharing their work (with attribution and links, always). Who knows where that relationship might go from there?


Outside of that, I’d tell photographers the same thing I say to everyone else: don’t add me to your mailing list without my permission; don’t make your newsletters all about you, you, you (make them about me, me, me); don’t mindlessly stick a 40-line-long signature at the end of every e-mail and so on. I should start a Q&A column about this!


ASMP: Social media marketing requires proficiency with computers and the Internet. What advice can you offer imagemakers more comfortable with traditional marketing methods than with the online environment?


CW: Start small, with one outlet: usually LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter. Spend more time listening and watching at first — see how other people do it. Move slowly. Set up regular times to do your social media “chores,” as Chris Brogan calls them. Mostly, though, remember that people are people are people. The same foundational rules apply online as they do in real life: Be useful. Don’t spam people. Don’t Yell. Listen more than you talk. When you do, don’t talk just to hear the sound of your own voice.


ASMP: The business of photography has changed dramatically from a field in which professionals were perceived as possessing a certain mastery of skill to a field where lifelong learning is essential to success. Do you have any advice specifically for those whose primary focus until now has been as a master of their craft?


CW: Be kind but firm with your self. You can’t beat yourself up over not having already developed this or that skill, but neither can you wish things back to the way they were 20 years ago. Reach out, definitely — change is hard, but it’s easier (and more fun) if you do it in company, with support.


ASMP: Do you have any suggestions for photographers dealing with burnout or creative blocks?


CW: If you can swing it, some kind of sabbatical is great. If not, you need to find ways to build rest and rejuvenation into an everyday (i.e., hectic) schedule. For burnout, some kind of total unplugging from what you’re doing is good. I’m a big fan of the humble daily constitutional and the hot bath. I also love two tools Julia Cameron shares in The Artist’s Way: daily pages, which is three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every morning, first thing; and the “artist’s date,” where you take yourself on some kind of outing to replenish your artist’s soul — a museum, a botanical garden, a labyrinth, whatever. Also, check your inputs! It’s fantastic that there are so many wonderful books, podcasts, blogs, articles, etc., to help us improve ourselves in our area of interest. But if that’s all you’re taking in, you’ll not only burn out, you’ll lose your vision. Read outside your area of interest. Pick up a magazine or two that has zero to do with photography or business. Mix it up!


ASMP: What is the most important advice you’d give to imagemakers who feel they are not totally connected with their unique vision or voice?


CW: It’s a process, not a binary thing. Trust that if you’re doing the work full-on, with good intention, it will come. It takes some of us — me, for instance — much longer than others. I guess Piece of Advice No. 2 (which vies for importance with No. 1) is try to avoid comparing where you’re at with where someone else is at. As my Sufi friends like to say, “Comparison is from the devil.”


ASMP: What do you see as the most challenging aspect of the current state of the creative industry?


CW: The incredibly rapid pace of change, no question. I don’t see things slowing down for a while, so things may get more stressful. The only way to handle it is to learn to be nimble and flexible. I’m working on equanimity myself now. I’m not so good with the equanimity!


ASMP: What are you most excited about in terms of the future? How do you feel imagemakers can best prepare themselves for this?


CW: I used to make “books” and “newspapers” when I was a kid, using scissors and glue and a lot of really creative, rigorous work on my little portable typewriter. I still cannot believe what’s possible now. I marvel at it all the time, that we can turn ideas into reality — beautiful, high-production-value, four-color reality — with such inexpensive (and sometimes free) tools. I love that I can get an idea in my head, start hammering it out and hours later “publish” it to my little audience of a few thousand people.


A corollary to that is the ease with which one can find fellow travelers. I grew up feeling like a freak. Maybe I was, but there were a lot of other freaks in a lot of other lonely rooms, and now we can find each other. My own strategy for dealing with all of this is to do everything I can to make sure I can keep doing all the stuff I can. I’ve pared my lifestyle way, way back from my fat-cat days working for The Man. I spend my time and money on making things and meeting people. It’s a little precarious, and who knows how long I’ll be able to keep it up, but I know I’m making a difference now, however small, and that makes up for a lot. I don’t feel at all deprived. (Overwhelmed sometimes, but never deprived!)


So again, the best way to prepare is to be prepared for anything. Don’t buy into things being forever. They never were — that was an illusion — but the cycles have sped up. Try to stay light and nimble and flexible. And stay connected to your fellow imagemakers and other artists. Isolation is deadly, especially during stressful times. Having an accountability partner, a shrink, a mastermind group, a weekly poker gang — any and all of these are good. And amazing things come out of putting yourself out there!


Author Bio:
Colleen Wainwright is a writer-speaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent ten years as an award-winning TV copywriter crafting ads for brands like Wheaties, Gatorade and Jell-O, and another ten acting in them for cash money. Since deciding she’d blow her brains out if she had to sit through one more meeting about which way the bears danced around the cereal box, Colleen spends most of her time teaching other creative souls how to talk about what they do in a way that wins them attention, work and satisfaction and the rest of it horsing around on the Internet. Wainwright presented the enthusiastic keynote “Making People Love You Madly: Selling Yourself in a Postmodern Marketplace” at ASMP’s Strictly Business 3 conferences.