The Merry Mailman television program debuted on Secaucus, New Jersey’s WOR-TV in 1950. The host was Ray Heatherton, a former bandleader and singer. Ray and his sidekicks Chick and Milt entertained studio audiences with games, songs, stories, magic tricks, skits, puppets, and Crusader Rabbit cartoons. Kids watching at home sent Ray letters that he pulled from his mailbag and read. Heatherton believed a person could instill good values in children while entertaining them. Historians say The Merry Mailman paved the way for Captain Kangaroo, Mister Rogers, and Sesame Street.
Readers send me all kinds of questions.
Lately I’ve received a lot more questions than usual about writing, so here at year’s end, I’ll answer everyone at once.
How did you start this blog?
While preparing to teach an MBA class in Human Behavior, I built hundreds of slides that I used as jumping-off points for discussions of key ideas and concepts. I thought the best of them would make interesting articles for people who are interested in the stories behind the stories. After examining many options, I hired a tutor to teach me how to use WordPress, found a reliable site host, and have published more than 200 articles so far.
Who are you writing for?
- People who are interested in learning. In a world of sensationalist clickbait, there are still people from all walks of life who enjoy expanding their horizons.
- People who use research. Because so many of the things we read and hear are based upon research, people should learn to recognize when they’re being conned and manipulated. McDonald’s Is at It Again, Mind the Gap and An Auto Brand Loyalty Surprise are three articles I wrote that readers say are real eye-openers.
- People who buy research. Companies in the U.S. spend $7 billion a year on research and most of it is wasted. I want to help study sponsors learn how to tell good research from bad.
- People who want to become better researchers. Some tell me they’ve learned more about what constitutes really good research from this site than what they learned in school.
- People who are designated as their organization’s “researchers” in spite of insufficient training (click here to read Which of the Seven Dwarfs is the Tallest?).
This last group is getting larger all the time because more and more organizations are hiring the wrong people as researchers.
Companies would never appoint as legal counsel someone who had only one semester of pre-law. People don’t hire someone who took a First Aid course at the YMCA as their doctor. And who wants a teacher who has read only one book?
Yet when it comes to hiring standards, more and more companies are putting their research in the hands of people who lack scientific training (I wrote about this in Who Gets Hired for Research Jobs?). They do so because they think research is so easy anyone can do it. In this sense, research is like golf. As Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur golfer in the history of the game, liked to say, “Yes, golf is an easy game to play, but it is a hard game to play well.”
Which of your articles have generated the most interest?
- Most Market Research is Bullshit.
- Here’s How Businesses Wasted $2 Billion on Focus Groups.
- Here’s How Businesses Wasted $3 Billion on Surveys.
- Why Is So Much Market Research Like 100-Year-Old Sausage?
When did you start writing?
Since my first days as a researcher, study sponsors hired me to collect information about their markets, their customers, and their competition and write a thorough, objective, and confidential report about what I found and what it means. More often than not, my reports were read once or twice and tossed in a cabinet somewhere.
Do you listen to music when you write?
Yes and no. When I do listen, it’s peaceful classical music on low volume.
Where do you get the ideas for your articles?
Mostly from what I read every morning in newspapers, magazines, and newsfeeds. Sometimes ideas emerge from things that come up in conversation.
Do you always start with the title?
Only rarely. While doing online research into a topic, I like getting off the highway and seeing what’s down the less-taken roads and trails. Sometimes I discover such interesting things that the article ends up being about something very different than what I set out to write, so titles usually come closer to the end than the beginning.
Do you follow a particular format?
Yes, I do. I write separate modules for each idea or theme first and later move the sections around to find the sequence I think tells the best story.
Where do you get the pictures?
A few are my own, but I found most online, where I use different search terms and different browsers to find pictures that will enlighten and amuse readers. The only online pictures I use are those in the public domain.
How do you decide how long an article will be?
As long as it takes me to tell the story, anywhere from 400 words to 4,000. It takes me from one to three days to write most articles.
Do you make money from these articles?
Not directly, because I sell no ads, sell no reader information, and subscriptions are free. Indirectly, I benefit when businesspeople like what I have to say and ask me to help them with their problems.
Why do you have such a low opinion of research?
One reason is that I’ve worked with hundreds more researchers and research companies than most. I’ve seen how most businesses are more interested in research that is fast and cheap than in research that is valid and reliable. I’ve also had the very good fortune to have worked alongside more brilliant and talented researchers than most, and seen just how few of them there are. As the Arkansas Philosopher said, “You don’t know where the middle is ’til you’ve seem both ends.”
Why do you have such a low opinion of marketers?
I do and I don’t. As with all professions, I admire the experts but not the manure spreaders. Every marketer is interested in influencing people. The best ones craft well-targeted messages based on facts. The hacks who think they know more than their customers churn out crap.
What advice would you give someone who wants to write?
Start by reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He says “There are all kinds of writers and all kinds of methods.
Zinsser’s book includes a wealth of valuable information and advice such as this favorite nugget: “Writing is learned by reading, so if you want to write, start reading more.” Here are the Zinsser lessons that I took to heart when I first got serious about learning to write:
- Collect more material than you need. To produce a 1,000-word article, I start with two or three thousand words and edit down to only the best bits. That way what I leave out is purposeful and not because I overlooked it.
- Increase your vocabulary. Look up the words you are using and learn their origins. Master the nuances of words that only appear to be synonyms but aren’t really. I constantly refer to dictionaries and thesauruses while reading and writing.
- Get to the point. Ask yourself what you are trying to say and say it. How many How-To videos have you watched that spend more time on introductions and preambles than on what to do? A teacher once told me that when you’re done writing a letter, move your last paragraph to the front because that’s what you’re really trying to say.
- Edit ruthlessly. Zinsser says “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon. Strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Get rid of every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the passive-voice construction that leaves the reader wondering who is doing what to whom.” Too many people think that saying “at this point in time” is a better way of saying “now.” It is not. All too often we read “Mistakes were made.” What mistakes? Who made them?
What else do you write?
I write reports for some clients and online content for others. Sometimes people give me their data and ask me to make sense of it.
Thanks for your calls, your notes, and your letters.
Click here to drop me a line when you have any questions. I enjoy hearing from readers. Have a safe, healthy and happy holiday.