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Teach, Preach, or Merely Mention

2010 October 27
by Randy H. Milgrom

I wrote last week of my pleasant surprise when a colleague told me he had been inspired by advice I had offered long ago. This reminded me of another time I was informed well after the fact that my words had been helpful — but in this case my advice had been inadvertent. 

Very early one Sunday morning a number of years ago an acquaintance and I were matched up on the golf course. At that time he was dissatisfied with his copywriting work at a large agency and was thinking about going out on his own. So in between golf shots he picked my brain about being my own boss.

I had remembered that pleasant morning only vaguely. I knew we had talked about the differences between collecting a salary and “eating only what you kill.” And I’m sure I had emphasized the time and energy and passion and patience required to develop an interesting caseload and a loyal clientele. But all my golfing partner had gleaned from our conversation – as he told me years later, when his own firm was well-established – was just one short but important sentence. He had asked me the key to my longevity and evidently I had told him, “You have to be good.”

I wondered how he took a positive message from something that now sounded boastful. But that wasn’t how he heard it. He knew my business had sustained itself almost entirely on referrals from satisfied clients and collaborators. So you need to be good, I had shrugged. It’s to his credit that he was confident enough to believe that as long as he did good work (which he thought he could and would do), success would follow. And that’s the principle that jump-started and has continued to propel his one-man shop.

You can try to shape your message to control how it might be received. But you can’t always know what people are listening for – or what they might hear. Sometimes you get lucky and you find out.

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