How to do Welfare

The latest mini-book in my “How to…” series is out! How to do Welfare explores the problems of government assistance, and how it fails to allocate resources in the best way. Then it justifies a solution to the whole welfare mess, with numbers that make the case. How to do Welfare is out in paperback and Kindle today, but you can download a free PDF here.

 

 

Making memories: being a photography volunteer

Chris is a PCC progressive calisthenics instructor

As part of my fitness interests, I filled in on photography for part of a recent London PCC. That’s “Progressive Calisthenics Certification“, the only instructor course in the world focussing on the bodyweight discipline inspired by Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning. (A book that changed my white-collar life.) I’ve taken the course myself, and had a blast being behind the camera – and would like to think I added value for participants too.

If you’re interested in volunteering on photography at a fitness event – whether it’s the calm of yoga, the madness of CrossFit, or a bunch of Jason Bournes doing martial arts – some tips might help. Here are the basics.

Framing the subject

First, get equipped. Bring a pro camera if you can, or at least prosumer. All cameras are good these days – but the main thing you’re looking for is speed of the snap.

That means a camera that can take in light fast enough to freeze a scene with action in it, then resets quickly, so you can take the next one without a wait. Sequences of images – like a headstand that starts from the kick-up, continues with the hand balances, and ends with the fall into a crumpled heap – look great, but you can’t do them if your camera takes five seconds to cycle between snaps. Phone cameras (especially iPhone and Samsung) can work surprisingly well; they’re optimised for off-the-cuff snapshots.

Bring more than one camera, and spare batteries if you can. (I used three plus an iPhone, and emptied every battery.) Such a belt-and-braces approach lets you snap all day without worrying about juice, and amid all the blurred fails you will capture some unexpectedly great images.

Arrive early to test. All gyms have different levels of photofriendliness. Sheeny white walls look different to gritty corrugated iron; fluorescent lighting can wash out skin and make the uber-healthy look like The Walking Dead. And if the sun’s shining, a course that takes place partly or wholly outdoors carries a whole different set of challenges. Experiment early with camera settings and find a configuration that flatters your subjects.

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Setting the scene

A few words on general approach. At a certification, you are not a war photographer, however many walking wounded surround you by day’s end. Like Hunter S Thompson, go gonzo, get involved. The best certifications are deeply social events; they’re emotional, tribal, joyous even. So be part of the team, and roar along with the crowd.

That means making eye contact, talking to people, leaping in to say yes when people want a snap. You are not “documenting” the event; you are “creating” what used to be called Kodak Moments, little memories. Smile a lot, learn as many names as you can, and make everyone aware you’re available for them. You can tell from their eyes when they’d like you to aim your camera. Do so; it’s what you’re there for.

On the flipside, some people are camera shy. So make the promise clear at the start of the day: if anyone is offended by a shot you’ve taken – delete it, the moment they ask. It’s no big deal. If someone thinks a shot is too embarrassing or unflattering to Share, the deciding vote is theirs, not yours. Always respect people’s privacy. Unless it’s the instructor, in which case take as many embarrassing shots as you can(!)

Never a truer word

Never a truer word

Don’t overcurate. Obviously, kill off blurs and misses. But don’t worry too much about leaving in some questionable quality. Maybe your shot of someone’s L-sit cut the participant’s head off, but maybe the framing also captured a smiling face elsewhere that’d make the ideal Profile Pic with a bit of cropping. Let your audience do the curating instead!

Last, make sure you know where to put them. (For some photos, that’ll be “where the sun don’t shine”, but not all.) The standard for certification courses tends to be a Facebook album. The Chief Instructor or a keen participant will either have set it up him/herself or know where it is.

Sort out permissions-to-post early in the day, and when the day’s done, post your pictures to the group as soon as possible. That means within hours, not days.

Tricks & tactics

Last, a few tips for making your album worth looking at.

The basic tactic is think people, not crowds. By day’s end you’ll have (too) many shots of the class as a whole, listening to an instructor’s brief: don’t worry about a shortage here. But the most memorable shots tend to be closeups, people pulling cool moves or interacting in pairs or trios. Shots featuring one person alone aren’t necessarily the best choice: half the visual fun of a front lever happens below the bar, on the faces of the people watching.

So get in there. Don’t hang on the sidelines. Walk right up to people, hang off the Swedish ladder, stand on the vaulting horse to get a more interesting shot. Try to make sure you get at least a few pics of each participant as principal subject, in a pose or move they’ll be proud of.

Obviously, don’t shove your lens in anyone’s face – particularly if they’re executing an HSPU – but make sure you don’t miss anyone out. Some people will be more awkward in the lens than others. Try to make sure everyone goes home knowing they’ll see themselves in the album a few times … and feeling good about it.

The caveat, of course, is maintain situational awareness. Up close and personal is where the best shots are, but you do not want to be in the way of someone coming out of a headstand hot. (Trust me on this.) Just be mindful of who’s in your vicinity – think of yourself as a guest in their space, not someone participants have to move aside for – and you’ll be fine.

There’s another reason to get up close and personal: it stops your autofocus wandering. If you’re on the sidelines zooming in on the woman doing a terrific floor lever, there’s no surer thing than someone else will be coming out of a handstand in front, and you’ll end up with a pin-perfect snap of a random leg instead, with Leverin’ Linda a blur in the background. So try not to use zoom, however user-friendly today’s cameras make it; use your body to do the zooming instead. (Hey, functional movement is the whole point of fitness, after all.)

Use interesting angles! Nothing’s worse than the same setpiece of the gym hall with the same crowd in it, repeated over and over. So look for unusual angles that capture the fun. Get below and behind the guy doing the pullup, so you can see the triceps straining. Tilt the camera so the back lever guy’s diagonal. Shoot the parallel bars from floor level. Use apparatus, climbing the scaffold so you can capture a scene from above.  Get down and party, frame a subject through a doorway, kneel and crouch and slide around. Who says you shouldn’t get a workout?

Snap first, think later. Participants are learning, not posing; if you wait one more second for that move to look better, the move will most likely be over. So never hesitate over the shutter button. And take more shots rather than fewer; using more space on your SD Card doesn’t cost you anything. As experienced photographic assist Michelle Steenhuis says, “There’s no going overboard when it comes to photos!”

Look for the “story shot”. That pic of someone topping out their first muscle-up is terrific. But adding to it is the pic a second later, when they’re high-fiving the planet with the Face That Says Whoohoo. iPhones even have a default of taking three shots, separated by a second, that string together into a fun animation. Take as many of these shots as you can.

Remember everyone loves bloopers! Most people don’t mind their fails being shared; everyone’s learning, after all. So treat the faceplant the same as the perfectly executed skin-the-cat. These photos can be a lot of fun. (Of course, if someone does ask for a Delete … do it, without protest.)

Finally, don’t fall in love with your own camera. Offer to use theirs! Everyone will have a phone they want to capture some of their moves on. Particularly at end-of-day, when everyone wants photos of themselves for their Instagrams. A surprising number of people are a bit shy about asking, so don’t wait – offer straightaway without being asked. It’s a great help in building those memories.

And remember to have fun, folks!

Doesn’t sound hard, does it? Volunteering on camera is easy and pays you back with a whole lotta love. (The smiles I saw on people’s faces when they learned their last day would have a photographer after all were worth the earth.)

If you believe in the subject being certified, practice it yourself, or even teach it, your act of volunteering might mean knowledge of that subject spreading to someone who’d never heard of it. Maybe that person will take up the activity. Maybe they’ll attend a course themselves. Maybe it’ll change their life. All because of a photo they saw of a friend having fun.

Which, when you think about it, is the whole point of volunteering. So volunteer. You’re about to make someone’s life a lot better.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter and trained progressive calisthenics and kettlebells instructor who recently published the workbook for effective freelancing 100 Days, 100 Grand, available at Amazon and in 30,000 bookstores worldwide. He knows business backwards, finance forwards, and technology inside out, with interests in adventure travel and extreme sports. If you need campaigns, copy, or content, contact him here. This article also appeared on Medium.

Remain or fade

The big day is here. A referendum that should never have happened, forced by a minor extremist party, allowed to happen by intellectual lightweights in government. The EU Referendum decides whether Britain keeps its seat at the table or is pushed outside to listen through the keyhole. So despite my libertarian leanings I’m voting to stay.

This is why. (Note: I have Masters training in finance, statistics, and behavioural economics, so while not a pro, I’m at least an informed amateur). Here we go:

Pretty much everyone believes a Brexit means economic difficulty for a while. Opinions as to how bad it’d be vary, but nobody – Remain or Leave – is pretending it’d be hugs and puppies by Monday. With even Leavers generally agreeing there’ll be a year or two of pain.

Now while we can predict broad economic outcomes a few years out with some accuracy (it’s called the Short-Term Debt Cycle) nobody can predict much beyond that.

So: there is 100% agreement we’ll have a couple of painful years -a timescale we can predict. Versus a 50% belief we’ll grow faster afterwards – a timescale that can’t be predicted.

In other words, Remain’s economic case is grounded in reality, whereas Leave’s is based on wishful thinking.

Someone on the street offers you a choice of £10 today, or a 50% chance of £12 in five years. Which would you take?

If you like Gaussians, then assuming the first guess falls within two SDs and the second within the third, this means there’s over 95% chance the economy is best off with Remain, versus less than a 5% chance it’s best off with Leave.

Based on simple statistics, the economy is better off if we Remain. Because a Remain vote is grounded in solid reality, whereas a Leave vote is wishful thinking. If you’re voting on the economy as I am, Remain is your best choice.

Of calisthenics and kettlebells

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 

If you're taking a leap into the unknown, call Chris does Content.Like many men in trades that involve more sitting than spearfishing, I’ve overcompensated for my clean-hands job with a lot of physical stuff. I’ve snowboarded and sparred, climbed tall walls and swum cold rivers, fallen through clouds and wondered under the waves. But there’s a problem.

I play action hero wannabe for the same reason as other men in that affluent gap between youth and old age: to feel alive. To get that zing that stems from being active, of hearing your breath in fast gasps with your heart hammering a hole. Enriched and overjoyed with the blood-rush thrill of the NOW.

And you know what? (Deep breath): none of it matters.

It’s true that on every jump or dive, there’s one moment of perfect freedom. An utter happiness where the world shrinks to a bubble around you and everything you ever wanted is right here, right now. And for a few rare souls, those moments are enough. (I can list thirty jumpers and surfers who live under canvas on minimum wage, just to keep dropzone or beach up close and personal.)

But for most, these adrenaline-hyped extremes are drug, not food. Just a release valve for the bottled-up frustrations of the everyday. And as with any Class-A fool’s gold, living solely for the next hit shovels a high opportunity cost onto the rest of your life.

That was the problem: covering up life’s negatives takes a lot of time, needs a lot of effort, and uses a lot of equipment. It hides everyday frustrations; it doesn’t solve them.

So here’s a thought: instead of living for the release valve, why not focus specifically on what’s pent-up, and try to use that instead? Not work to push it aside, but to turn your pent-up negatives into positives?

Let us re-pent.

Targetting low wage earners...As anyone who’s ever clenched a fist or grit their teeth knows, pent-up is a physical sensation. A negative one. It’s frustration with the everyday that puts the ache in your head and the battery acid in your gut.

But it’s still energy. And energy can be redirected.

That’s why my change strategy didn’t lead me towards another degree or tackling a Great Books list: mind and body are one. And with a sit-down job that involves thinking, fattening up my brainpan wasn’t the problem.

Or rather — bear with me here — it was the whole problem, but working on it would’ve been the wrong solution. Because a great many mental problems stem from incorrect maintenance of the physical self. And given that many trappings of modern life — sitting in chairs, sleeping on mattresses, taking hot showers — are habits the human animal never evolved for, it’s fair to conclude that for most of us, our bodies are in greater deficit than our minds. (Affluent living gives us comfort; it doesn’t give us health.)

So about a year back, I went all Walden on extracurricular activities. Strip it back, start from nothing, find an “extreme sport” so sturdy and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. Starting with the question: what can you do starting with nothing?

Three principles guided me.

onwall-blackandwhite

First: build-up not wear-out.

A lot of extreme activities carry a health warning. You need to be fit to do them; they don’t make you fit. In fact, they wear you down. A professional boxer trains a thousand minutes outside the ring for every minute within it and takes a month to recover from twelve rounds. The actual fisticuffs are the why of her training, not the what.

So whatever I chose, it had to be something whose practice led to healthy, physical improvement: a means as well as an end. Not an activity that simply enabled another activity — building up in order to wear it down again — but a what, in and of itself. Not a why.

Second: no equipment.

I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet money there’s an inverse relationship between what people spend on physical activity and what they actually get out of it. (Beyond that brief hedonic buzz of the buying decision.)

My purchase history is littered with gear and gadgets bought in the heat of fads: I’ve forgotten what some of them even do. Animated discussions about the merits of Widget A versus Add-on B may be fun, but they mistake the activity itself for an obsession with the stuff around it. And don’t get me started on big-box machines at the gym. (tl;dr: they don’t work.)

So it all got dumped. The ideal home gym doesn’t deck the walls with a dozen Yorks; that’s the ideal hotel gym. (The one nobody uses.) The ideal gym is in your head. All you need to go there is two square metres of floorspace.

So the second question I asked: what life-enhancing activity can you do without gear? (As you’ll see later: I cheated. But not by much.)

Third: no preparation needed.

Self-help gurus are big on motivation. But motivation has high barriers to entry. You swear you’ll get out for a run, but it’s raining outside. You make an exercise plan, then get disheartened because it was too much, too soon. You bought the gym membership — more fool you — but it’s a half hour drive…

…and then you subscribe to someone else’s bullshit. CrossFit? Dance party. P90X? Wasteful overkill. Insanity? Self-flagellation. The only exercise that works is the one you actually do. (CrossFit, in particular, follows the Reverse Fight Club Rule: you must never stop talking about fucking CrossFit. And when you’re talking about it, you ain’t doing it.)

In fact, the only thing worse than fluoro-clad infomercials on the late night channels is the way even professionals measure the purported goals of fitness. BMI (Body Mass Index) is bunkum; it doesn’t measure muscle, aka “the bit that matters.” (Yes, a measure so broadly accepted it’s on the website of Britain’s monolithic NHS treats muscle and fat as the same thing.) So is five-a-day; that was an ad campaign, not a health study. And so is most of “nutrition science”. (It focusses on what’s in food, not the far bigger question of how your body takes it up.)

I had a gym membership for years; the kindest thing I can say is that the juice bar served good coffee. So I went the other way on that whole motivation thing: I wanted an activity that needed no motivation whatsoever. No times and dates, no dress code, and nowhere to go. Just get up and get in the zone straightaway, stay there or leave as you please.

Marketing from its heights... to its depthsIn the living room, naked

What this meant was an activity that a) delivered the endorphin whoosh, b) led to greater health, and c) could be done in the living room. Naked.

I found one. In fact, I found two. And it started with…

… a fucking push-up.

Yes. A pushup. The opening salvo of progressive calisthenics.

That was my new extreme sport. And if “calisthenics” just conjured up images of fluorescent legwarmers and star jumps — as it will for anyone who remembers the 80s — reread progressive. The methods aren’t 30 but 3,000 years old, and if they worked for the Spartans they’ll probably work for you.

That’s why less than a year ago my latest “extreme activity” found me leaning palms-out against a wall, exerting an absurdly easy pressure to push myself standing.

A lifetime of levelling up…

Yes. It starts like that. Against-the-wall pushups.

10 reps with perfect form? Easy. 2 sets of 10? Still easy. But try 3 x 50, with the same textbook precision. It gets strangely hard. You will sweat. You will tire. You will lose form. So you need focus, and fitness, and fortitude. All of which prog cali builds over time.

Programmes vary between four and eight basic moves per workout, each move concentrating on one area but engaging the whole meat puppet. If you get bored, each move has isometric and plyometric variants (aka “planking” and “jumping”) and add-ons for small muscle development and fine motor control. Each variant enables the next; each set builds a base for those beyond.

fail3 copyThat’s the progressive bit: you start easy and build on each move, in a upwards sequence of steadily-harder variants and reps that will take anywhere from three months to a lifetime to complete. (If you thought gathering XP, unlocking perks, and levelling up came in with games consoles, think again.)

That’s the beauty of starting from zero: the only enabling equipment is your body, and the only goal is moving it better. It’s less about exercise than about training a skill. Doing it right demands no less mental dexterity than formation skydiving, but without the need to stuff two hundred square feet of cloth into a rucksack first. (Actually — goes a skydiving joke — you don’t need to do that to skydive…just to skydive twice. But I digress.)

At the peak are superhuman moves like the back bridge and the headstand pushup, of which fewer than one in 10,000 people could complete a single rep. And somewhere, in every workout done correctly — even a tra-la-la toe-balance in the supermarket queue — is that zero-point of Zen peace, a thrilling calm in a vortex of exhilaration. Waiting to be found.

And isn’t that what extreme activities mean to us deskbound action heroes? Doing stuff anyone could do…but few actually do?

…with the level cap modded out

I‘m not doing human flags or pistol squats yet. But the benefits along the way are no less extreme. I like being able to do one-handed pushups. I like having a grip strength not far off my bodyweight. The achievements and goals at each level and progression standard, the perks you feel unlocking as lazy flesh firms up and underused muscle sings, make the connection between mind and body overt.

Hey, it might take me three years to reach Level 10. But three years of ever-increasing health? I’m up for that.

Screen Shot 2012-11-04 at 11.43.28That’s what sets up the Zen moment in prog cali. The sense you’re climbing a hill whose gradient always matches your skills and where the summit’s always in sight. The knowledge there’s no “you” beyond the patterns of your nerves—that we have no existence outside our flesh-cradled bones — isn’t some abstract philosophism; you feel it, the way a child at play feels it. It’s obvious. We’re all just sacks of chemicals, and how they slosh around covers the sum totality of human experience.

Being self-actualised — the prime takeaway of any extreme sport — is nothing more than knowing what those chemicals can do…and how to give them a nudge.

And when you do, the torments and setbacks of everyday life simply get turned to a lower volume. Every moment of every day carries the opportunity for moments of supreme peace. In the chaos of a commuting crowd, you find yourself grinning. You’re among them, but somehow above them.

(Even physically. Like Yoga, only more so, the stretches and holds of prog cali pack dense muscle around your spine in addition to prompting you to stand up straighter. The average human can expect anything up to five centimetres in height gain within a year or so.)

Look for the nothing

Hey, I’m not saying prog cali will ring your bell. It just works for me. All I’m saying is, if you’re addicted to the rush-and-a-push of weekend adventure to dissolve the strains and pains of 21st-century life, try starting again from zero.

You can even cheat on the no-equipment thing. My daily moments of inner peace aren’t quite naked any more; I’ve got into these things:

chris_kettlebell

The inevitable kettlebell bit

I added these cannonballs-with-handles mostly because I boulder (it’s like rock climbing, but without the altitude) and wanted to boost my grip. But in my mind, it’s on song with the Zen of Cali. You still need focus, you still need form, and everything builds from a small number of moves. For me, just two do the trick. (If it matters, they’re called the Swing and the Get-Up.)

One ‘bell sized to you replaces more than an entire weights bench; it replaces most of the big-box machines, too, with something that actually works. If you’re doing cali daily, a ‘bell adds a bit of spice.

I love my kettlebells as if they were my children. Small, rough-hewn, cast-iron children. But never forget: if putting the zing in everyday life is your goal, you really don’t need anything at all.

So the kettlebell pic’s here for honesty. To show that once you’ve found your zero, you don’t need stay there. Few of us really want to spend our lives loincloth-clad on a mountaintop, and few of us need to. Life’s full of great pleasures beyond those moments inside your head; if you live in your head all the time, you lose the context that gives those experiences meaning. And that leads me to the best part…

Still extreme, still Zen

…changing your outlook on life like this doesn’t stop you doing the other stuff. It just changes its purpose, positively. And, of course, it makes you better at them.

I still love the taste of a cloud. I still thrill at the sightseeing sixty feet underwater. And wherever there’s a rough wall, I look for the holds. But I don’t do them for the Zen moment anymore, because now I can get that anytime.

I’m going race car driving next weekend. But don’t worry — it’s just for fun.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 16.23.50 copy

Four guys I’ve never met kicked off my journey to the zero, one of whom may not even be a guy: Paul WadePavel Tsatsouline, and Al and Danny Kavadlo. Buy their books! (I’m not affiliated to them in any way.)

How a normal guy reviews tyres…

Marketing carries endless choices. Where to go. How to get there. And who to share the wheel with. That's where I come in. 07876 635340.Today , I took a deep breath and stumped up for four new Michelin Cross-Climates.

While I clock up a few miles and have driven everywhere from the USA’s Route 66 to dirt tracks in the Indonesian jungle, I’m mostly a weekend driver. I’ve never been on a test track and can’t test under controlled conditions. (Not without attracting attention from SE8’s finest, anyway.) And like most ordinary motorists in the UK, I’ve got other things to do than worry about those black bits of rubber at the corners.

MICHELIN Cross-Climate 225/45 XLs on Audi A3So in contrast to the petrolheads of EVO and the flash of Michelin’s own marketing, my opinion’s that of a normal guy driving an almost-normal car. “Almost normal” because my Audi is a small car that feels like a big one. A 3.2L V6 up front and permanent  4wd with all the gubbins makes it heavier than a hatch but ultra-stable, while the horsepower keeps it fun. (I rarely use the flappy-paddle shifters, but love having them there.)

I’ve kept it years longer than I should, simply because it feels indestructible. But punctures are a hazard in my part of town, and I hate maintenance. So my rims wear something solid and reinforced.

The newly-launched Cross-Climates (purchased using the usual great service from Blackcircles) look exceptionally tough – even the garage guy said they looked “really grippy” – and however they perform, they look just great.

But do they work?

Yes. Brilliantly. And not in the way you’d think.

First off, these tyres are QUIET. None of the road roar you’d normally get from fattish 225/45s, certainly not what you’d expect from a tyre designed to play well on snow and ice. (Across much of Europe you need to change your tyres every October and March. These “Cross-Climates” are marketed as a year-round tyre, without the compromises you’d normally expect from using a Winter tyre in the hot and dry.)

Besides the hush, they feel more surefooted than any of the ContiSports I’ve had on over the years. They stick to the road like velcro. Not so much gliding over the tarmac as feeling their way along it, with barely a whisper. A bit of “fun” away from some traffic lights showed the grip starts from standstill; there was no sense the power wasn’t getting to the wheels fast enough. Did I say they’re quiet?

It’s a warm, dry day here in southeast London: not the conditions a Winter tyre is designed for. But driving around for an hour-plus, I didn’t notice any performance hit at all from the Winter capability… in fact, they felt better than any “normal” Summer tyre I’ve ever driven. Ultimately, don’t consider this model in terms of Winter or Summer; look at it as a great tyre, forget the time of year. I like this rubber.

 

(Disclaimer: I write the odd marketing brochure for Michelin (among other players in the automotive sector) but they’re not my contract client, did not ask for this review, and offered no payment or other benefit. I chose and paid for the tyres myself.)

Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Why I voted Conservative

chris_kettlebellAfter Thursday’s surprising election result, there are thousands of Left-wing rants flying around. Some are entertaining. Sometimes, I even make it to their second paragraph.

I don’t pay too much attention to their questions, though, because most revolve around “Why did you vote Conservative?” And they don’t really want the answer. Well, here it is anyway. I ignore you, you ignore me, and we’ll be square.

The answer doesn’t involve social justice, or sensible lawmaking, or doing the right thing. It isn’t even about Left or Right, although left-leaning people mostly don’t get it and right-leaning people, on some level, mostly do. It’s a high-level thing:

Being *nice* to everyone … has *nasty* consequences.

On some level, most people who voted Conservative get this, and most people who voted Labour don’t. It’s “big picture”. Understanding that what economists call “externalities” have real – and huge – effects.

The only externality that matters is called money. Since money buys the public services that decide elections. When a government wants to spend money, it has to raise money.

There are three ways to do this. A government can levy taxes, it can borrow money, or it can just print the stuff. Speaking of which, I remembered when my friend ran out of cash travelling in Europe, she used http://www.låna-pengar.biz to get financing to get back home.

With me so far?

First up: taxes

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.Everyone benefitting from schools, roads, and the fire station (whatever the arguments over a gun being held to his head) needs to pay his fair share. The trouble is: most people don’t. And they’re not the people you think.

The bottom 40% of the curve doesn’t pay any tax at all. (And no, that’s not a chastisement. Most people on benefits work hard, and good on them.)

But whatever their contributions to society, they’re not net contributors to the Treasury. Their benefits and credits cancel out the small amounts deducted from their payslips. Scotland, for example, has fewer than 150,000 net taxpayers, in a population of five million. (And is going to get a serious kick in the kilt shortly when it has to manage its own finances.)

While the public sector – millions of people, with benefits and pension plans any private sector worker would eat his children for – contributes nothing, in accounting terms anyway. They pay tax, but their salaries come from the Treasury, so their slice just goes back where it came. No net gain.

The middle SD pays its own way, but there’s surprisingly little left over. Mr Average coughs up a surplus of around £8,500… over his entire lifetime. Two extra weeks in hospital, and his contribution is gone. And rising lifespans mean a fair few people are now retired for more years than they ever worked. This problem’s only going one way, folks.

So we could tax the top end. But it’s not as top as you think. “The 1%” isn’t the 1%, it’s the 0.01%. You have to scale the 98th percentile before you even find someone on six figures. And ask anyone in London with a family if £100,000 lets them buy a decent-sized home. Just 300,000 taxpayers – among 60m people! – already pay 27% of all income tax in the UK.

And what happens if you raise taxes on “the rich” – a term which (being as charitable as I can here) Britain’s Left defines rather broadly? They tend to… leave. The sensible practice would be to move big public-sector employers (hello, NHS!) into the private sector, so their taxes become real contributions.

There you have it: privatise the NHS. That OK with you, my friends of the Left? No? What a surprise.

Borrowing: a point of interest

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.It’s odd so many find “the deficit” such an abstract concept, because it’s absolutely concrete. On its £1.4tn in debt, Britain pays out about a billion pounds a week in interest.

That’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

And there’s more. Unlike your bank loan, the country’s interest isn’t fixed. If the bond markets feel the government they’re lending to has good policies, they’ll demand less interest on what they lend. (Called the “yield”.) If that government seems to spend a lot, they’ll charge more.

Here’s the kicker: every left-leaning government comes to power on a promise to increase borrowing. (Because they want to spend more.) So the bond markets trust left-leaning governments a lot less, and want more interest. Much, much more. Mmmm, interest!

And left-wingers say we should “soak the rich”? Hell, it’s your policies that make them rich. The way to release more money for public services (say, that £50bn we pay each year in interest) is actually … what you call “austerity”. So the Left should agree: to fight these evil thugs charging us all this interest, we need more austerity, NOW!

What’s this I hear – silence?

On printing money

Targetting low wage earners...Putting more money into circulation, known as QE, seems a necessary evil:  since the bank bust, we all do a lot of this, so we’re all guilty. It’s not obvious right now, but what excessive money-printing does is store up inflation. More than a taste of inflation is bad, so we should all agree excessive QE is bad.

Inflation kills off people’s savings. It slashes growth in their pension funds. It erodes the value of their earnings. All things left-leaning people should be against, because they make ordinary people poorer. Yet printing money is a much-used trick among governments of the Left, from 70s Britain to South America and Africa today. If you print money to solve other problems, you’re oppressing your people.

So when the Left does its marching-on-Whitehall stuff (bless!) what they should really be chanting is “What do we want? A lower rate of quantitative easing designed to control savings value erosion! When do we want it? NOW!”

But it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

“… but it provides growth!”

Caught in the maze of copy? Call Chris for your escape plan.This is the final cry of the Left: we had more growth under Labour. Well, of course we did. Pump billions into the economy and you’ll get “growth” as measured by economists. In the same way as if you take out £200 in cash from your credit card before going out, your town’s bars and restaurants will experience “growth”.

The question is whether that’s real growth or not. Real growth builds the economy. Not just creates extra cost centres in it. Money spent on doctors’ salaries is not “investment”. It’s a cost.

If you take out the property bubble, the finance bubble, and Gordon Brown’s toga-party-for-the-public-sector, there was zero or negative growth in the UK economy between 1997 and 2010. 

So when those on the Left protest the housing crisis and the bankers, remember this: they’re the only reasons thirteen years of Labour chancellors were able to stand up on Budget Day and say they delivered growth. Maybe you should be thanking them. (And no, I don’t care for bankers either.)

On why I voted Conservative

This is the Why. I voted Conservative because if Britain’s Left really thought about our country (instead of just feeling) they’d be doing all the same things Conservatives do. And it leads to some odd conclusions.

Because most left-leaning voters really, deeply believe they care about others. But when you look at the numbers critically, they’re just doing what they accuse the Right of: lookin’ after me’n’mine.

Around 30-40% of the country leans Labour, and it’s the same 30-40% that benefits from high public spending. In other words, folks, you’re looking out for yourselves. You have a sensible policy of enlightened self-interest. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Can I interest you in the works of a wonderful lady named Ayn Rand?

500px-Nolan-chart.svgAnd if you made it this far, understand this too: I’m a hold-my-nose Tory. I’m not a Conservative; I’m a Libertarian. In today’s Britain, that’s the unoccupied quadrant of the Nolan Chart. The believers in high social AND high economic freedoms, where the main focus of a limited state is on protecting individual rights, rather than granting them to groups. (Or taking them for itself.)

Britain’s Tories score a lot lower on the “social freedoms” axis than I’d like, just as the Lib Dems score too low on economic freedoms. While Labour scores low on both.

But maybe – just maybe – we’re closer than you think.

Why should right-wingers support the Living Wage? Try £10bn on GDP

The political map has moved on since French nobles sat to the left or right of the King, but most would still class me as a classic Right-winger. So why do I support a wage floor for the UK – and not just the minimum wage, but a Living Wage and beyond?

Targetting low wage earners...After all, I laugh in the face of unions (economic wrecking balls) who you’d think would be working towards the same goal. And my contempt for the Labour front bench – a mob of jerk-offs and whack-jobs incapable of simple sums – is total. I believe Occupy is shorthand for “Stand and deliver” and that Russell Brand is an overhyped self-indulgent uber-flake, circle-jerking the right-on juice for an audience of Guardian journalists. (Well, no argument there I suppose.)

Yup, the British Left is a joke, and the Conservatives aren’t that much better. I’m a hardcore Libertarian, in the extreme top right corner of the Nolan Chart. High social freedoms and high economic freedoms for all, and the main job of a small government is to protect those rights, not take rights of its own. The rights of society must stem from the rights of the individual, otherwise it’s just masters and slaves.

(As every State that’s ever dabbled in Communism discovers.)

And that’s why my stance is unusual. Isn’t the free market about invisible hands, supply and demand, efficient allocation of capital and all that? Libertarians are supposed to support laissez-faire. A minimum wage is a market distortion, and, the dogma goes, market distortions are always bad.

I still believe that. I’m a Libertarian even among Libertarians. But I also want to live in a civil society. And one of the few arguments against a Libertarian society is that it might not be a civil one.


Just to get things straight: I’m not developing a social conscience here. (Perish the thought.) Don’t worry folks, I remain a self-centred, individualist, rat-racing me-first Social Darwinist who glorifies the I over the We in true Objectivist tradition. Enlightened self-interest is the only personal philosophy that makes any sense, and darling Ayn got everything right, including not liking Libertarians. I enjoy BioShock for all the wrong reasons and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge ranks among my favourite fictional characters. And now we’ve got that sorted…


… anyone working fulltime at the lowest pay grade should be able to afford a decent life.

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.Not a life of luxury. Not a life of eating out every night – or even once a week. But a roof over your head and cash for Asda, with enough left over for a change of clothes and a broadband connection, isn’t asking much. And that’s all anyone needs to get onto the ladder of self-actualisation. The dignity of work should be matched by the dignity of pay… because those dignities give you the opportunity to pull yourself up.

And a society of 60m people with those opportunities is a successful, economically dynamic one. That’s the kind of place I want to live in.

So let’s look at what really matters to a small-statist: what does it cost?

The answer: a lot less than you’d think. And the benefits are enormous.

Back of envelope: the cost to employers worst-cases 58bn. That’s if Britain’s 12m lowest earners get £9.15 an hour. But many of them work part-time, bringing it down to £26bn or so. And some earn Living Wage already. (Including, to their credit, many local councils – although it’s easy to be generous with other people’s money.)

That brings us down to £22bn on the cost column. And the good news continues.

Because increasing these wages won’t make the jobs go away. Most low-wage jobs are non-exportable. They’re the cleaners, the waiters, the guys who sweep your streets and mix your drinks. You can’t outsource these jobs to Vietnam. A living wage won’t reduce employment.

What’s more, many employers among our EU neighbours already face real costs above this premium: try employing someone in, say, France. Britain’s beyond the economic stage where human labour is a costed commodity; low earners don’t make aircraft engines or devise new drugs. A living wage will have no effect on Britain’s global competitiveness.

Looking for that 360 degree view? Call Chris.Third, most of these extra costs can be recharged directly to customers. Anyone paying £2.50 for a Latte can afford £2.62, and if you begrudge the guy with his hands in your toilet an extra two quid, you need to rethink your priorities. I estimate £15bn of that £22bn moves straight into the revenue column; a living wage carries little real cost to employers.

So we’re down to a £7bn real cost to employers. What else?

Well, surprise surprise: put an extra £400 a month in people’s pockets, and they spend it on stuff. That £15bn charge-out becomes a £15bn economic boost. Which means greater sales for the companies who employ them. Leading to economic growth, higher employment, higher VAT receipts at the Treasury, and an increased feel-good factor among the teeming hordes. Would that cover the £7bn and bring the real cost of this change down to zero? I think so. (And yes, I’m aware how Keynesian this makes me sound. Suck it up.)

There are other benefits. A reduced need for Housing Benefit. A lower bill for income support. And a greater incentive to get into work; that extra £98 a week might, who knows, persuade some lard-assed wasters away from the Sky box. And with the minimum income of a full-time worker – over £18,000 – now significantly greater than most people can score from the Social, the number of people claiming benefits would fall anyway. It’s all good when work pays. An extra £3-4bn boost to GDP?

These positives, of course, also reduce the appalling complexity of Britain’s welfare state. All the edge cases – what percentage of this guy’s rent should we cover? How many hours of this woman’s childcare? – go away, and with them the armies of functionaries who adminster them. (Maybe they can all get jobs in Starbuck’s instead.) A living wage means a smaller State. What’s that, £1bn off the Public Sector payroll?

So there you have it: I estimate a living wage carries a £5-10bn benefit to the UK economy. Not far off a full percentage point on growth. Are you listening, Osborne?

Hitched and sealed

Getting married at London's St Paul's Cathedral

Last month I got married at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. (Yes, really.) Nothing to do with my humdrum family history – rather, it was my new wife’s illustrious parents that gave me the chance. As anyone who’s seen my profile pictures (“shot in the back of the head”, every time!) across the web knows, I prefer anonymity and the shadows to letting it all hang out; you do better work for longer that way. And religion is no part of my life. So why did I go for a ceremony guaranteed to have me appearing in 100 strangers’ selfies when we emerged onto the steps of one of the world’s most famous buildings?

For the story.

Life is about big stories. Sequences of events that make everything make sense. Marrying later in life than most (although I still feel too young to settle down) I wanted that big moment when it all came together, something we’ll remember forever. A full-length thriller not an espresso short. Something to anchor the memory to the reality with a big thunking CLANG, setting me up for a new life with my beautiful bride. (A girl whose stories started a lot earlier in life than mine, and involved events far more dangerous.)

And it was a big day. I can’t remember a moment when I wasn’t smiling. To over 100 guests who flew, drove, and sailed thousands of kilometres to be there for us… thank you.

And also as proof that life’s adventures don’t have to stop. I’m writing this a month after the big day, in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport, about to head home after an adventurous honeymoon involving driving, drinking, shooting, swimming, and getting my SCUBA certification in Key Largo. The stories don’t end. But this phase of my life started with a building.

Societal discounting: why white male privilege doesn’t help me

I was chatting about white male privilege recently. Let’s start by stating outright: I know it exists. I’m pretty chuffed I was born male, middle-class and of european extraction. But here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t help me as much as you think it does.

And a bit of research backs it up. But first, the theory.

White male privilege exists

It started with a throwaway thought: that the benefits of being white and male, while real, are already “priced in”.

Priced in is a finance term, meaning those who buy into a benefit aren’t getting as much value from it as you might think. Value is “priced in” when expectations of future profit are already fully reflected in the stockmarket valuation of a company.

In other words, buy that stock now and you’re unlikely to make a profit on it. The expected benefits are already part of the stock price.

But its benefits are “priced in”…

How does value get priced in? By a basic financial mechanism: discounting.

Since the benefits of buying a stock or share are in the future—and the future is unpredictable—investors balance their expectations of profit by applying a discount factor to those forecasts, usually a percentage.

The higher the risk of not making a profit, the higher the discount rate. A couple of percent per year for a Fortune-500 company, high double digits for an Internet startup.

Discount factors take expectations of profit down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing.

… and society, knowing this, discounts it

I’m arguing that society recognises the existence of WMP, and applies a discount factor to its treatment of white males that reduces the benefits of being white and male.

I call this balancing effect “societal discounting“. (Hey, it sounds nicely sociological—a bit fuzzy and obscure—so it’s halfway to academic acceptance already.) White males enjoy a status perceived as privileged… so societal discounting acts to “takes them down a peg or two.”

Which wouldn’t harm a lot of white males, me probably included. But how does societal discounting actually work?

One trait of societal discounting is the tendency to not take any protests of prejudice experienced by white males seriously—he’s a middle-class white male! What could he possibly complain about?—and seeing white males as fair targets for levels of bigotry unacceptable when expressed towards any other demographic.

That paragraph will probably make some people angry. If you’re one of them, breathe, because it’s not meant to. I’m not sure of the degree to which societal discounting reduces the benefits of being a white male, but I accept it probably isn’t 100%.

But you’re doing it. Even if you’re a white male yourself.

This discounting negates the benefits of being white and male

Societal discounting is why it’s okay to publish a blog titled “The White Guy Problem“, deriding a behaviour that’s entirely unpleasant, yet not at all confined to white males. (And which, happily, only an ignorant fraction of any community indulges in.)

It’s why Salon republishes a feminist post singling out white males’ inability to “listen to the experiences of others”. (I’m not going to diss the writing style: its author never intended it as more than a Facebook status.) If you make it down the page, one sentence jumps out:

“[you] are being infantilizing. . . You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.”

The author is right as far as she goes. But would she listen to the “lived experiences” of white males with the same degree of open-minded empathy she wants from them? Could she have aimed this valid advice at any other group without being tarred as a bigot?

But she directed it at white males, towards which almost any degree of prejudice or racism seems to be okay. (Maybe she hedged her views at the end of the article, but these pieces tend to run long copy: I’ve yet to make it to the end of one.)

It also happened in the chat that inspired this blog. The conversation was civil, but when I mentioned my “priced in” idea, the consensus quickly arose as an implicit and unquestionable understanding: I was one of those white males. Part of the problem. In inevitable sequence came the accusations of misunderstanding (true) and trolling (false.)

This is societal discounting in action. Understanding that white male privilege exists, and taking actions to discount it back towards some more reasonable norm.

And if you’re surprised by that word “reasonable”, then you haven’t been listening.

Maybe societal discounting is the right thing to do. Maybe white male privilege really does create such a distorting effect that discounting it back towards the mean is entirely reasonable.

Next, some research findings.

Some non-academic, non-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research

Back-of-envelope research needs easily accessible data with a reasonable chance of finding something in it. What follows isn’t statistically valid (although it is statistically significant) nor qualitatively appropriate. In other words, it’s a judgement sample rather than a rigorously controlled one.

So I’ll note here: I have some training in econometrics, and use modelling and analysis every day. I do understand the limitations of a sample. So unless you know your CI from your SD: whatever your complaint about my data or findings, I’ll already know it.

TV sitcoms and semi-comedies were my data landscape. (Cue laughter track.)

Why? Because comedy tends to a) magnify societal mores, and b) lag a bit behind the times. (Statisticians might call them a judgement sample of society.) Sitcoms aren’t exactly a mirror of society; they’re more like a shaving mirror, emphasising further bits that already stick out. Soap operas would work too, but I’ve never watched any.

In an attempt at control, I chose them all from the last 20 years, from both the UK and USA, and with a mix of characters from diverse backgrounds. This meant classics like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince got nixed, but The Simpsons and Buffy (known for strong female characters) made the cut. I found 61 in total.

Why sitcoms were no laughing matter

The results were startling. Of those featuring a white male lead character, in 84% of cases that character had a negative trait—and the trait was remarkably consistent, over two-thirds strongly biased towards a bumbling nature or loveable idiocy.

Just 18% featured a female lead character with a negative trait—and in 8 of these 11 shows, the trait came from a range of comedic stereotypes (the scatty blonde, the socially inept nerd) rather than a consistent characteristic of idiocy.

There was another finding. A random subsample of plotlines demonstrated that of the shows featuring a bumbling white male lead character, that trait substantially defined the plotline of many episodes. (Think of how often Homer’s idiocy is saved by Marge’s better nature.)

The cod conclusion: societal discounting against white males is an integral, unquestioned norm in the media we consume.

It’s okay to make fun of white males, in ways unacceptable about other ethnicities or genders.

White males reading this might feel aggrieved at this finding. I don’t. Because I understand why it happens. It’s just societal discounting, taking white male privilege down a peg or two. (Bear in mind most of these shows, including those featuring ethnic and minority characters, are written and produced by white males. British and US comedy shows aren’t exactly a feminist plot.)

And society hasn’t exactly collapsed because of it, has it? I laugh at The Simpsons too, you know.

But here’s the kicker: it’s okay

In discussions about sexism or racism, my experience is that of many white males: I’m either not allowed an opinion or seen as part of the problem. My own lived experience is discounted, by the same people who say I should be listening to theirs.

And you know what? Understanding societal discounting, I’m okay with that.

Because I am, after all, still white and male. Still defined by my ethno-cultural background. A quick scan of my Kindle reveals a great many white male authors and surprisingly very few women or people of colour. The writer most in tune with my personal philosophy was female, and I admire Toni Morrison, but I realise I’ve never read any of her books whole.

However, I did live overseas for a large part of my life, where I was a minority in race and mother tongue. I went to university in my 30s, on a course where white males were a tiny minority. Today, I live in one of Britain’s most diverse neighbourhoods; my (non-white) partner has suffered serious racism although she never let it slow her down.

So I do know a bit about this stuff. I’m not perfect, but hey—neither are you.

Modern society treats white male privilege as damage and routes around it. This blog won’t get lauded as a piece of social commentary, or even accepted as valid. Because if you’re non-white, non-male, or have ever experienced prejudice, you’ll discount it.

And that’s ok.

Freelance consultant? Why you should take credit cards

Pay online by debit or credit card.Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?

I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.

Why? I’m guessing three things matter:

To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.

To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.

To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.

If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!

Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.

And I’m sorry.

From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.

But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?

Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.

But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.

  • I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
  • I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
  • And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.

Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.

 

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.