Expert Guidance

Yet again, there's no substitute for doing, and doing well.

Jon Allen
02nd Mar 2016

Publicity Shot

Experts. I’ve always been very wary of them. Especially the self-proclaimed sort.

Probably my favourite quote about writing is William Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything”. The great Hollywood screenwriter, script doctor and undeniable expert is not saying no one in LA has a clue about film making – only that if they all knew for sure which stories would do great box office, no duds would ever be produced.

It was only last year that I finally heard the old joke defining an expert as “a has-been drip under pressure”. Proper dictionaries almost all say it’s someone “very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area”.

Knowledge or skill. Not both, you notice. Critics and pundits who have never practised at the highest level of what they’re talking about will like that.

This musing was prompted by a self-proclaimed charity copywriting ‘expert’ slagging off a mailing concept a mutual client wanted to use. In trying to add gravitas to his opinion he made great play of his experience. I’m always sceptical of those who boast, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years”. Doing something badly for a long time only makes you expert in doing something badly.

And if almost anyone wants to play the vintage card adversarially, I’ve got the Crocodile Dundee in New York response. I’m thinking “That’s not a knife, this is a knife”  when I casually mention working on my first charity account 26 years ago! (I don’t mention it was Help the Aged. Why hand out ammunition for obvious ripostes?)

Between then and now, I remember most of my howlers – remarkably few, thankfully – and quite a lot of things I could have done better, as well as the success stories – which far outnumber the failures.

All of it informs what I produce today.

The client got their way and I wrote the copy. When the results were in, the ‘expert’ was asked why he thought my copy had pulled a response rate over 12 times better than his last effort.

I’ve got a few ideas that could account for some of the difference (the concept for a start, list quality, timing, production budgets…) but not all of it. The main reason is simply that his letter copy was amongst the worst I’ve ever read.

But, for once, he didn’t bother to give his expert opinion. Instead, he resigned the business – criticising the client as he did so.

That might very well be the reaction of “a has-been drip under pressure”, but I’m no expert.

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