Whether we realize it or not, empathy plays a huge role in all of our lives and experiences, especially when it comes to creative work.
It shapes our perception and our approach to work, relationships, and expectations. It makes the difference between seeing the online world as a global market, where there’s room for everyone, and acting out of scarcity.
That’s why worrying about the competition should be the last thing on your mind. Instead, focus on finding your unique voice, on attracting the right people for your business, while also helping others shine and lending them a hand to get started. If you can act generously, expect unforeseen rewards, distributed over the long-term, coming at you from places you couldn’t ever imagine.
Hillary, my guest on today’s episode, experienced this form of empathy first-hand when she set off on her journey. The people who opened up a huge realm of possibilities for her popped up in unexpected places. Listening to her story might help you find these people in your own life!
In this episode of Drag & Drop, Hillary takes us back to her early days as a freelancer, emphasizing the importance of having somebody on your side who doesn’t feel threatened by your creativity and potential and who is willing to open doors for you in every way they can.
We also discuss how technology gives the false promise that we can be close to our customers without really being there and how creators and the brands that employ or work with them can avoid this trap.
Hillary openly shares her guiding principles that shape everything she does. Listen to the full episode to learn how you can attract the right people for your business, how to convey emotion and nuance, and how to send the right message through everything you do – empathy-first.
Hillary Weiss is a creative force! She’s a brand consultant, speaker, copywriter, and founder of the Statement Piece Studio at hillaryweiss.com. She also co-hosts the hilarious – and highly educational – Youtube marketing talk show: Hillary and Margo Yell at Websites – HAMYAW.
Hillary’s work has been featured on Business Insider, The Next Web, The Observer, and many more top-tier publications because it really makes an impact.
Since 2011 she’s been rocking the Internet, helping thousands of brands all over the world get seen and heard, and bring in loyal customers. Her work includes a mix of one-to-one client work, writing, coaching, and videos and is a source of endless energy and motivation, both for the brands she works with and for her community.
Hillary’s mission is to “help small businesses define their “statement piece”, a.k.a. the bold point of view that makes them radically relevant to their perfect people”.
She’s the one who takes communication from meh to WOW, from good-enough to extraordinary, and she does it all with empathy and courage – so there’s lots to learn from her!
Stuff I was curious to find out:
- How empathetic people opened a door for Hillary, kickstarting her amazing and meaningful career. (03:21)
- The role empathy played in the change of scenery in the marketing/female/entrepreneur/digital space that happened a few years ago. (10:25)
- How Hillary cultivated the ability to find, develop, and refine self-expression to make it a powerful business tool. (21:40)
- How the Statement Piece Studio was born. (33:31)
- The relationship between creativity and empathy seen through Hillary’s eyes. (41:14)
- How practicing empathy with someone else makes it more powerful. (49:00)
- Hillary’s thoughts on what makes empathy timeless. (56:33)
What you can learn from this episode:
- How to use empathy to help others thrive instead of protecting yourself against potential competitors. (06:26)
- The reasons why Jeff Walker’s “Product Launch Formula” lost its efficiency as more people started using it. (11:56)
- The major mistake businesses often make when handling social media – automating connection. (17:46)
- How to express your unique perspective without putting people down when they have a different point of view. (23:20)
- The key to getting people to move into action. (29:50)
- Why having a genuine connection with people is crucial for your business. (38:53)
- What sets HAMYAW apart from other talk shows. (53:02)
There are always pendulum swings in a market
In the online space, everything moves blazingly fast, pushed both by technology and evolving customer demands. In social media especially consumers’ desires shift periodically in a dramatic way – as soon as someone does something new that works, everyone else joins the trend.
For example, back in 2011, one strategy that worked was to start a business, build a brand, and then grow it to the point where you could automate everything and allow yourself to have a four-hour workweek. This trend determined a bunch of people to try to build evergreen funnels, marketing tools, and launches that were meant to lead to huge paydays.
But people are not easy to trick and soon this type of strategy – alienating yourself from your customers but pretending to be there for them – started to lose its impact and created less value for the businesses that ran with it.
Now, the pendulum swings back to one-on-one communication, to being present and caring for the people you interact with. There’s more emphasis on attracting the right individuals through empathy and reliable proof that you want to – and can – deliver value and quality instead of quantity.
Aim to create a unique lens through what you are doing
We all have something special to offer and we all have a unique voice that needs to be heard. Other people’s strategies might work for them but not necessarily for you, so putting your energy into trying to replicate “recipes” might not be the right way to go.
Instead, how about focusing on discovering what makes you and your business unique? Wouldn’t it be nice to have people say, “Oh my God! I’ve waited my entire life to find this!” when they hop on your website?
Use empathy as a starting point and think about the qualities that make you the go-to person in your field. Then, by being open and transparent, share those characteristics through your business, and sooner rather than later, like a magnet, the right people will come to you and help you thrive.
The human experience makes empathy timeless
There’s a reason why books as old as 1000 years still resonate with us. It’s not because they focused on tactics, but because they focused on reaching out to people and connecting with them.
As long as human beings continue having human experiences, empathy is going to be a timeless tool. While our environment changes and technology advances every day, we still wrestle with the same insecurities, we still have the same desire for love and connection, and the same drive to improve our lives our ancestors had.
So, putting out content that focuses more on these universal principles and less on rapid ways of getting cash influx can make your products stand the test of time. If you commit to empathy and to approaching everything through that human lens and through your values, you can’t go wrong.
Andra Zaharia: “A few years back, we saw a huge shift happen in the marketing/ female/ entrepreneur/ coaching/ digital content space. Like, HUGE! Programs that had been raking in money for years suddenly saw their revenue cut in half. Sales techniques and strategies saw little to no return when in previous years they had been the definition of success. Consumers were becoming smarter and some of the industry’s leading figures were just refusing to adapt. Yikes! It was bad – and it had everyone shaking in their boots a bit. What happened afterwards? Well, we kind of went with it. Things changed and we made it work, continuing to serve people and add value rather than gimmicks, to their lives. Funnels were replaced with market surveys, connection to the consumer one-upped foolproof formulas. Has this happened since 2017? Yes. Will it happen again? Probably. We’ve continued to do this, and despite more moments of radical transformation, those willing to work WITH the industry have survived.”
Andra Zaharia: Hillary posted this on her Facebook page in early January and her words really stuck with me – not just because it’s clear that history’s repeating itself, in a slightly different way, but also because empathy is at the very core of her approach.
Andra Zaharia: Welcome to the Drag & Drop show, where we explore how practicing empathy transforms how we do business and live our lives. I’m your host, Andra Zaharia, a fellow podcast listener and creator. This season, I’m on a journey with Bannersnack to discover how leading women around the world use empathy to connect and do work that matters. Join us, to find out how to drag and drop small acts of empathy into our lives to make it more rewarding for us and those around us.
Andra Zaharia: Hillary Weiss is a creative force! She’s a brand consultant, speaker, copywriter, and founder of the Statement Piece Studio at hillaryweiss.com. She’s also the co-host of the cult-favorite YouTube marketing talk show, Hillary and Margo Yell at Websites (#HAMYAW), which I absolutely love! Hillary’s work has been featured on Business Insider, The Next Web, The Observer, and a lot more. Since 2011, she’s been rocking the internet, helping thousands of brands all over the world get seen and heard, and make some serious cash. Her combo of one-to-one client work, writing, coaching, and videos is a source of endless energy and motivation, both for the brands she works with and for her community, which I’m happy to be a part of.
Andra Zaharia: Nowadays, Hillary’s on a mission to help more small businesses define their “statement piece”, a.k.a. the bold point of view that makes them radically relevant to their perfect people. She’s the one who takes communication from meh to wow, from good-enough to extraordinary, and she does it all with empathy and courage, which is exactly what we’re going to explore today. So, Hillary, when did empathy make the biggest impact on your life?
Hillary Weiss: Oh my God! First of all, what an introduction! I don’t even know if I can follow that up! Thank you so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here! So, first, that’s such a great question! I love that you’re opening with this because I think empathy, especially when it comes to creative work, plays such a role in all of our lives and experiences. All it takes, really, is one person to kind of say “yes” and open the door for us. So, I think maybe the first act of empathy that had a huge impact on me was when I was actually in my senior year of high school – maybe junior year. I was probably about 16, and I was a good writer, but when it came to academic writing, I was not super great. I didn’t really have a great analysis sense, I didn’t really have a lot of skills, I didn’t really know, I didn’t really pay attention in class – I was never really a good student.
Hillary Weiss: I had an English teacher in AP English – which is like a higher level of English class in high school, here in the US. My teacher sat with me over so many afternoons for the final essay of the year, and that was a huge part of our grade and it had to be upwards of 30 pages – it was an analysis of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, which has since become one of my favorite books. He just sat with me for hours and hours and talked me through it and helped me kind of put pieces together and then he helped me figure out how to analyze it, how to bring it forth in my writing and how to kind of see things in a different way. At the end of the day, after struggling with B’s and C’s all semester, I ended up with an A+ on the essay. I thanked him for it, because it was largely due to his help, and I just remember him turning to me and saying, “It was freakin’ brilliant!” – except he didn’t say freakin’. I just remember that moment where he could have said, “Okay, well, you’re welcome! We worked hard on it together.” Or he could have said, “Yeah, next time, I think you’re going to be able to do it on your own.” But instead, he was like, “This was brilliant!” And he really kind of opened a door in my brain somewhere that I could see things differently, that I could express myself this way. I’d always been writing behind the scenes and writing silly fan-fiction and comedy and terrible teenage poetry – as one does – but, in terms of writing to actually say something and to form an idea, I think that was the first time anyone had ever told me I could be good at that.
Hillary Weiss: So, as I kind of went on, it built so much confidence in me as a writer, and I know this is going probably further back than you would have wanted. When you asked me the question, I was like, “What was the first moment?” And I think that was the first time somebody, again, had kind of opened that door to say, “You are intelligent enough to share ideas, to analyze things like this, and it was fun to read.” And that was, again, the first time that I was like, “Okay, maybe there’s something here.” So I kept writing, and writing, and writing.
Hillary Weiss: And then, the second time empathy really opened another door for me was right after I graduated college, which was towards the end, and I had been stalking this copywriter. I didn’t even know what copywriting was, I hadn’t heard of it, and I stumbled on this woman’s website – and this is back in 2011 – a pioneer ahead of her time. This woman was Alexandra Franzen. I remember stalking her, being like “I’ve never seen anything like this. This writing is so creative! I feel like I could do this.” And I remember stalking her for six months, and then I got in touch with her on Twitter – this is back when she still had social media – via DM, and I was like, “Do you need a minion to do your bidding? I’m 21 years old, I will do whatever you ask of me.” And she said yes, and took a chance on me.
Hillary Weiss: I think that was such a big moment and a moment that I’ve tried to repeat for people over and over, as much as possible. If I have a door I can open for somebody, I open it; if I have advice I think can help somebody, I give it freely because I always feel like paying it forward and putting that good energy and empathy out there always comes back to you, tenfold. Not that that’s the reason you should do it. You should do it because you want to be a good person and nurture others, but it was really a beautiful way to start my career because that really ingrained in me this desire to help others, and when I became successful and more visible and I had more equity as a brand not to “pull my skirt back from the peasants”, as it were, but instead to say, “This is possible for all of us if I can do it. I’m an idiot. If I can do it, anybody can” – and it’s not that everybody’s an idiot, but I think the beautiful part of the online space, especially as a professional creative in the online business world, there is enough room for all of us. I’m not protecting against potential competitors because this is a global market. I think because I started with that, because somebody didn’t feel threatened by me at the first go, when I said, “I want to be you” it really kind of opened up this huge realm of possibility for me – something I’ve been trying to replicate for other people and writers and people in the creative space online ever since.
Andra Zaharia: And you’re definitely doing it incredibly well! I’m so glad you took us back that far because these little moments – we can’t often see them when they happen, but in hindsight, you realize the impact they had and the power they had in the way they shaped expectations for us. I think that you’re doing a great, fantastic job at opening doors and actually helping people see all those possibilities – you consistently do this, and this is one of the things that I absolutely love about your work. That has very visibly helped me in my work, as well, and I know I’m not the only one.
Hillary Weiss: Thank you! Wow! That’s so special. Thank you so much! That feels great to hear because you show up in the world and you hope you can do a little bit of good and leave it a little better than how you found it, and that means a lot. So thank you!
Andra Zaharia: You definitely do! I’m really glad we’re having this conversation around something that feels so abstract, I guess, sometimes; it’s something that we all kind of feel in one way or another, but we don’t know exactly how to pinpoint it or define it or where to place it or sometimes even what to do with it. So, having conversations like these, kind of gives us the vocabulary we need, to actually figure out what to do with empathy and how we can tap into it, to be a bit kinder to ourselves and to our customers and everything that’s going on around us. You talked about these inflection points in your life, and I know that in early January you wrote about the fact that a few years back, in the marketing/ female/ entrepreneur/ digital space, there were these changes, there were these adjustments and I guess a different level of expectations from customers kind of showed up. What role did empathy play in that adjustment that followed that period? If you could walk us through it, I think that would be very valuable!
Hillary Weiss: Which piece are you referring to? Is this “8 observations from a crumbling niche”?
Andra Zaharia: Yes, exactly!
Hillary Weiss: Okay, yes. Got it! So, there are always pendulum swings in a market, and in the online space, something I remarked on in the post was that actually everything moves in fast motion in the online space because everything just moves at the speed of technology and with social media consumer desires shift dramatically and as soon as someone’s doing something new that’s working, everyone else surges in after them; there’s a lot of copy-cattery because, in many ways, the online business space, even though it’s been booming for a couple of decades now, it’s still in many ways, the Wild West, because there are always new ways to get people’s attention; even the invention of social media, even the email, the reprioritization of appearing in people’s inboxes created a huge change in the industry. My remarks at the time – this was from a couple of years ago and it still holds true, unfortunately – but what I was writing about at the time was basically, again, the pendulum swinging, as I was saying, back from the… Alright, let me actually take you even further back because in my industry, when I got my start in 2011-2012, the desire was this: you would start a business and build a brand – this is especially in the coaching and consulting and creative spaces – start a business, build a brand, and then eventually build it so big that you don’t have to run it anymore, and put so many layers between you and your people, that you’re no longer accessible, you no longer have to show up, you can have your four-hour workweek, you can hop on a flight and work on a beach from Bali or whatever it is people were supposed to be doing at the time in this digital nomad life.
Hillary Weiss: What that had created was a bunch of people trying to build these evergreen funnels, these huge behemoth marketing tools and launches that were meant to be huge paydays. So, entire businesses would exist off of these product launches; well, a lot of them were based on Jeff Walker’s “Product Launch Formula”, which is a whole course and book in and of itself – you may be familiar with it: you had to sign up for free for this three-part video series and then, you’d have the sales emails after that. Very, very hot for a couple of years, but because everything was getting more expansive and everybody was doing it, it was becoming less and less effective. And because it was coming from, in many ways, this attitude of “I want to build a business so successful I don’t have to run it anymore” consumers became really conscious of that very quickly. And that’s my theory; I think we feel in business and marketing and in life, the energy of things sometimes and when something feels off, we can sense it and we back up. And I think that is something we have to keep in mind and why empathy is still so important and always will be in business and marketing.
Hillary Weiss: Basically, what was happening at the time was the traditional formula, “Facebook ad – freebie – three-part video series – sales, emails – three, five, 10, 20K product”, it was becoming less and less effective. People were wise to it, people knew that they were “giving value” because there was a sale at the end. People started cutting corners where these three-part video series and webinars were actually just like long sales pitches, and all that. It got muddier, and muddier, and muddier because what people cared about was, “How can I get buyers? How can I get people converting?” and it became less and less about the journey and more and more about how can I get a quick result? And that sent a wrecking ball through a lot of traditional brand loyalty, sent a wrecking ball through consumer trust. So, at the time, what people were struggling with was, “I’m getting sold all these programs, they make all these amazing promises, and nobody’s following through.” The people who are supposed to be there aren’t even there – which was another huge one, where you’d be like, “Yeah, come on in. I’m leading this and all my facilitators” – and it’s actually the “facilitators” running stuff on the back-end of this 3K program.
Hillary Weiss: I think what’s changed since – there are still businesses that operate in that way; I think the launch system still works, but making it a sole backbone of your business model with one product, which is what Marie Forleo was doing for so long and people were kind of modeling – I’ve actually noticed the pendulum swing back away from these group programs and these huge launches and more into stuff like high-end, one-to-one work and consulting and private 10-person mastermind groups, and all of that. I think the reason for that is because people understood that the self-guided programs, the big groups, that doesn’t work for everybody. It’s really easy to get lost, it’s really easy to disappear, and it’s also really easy to have the blame turned around on yourself where it’s like, “Well, this didn’t work for me.” “Okay, but you didn’t show up.” In reality, both parties are responsible there. You’re responsible for creating offers and programs and courses that people can get through and use, but the consumer is also responsible for showing up; I think that created that hunger in that period for the high-touch work, for the one-to-one, for that human connection. What’s been interesting is that has given rise to a whole other kind of fleet of high-ticket salespeople and coaches, who basically teach how to close these 25-30-50K packages without sales calls, without doing the whole traditional Launch Formula.
Hillary Weiss: And it’s a really, really interesting kind of shift, I think, but that can also go bad and there will be something else that comes after it. But for now, it was just really interesting to see how the pendulum went from one-to-one to one-to-many and then all the way back again because everything comes in swings and I think where we fell apart in the height of launch world when it started to go bad is because that idea of empathy, that idea of caring, that idea of delivering value, became so watered-down under the strategy and people totally disconnected – and that was kind of it.
Andra Zaharia: It was! And you can start to see, I think, that there may be also a generational shift at play here because I feel like younger generations have a much more proficient BS detector than I personally ever had. And also, I mean, given the current context we’re in, that will definitely impact everything that’s related to marketing, there’s this need to cut out the fluff to eliminate everything that’s not essential, that’s not actually value-driven. I feel that in your work you do this very well. I mean, you’re able to focus with such clarity, and exactly like you walked us through this transformation, you can see that there’s this need for connection, there’s this need for actual interaction for bouncing ideas off of someone, of discussing and of trying to bring up and surface what’s best in each other – and that includes a whole world of things. It’s not such a linear process, is it?
Hillary Weiss: Amen! I know you’re on Twitter as much as I am, and I think this phase, this high-launch phase, and everyone was automating everything, like, “Step back! Just repurpose all your content!” created all these weird, dead robot Twitter accounts. Do you remember?
Andra Zaharia: Yes!
Hillary Weiss: It was like these “influencers” were repurposing the same 20 articles day in – day out, no interaction and they’re like, “Twitter is dead. I don’t get any engagement on there.” And it’s like, “Well, have you considered you have to be a warm body?”
Andra Zaharia: Actually talking to people.
Hillary Weiss: Yeah, exactly. It’s so interesting! I think that’s what technology does: it gives us the false promise that we can be there without really being there. And it’s just not true! I think repurposing content is great – I’m all about it – but in terms of building an audience, you still have to show up and create that genuine engagement. Even if it’s a team member, people can kind of sense it. That’s why I have my team repurposing stuff on Instagram and Facebook sometimes, but on Twitter, it’s all me because that is not a platform where you can pretend or have someone reply for you, and all these things, unless they’re very good because there are some fabulous social media managers out there. God bless! But that was such a great microcosm of what was going on in the industry, and they were being like, “Why isn’t my robot Twitter account bringing me leads?” Imagine! Because it was just a weird zombie account issue, and then people started getting shut down as well, when they were relying solely on buffer, so it was just totally different time, feeling like we could automate our way into fooling people into believing we were genuinely interacting with people. I’m like, “How dumb do you think folks are, at the end of the day?” It bugged me.
Andra Zaharia: Yeah that’s so true! It does! It still bugs me sometimes the same way because I still see lists of influencers and when you go to check out their accounts… I mean, I try to kind of step outside my bubble and try to find new interesting people to learn from, but sometimes I’m still faced with this and it’s like, “This is not 10 years ago. What’s going here? This is so weird.”
Hillary Weiss: I know! It’s so weird! And I think for millennials and Gen Z in particular, we’re like, “What is going on?” Because social media gives this direct access, whereas celebrities, even 20-30 years ago, were about aspiration, like stars. They are just like us. But now we have a direct line to people and I respect people having boundaries, and you may want to show up on a platform and not engage, but in reality, social media is like anything: you get out of it what you put into it. And so, if you decide to hand it off to somebody or some machine, don’t be surprised if you get machine-like results in terms of engagement, which is close to zero.
Andra Zaharia: Yeah! Plus, I feel that it takes away from personal experience as well. I mean, throughout all these things that we’re doing to build our businesses and communicate for other brands or for our own, and everything else, it’s part of your formative experience, it shapes you – all these conversations, all these things you’re exposing yourself and engaging in – and I guess that “more is less” will always apply to everything and the need for simplicity and for genuine connection is so big right now, and it will continue to get bigger, especially as our world transforms fundamentally, and our relationships transform fundamentally, and the value we place on the online connection will grow a lot, and we’re still kind of unskilled as a global society around how to convey emotion and how to convey nuance and how to convey the right message and the right interpretation throughout everything that we do.
Hillary Weiss: Yeah. Oh my god! That’s true!
Andra Zaharia: And, for example, your way of articulating things, I think is a prime example of what we should be aspiring to get to, in terms of nuance, and in terms of expressing ourselves in a way that’s both constructive and also personal, and I feel like your voice is unique. I mean, when I think of you, I know exactly your tone of voice, I know how you speak. I love it! I know the kind of emotion it triggers, and I love that – that’s very empowering, it’s super energizing, and I definitely love that. I was very curious to find out how you cultivated this ability to find and develop and refine these ideas in a way that makes them powerful business tools? Because it’s not just something aspirational, it’s something that’s very practical and that, I feel, is a gap that most people will have to cross eventually.
Hillary Weiss: Thank you! I would say the number one tool – and I’m really kind of revealing something about myself here, but a way I figured out how to write and to form arguments was by arguing on the internet. I spent a fair amount of time arguing with people, especially on Reddit, in my early 20s because, you know, you’re at home, you’re working from home and you’re young, there’s not enough going on, your rent is $500 a month, the bills are paid. But, I had, first of all, great examples when I was coming up: I had Danielle LaPorte, also an extraordinary writer; Marie Forleo – I don’t really read her stuff now, but back in the day, it was very actionable. So, that was great, but what was really important to me was, as you say, the nuance, was being able to sort of see the whole picture and formulate your opinion not based on your reaction, but by based on “Okay, I see how I’m reacting but I’m also seeing what’s happening. What is the disconnect?” Because I think often, in marketing, our first instinct is to say, “Well, I feel like this is wrong, so I don’t like this.” And this can’t be working for anybody. And the most frustrating and humbling thing about marketing and online business especially, is everything is working for somebody. Do you know what I mean? Like, you have these big, horrifically, ugly sales pages for Agora, that look like they were made in 1994 and they’re generating millions of dollars – and it just drives you nuts, but you have to kind of humble yourself to understand how everything fits in the full picture.
Hillary Weiss: And for me, when it came to writing and sharing about stuff that was important to me, the number one thing that I tried to avoid is rushing into the discussion. It’s just like barreling my way in through the side door and be like, “I have an opinion!” Every time I do that, my opinion changes six weeks later. So, I think what was so important for me is there’s a couple of ground rules for discussing the things that I discuss. The first one is, it has to be something that I feel is genuinely important – and I have this whole framework around coming up with ideas like this because for the first four or so years of my business, I barely wrote at all. I maybe squeaked out three blog posts a year because I was writing copy as my sole source of income at the time and I was like, “Well, the rules are, because I’m a copywriter, I have to be writing about copy.” And boy, let me tell you, there is nothing less motivating than having to sit down and write “The 10 steps to optimize your sales page” because that’s been written 100 million billion other times, by people way smarter than me – so I just didn’t have the energy for it. But I found and I wrote this whole thing about this – I think I recapped it, so forgive me if I’m repeating a story you already know, but this was in 2015 – and I had this piece that had been itching in the back of my brain for a year, which I find it happens so often with writers when we’re kind of resisting our voice and the way we really want to be showing up – these ideas just bother us and beg to be brought to life.
Hillary Weiss: We’re going back to high school again, and middle school. It’s called “Notes from an unremarkable child: how painful average-ness equipped me with a life philosophy” and what it was about was that I was never the star of the school play, I was never very good at sports, I was a B student on a good day, but I had this desire to shine and be seen. I think that’s so universal. I think every kid wants to kind of be in that spotlight in some ways, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, but what brought me to the realization was that I was never really naturally that good at anything. Writing is probably the one thing I came out of the womb with a talent for, but what that taught me was – the story itself opens with my school guidance counselor sitting across from me and being like, “You’re smart, Hillary” implying that I was gifted, and then she put my test results in front of me from second grade and it was like, “Oh, I’m right in the middle! Okay, great! That makes sense!” I think that basically being like, okay, well, I’m not a gifted kid necessarily, I’m not the smartest person in the room, I’m not the most knowledgeable, I’m not even probably the most talented and the most creative, but what I really want to learn to do is learn to work on things and learn how to become better through sheer effort and showing up day, after day, after day – which is what even the most naturally talented people lack because when you’re naturally skilled at a lot of things, you feel like showing up and you can just kind of rock it out and roll out. But for me, I had to work for everything. I had to spend time studying and practicing, and if I really wanted something I had to show up day, after day, after day. I really wanted to write about that but, was I supposed to write about that? I was a copywriter. Nobody wanted to hear about my personal philosophy.
Hillary Weiss: But I woke up at 3 AM one morning and I was like, “I’ve got to write this!” And I remember I was in Florida visiting my parents, I was back from New York, temporarily for a holiday, and I just wrote and wrote and wrote until probably 7 – 8 AM, and then I published it and I went back to sleep. I woke up and, for the time, it was going as close to viral as I’ve ever gone. I shared the post, I was getting a ton of emails, I was getting a ton of texts and calls being like, “I love this! This is so great!” And it was the biggest response I’ve ever had to a piece, and that made me think like, “Oh, okay. There’s something here.” And then, more and more, I realized that it was the point of view that people were hungry for, more than always the tactical. I always try to tie it into a lesson and I always try to make it tangible. But one thing that’s been so important is, you always want to create a unique lens for whatever it is that you’re working on. My lens is, basically, always trying to tie into my brand values, which is always positivity, always transparency and always encouragement. Because if you’re trying to be the opinionated person on the internet, and you’re putting other people down, you do a huge disservice to that section of your audience who may otherwise be willing to hear the message.
Hillary Weiss: So, what’s been so important to me over the years is I’ve created this approach to my content and why discussion is always coming at it from that place of positivity. I’m not trying to put anybody down with the information, even if I think it’s wrong, but to say, “Hey, I understand why you think this way because A, B, and C, but let me talk to you about something different. Let me show you something that I think you may find interesting.” And that creates such a better and more empathetic and positive conversation and it makes it much easier to change people’s minds. I hope everybody listening remembers this – who is in the US because we’ve got this final leg of the election cycle coming up – but never once is anyone’s mind changed by somebody pointing a finger in their face and say, “You’re wrong, and you’re dumb.” I think that has been a huge leading philosophy of mine, leading with empathy, with this positivity and encouragement, and also transparency, which created that huge trust which I’m very blessed to have with my audience. It’s really wonderful and a gift that I really hope I never take for granted.
Hillary Weiss: But the other important thing is about how to get people moving into action, and I think the biggest lesson I’ve had to learn in my content creating life, in my course creation life, in these conversations – as she said, long-windedly – is the fact that more information is not necessarily value. Action is value. And that was so important to me because, for years, I would get stuck because I would get in the weeds with my writing and with my content, like, “Well, I can’t talk about this, because I then have to explain the theory of this, and they have to understand how this works and all that.” And in reality, you’ve just got to figure out what the core idea is, like, what the stepping stone is for people and send them in that direction, because you don’t show up to a hiking trail wanting to sit down and hear the full history, a three-hour lecture on the history of the forest so you know what you’re looking at. You just want to go down the hiking trail. There might be people who really like that kind of background explanation but those have been the driving forces: taking a lot of time to think things through to make sure that I’m not coming from a reactive place or whatever reasons we may be tempted to write about, I try not to. When it comes to my personal life, I try not to write about things until I’ve healed from them because, again, that’s how six months later you’re like, “Oh, no, I feel entirely different and people keep sending me this article and now I don’t even know how to tell them I don’t feel that way anymore.” And then, again, empathy, openness, transparency, encouragement, positivity – don’t treat people like they’re stupid, even if you disagree. And then, I’m really trying to create the shortest line between the information and the action for the viewer. So, that’s the structure on which my content and conversations are built.
Andra Zaharia: And you’re really good at peeling away complexity and at creating this closeness, which I absolutely love; I mean, you’re the exact opposite of what we were talking about, the long funnel, the automated things, everything else. I mean, you don’t layer technology between you and others, and not even your own kind of words and approach and there’s this simple, very direct, very instant connection that you create through everything you do, and for the brands you work with, which I think is such an incredible skill, especially given all the current context we’re in where people want to automate stuff, they want to convey nuance without having a person there, they want to use AI to enhance and personalize and everything else, but just the fact of the matter it is that this type of marketing, this type of communication, this type of approach require craftsmanship. You can’t build it artificially, and you can’t replicate it unless the person is there. And I’ve seen this, for example, with brands who’ve had a great in-house person that then changed jobs and it wasn’t the same and the company’s communication itself changed because that person was the driving force there. I feel we shouldn’t be afraid of transitioning from saying things like this, and it always takes leadership to see and understand how to do this in their own way, because I’m sure that as you work with your customers, you try to teach them a similar practice. So, you’ve walked us through your entire philosophy and I feel like we got a coaching session with you in these 20 minutes.
Hillary Weiss: I do offer coaching, so…
Andra Zaharia: You definitely do. I wanted to ask how you kind of worked empathy in developing this concept of Statement Piece? I mean, it’s simple, but not simplistic. You get it immediately, you know what it’s about, you understand how it can work – it’s just a matter of trying to actually surface this within your clients and trying to surface their expertise and figure out what makes them perfectly suited for their best people, like you call them. How did you approach building this concept and also working this empathetic aspect into it?
Hillary Weiss: Absolutely, absolutely. In order to reach the destination, I have to tell you where we started. So, I think the idea for Statement Piece Studio hit me when I took a course on branding – a course that I was taking from a woman who since became my mentor; her name is Sarah Ashman and she runs this brand called Public Persona Studio, and she’s fabulous! So, I took her course on branding. This was back in 2016-2017 – it feels like a million years ago, especially right now. But, what her approach to branding really requires, and I’m actually being certified in it right now, that’s how much I love it. This stuff changes lives. The creative direction I’m doing is using her methodology. Part of what she requires is for you to kind of look around at your life, not just what you do well in business, but what you’re kind of known for in real life, and how can we tie that in to the brand? You know, you have a unique spin, a unique creative concept and looking more places beyond just your work for that is essential.
Hillary Weiss: So, I think what I was doing is, I was going through one of the exercises and I was like, “What am I known for? What am I known for in real life? What my friends always expect from me?” They expect me to be loud, they expect me to be goofy, but overall, I was like, “Oh, wait a second!” Because at any given time, I’m always wearing at least one statement piece of clothing or jewelry on my person. I’ve been like that since I was old enough to shop for myself, 14-15, when I made my own money, and I could go to thrift shops and get all the weird stuff. And I was like, why do I like that so much? Like, at any given time it’s always at least one thing, like sometimes I’m wearing a hair clip that says boss or a ring with the same sort of comment on it or I have this lightning bolt sweater that looks like my brand and I’ve got a big engagement ring that I love to wear because it looks like a disco ball, which is also part of my brand, for the uninitiated. I was like, “Why do I always want to have this one really expressive piece on my person?” I do the same thing with my hair – I’ve had every hair color under the sun. I sat with that concept and I was like, “Do I always have a statement piece with me or am I wearing one or looking for a new one?” And it’s because it shares a little bit about me to the outside world without me having to say another word. It says to the universe, “This is who I am and if you like it, come say hi to me and let’s start a conversation.” I called them “conversation starters” for a long time because I just wear the most out-there stuff. But, if it resonates with somebody, they can come and say hi to me and start a conversation; I’ve made a ton of friends that way. But, if they’re like, “Oh, this girl seems like a little much”, then they can walk away and I never have to worry about being too much at them or in their general direction. And I was like, “Oh my god! This is it!”
Hillary Weiss: This is what I do for businesses because I was a copywriter, but I was doing a lot of brand and messaging strategy at the time. So, the idea for the Statement Piece was basically like, how do we create a really clear point of view for you that makes you want an instant yes from your perfect people and an instant no for people who aren’t a fit for you? What does that look like? How do we create that? I think part of that was teaching brands to do what I had learned to do through my writing and through this brand work, which is to look around and say like, “How do I really feel? What do I want to see more of and less of in my industry? How do I communicate who I am, through my brand, through my content, through my offers? How do I communicate to the world about who I am without having to say another word, without having to explain? Just to have people show up, already bought into the brand, and excited to be there?” I think that’s what a statement piece is to me – a point of view of personal philosophy that makes you radically relevant to your perfect people. I want to create brands that don’t just have people saying, “Oh, that’s cool.” I want people to react to the brands I work on by saying, “I have waited my entire life to find this. Oh my God!” Because there’s nothing quite like that feeling when you see a brand, and it creates that really powerful connection, and you’re like, “Oh, I want to buy everything you’re selling, and then I’m going to follow your email list, and I’m going to follow you on all social media because it just makes me happy.” Like, it could be apparel, it could be jewelry, it could be just a person doing their thing, a musician, a blogger, a writer – but when you feel that connection, it really creates this powerful link between the two of you. It’s wildly inspiring, it’s motivating, it gives you a space to open your mind to new things and all this wonderful stuff.
Hillary Weiss: I work with a lot of brands that are service-focused and focused on B2C. B2B is a little different, but I’ve worked with B2B brands in a similar vein. But that’s what makes the work so exciting. It’s like, how do we figure out what you do better than anybody else? How do we figure out who you want to be in the rush and noise of your industry? How do we make you stand out like a lighthouse for the people who are really going to connect with you? That’s a huge part of what I do, and that’s kind of what the Statement Piece is. And where the empathy piece ties into that is, you always want to make sure it’s genuine connection. You never want to be tricking people, and it’s created from this deeper idea of who they want to be in their industry, for their people. Like, what is missing? What do they wish had been there for them when they were doing what they were doing a couple of years ago? What gap are they filling that’s making their industry – and it sounds corny to say it – a better place, but if anything, a more inclusive and welcoming place for the people that they serve.
Andra Zaharia: I feel like you described your statement piece in a way that it acts like a magnet, kind of filtering out everything and just pulling towards it. I love the whole magnet idea because I’ve always been a huge fan of organic growth, and I’ve done this in 90% of my time, and I’m not a great fit for the other approach. The way that you talked about this, kind of figuring out your identity ties into your identity as a person, as a business because we’re finally seeing and talking about them together as we should have been. We’re still dealing with legacy concepts. We’re still going to have to chip away constantly. So, the statement piece is the magnet that pulls everything together and it ties into the identity and it reveals it in a way that’s very powerful, it expresses things very clearly and I absolutely love that!
Hillary Weiss: Thank you!
Andra Zaharia: There’s both strategy and clarity and let’s say, methodical approach, and there’s a lot of creativity as well. How do you see the relationship between creativity and empathy? And how would you describe the type of creativity that you engage in? Because I feel like it’s very personal to you, and it’s very personal to people that managed to do the things that you do, but in their own ways, obviously.
Hillary Weiss: Yeah, absolutely! I was talking to one of my students about this, recently, and I was like, the difference between art that’s built on empathy for the wider world and a diary, for example, is basically, what is the end goal? So, we write in our diaries in order to work through our feelings or piece together how we feel. And I think doing that in a public space can be useful for people but, at the end of the day, everyone’s seen those blogs who all of a sudden, the writer is going through something, and it’s just a lot of like, “Today I did this…” and you’re like, “Okay, well, something’s going on, so I’ll be back, but you do whatever is going on here.” And I think the difference is showing up and creating content for an audience often serves to give a better result or to give some kind of result, whether it’s a change in thinking about the way they see the world, the way they see themselves, or seeing possibility. Having that end result, I think, is part of where empathy and creativity interconnect. And I think, actually, there’s empathy behind a lot of strategies, if you really think about it, because when you’re coming at creative strategy, brand direction, creative direction, whatever it is that you’re working on, it all starts at the same place, right? Where is your audience? What is their problem? What is their goal? Where do they want to be? What do they believe right now that they may need to believe differently? That’s really the root of empathy and where it goes wrong is when people start weaponizing that to sort of chip away at those pain points and worsen them, as opposed to improving them. Because when you make someone feel bad about themselves, they’ll kind of listen to you, but also, if you make people feel good about themselves, they can choose to take action with you or without you, but either way, you’re kind of improving the world, or at least improving a tiny corner of it – and I think that makes it all worthwhile.
Hillary Weiss: But, for me, in terms of the creativity that I try to bring, I think what I’ve tried to really resist is putting on airs. I try not to be pretentious, it’s really easy to get pretentious in this world by implying that you are giving the sermon from the mountain or you have all of the answers and I think what I feel like has been a great tool for me and just a great way to stay grounded is I see my audience as my equals and that’s part of why Margo and I created HAMYAW is because we have kind of the same attitude. I think a lot of content creators and influencers in the online business space focus on newbies and beginners, because they are very much like, “Okay, well, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, so come to me. Let me guide you.” And I think it’s a beautiful thing, but for me and for Margo, it was much more interesting to talk to a sect of people that kind of get forgotten, and we talk about them in the context of online business owners and entrepreneurs who “run out of map”, where you’ve done the step by steps, you’ve done B-school – you’ve built the business, you’ve had it for a few years and now you want different things, but there’s no manual. There’s no program, there’s no instruction for what you want, for stuff like imposter syndrome or experimenting in your business or what happens when you totally embarrass yourself, creatively. What do you do, then?
Hillary Weiss: I think those are the discussions that I enjoy having, and that Margo enjoys having because there’s a lot more depth and nuance to it than, “Here’s how to start your first website” – which is great, but I think that I make it a point to treat my readers like they’re super intelligent because they are, and I think I count on my audience to already… There are some writers in literature where you’ll read them and they have to explain everything to the audience, and it’s distracting. I think there’s a whole set of content creators who kind of do the same thing. But, in my opinion, I think the best artists and painters, filmmakers, writers, put out the idea and allow the audience to fill in the blanks and understand it and don’t walk them through every step to reaching the conclusion they want them to reach, because it’s important for them to guide themselves there – and they may pick up new things along the way. And that’s certainly an audience at a specific tier that is able to do that, and that’s who I speak to, which is, again, people who I know to be super smart and very informed and are looking for a conversation more than they are end-to-end instruction. They’re looking to have their brain tapped for new possibilities, but they’re not necessarily wanting to be informed that what they’re doing is right or wrong. So, I think I live in the gray there, I live in the middle there with people who are maybe a little more… Again, I speak to a ton of beginners as well, but I think the conversations I have are at a high level, which makes everyone feel good, because they don’t feel like they’re being babysat, and gives that underserved corner of the community, a place to go and a place to seek conversations that are relevant, especially for them.
Andra Zaharia: And it also makes them more engaged, doesn’t it? Because you’re basically serving them questions and even though they’re not formulated as questions, but you’re giving them a way to kind of boost their self-awareness, which they already have, but you’re enhancing that. So leaving them to fill in the blank, like you said, actually makes them participate, and that’s where you get involvement, and that’s how you get follow-through. I love that you describe that so beautifully and so clearly. I think that we could use a lot more of that because certainly, when it comes to the basics, I think that many or most of us are able to do their own research, but it’s when you want to take it to the next level that you need a bit of help, but you don’t need help to kind of someone to pave the way exactly from point to point because that doesn’t happen because the one answer to the most complex questions is, “It depends.”
Hillary Weiss: Yeah! Oh my God! Yeah, there we go!
Andra Zaharia: And that “it depends” has like a world of depth to it, and the only way to actually tap into that depth and start exploring it and start having fun with it and enjoying the journey and building yourself up as you’re building your business, is to actually work with someone like you, who’s good at guiding people, but in their own way, on their own terms and for their own self, and I think that that is one of the things that people in your community have in common and people who kind of naturally gravitate around you. And actually, you wrote something that really stuck with me, which was that “just like people need ideas, ideas need people” and people to praise what’s working and show you what might not, to share their experiences so you can avoid common mistakes, and to help you sort out just how you can help others in the most powerful work, changing ways. I love that you wrote that because you and Margo have conversations that everyone wants to be a part of, and I do feel like I’m part of the conversation when I’m watching you. I really enjoy that feeling. So, I was curious what do you think around the fact that empathy can become more powerful if you’re practicing it with someone else, not just on your own? Because we get overwhelmed, we get tired. How did your friendship, did your relationship influence your work and any other projects that you may do?
Hillary Weiss: I love that you asked me this. Anytime I get a chance to talk about Margo, I just love her to death! And I love what you’re saying, I just want to take a quick step back because I think the best creative work in the context that we’re talking about, it doesn’t prescribe. It doesn’t say, “You must do this!” It says, “What if you tried this?” And I think that is such a weirdly important differentiating point, but where Margo and I kind of got together… Actually, we kind of forget how we met, but it was in late 2016 or early 2017, and I found her website, and it was hilarious. Margo is such a funny individual. She’s freakin’ hysterical. And she had this headline on her website, right by her photo, which was the headline I’ll never forget; it was, “Someone told me if I have a photo of my face, it will boost my conversions.” And that just got me so good because what Margo does really well is very self-aware marketing – a very self-aware and self-deprecating kind of approach to marketing and business. We met, and I think we had a Zoom call – and what was the weirdest thing was we met, we got introduced to each other, we had the Zoom call, as one does. We’re both in New York, but she’s in Jersey City, which might as well be Mars, and I’m in Brooklyn. And so, we have this Zoom call, we have this conversation and then I was speaking at a conference that she was attending a couple of months later, and I just remember walking up to her and be like, “Hey!” We’d never met in person before but it was like greeting a really old friend. And she turned to me and she’s like, “Can I ask you something?” And I was like, “Yeah, you can.” She’s like, “Doesn’t it feel weird that we’re automatically best friends? I know we don’t know each other very well, but I feel like we already know each other.” I was like, “I feel exactly the same way!” And she was like, “I just remember getting here and being like, Oh, well, I need to do my hair. But that’s okay. I can just go to Hillary’s hotel room and do it there.” And we probably spent like an hour or two talking at that point.
Hillary Weiss: We just saw the world very similarly, we have a similar stance in terms of people running out of math, finding the middle ground, finding the nuance. It was very important to both of us. But, the influencer for the show was actually how much Margo and I sometimes disagree, and our ability to do that and have discussions without offending each other, without flying at each other’s throats, by having a conversation where it’s like, “Well, I think this” – “And I think that”, and instead of saying like, “Well, you’re wrong and stupid”, then you’re like, “Hmm, interesting! Okay, tell me more about that.” And you’ll see us disagree on the show and usually we talk about it before so we try not to spend too much of the conversation squabbling, but what I love about it is that we come from two different ends of the online business spectrum as well. She did traditional marketing and big brand consulting for a while, she was working with, I think, Starbucks, and all these folks, and is very much involved in the Seth Godin corner of the marketing world, which is an awesome place to be. Whereas, I was kind of coming from this scrappy… She’s more classically trained, I think, a little more than I am, if that’s even a thing. But, I came up sort of through the creative and coaching and B-school kind of corner of the online universe where I was just like, “Figure it out as I go. I’ve never taken a single course on this, but what can we do here?” And it provided us similar perspectives and beliefs in the online space, which is that everything works for somebody, nobody necessarily has all the answers.
Hillary Weiss: What’s wonderful about HAMYAW, and what we do together is that we are just having conversations and it’s not prescriptive, it’s not like “The 10 action steps to fix your emails”. It’s like, “Well, we have this problem. Do you have this problem? Here’s what we think. Do you have imposter syndrome? Have you put together content that’s embarrassed you? Do you experiment in your business, but you’re worried about feeling erratic? Should you be yourself online?” All of these topics where we don’t actually have answers, but we both come at it from slightly different perspectives where we’re able, I think, to kind of share answers our audience may already have. And so, they see themselves, I think, represented on the screen in a way that traditional business podcasts where it’s just one person, maybe doesn’t. And that’s a real gift.
Hillary Weiss: And the whole reason we came up with it was because we were drunk in a dive bar in New York City, in Manhattan, and just had killed this bottle of wine in this lovely Thai restaurant and we were like, “Let’s go for a nightcap!” So we went to have a beer and we were arguing about pricing. And I was like, “Wait a minute, we should record this, that’d be fun!” I was like, “Margo, give me your phone!” She’s like, “No, I don’t do Instagram video.” I was like, “Give me your phone, Margo! I’m doing an Instagram video on your Instagram.” So then, not to be outdone, she grabbed my phone and started having the conversation. So we both jacked each other’s stories, and people loved it. So we were like, “Why don’t we give this a shot? We put together two episodes.” This happened, I think, in the winter of 2018. So, we just completed our first little baby year. We put out twice a month and it’s just been a blast. It’s been such a gift to be able to offer the business world, as I mentioned, this sect of the online business population that’s a little underserved, because they’re not beginners and because people kind of like to do their own things and see things their own way. So, I’m doing that with Margo, because the two of us, as opposed to just one of us, creates a really awesome dynamic because we can disagree and because we come from different schools, and it’s fun for us and because of that, it’s fun for the audience.
Andra Zaharia: It’s fun, and it’s a learning experience. My mind just explodes with ideas each time I listen to you, and I start writing stuff down, I have to pause. I’m like, I want to keep watching this, but I also want to go straight away and work on something. And I love that – that kind of energy is absolutely fantastic. And the fact that you’re actually both kind of discussing this in public and helping everyone participate, that is incredibly important, and we’re going to need more of that and you, setting this example and making this like a no-fuss, it doesn’t have to be a huge production kind of thing to be valuable, I actually love that about it. You bring all this energy, but you don’t make it feel overwhelming. And, as an introvert, I’ve always been overwhelmed with people with big personalities and I was very intimidated, I didn’t really know how to behave, but you have a very special, unique way of keeping it very personal and very relatable. So, that’s definitely something I appreciate. To round up our conversation, although I would love to talk to you for hours on end…
Hillary Weiss: I’ve got nowhere to go. I’m quarantined right now. This has been so much fun and thank you so much for having me!
Andra Zaharia: It was absolutely wonderful and I wanted to ask you one last thing: What do you think makes empathy timeless, especially in times like these? We’re seeing that we’re going to have more uncertainty going forward, and we don’t really know what the future will look like in the few months, let alone days, let alone years. So, the “where do you see yourself in five years” question I hope will finally get abolished from every interview ever. What do you think makes empathy timeless? Because we need evergreen stuff to cultivate in our lives that will help us figure out our way going forward.
Hillary Weiss: Yeah, absolutely! I think empathy is timeless because the human experience is timeless. It’s the reason why we still enjoy books and books from 500 – 1000 years ago still resonate with us. We’re still reading Beowulf in school. I think empathy is much more timeless in any marketing tactic than any current event pivot. I think creating empathy in your marketing is going to last much longer than, “What are you doing in the midst of Coronavirus?” for example. As long as human beings continue having human being experiences, empathy is always going to be a timeless tool. I think while technology changes and our environments change and entire nations rise and fall, the nature of being a human being remains the same. We have many of the same insecurities that we’ve always had, we have the same desires for love, for connection. We have the same drive to make our lives better for ourselves and our children – those are universal principles that have been around as long and presuming as humanity’s been around.
Hillary Weiss: So, I think coming at that from a place of understanding and… Often I find a cornerstone of empathy is also patience and non-judgment. I think the more we come at our content, at strategy, at our marketing with that, we have marketing that can stand the test of time. Is it going to necessarily be as fast of a cash influx as some of the more manipulative marketing tactics? Maybe not, but this is where our values and our principles come in because they create something lasting as opposed to a flash that results in a payday but may torpedo a brand trust or completely change the way we’re seeing an industry. I think if we commit to empathy and approaching our marketing and approaching everything through that human lens, you really can’t go wrong. While our experiences may change, our desires remain the same and I think that’s really what makes empathy timeless for me.
Andra Zaharia: Thank you for that! That was absolutely beautiful. My heart is full, I guess, listening to you talk like this. It really gets me excited and I’m very humbled to be able to learn from you, to be able to talk to you and to be able to be part of your community. So, thank you for everything that you do, thank you for sharing so much of yourself and for being so present and engaged and generous. It was an absolute pleasure having you!
Hillary Weiss: Oh my gosh! I’m going to cry! Thank you so much for having me! Stay safe!
Connect with Hillary:
Resources mentioned in the episode:
- Article: 8 Observations From a Crumbling Niche – And How to Avoid Getting Crushed
- Article: Notes From an Unremarkable Child: How Painful Average-ness Equipped Me With a Life Philosophy
- Sarah Ashman – Public Persona Studio
- Margo’s website
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