Rob Ashton is the founder and former CEO of Emphasis, a global leader in the professional writing consultancy space, having served some of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley and high-ranking government agencies. We discuss how entrepreneurs can release functions in their businesses, critical considerations before hiring your first salesperson, and how to make your words come alive.
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Apply Sequential Function Release With Rob Ashton
Our guest is Rob Ashton, the Founder and former CEO of Emphasis, a global leader in the field of professional writing consultancy to the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley. They are the world’s most prestigious professional services firms to the highest level of government, enabling them to write better documents, live chat, instant messages, web content, and email. He is working on a new book about the psychology and neuroscience of the verse we read and influence our decisions. Welcome to the show, Rob
Steve, it is great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
I invited you because I’m curious about what you have done, your subject and what you think about writing and going forward. This show is all about entrepreneurs and managing blueprints. I love to hear about what was your journey. How did you get to the point where you created this global professional service firm, which is revolutionizing the quality of writing for big companies and governments?
It is an unusual route and not what I planned but I started life as a molecular biologist working on one of the earliest tests for HIV. I have retrained as an editor. I have moved into journal publishing and consumer publishing. That is where my entrepreneurial journey started. When I was working in publishing, I worked for a company that had been formed by Two Brothers in the US. I saw there might be a different way of doing things, and I got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.
What I did then was set up this consultancy emphasis to focus on taking the trade secrets that I had learned as an editor and applying them to the wider world. I did that for several years. I set that up way back in 1998. I stepped down as CEO. As you mentioned, it has been my privilege to work with some amazing organizations across all sectors.
What are some of these principles? I have written a couple of books and am into these ideas. Several years ago, I found a checklist on how to write well. It was Jay Abraham, who was a small business guru. He wrote a book and had a checklist for copywriting in that book. He was talking about short sentences, simple words, mixing short sentences with long sentences, having action verbs and all that good stuff. Tell me a little bit about, in a nutshell, what that system looks like. What makes writing come alive and powerful?
All of those pieces of advice from Jay Abraham are solid. You would expect that from one of the world’s most successful copywriting gurus. Those are not principles that are universally applied in the business world. Copywriting is only a small part of the writing that we do. We have come to rely almost exclusively on the written word. If my phone rings, I assume something is wrong. There are 219 million adults in the US alone who own a smartphone. They hardly ever use them for speaking. It is all writing. That is true in business.
Last 2021, we sent and received 319 billion emails every day. That will be higher in 2022 because it’s going up by about 15 to 20 billion per day every year. We have become incredibly reliant on the written word, and that is before you take in proposals, sales letters, sales emails but email, generally. We are using text-based messaging systems now like Slack.
You got all of these things. If you take those things, you said like varying sentence length, using action verbs and active voice, if you want to extend that, you have someone or something doing something as opposed to the other way around of something being done to someone, and using short words. Adjectives are often more often than not superfluous. It is the same with adverbs. Those things are not generally implemented in other communications.
There is also a misperception that writing is always about using only short words because if you got words that are technical, your audience understands them, and it becomes an inclusive language, then you should use those. Often, it is the words in between that cause the problem. You have that, and you have structuring or understanding.Often it's the words in between that cause the problem. Click To Tweet
Copywriting is one thing but if you are talking about documents, you need to get an interest and get people to keep reading. I always say, “The primary job of anything you write is to get someone to read it.” Many people overlook that. We think that writing is a case of data transfer. It is about transferring data from one head to another. Our computers and phones become an extension of our brains.
We grow networks when we use tools like this all the time. We forget that what is in front of us is an extension of our brain, and the person we are writing to is often wholly absent. We end up falling back on our needs, our objectives, what we think is important, and what we think is clear. We lose the reader altogether. The job is to get someone to read it, but the job of the first sentence is to get the person reading it to read the next sentence and so on.
People forget that readers of anything, and we all do it. We read until we can stop reading, and we do. There are many things competing for our attention, including on the screens in front of us. Readers are always at extreme risk of stopping reading. We misunderstand how the brain reads, which is a different topic but how the brain reads is not how people think the brain reads often. You need to work a lot harder because this thing is something we rely on. We generally need to do a lot more to make it effective.
Now that you explain it conversation that we have, it is almost like flying blind because you don’t get any feedback from the other person. You don’t know whether what you said resonated with the person or whether they are even interested in it. You don’t see them yawning across the page. Therefore, you are flying blind. You have to be a good pilot not to crash the plane. This is what you are helping people do.
Let’s switch gears here a little bit because I’m curious about what you do but also how you use that to build a global firm. One of the things that we touched upon, which touched me and interested me over our precourse, was what we call a sequential function release. You built this business with the process that we labeled the sequential function release. That helped you build this business up and systemize it. Can you explain to our readers what that concept is and how you came up with it?
I was bitten by this entrepreneurial bug. It was building the business that interested me as much as sharing these trade secrets with the wider world. I never wanted a job like most entrepreneurs. I wanted to grow something but most consultancies like mine are only as good as the principal. I never called myself the principal. I called myself CEO. The idea was that I was building a company. They are only good as the founder. All of the knowledge is tied up in the founder’s head. When the founder leaves, there is no business. I didn’t want to do that.
I was my own boss. Being in my own head and beating myself with a stick to work harder to deliver these things that weren’t going to be enjoyable. I knew that I would be limiting the growth. You see this all the time. You see people set up training companies. They are self-employed. They set up consultancies. If they are any good, they become successful but they are automatically limited by the number of hours in their day. They end up trading the trading hours for dollars. I decided not to do that. From the outset, I was clear that I needed to build a company.
I didn’t know how to do it. I had never done it before. I knew that I had to release some of the things I was doing and do those sequentially, as you say. The first thing I released was delivering. I hired another trainer and trained her in our methodology. That was something that I was able to build on because, over time, I hired another trainer. As I did that, I was able to codify our methodology. I created a whole learning program for trainers who initially delivered life. That took up a lot of my time. I realized, “I need to change this. This is working but I can’t scale beyond this because it is still coming back to me.” I’m still having to train them.
I set up this remote learning program way before we were ever talking about remote learning. Back then, I recorded a video. I explained how I was delivering the course. In that video, I cut into an interview with me talking about the course to somebody off-camera. I wrote comprehensive notes on how to run the courses. I made sure that we had a stringent selection process.
Most of the trainers who apply to join Emphasis are turned away worryingly. Most of those are already delivering writing skills training courses elsewhere. I always find that astonishing. Once we test them, we find their knowledge is often only at the surface level. We train them using this remote system. We assign them a mentor. That can take up to six months. After that, we get them to run a training course for invited volunteers. They are assessed. If you are a consultancy like ours, you live and die by your reputation. This is one of the challenges for entrepreneurial lead consultancies.
You ingrained the quality into the business and institutionalized it rather than have it for the principle. You created the program and taught the trainers. They can deliver it without you. You released delivery. What was the next function that you released, and how did that go?
You got me selling like mad to try to occupy these trainers and make sure they didn’t lose interest and go away, especially now that I have invested all this time and resources in training them. These overlaps. Once you get 1 or 2 trainers, I will move to release the sales function. I’m hiring somebody who could help with sales and training them because it was only one salesperson, to begin with. That is something I could do remotely. I got someone to shadow.
Do you have a documented sales process that you could teach them?
Not initially, because I found it is better to train someone one-to-one and document it as you go. You got something that you can use for your next salesperson. It was the same with training the trainers. I was training them one-to-one. You get an idea of what needs to go in there. You get immediate feedback. You are stress-testing it. It is the same with the selling. That became something that we updated as we went. You have a process for doing that. You could sit down and write a plan or a process. I don’t think there is any need to do that. You are far better off creating that on the fly and amending that.
That was sales, and we got delivery. The big one I have not mentioned is finance. That was something that we were able to outsource. That wasn’t difficult, and finance is financing. It is something that, fortunately, is transferrable. It is not difficult to find people to do that. Operations was a big one because Emphasis now runs upwards of ten courses a day. I think about that when I ran 1 or 2 a month when I started. That has not happened by accident. We recruited somebody to run operations to get things out to the trainers to make sure they were in the right place at the right time.
One of the things that Emphasis does and makes life difficult is it focuses on individual writing samples from every participant and does an analysis to show the key areas for improvement and even produces a graph to do that. It measures writing. That is a lot of admin if you are going to do that for everybody. Not just collecting samples from participants but getting them to the trainers and getting them back.Focusing on individual writing samples from every participant does an analysis to show the key areas for improvement. Click To Tweet
It is important to have somebody running that. Incidentally, in recent years, we have automated a lot of that. We have built systems. Those things can be chase writing samples, for instance, both from the trainers and the participants. Initially, it was all analog. That operations function is something we expanded. It is a core part because your reputation rests on the interaction with the client and the client’s reputation.
If you think of it, it could be a team leader or a learning manager. Their reputation rests on how good the course is and how smoothly it runs. You have to invest in that and make sure that it is good. You have a training program and start to codify it. We released that function. I was left with marketing. Marketing was the next one but the last one that we released.
By then, we could go all in. If I look back to 2005, I wasn’t doing any training by then. I stopped selling around 2006 or 2007. I’m left with strategy and marketing. We were able to double down. We focused on our website, search engine optimization and blogging. We went to town on the blogging starting in 2008. The website gets around a million visitors a year, and the blog itself is probably the most comprehensive business writing resource in the world. I have not seen one that has a greater breadth but also a greater depth because a lot of those articles are almost like books in themselves. It is worth it because we are attracting people who are engaged. We are solving problems.
I find it fascinating. It is interesting and eye-opening that marketing was the last one. Often CEOs I talk to think that marketing is an afterthought. They can delegate it. It is easy. They hire an agency and going to produce the content. I like to tell them, “No, marketing is the most strategic part of your business. Anyone who gets good at marketing stop doing it for other people and start building their own business because it’s not worth the time.” As a consequence and implication, people who stay in marketing often don’t know how to do it. That is my bias but this is what I experienced.
I love that you kept it for last. It is also interesting that delivery is the first one. Sales is surprising but it makes sense because you can turn it into a process and teach other people. It is all about converting those people that are already interested. It is the mechanics. Finance is a commodity. Operation is unique to your business. Customer experience is strategic. To leave it almost last, that makes sense and marketing last. You stepped down as CEO. How did you release the CEO role? Tell us shortly about that.
It was a natural progression from within. To be candid, I tried to release the CEO role years ago, and it didn’t work. I had a consultant in, and the consultant was saying, “Let’s release the CEO role.” We got someone in, and it wasn’t a good fit. I had to back up and step back in. This was something I was hesitant to do. It is not something that I was going to do lightly but I was fortunate we had homegrown talent. We had somebody in the business who was the sales director at the time and was taking on more of that responsibility and proving himself.
It became a true quantum leap. Quantum leaps are a natural progression. We have this idea of the quantum leap being a huge thing. It is a leap from one thing to another at the same level. What happened was that the person who was the sales director had reached that level more or less. I was able to have absolute confidence in him to step down. It was evolution, not a revolution. It was minimal risk. It wasn’t a leap of faith.
You will leave a great organization for him. You have to make sure that he is following the process that you have created for him.
I wouldn’t want to do him a disservice. He is much better than I am in many respects. If you do your job properly, you get somebody who is better than you are, certainly for the stage of business. I was good at growing the company to where it is now. It needed somebody different to take it to the next level. It was a progression.
He is a great manager and operator. There are ten visionary entrepreneurs for one good operator of a business. It is easier to be visionary, be in the sky, dream about things, and come up with great ideas. Executing is much harder. If you find a great person who can execute, that is awesome.
You need to maintain the growth of the business. You do need somebody who does have an entrepreneurial flare because a business that doesn’t grow goes backward. To generalize this and extend it to other people’s businesses, you need somebody who does also have an entrepreneurial flare. Otherwise, you are going to get drawn back in trying to create the energy and the impetus for growth. You need something not that can run on its own but that can grow on its own.
Our time is coming close to an end but I want to ask a question about your speaking program, Silent Influence, and you are co-writing the Invisible Medium. I’m wondering about these terms, Silent Influence and Invisible Medium. What do you mean by these? How do these come together in your speaking program?
Invisible Medium because it is something we don’t notice. I mentioned all the ways that we are reliant on writing now, but we don’t realize that we are writing. We say, “I will send you an email. I will drop you a text message.” We don’t think of it as writing. I started researching brain science several years ago. That is why I stepped down to focus on it. What I’ve discovered is that the brain evolved to speak and listen, not to read and write. That is why it takes a long to learn to read. We are born with a brain that is not equipped for reading.
We can’t speak when we are born but we can make a noise and communicate with our voices. When it comes to reading, we have to create a network in the brain and join together parts of the brain that we evolve for other things. The process of reading remains incredibly complex, even after we have learned to read. That is why it goes wrong so much. That’s why we don’t get our message across, our emails backfire, and people lose their tempers on social media often because its process takes so much energy that it doesn’t leave much left for emotional control.
It leaves us much more prone to cognitive bias and making bad decisions. We are not communicating in a way that would get us a good decision. The other reason I call it an Invisible Medium is because communication is a core part of any leadership program and consulting in general. People aren’t talking about written communication. Everyone talks about spoken communication. We are relying on written communication.Everyone talks about spoken communication, and yet we're relying on written communication. Click To Tweet
What I have done is I have created this free course called Silent Influence. It is silent. You read dots and squiggles on a screen, and you hear a voice in your head. It is a program to help you get the result you want by changing how you write. It is delivered by email but each one has an audio version. You can listen to it like a podcast, and that is free. That is at RobAshton.com/influence. Anyone who wants to take advantage of it can sign up there.
Thank you for giving us access to this great resource. I love how you explained it. I never thought about it this way, that writing is difficult. I always say, “Any mental work is more difficult.” It is not visible. It is the invisible effort, influence, and medium but I never connected the idea that because it is a mental strain to write well, it is harder to control our emotions while we are doing that. That is a fascinating connection there that you pointed out. Rob, thank you for coming to the show. Check out this resource.
If people want to find out about the writing skills consultancy, Emphasis, which is still much alive, kicking and doing well. That is Writing-Skills.com.
Thanks for coming and sharing. The sequential function release idea is a fantastic idea for entrepreneurs to visualize how they can make their business viable and get out of this business, compartmentalize the different functions and release them. Make sure that the strategic is released at the end so that you keep the strategic control of the business and keep it vibrant until you find the right CEO to transition to. That is variable. Thank you, Rob. For those of you reading, we are appearing twice a week. Check us out every Monday and Thursday night with new episodes coming in. We have exciting entrepreneurs sharing and spilling all their secrets of how they build their businesses. Thank you
Thanks, Steve. It has been great.