I Was Lying For Over 30 Years

For the better part of 30 years, I told the story of how I got into marketing and copywriting, which was completely by accident.

I only recently realized that I've been wrong all along. Well, not entirely, because the story is certainly true. What was wrong was my reason behind it.

My first career was as a licensed insurance agent. I jumped into sales because I feared rejection. I hated it with a passion, and I figured that selling would force me to beat this thing. After all, there is no better way to get rejected all the time than being in sales.

“Do the thing you fear and the death of that fear is certain,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted. Right? And so I did.

Plus, the lure of being your own boss, which appealed to me since I've been chronically unemployable all my life, as well as working on commission (i.e., the potential of making a lot of money) were other important factors.

In the 80s, selling insurance meant going from door to door. A few people politely refused while others yelled at me and slammed the door in my face.

The pain of rejection was so intense and debilitating, I slept in more times than I cared to count. I used every excuse in the book to stop myself from knocking on doors, including being hungover, which happened often.

Here's the part I got wrong.

I blamed my fear of rejection and intense sensitivity on my alcoholic father. He was emotionally and psychologically abusive. Luckily, he only became violent when he was sober, which was rare.

My first marriage, which failed disastrously, was to another heavy drinker — it's as if I had unconsciously married my father. But because of my sensitivity, I joined her drinking binges on occasion, hence the many hangovers.

Working on strict commission, I had no income to show for. I eventually racked up a heavy debtload of multiple credit cards and loans to provide for my young family. After the first six months on the job, I declared bankruptcy.

That's when I discovered almost entirely by chance that I could write and mail salesletters to get appointments. Prospects called me instead. The only rejection I got at that point, if any, was when I didn't close the sale.

When people are interested in what you're selling, closing is easy. In fact, I became the top salesperson in Canada for several months in a row. I loved selling and helping people. It was the prospecting bit that I hated so much.

This eventually led me to become a marketing consultant and copywriter.

The flaw in my thinking was that, all this time, I blamed my father as the cause of my sensitivity. But after my ADHD diagnosis at age 52, I learned that a common trait is something called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD).

This completely changed my perception.

RSD is “extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized.” It may be triggered by a sense of falling short or failing to meet other people's expectations — including those of your alcoholic loved ones.

The reason I mention this story is to bring up an important point.

Sensitivity was both a bottleneck and a springboard for me.

It still is to this day.

In my practice, I focus on “positioning” rather than “prospecting.” It's at the heart of what I teach and consult other professionals on.

Similarly, I believe we all have to deal with some negative aspects of ourselves that are stumbling blocks in our lives or careers. But we also have both the opportunity and the capacity to turn that negative into a positive.

I don't mean something tantamount to Pollyannaism. I don't mean giving it a positive spin, either. As a copywriter, I know this all too well.

I mean turning your weakness into a strength quite literally.

In 1962, Hertz was the leading car rental company. After years of trying to compete with the market leader, Avis relented and turned its disadvantaged position into an advantage — to the benefit of their clients.

They took out a newspaper ad showing the caricature of a large fish attempting to eat a smaller one. It contained several paragraphs, but the headline read:

“When you're only No. 2, you try harder. Or else.”

After that, the best lines in the ad were the first and last ones.

The first said: “Little fish have to keep moving all of the time. The big ones never stop picking on them.” The last: “Since we're not big fish, you won't feel like a sardine when you come to our counter — we're not jammed with customers.”

The ad was a huge hit, so much so that it became the first of a series of print ads (and then TV commercials until the 90s) that focused on turning an underdog position into the best argument for better service.

It was a stroke of brilliance and marketing audacity. But it was also based on truth, because Avis really did do a lot of things differently than Hertz.

The ad agency simply saw it as a David-and-Goliath opportunity.

It wasn't as much spin as it was stating (or in this case, flaunting) the obvious. It forced Hertz to constantly fight back to stay ahead. But it was so focused on beating Avis that a little car rental company called Enterprise eventually leapfrogged over both of them.

Here's what you can take from all this.

A career coach I know teaches job-seekers how to respond to interview questions. There's one question that is almost always asked:

“What is your biggest weakness?”

She recommends not trying to skirt around the issue (or worse, lie), but to be truthful and answer the question dead-on. Say it. But like Avis, you can turn that weakness into a positive for the prospective employer. A real, bonafide benefit.

For example, she says that, if your biggest weakness is being overly critical, then it makes you meticulous and attentive, requiring little correction. You don't work well under pressure? That means you plan accordingly to avoid it, making you an excellent planner.

As a professional, positioning yourself as a recognized expert in the mind of your market will always outweigh your credentials. They are important, for sure. But if other professionals share the same credentials, you become interchangeable.

If you try to compete with other professionals, then you're always comparing yourself to them. You're always trying to focus on what makes you better.

Instead, focus on what makes you different.

Don't be better, be different.

Find something about you that's different or some way to differentiate yourself.

You can focus on a key strength that no other competitor has or can match. But if you're stuck, you can also take a weakness and use it to stand out. This is particularly helpful if that weakness is a pain-point for you and trying to correct it causes you more pain.

Turn that into a marketable, beneficial-to-the-client competitive edge, like:

  • A paraplegic physical trainer specializes in helping people with spinal injuries and disabilities, and is a spokesperson for an adaptive fitness equipment manufacturer.
  • A psychologist who has gone through several failed marriages specializes in counseling couples where either partner was formerly a divorcee.
  • An ex-convicted cybehacker specializes in auditing computer systems to find vulnerabilities and consults corporate clients on security awareness.
  • A doctor who suffered physician burnout from an overburdened healthcare system specializes in coaching other doctors on how to manage their stress — and is also a patient care advocate and activist.

These are just a few examples.

You don't have to turn your weakness into a mission as some of these people have done (although you certainly can, and in such cases, the mission becomes your positioning statement).

The key is to differentiate yourself, which will make you implicitly superior. Sometimes, the way to do that is to turn a negative into a positive.

In other words, turn faults into fulcrums.


The Stigma And Struggle Of Being A Medical Copywriter

A subscriber to my daily newsletter, Corinne Swainger, asked a question, reprinted here with permission:

Today, many people tend to associate the word “copywriter” with someone who only writes websites, content marketing or blogs. This often means practically everyone now thinks they can write, and is therefore a copywriter.

My own background is based in traditional and modern advertising/healthcare PR/medical education agencies, where a wide range of media (eg, digital, print ad, posters, patient leaflets, booklets etc) are still used for integrated campaigns. My work is also based on several years of medical marketing experience. But it seems less people understand this.

Do you have ideas about to break this misunderstanding that “copywriting” is just associated with writing web content?

Here was my answer, slightly edited for clarity.


Great question. Thank you for asking.

I intimately understand your struggle. This was precisely the same reason why I rarely used the term “copywriter” when I first started out 30 years ago.

Back then, I focused primarily on medical copywriting, too. But instead of promoting myself to doctors as a copywriter, I called myself a marketing consultant.

I did so for three key reasons:

  1. Websites may not have been common back then, but copywriting was mostly associated with writing salesletters and promotions.
  2. The stigma associated with copywriting (being scammy, unethical, hyperbolic, etc) made doctors quite reluctant to hire anyone who could potentially raise the ire of their licensing bodies and jeopardize their careers.
  3. And as I’m sure you know, some doctors have a bit of an elitist mentality, so hiring a “copywriter” was often considered a little undignified and cheapening.

So I avoided calling myself a copywriter from the onset.

Instead, I positioned myself as “The Success Doctor” and wrote a booklet on how doctors could grow their practices. It was a subtle yet powerful form of promotion.

I've since rewritten it to appeal to a wider audience, and it may be a little outdated today. However, it did a good job of educating my clients on what I do.

But I digress.

All this to say, the way you promote yourself — including your value proposition — should communicate, as efficiently and succinctly as possible, what makes you and what you do so attractive to your ideal clients.

I know, we’re both experienced copywriters, so I’m preaching to the choir here.

But if I may be candid, my point is that you shouldn't focus on what you do. Focus on what goals you help reach or the results you help create.

By promoting yourself as a medical copywriter (and given the challenges you expressed), it's like swimming against the current. You have to work harder in educating your clients and clearing up any misunderstanding even before they consider your services.

What’s the purpose of hiring you? Focus on that instead of what you do.

On your LinkedIn profile, I like the last title you give yourself: “Pharmaceutical-healthcare Communications Specialist.” That’s a lot better than “medical copywriter.”

I would change it to “Integrated Marketing Communications Specialist” or “Marketing Communications Writer Specialising in the Health and Pharmaceutical Fields.”

Or better: “I help healthcare and pharmaceutical clients generate more awareness, attention, loyalty, and sales through compelling marketing communications.”

That’s a mouthful, but you get the idea.

Ultimately, I suggest that, instead of promoting what you do, promote what your clients get by hiring you, and then use that as your headline/title in your LinkedIn profile.

But if you absolutely must keep the title, highlight the holistic aspect of your work, such as adding “multichannel,” “omnichannel,” or “integrated marketing” copywriter.

I hope this helps.

— Michel


The Pitfalls and Blessings of ADHD

Preamble. After I wrote this article on LinkedIn, a few people asked me to publish it in a more public medium so they can share it. So I decided to reprint it here. Please feel free to share it, too.

This week, I read an article by another coach and copywriter about her recent ADHD diagnosis at age 45. It resonated deeply with me, so I decided that maybe I should write one of my own so that I can give my perspective.

I was reluctant to discuss this openly, although I have mentioned my diagnosis a little in the past. That's RSD talking. (I'll come back to this later.)

But after seeing Janet's article, and how some of my colleagues, clients, and friends discuss their mental health issues so openly (thanks to Erin Blaskie and Sophie Smith-Doré), I've decided to take the plunge. It's also a little therapeutic.

So here we go.

Late last year, I was officially diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. Specifically, ADHD Combined Type.

What does this mean? The attention-deficit type of ADHD (formerly called ADD for this reason) is the result of a restless mind. Hyperactive type is the result of a restless nervous system or body. Combined means both mental and physical restlessness (i.e., attention-deficient and hyperactive).

ADHD is a spectrum and expresses itself in myriad ways, which is why it can show up differently in different people. For example, most women tend to get the attention-deficit type while men get the hyperactivity or combined type.

I'm 52 years old and I lived with this all my life.

The reason it took me so long to get a diagnosis was a bit of a fluke, actually.

Up until 10 years ago, I assumed I was just normal. I was often fidgety, easily distracted, having a hard time focusing, hyperfocused when immersed in work (like copywriting, for example), easily triggered when interrupted during those hyperfocused moments, etc.

Then, I had a serious blowup argument with my adult step-daughter. I got mad at her for something that, to a neurotypical, would seem trivial. A week later, I was approached by her and her mother (my late wife) who wanted to sit down with me to have a “family talk.”

I didn't think it was about the argument as I already apologized. We all sat down and had what seemed to be a very difficult conversation for them. They were both crying because my step-daughter was afraid of how I would react:

“I think you have… something.”

You see, she listened to a podcast where the guest described similar behavioural patterns. She said it reminded her of me. However, the guest had autism. (Autism and ADHD share many common symptoms and traits.)

So for 10 years, the possibility was always in the back of my mind. I did a variety of online tests ⏤ some of which are as trustworthy as stock predictions made by a pet astrologer while rubbing healing crystals ⏤ that said there's a 79% chance I was neurodivergent.

After a decade, I finally decided to get officially tested only for curiosity.

When I was told I had ADHD, it wasn't what I expected. At first, I was kind of bummed out about it. But after immersing myself into the world of ADHD and its symptoms, challenges, tell-tale signs, and so forth, a rush of “aha!” moments came to me.

With every symptom I read, I said to myself, “Whoa! This is so me!” For the month that followed, I went back into my memory bank and realized all the things I did / thought / said that I now know it was because of my ADHD.

It came all crashing down.

But at the same time, it was like this massive weight had been lifted, too.

For example, in school, teachers berated me for being late, tapping my feet, or drumming on my desk. I dropped out of college because I was bored to tears. My boss at my first job declared in the middle of a staff meeting, “Geez, you're such a fidgety person!”

That first job was selling life insurance, by the way. In the 80s, cold-calling by knocking on doors was the most common way to find prospects back then.

I loathed it because I had an immense fear of rejection.

I hated having doors slammed in my face or simply being told “no.” (That's when I later discovered I could write salesletters to get appointments instead, which was the germ that later sprouted into a successful career as a copywriter and marketer.)

At first, I blamed it on my abusive, alcoholic father. He was mentally ill with Korsakov's Disease, which is a type of mental degeneration caused by years of alcohol abuse.

But when I learned that a common trait of people with ADHD is something called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria or RSD, it explained everything. This is one of those big “aha!” moments that completely changed my perception of my life.

As a sidenote, I also discovered that ADHD is often inherited. That's when I realized that maybe my father struggled with it all his life, too. As a family member told me, “Maybe he drank to silence a pain.” (But addiction is also common with ADHDers.)

What exactly is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?

ADHD is a disorder that affects the executive functioning part of the brain. It's caused by a lack of specific neurons that help to transport dopamine to other parts of the brain.

Dopamine is responsible for motivation and attention, among others. Without it, the result is inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsiveness, and mood instability.

Now, you may not know me or know that I have any of those things. But let me give you an idea of some of the challenges I face so you understand what I have to deal with.

First off, everyone has these symptoms.

We are all inattentive from time to time. We are all impulsive, moody, restless, distracted, and hyperactive once in a while, too. But with people with ADHD, the frequency is abnormally high to the point that it affects their lives.

Here's a quick list of issues I've grappled with all my life.

  • I have a hard time staying focused. My mind wanders all the time. But when I'm engaged in a task that stimulates me, I'm hyperfocused where I completely zone in and block out everything else. But when I do, I also lose track of time, ignore other tasks, forget necessities like eating, and tune out what's going on around me.
  • I struggle to finish reading books. When I try to read a book, my mind wanders and I have to re-read the same page multiple times because I forget where I was or the story itself (or both). I prefer listening to audiobooks at 1.5x-2x speed.
  • My short-term memory is terrible. I often lose my keys, my phone, people's names right after we're introduced, track of tasks I was working on, and so on. In fact, I can walk into another room in my house to fetch something and literally forget what I wanted the moment I enter the room.
  • I can get easily bored. I'm constantly busy doing something, whether it's work or play. Other than work (which keeps me quite busy), I play drums in two bands, act in a local murder mystery theatre, and constantly take online classes.
  • I suck at multitasking. To multitask effectively, one must be able to switch from task to task, remember where they are with each task, and easily pick up where they left off. But if I don't focus on finishing a task, chances are I'll forget about it (or forget what it was for).
  • I need reminders and alerts to prod me constantly. Some people say you need to turn off notifications on your phone as they are distractions. I do turn off those that are unimportant. But I have reminders to tell me when to do stuff, even for the most insignificant little things like “take out the trash” or “pay your bills.”
  • I can easily get excited about new things. But I also struggle to finish them. This is the highlight of my life. If something catches my fancy, I tend to get immersed in it but it loses steam shortly after or until something else exciting comes along. Home reno projects? Fugghedabuddit!
  • I'm terrible when it comes to relationship stuff. Thank goodness for reminders, because I would have a hard time remembering birthdays, anniversaries, events, and other social stuff like sending gifts and cards.
  • I'm an impulsive shopper. My spending can sometimes go overboard and I never seem to learn from my mistakes. For example, I love trying new gadgets the moment they come out. But after a few weeks, they end up gathering dust.
  • I love words but I suck with numbers. Sure, I'm a big fan of marketing data and analytics ⏤ thank goodness for software! But ask me to do some mathematical gymnastics figuring out a fancy-schmancy formula for my spreadsheet? No dice.
  • I often leave everything until the last minute. I procrastinate a lot because it's hard for me to find the motivation to get stuff done. But the dopamine rush I get from the last-minute crunch trying to meet some impending deadline is often what my brain needs. Besides, it's where I do my best work, too.
  • I have a hard time paying attention. Including paying attention to detail. Like Janet Murray said so well, “I struggle so much with detail to the point where starting a project with lots of moving parts or instructions to read feels physically painful.”
  • I work best as an independent consultant. I find it hard working in an office with other people for more than a few weeks at a time. It's not only dealing with the monotony and constant distractions of the work environment, but it's also being forced to nurture the relationships with coworkers, which can be exhausting.
  • I get bored of everything very quickly. When in meetings, at social events, doing projects, or having small talks, my mind wanders and I often catch myself grabbing my phone, checking other stuff, or paying more attention to what's going on around me instead of what's in front of me.
  • I am a very sensitive person. That's the rejection sensitive dysphoria part of ADHD. For example, I tend to read too much into other people's emails, or overanalyze and catastrophize at the slightest brushoff from a friend.
  • I have a hard time “relaxing.” Luckily, when I travel or take some time off, I can get busy and do a lot of stuff to keep me going. But laying on the beach for hours doing nothing? Only if I listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
  • I have a hard time sleeping or concentrating. It's hard to shut my brain off. I love sleeping with white noise or working inside a busy, bustling coffee shop. But I can't have the TV on because my brain will latch onto what's playing in the background, forcing it to stay awake or to lose focus on the task at hand.
  • When I speak I tend to talk fast. There are two reasons for this: one is that it's the way my mind works, constantly racing. But another is that, if I don't say what I need to say the moment I think it, I'll forget it. And when I do forget it, I feel dejected.
  • When in conversations, I often interrupt. I hate being disrespectful. But for the same reason above, if I don't blurt out what I need to say when I think of it, it's gone. If I wait before speaking, I have to focus on what I want to say so as to not forget it ⏤ which in turn causes me not to pay attention to what others are saying.
  • Last but not least? Speeding tickets. I used to get into car accidents a lot when I was younger, which luckily I've avoided for many years. However, I do get a lot of speeding tickets. If I get distracted or forget the speed limit, I always tend to go a little faster. (Thank goodness for cruise control!)

All of these are typical symptoms of ADHD. I'm sure I have to deal with a lot more that I'm missing here, but those are the big ones for me.

Now, I’ve also developed lots of coping strategies, too.

Here are a few things I do to help me.

When I catastrophize or become overly sensitive, which I often do, I use a technique called CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy. A psychologist friend of mine turned me onto this technique years ago, even before my ADHD diagnosis. It has helped me tremendously with my mental health and sensitivity issues.

The way it works is that, when you're facing a tough emotional situation, you have to mentally pull yourself away from it (which is not easy to do and it does take practice), look at it from an outside perspective; focus on the thoughts, beliefs, or behaviours separately; and change the pattern by objectively thinking about them.

Next, when I write long copy or detailed marketing plans for clients, I tend to record myself, get it transcribed, or use voice dictation. I do type (like this article, for example). But if I can't do it in one sitting, I'll use dictation to help me.

Similarly, remember that I struggle when reading books.

Reading long articles is possible only because I use a Chrome Extension called Read-Aloud or Natural Readers. It's a fantastic little tool that allows me to turn written content into audio. If I'm on my desktop, I can read long emails in my Gmail using this tool, too.

With the Read-Aloud extension, as with my Audible app and Stitcher app for podcasts, I tend to listen to everything at 1.5x to 2x speeds. I have to. Otherwise, my mind wanders and I lose track. (People always tell me, “How can you listen to those chipmunks?”)

For driving, and aside from using cruise control, I use Google Maps all the time, even when I'm going to someplace local. I do it for three important reasons:

  1. I know exactly where I'm going and how to get there, and I don't get distracted. It keeps me on track. Literally.
  2. It gives me road conditions and accidents in real-time. (If I'm ever stuck in traffic for whatever reason, I can get seriously impatient and forget about where I'm going.)
  3. Most importantly, Google Maps shows the speed limit of the road I'm on in the lower corner. It even alerts me when I'm over the limit, which prompts me to slow down.

I have a hard time thinking or focusing when I'm in calm, quiet environments. So to help me focus, other than white noise, I usually listen to chill music like lo-fi chill lounge, chillhop, chillstep, instrumental coffee house jazz, meditation music, or binaural beats in the background.

It's surprisingly effective, too. By letting it play in the background, my mind can be free to focus on whatever I'm doing. But it must be instrumental music, though, and only instrumental. Otherwise, if there's any singing, my mind will latch on to the words and… Squirrel!

ADHD is really common in entrepreneurs and creative types.

People with ADHD have a hard time working in jobs or offices for long periods of time, unless the employer makes special accommodations for them. (I never had the opportunity.) But entrepreneurial ventures and freelancing are perfect jobs for them.

Marketing is amazing for that reason. As a consultant and copywriter, I love coming up with marketing strategies, writing copy, brainstorming ideas, and creating ad campaigns ⏤ and not having to deal with coworkers in a busy, easily distractable workplace.

Earlier, I said that I love working in coffee shops. How is this different? I use earphones to listen to my chill music. But I also love the white noise created by the hustle-and-bustle going on in the background. It's kind of… soothing.

Plus, people don't tend to bother you in coffee shops.

My work environment is quite busy. I have multiple tabs, windows, and apps open at the same time, all the time. I also have a ton of desktop sticky notes. I like it because it's the way my mind works. But also, this prompts me or reminds me of what I'm working on.

However, I can't stand a gazillion tabs or windows stacked on each other. I need to see them or else I'll forget they exist. That's why I use three computer monitors. Here's my home office, for example:

michel fortin marketing consultant desk
Michel Fortin's work desk

There you have it.

As Janet did with her article, which I recommend you also read, here's a list of some resources that have helped me if you feel you have ADHD, suspect someone you love or work with has ADHD, or know you do but need some tips.

One final word, and it's an important one.

If you suspect you have ADHD, or “something” like I was once told, then ask your physician and get a diagnosis. The sooner, the better. You'll thank me later, trust me on that one.

Why? Because having the weight lifted from your shoulders is an amazing feeling, and it's also the beginning of self-awareness and healing. It's also one of the easiest mental disorders to treat and manage. You can learn skills and coping strategies, as I have, to help you.

There's medication, too. But I won't go there as I'm not a doctor. (Granted, I drink copious amounts of caffeine, which helps. Stimulants activate dopamine receptors, which is why they help concentration and focus in people with ADHD.)

My only regret is not having the diagnosis sooner.

I'm jealous of children nowadays as most schools, parents, and doctors are far more aware of the disorder than they were in my day ⏤ they were certainly much less in my father's.

Tody, most educational and healthcare systems can easily help kids adapt their learning, teach them coping skills, and provide tools and optimal environments that help them thrive and promote self-actualization.

If only I had known when I was younger, I would have finished college earlier, jumped into business sooner (or found a job that would have better fit my skills), and avoided some of the difficult conversations and relationships that I've damaged over the years.

If you're avoiding it because you'd rather not know, I understand. But know that you are not only hurting yourself but also you may be affecting the people around you, like it or not.

As the saying goes, better to be hurt by the truth than being comforted with a lie. Including lying to yourself.

I also like this Shakespearean passage from Hamlet, where Polonius said: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”