Writing for Marketing is the Zebra

In med school there is the adage that when you hear hoofbeats, think horse, not zebra.  It’s an idea meant to help students new to diagnosing illness to start with what’s most common first.


I’m borrowing this idea in reverse today to make a few points about the type of writing required for marketing your private practice.


Academic Writing is a Horse


Due to the labors of getting through graduate school and post-grad programs, counselors of all types become proficient  with academic writing. Even coaching programs are starting to require research papers in proper APA style.


The requirement of producing literature reviews teaches us to present a multitude of other people’s thoughts, and to be personally invisible in the written product.  We get skilled in belaboring a point and using 50 dollar vocabulary.  And we strive to impress an evaluator with our knowledge of a wide range of theories.


Often when we try to soften an academic style to use in marketing the resulting writing becomes definitional, and perfectly suited for Wikipedia.  While informative, it fails to make a strong human connection.


The Marketing Downside:   This style of writing intimidates potential clients, and turns them off.  They simply won’t wade through it. When suffering or consumed with their own problems, the last thing they will put up with is an academic proposition about the abstract value of psychotherapy techniques, or the coaching “journey”.


Academic writing is meant to be impersonal.  To a hurting or confused potential client, it’s cold and distancing. This doesn’t tend to lead them into your office for help.



How-to Writing is a Pony


If academic writing is a horse, how-to writing is a pony.  It’s virtues are that it’s short, compact, practical and uncluttered with citations for other people’s thinking.  Often appreciated for quick comprehension due to lots of bullet points, the how-to is a valuable form of writing for displaying your expertise and furthering rapport and trust.


The Marketing Downside:  While detailing your 5 step process for taming a panic attack or using abundance thinking is very useful elsewhere,  as an approach to the first encounter with your marketing  message (such as in a directory profile or on your website homepage),  it’s premature.  Save that for generating materials for your Resources page.



The Who’s Who Horse Race


Sometimes we get advice to “get our name out there”, and let the community know who we are — and we take that literally.   Being uncomfortable with personal disclosure, we give just the credentialing facts, ma’me, and load the writing with professional jargon, acronyms and references in an effort to show ourselves more qualified than the next guy.


Unfortunately, most of our hard earned achievements sound like psycho-gobbledygook to the average client who has no clue about the difference between a psychotherapist, psychologist, and psychiatrist, or a counselor, coach, and social worker.


The Marketing Downside:  The resulting writing is a self promotion that sounds more like an entry for a Who’s Who volume than a validation that you understand what a potential client is going through. Worse, it creates more confusion as the potential client is left with worry about how to make the right hiring decision when they have no idea what all your credentials even mean for them.



The Zebra


Instead of academic writing, how-to steps, and the who’s who in the healing arts entry, what you want is to be the zebra. Zebras are unusual in North America.  They stand out in a crowded field of horses. They compel attention, even second looks.  They fascinate and are remembered.


This is what you want your marketing to be.  


How?   Write like you would speak to a hurting individual who is already sitting in your office.


  1. Ask direct, specific questions about their pain that get them to feel seen.

  2. Validate how they feel about the trials of their daily experience.

  3. Reassure that you will try your best to help.

  4. Talk about how it’s hard to be where they are, dealing with what they are going through.

  5. Suggest what they want instead of what they currently have.

  6. Tell them what to do next.

  7. Provide the way to do it (contact info).

  8. Lend your confidence that things will be better soon.


This is all your core marketing message needs to do.  Whether you’re writing a 200 word directory “profile” or a 500-1000 word home page, paint the zebra.


So what’s your core marketing message, and in what style of writing are you delivering it?


Painting a zebra is a skill that can be mastered, but it is like learning a foreign language at first. Want help? I’d be glad to draft what you need for a reasonable fee.  Or, if you are already a writer, you might prefer a short, instructive consult to learn how to switch your writing style to a copywriting mindset.  See my Fees page or email me for a no cost project chat.




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​I ​​do two basic things when I work with people:

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