There are few people in the universe of network marketing who wield words with more authority and sheer virtuosity than networking coach and prosperity guru Randy Gage. One intriguing facet of Gage's success is that he is equally accomplished in both the spoken and written word. A master raconteur who is famous for his verbal fearlessness (the subscription link to his "Randy's Rants" e-letter warns: "Be prepared for adult language, straight talk, and brutal honesty"), he is one of the most prolific and influential trainers and commentators in the business. Randy is a devout believer in birthright and possibility: "I believe," his web site declaims, "that you were born to be rich, people are meant to be inspired, and conventions should rock. I believe safe is the new risky, boring is criminal, and pitchers should hit. I believe"—and with this last, you can see why we had to interview him for this issue—"a blog can change the world and a speech can change a life." Amen. — J.D.M.
How did you learn to be such an effective user of words?
The short answer is, I write a lot.
Like anything, the way to do it is to do it. The more you write, the better you will get. I write every day now. I have two blogs, a prosperity blog and a network marketing training blog. I'm up to eight books, and I've written a ton of newsletters.
I love communicating through the power of the written word. I'm more likely to send an email than I am to make a phone call.
Why is that?
When I write, it forces me to conceptualize, to put my thoughts in a sequential order, in a way that you don't always do when you're not using the written word.
When did you first start putting pen to paper professionally?
As a kid, I learned early on the joy and the wonder of books. That is probably my greatest blessing as a writer—I've always been a reader. Because of that, I always had this vision that I was going to write books one day.
At one point, I bought some copies of Writer's Digest and The Writer and read three or four months' worth of issues. Then I sat down and wrote an article, which I submitted to a newspaper—and they accepted it.
The moment that happened, I said, "That's it! I'm a writer!"
The funny thing is, they never actually published it. I heard from them a few months later. "We loved your piece," they said, "but we don't really have a place for it. So we're not going to use it."
But it didn't matter. Because they'd told me they accepted my piece for publication, in my mind, I was a writer!
That's when I sat down and wrote my first book. I never looked back from there.
So many famous writers talk about how they collected great shoeboxes full of rejection slips. That was Stephen King's story. And your first shot got accepted!
Funny you mention Stephen King. I read an interview with him, way back then, in one of those two magazines I mentioned. He said, "You don't have to sit down and write the great American novel. If you write something and you make $60 for it and use that to pay the light bill, you're a writer. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise. Be proud of that, and don't apologize to anybody."
At that point in my life, that was exactly what I needed to hear. I was struggling financially, remaking myself and starting over. I was looking at this writing thing, and what he said spoke to my soul.
That man has done more to encourage aspiring writers than just about any writer I know of. By the way, what was that first book?
My first network marketing book, How to Build a Multi-Level Money Machine.
Ah. So your first effort worked out pretty well!
It did. It's in something like eighteen different languages now, and it's sold five or six million copies around the world.
When I go back and look at the first edition, I'm embarrassed by it. But that's why you have second, third, fourth, and fifth editions.
I understand you've also worked with some of the world's great marketing copywriters. Has that had a significant impact on the way you express yourself in writing overall?
Absolutely. I incorporated what I learned from them not only in all my writing, but also in all my audio CDs, DVDs, and live seminars.
The thing I learned as a copywriter is, don't pontificate. Don't speak in "proper English." Speak in everyday conversational language, which is typically pitched at about a seventh or eighth grade level. That's how most people speak, no matter what level of education they have. Since I was expelled from school in the ninth grade, I have an advantage here, but still, I had to work at it.
People often tell me they love my audio albums, they say, "because it feels natural, like you're just talking to me." That's no accident. I consciously taught myself to write in the language of everyday conversation.
So many people walk into a recording studio and think they need to put on their "announcer voice." And writers do the same thing. They sit down to write a letter, report, blog, or whatever—and they think their writing is supposed to sound "official."
But here's what I learned from copywriting: if your English professor would give you an A on it, then it's horrible writing and nobody's going to want to read it.
Real conversation has dangling participles. Real conversation has one-word sentences, and sometimes one-word paragraphs. It has lots of
ellipses, with words left hanging for effect. We've got bold and italic and underline, because we use all those things for nuance in the written word, just as we use tonality, volume and inflection for nuance in the spoken word.
Most English teachers will take away points for that. The nuns may slap your knuckles with the ruler, but that's the way people really talk, so that's the way they want to read.
When you're a blogger, author, or speaker, it's not about getting an A on the report card, it's about actually communicating with the people you're speaking with. And that means using everyday conversational language, just the way you'd talk.
When I used to train people in copywriting, I always said, "Just sit down, get the computer or note pad in front of you, and write it the way you'd explain it if you were sitting across from me at Starbucks."
Do that, and you're going to have powerful writing.
At the same time, I notice you have a way of speaking where you don't rush through what you're saying. You allow yourself time to form the thoughts. You sound like you're actually thinking about what you say. That should be normal, but it isn't—people often sort of blurt without thinking.
I've been a professional speaker for more than twenty years now. What I've learned is, you have to listen to the audience. They can't actually talk to you. If you're speaking to a crowd of 5,000 people, you can't take questions. But you still have to listen to them.
The way you do that is to look in their eyes and at their body language.
Your responsibility as a speaker, part of the privilege of the platform—and I think this also holds true as an author, part of the privilege of the written word—is to convey that message in an accessible way, so that people are really going to understand it.
When I'm on the platform, I will take those pauses to let the audience process that. If I've made a really important point that I think is going to have somebody grinding their molars, or if they're going to be saying, "What?! I never thought about it that way before," then they need a few seconds to process that.
I do the same thing with writing. In fact, when I was doing copywriting boot camps, my friend David used to call me "Mr. Dot-Dot-Dot," and the name stuck a lot. When I talk with Ted Nicholas and the other great copywriters, they still call me Mr. Dot-Dot-Dot, or Mr. Ellipsis, because there's a lot of that in my writing.
English teachers would throw up all over that—but that's the way people really talk.
You mentioned that you got expelled from ninth grade. True?
True. Years later I went back and took my GED, because I wanted to take some courses in Spanish and French and some other humanities here at the community college in Miami. But I never went through high school.
Isn't that fascinating? Here we are, publishing an issue focused on "effective writing," and the two lead interviews are both high school drop-outs!
Yeah, isn't that funny?
I don't think it's entirely a coincidence. You've applied yourself systematically to study with people like Ted Nicholas and other accomplished masters—but you had to go after that. To a great extent, you're self-taught.
Very much so. I didn't take any writing courses in college, and certainly not in high school.
But I extrapolate well. If I'm reading a Hemingway novel and find myself going, "Wow!" I figure out what it is that makes me say that. Right now I'm rereading Jack Kerouac's On the Road for maybe the fifth or sixth time. It's been years since I read it. The other day I just picked it up and started reading—and I'm going, "This is insane! This is the weirdest, craziest, most beautiful writing I've ever seen! It breaks every rule in the book. There's no structure." But I'm learning fascinating lessons there.
I love espionage thrillers. I love Robert Ludlum, have read every book he ever wrote—but I can tell you his formula down to the comma. I think that's how we can learn to be better writers.
I tell my copywriting students to keep a folder, and when you get some sales letter in the mail that you think is amazing, save it. Ask yourself, "Why did that speak to me so effectively?" Read it out loud. Copy it—actually write it out.
That's an exercise I give people sometimes: take great copy and write it out by hand on a note pad. I think that forces you to feel the flow and nuance, what the writer was feeling. That's how you become a great writer: by studying and extrapolating from what other writers have done.
Have you seen the shift to online media change the way we write or express ourselves?
I don't know if it has changed the way we express ourselves as much as it has exposed the way we express ourselves.
I'm shocked at how poorly people write. It's fascinating to me that 80 percent of even college-educated people do not seem to understand the difference between two, to, and too. And ninety percent don't seem to know there's a distinction between they're and their.
Things like that drive me nuts. I choke sometimes on the emails I get. I'm not the greatest speller, but I don't send out misspelled emails because everything has an auto-correct.
On my own blog, there are a lot of grammatical and spelling errors in the comments, because I have people writing in from Russia, Korea, Argentina, wherever. For maybe 70 percent of the people on my blog, English is not their native language. So they get a pass!
But I'm talking about people who were born and raised in English-speaking countries and have degrees from English-speaking universities. It's dreadful, the way they communicate.
And I think they don't realize how poorly that reflects upon them. In this age of Twitter and Facebook and instant messaging and blogging, people are posting much more prolifically than ever in all kinds of public forums—and it's really revealing how poorly-educated they are. And this is coming from a guy who was expelled at the beginning of high school!
I love Twitter because it makes you organize your thoughts. It forces people to be pithier, and that's a good thing. It's like that great old line from Mark Twain, "I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn't have time."
That's really true. For me, it's much easier to do an eighteen-hour boot camp than to do a forty-five-minute keynote, because I've really got to plan that keynote to make it perfect for forty-five minutes. If I've got eighteen hours, I can take a lot more detours.
You say it drives you nuts that people make basic mistakes that get in the way of communication. But you also say you don't want to write the perfect A English paper, because that's too formal and not how we really talk. How do you reconcile those two points?
Here's how they go together: Be conversational—not ignorant. It's that simple. Be conversational, but don't be ignorant.
What can you recommend to help us become better writers?
First, get a subscription to The Writer and Writer's Digest. And read The Wall Street Journal, which has probably the greatest feature writing of any publication in the world.
I don't read newspapers much. And I don't invest in the stock market, so I could care less about stocks and bonds. But when I'm on an airplane and they offer newspapers, I always grab The Wall Street Journal, because they hire amazing writers and brilliant editors and they have got feature-writing down to an art.
Another thing I recommend is to get the book, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on the Wall Street Journal Guide, by William Blundell. This is absolutely required reading for anybody who wants to be a writer.
Day to day, week to week, what do you like to read?
I need to read more fiction. I love fiction. It's a great escape for me. I mentioned I love Robert Ludlum, Trevanian, international espionage stuff. But the truth is, I don't really make as much time for that as I should. I buy eight to ten books a week—and most weeks, I just can't read that many books. So I have hundreds and hundreds of books I've bought that I haven't gotten to yet, and I'm always playing catch-up.
Because I teach prosperity for a living, I'm always reading prosperity and self-development material—James Allen, Charles Fillmore, Ernest Holmes, and the rest.
And I try to keep up on what's going on in the worlds of business, marketing, and social media, so I'll be reading Seth Godin, Jeff Jarvis, Chris Anderson, and other writers like that, to help me keep abreast of managing my business.
Do you read every morning, or every night? Or just grab it when you can?
I read every morning. I like to start every day with some self-development time, and because I'm basically a reader at heart, that generally means reading.
I also try to read something positive before I go to sleep at night, even if it's just a paragraph or two.
Otherwise, plane travel is when I catch up on most of my reading.
It strikes me that I've never heard anyone in an interview say, "I always try to read something negative before I go to bed at night."
Nobody says that—but there are sure a lot of people who do that.
Do you have a favorite writer? Not only in terms of content, but of how they use language?
Hemingway—the way he uses language, the way he constructs phrases and sentences, absolutely one of my favorites.
And James Allen. Not as much for the way he uses words, because the English language was so different a century ago. But the way he structures his ideas, the way he writes, is brilliant. It's not as translatable today, but he's one of my all-time favorites. I have a book sitting on my desk, The Complete James Allen Treasury. It's four inches thick, so it's not an ideal travel companion. But I go back to reading Allen over and over and over.
Ernest Holmes is another one. So brilliant, his insights. I used to never write in a book. Now I mark up books like crazy, and I like a book that has me putting in stars and underlines and circling every other page. I do that with all these guys.
Of course, no conversation about writers could be complete without Ayn Rand, because her books have influenced me more than any other books I've ever read.
Let's say I'm a network marketer and I'm reading this interview. And I know I'll never be a "writer" per se—writing books or articles professionally is just not my aspiration. Do I still need to pay attention to how I write?
Yes, because you're going to be emailing people, following up, posting on Facebook or Twitter, and every time you write a post or an email, other people are getting an impression of you.
And if you can't communicate well in the written word, you're going to have a hard time communicating well in the spoken word, too. Communication is communication. What we're really looking to do is connecting with people.
So maybe the real question there is not, do you need to be a good writer, but, do you need to be a good communicator? In that case, the answer is unequivocally yes. And writing is one medium that will allow you to be a great communicator.