PEARL LEMON INTERVIEWS:
Dave Howell is Nexus Publishing – a freelance writer, journalist, broadcaster and content creator helping enterprises communicate. His work over the past 30 years has appeared in the national press and a diverse range of business and technology magazines and websites.
A Fireside Chat
I had the opportunity to have an amazing conversation with David Howell at Nexus Publishing today. From talking about SEO for Websites, David agreed to a quick interview.
He took the time to talk to me and answer some questions so I could get to know him better and hear more about the things that have helped shape his business success to date – let’s get stuck into it!
What Purchase Of $100 Or Less Has Most Positively Impacted Your Life In The Last Six Months?
I recently moved to one of the new Mac Mini’s, there were some technical issues with Bluetooth so… I thought I would give third party mice and keyboards a wizz. I’ve been using the MX series and the new ones for Logitech, and the mouse is fantastic. Ninety-nine quid. It’s taught me that the apple mouse, certainly from an ergonomics point of view, was pretty rubbish. This is the mouse they really ought to have designed for their Macs. It’s a fantastic piece of kit. I’m always looking for anything that can improve my working space. I’m very big on ergonomics and that’s great, it’s kind of shown me that even though I really like the old apple mouse, ergonomically it’s rubbish! Whereas these things from Logitech are great so I’d really recommend that someone gets one of these. They’re built for Mac’s, it’s not a window’s keyboard that you try to use with a Macintosh. It has its own transmitter as well so you haven’t got to worry about Bluetooth.
When You Feel Overwhelmed Or Unfocused, Or Have Lost Your Focus Temporarily, What Do You Do?
For me, it’s just to get away from the desk. I’ve been doing this job for thirty years now, so what I learnt pretty early on is that you can’t force it. Everyone gets up some days where it’s just not working. You’re sat there staring at your screen and just typing gibberish. It’s just not happening. Those days you have to take a step back. It could be something simple like go and walk around the block for twenty minutes. Just get some fresh air and step away from it. Don’t try and force whatever you need to do. I know you have deadlines and those sorts of things but if you’ve organised your day and your calendar correctly then you will have some flexibility there. So, if you’re banging your head against a brick wall one morning, it’s what I do. Literally, just step away, just go away and just leave it for a little while. Go and walk the dog or go and do the shopping. You’ll find when you come back that you’re refreshed because you’ve reset your mind. I think the important thing is to recognise [bad days] and find something that works for you.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
I think habit wise, it’s certainly to try and structure [my] day a little bit better than I used to. I would sit there for literally hours on end and not realise what that [was] doing to [me] physically and mentally. A few years ago I was developing issues with my back because I sit for a long time. I now talk to an osteopath regularly for “maintenance” if you like, because I sit for a long time. I’m big on ergonomics.
I’ve got a sit/stand desk. That helps as well. I’m sitting at the moment but I’ll be standing again in half an hour for a while. The habit for me is more breaks [and] more structured breaks. Get away from your keyboard for a while and just be aware of how your body is reacting. With this new mouse, for instance, any RSI I was suffering from has gone away. That’s great because [it’s] helped with my physicality. Be aware of that.
Whatever it is you do for your living, you’ve got to stay fit. Pay attention to that. A lot of people don’t and feel you’ve got to work ridiculous hours. Well, that’s going to catch up with you and that will be, hopefully not a crisis point for your physical health or mental health, but it could be. I’d advocate having a step back and thinking about how you structure your day. Do you take enough breaks? Whatever your working environment is, is it healthy enough? Have a think about all of those kinds of things, just to create a space which is great to work in but also supports your physical and mental health.
Take a few more risks.
- David Howell
What Is One Of The Best Or Most Worthwhile Investments You’ve Ever Made?
Investment wise, I think I would swing you back to health and well-being. I really do think that. I spent quite a lot of money on a sit/stand desk and an ergonomic chair a long time ago. Hundreds of pounds on these things, but they’ve paid back in dividends, they really have. Ultimately, if you can work longer, you can earn more money. You can sit comfortably without it damaging your health, I was struggling along with rubbish chairs.
I’m really big on [my] environment, and on ‘spend the cash on decent tools’ and that kind of thing. So have a good look around your space and say “how can I improve that?” More importantly, when you finish your day, think where am I aching? What’s hurting? If you are sitting all day, then you need to fix that because that will turn into something chronic later on.
So it’s all about the environment, it’s all about ‘invest the cash’. It can be quite a lot of money, but I think it’s a big investment for later. Every five years or so, I have a look around and see if there is anything new out there that maybe I can upgrade too. If there is something, I’ll go and try it out. If I feel it is an upgrade, I’ll invest the cash in that because it makes my environment not just a much nicer place to work, but a healthier place. Little things, this new mouse and keyboard is a great buy and a low amount of cost. For decades, I’ve used dual monitors, because having that large working space is much more efficient.
Whatever you feel is good for you, invest the cash in your working space so it’s right for you and supports whatever you want to be and your health.
What careers advice would you give to your 21-year old self?
Take a few more risks. I was a little bit risk-averse when I was younger, but looking back, maybe if I’d taken a few more risks I might have been able to do this [my freelancing job] a little bit earlier, a bit faster and a little bit more efficiently.
I think taking a calculated risk with whatever you want to do is a piece of advice I’d give to anyone that’s younger. It depends on the personal circumstance of course: if you can take a level of risk, but I think I’d advise myself to be a little more risky. Don’t play it safe too often. The times when I’ve taken a risk with things – it’s paid off.
It’s been quite an eye-opener for someone who is risk-averse. Take some time to evaluate it, but if it is a risk, I found the best stuff has come with a risk. I think that’s probably true of everyone. Grab it if you can. You never know, you might end up with something that is much better than you’re expecting. I think everyone’s got a lot of time on their hands [during the pandemic]. If you are furloughed, then it’s an opportunity to have a think – “what did I want to do when I was twenty?” Ask yourself, “well, why didn’t you do that?”
Maybe now is the time to have a re-evaluation of that and see if you can put that into practice. It doesn’t have to be a massive career change. It could be something small. We’ve all got this time to have a step back and think about what you want to do post-covid. What does the post-Covid world look like and how do you fit into it?
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?
The thing to remember always is don’t think you’re not selling something because you are. Ultimately everyone is selling something. Goods or services. In my case, it’s a service, I’m selling my skills and my service to a buyer. Editors and publishers or something. So don’t misunderstand ‘you’re not selling something’ because you are. That puts a lot of people off because they don’t equate what they want to do (i.e. they want to be a freelance writer or journalist) with selling. They feel almost like they can sit in an ivory tower and write their stuff, and that’s that. That’s just not the reality.
You’re selling yourself, you’re selling skills, you’re selling your time to people that you want to work for and that’s kind of a hard thing for them to understand is that ultimately, you have to become a salesperson. It puts people off – “I can’t do that, how can I do that? I have no sales skills. How can I just cold call an editor?” If you’re not prepared to do that, or you’re not prepared to learn those skills, then you’re not going to have a business, or you’re not going to have a career as a freelancer.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s about. Selling your services to a business or an individual. So that’s the thing I always try to tell people, is that if you’re not prepared to do the sales side, maybe this isn’t the job for you. I write for a lot of different people, I’m probably doing 20-30% pitching now, the rest of the time is regular work for a wide range of clients, but when I started it was the other way around. It was 80% pitching and 20% actually doing the other work, because that’s how the equation moves over as you get known in the marketplace, and as you build your business. But when you start out 90% of your time is sales.
It’s out there looking for your next job. [In terms of advice to ignore] If we’re just focusing on my industry, I had a conversation with someone a long time ago about qualifications. I don’t have an English degree, I don’t have any formal qualifications in what I do. I don’t have a copywriting degree or qualification. So I guess the question is, do you need to spend the time doing that? From my experience, probably not. If you can do the work, then why spend the time and money on a qualification to reinforce what you already know? In my opinion, the industry doesn’t really care about qualifications. All they want to know is are you reliable, can you follow the brief? That’s all they really care about. Editors are busy people and want a reliable group of freelancers to work with. If you can deliver that service, you’ll have lots and lots of work all the time.
Tell Us About Your Business. What Does It Do And What Value Do You Add?
Well, Nexus Publishing is the name I’ve written under for decades. I started out literally just writing articles, features, book reviews and hardware reviews. That kind of thing. Whatever the editors needed. That was how I started out.
The business today? I’d really describe myself as a copywriter. I still do pieces of journalism and general writing, but these days it tends to be more copywriting. That’s quite a wide range of things, [though] it’s still features, it’s still articles, but there are a lot of reports, materials for websites that are SEO enabled, ghostwriting for CEOs and anybody else that needs material writing.
Technical writing as well – software manuals, that kind of thing. My bag tends to be long-form writing. Its larger features, larger blog posts, Forbes pieces for Forbes leadership and more in-depth reports, white papers and case studies, that kind of material. Sometimes my name is on it, sometimes not. It depends on what the client wants.
More recently, with my partner, I’ve been developing audio. You’ve probably seen the podcasts I do on a couple of websites. Podcasts are fine, but we’re evolving that forward. We are evolving business for audio. We are saying to brands – what more can you do with audio? It’s not just a case of doing a podcast. You can convert pretty much any written material into an audio version. We are doing long-form features as audio, with music and sound effects. Like a mini-drama almost. But you can do anything you like. We’re investigating turning press releases into audio, why not have an audio version of your press release? Or if you have a huge archive of white papers or reports, you do the work when it’s brand new, you use it as a led-gen for inbound marketing, but then it goes into your archive, and you don’t do anything with it.
We’re saying that you can revitalise that material by converting it to audio. It’s riding that wave of podcasting. The time is not huge, for a 1000-word article, that’s about ten minutes of audio – which is great. You can consume that while you’re having your tea break. You could listen to four articles in half-an-hour. We’re exploring how you can put your press releases, your reports, [and/or] your case studies onto a smart speaker so you’re not having to download it to your phone or your desktop PC.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Well, because I’m a massive film fan – that’s always something I wanted to attempt, but the opportunity didn’t come along. What does that mean? I don’t know. What would that [filmmaking] look like? It’s something that I had an ambition to do when I was much, much younger.
At some point, I’d like to try that because you can do that with a consumer kit these days and make it look really professional. You can see feature films shot on the iPhone. I think my background in writing would be very useful for scripts and things, but I think I’d really try and have a go at the directing side because I know what a script should look like and what a story should look like, but it would be quite an interesting exercise to try and pull that together because there are so many moving parts to make a feature film or even a short film. It’s crazy. But I’m very good at organisation, so I think I’d be good and directing.
I’m good at keeping track of moving parts. It’s something I’ve been doing for a very long time. Every small business owner knows what that means because they have to be a jack of all trades to keep their business running. You’re juggling lots of different balls in the air all the time. Well, that’s kind of the definition of film directing as well. You’re juggling all these different competencies with an idea at the end with the idea that you’ll have a decent movie. I know what that feels like. I’m juggling lots of different features, articles, audio, reviews, [and] Q&As, so I’ve learnt how to be very organised and plan stuff out properly. I think that skill set is useful for film directing.
Where do you see your industry in the next 5 years?
I’ve read the stories we’re all going to be replaced by AI and we’re all going to be reading stuff written by machines. I don’t think that’s true at all. That’s an oversimplification of what AI and machine learning actually are and what it can do today. Yes, we have seen AI produce film scripts, it is absolutely possible, but where I sit in tech and business writing, it’s going to be business as usual.
There is still a need for high-quality content, written by people, and the market will just expand. I spend some time looking at what’s next and what marketplaces are going to be coming up and how my skill set needs to change and evolve. So I’m looking at what UX writing looks like – how is that different to what I do? That kind of thing. People always say that the industry is going to collapse, I don’t think it will. We still have newspapers, why haven’t the newspapers disappeared? People rang the death bell for newspapers when the internet came in, that didn’t happen. That’s always been the case with media. Radio was the thing then something else came along and TV – “oh it will kill off radio” but that’s not the case. Media will evolve, it doesn’t die, it just fits its own particular niche. I’m always looking at where my industry is moving, and whatever is different.
Now I’m looking at VR journalism. Does it exist? What is it? At the moment it’s very early days, not everyone has headsets, so how you would access it? – that’s obviously an issue. But in a few years time, is that going to be normal? Is it going to be normal for us to have some kind of low-cost VR headset in our homes? How do you deliver content in those spaces? I’m keeping an eye on that. I’m interested in how that could change my industry. Do I end up in ten-years time being a film director, because the material I’m producing for VR is a mini-movie? I’m interested in how that tech is evolving rapidly and what that will mean for me as a journalist.
I think ultimately the market places will just expand and stay as they are to a degree, it will just be who you are writing for and how your client base changes. It’s how you apply your skills to those new sectors as they come along.
How has Covid-19 changed your industry?
The only change is you factoring in Covid into everything you write. I must have typed Covid-19 about a million times by now.
Everything you write is through the lens of Covid. It kind of has to be. I’m writing about business and tech and those industries have been massively affected by the pandemic, but so has everything else. I mean if you are writing about flower arranging, for instance, you are still writing about the pandemic.
You can’t not factor it in. This morning I’m writing something about disruption and disruptors in tech. That’s huge with Covid of course, what does a disruptive piece of tech look like post-Covid? How does that impact that? How businesses have changed – some have changed out of all recognition: how they are organised, where their workforce is organised, which tech are they buying and deploying. You can’t ignore [Covid], it’s changed everything fundamentally and things will not be the same again.
What's your favourite holiday destination?
That’s an easy one. We’re massive fans of Cornwall. That’s where we go all the time. We’re in massive withdrawal at the moment because we haven’t been for a year. We love it down there. St. Ives is our favourite – we have ambitions to retire down there at some point, that’s where we’ll end up. As soon as we can – it’s back to Cornwall.
What's something exciting you're currently working on/learning that only a few people know about?
It’s two things… I think that’s going to go massive. Audio from a podcasting side of things has only just got going and the speed and how it’s expanded is bonkers. We’ve only just started to understand what that means. What does audio mean for my industry? What does it mean for general consumers? How does that factor in? We’re not just talking podcasts, we’re not just talking music. I’m talking about general content. For us, in my industry, writers, journalists, content creators, audio is a big one for us.
That’s where my focus is – understanding the tools, understanding how audio can be part of larger campaigns because that tends to be where it sits for business. [For} inbound marketing, you normally just do a landing page and a report for that, but let’s factor in some audio – does that make the content more dynamic? I’d argue it does. A few years down the road, I’m really intrigued about AI and VR and how that’s moving forward. We’ve moved away from cumbersome headsets and having to have a very powerful PC to plug it into. The Oculus Series, the Quest, is all free standing – you don’t plug it into anything. All you need is a very fast wifi connection. It’s a game changer.
For my industry, that’s what I’m exploring next. I’m not really interested in games, I’m more interested in VR experiences, put me in a movie I like. How does that work? From my writing perspective, I’m really interested to see what that means. How do you create content for those spaces? What does it look like? Is an article I’m writing today, in VR, an avatar speaking it to me? I’m actively looking at that. My first experience of VR was in ‘85, here we are 40 odd years later. It’s an interesting new space which I am very very keen to explore.
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We have taken the time to interview entrepreneurs and experts (like David) in this new series.