In a Nutshell: To stand out from all the fake news and clickbait cluttering your audience’s inboxes, you have to produce content that’s authentic, entertaining, interesting, and above all, human.
Guest: Brooke Southall, the founder of RIABiz. Back in 2009, Brooke built his online-only news publication on traditional journalistic values like using multiple sources and editorial analysis. Brooke and his team captured the rise of new models for providing client-first financial advice against the backdrop of Wall Street’s decline during the Great Recession. Today, RIABiz is one of the go-to sources for deep, sophisticated analysis of the most important issues affecting the RIA business.
My Key Takeaway: To create engaging, authentic content:
- Don’t be boring. Before you even start writing, ask yourself, “Is this an article I would click on or swipe past?”
- Slow down. Brooke believes that the race to be first has really hurt online journalism. Working important news into your regular communication rhythm will result in better content than a rushed newsletter.
- Keep your eyes open. Brooke says the key to writing good articles isn’t great writing ability, it’s curiosity about the world and other people.
- Why hiking with his dogs is an integral part of Brooke’s writing process.
- How to use other people’s stories as a jumping-off point for your next blog or newsletter.
- What separates a compelling headline from pure clickbait.
- Why Brooke believes showing weakness is more important to good writing than demonstrating success.
Complementary Episode: My conversation with Wes Moss, the chief investment strategist of Capital Investment Advisors, about using writing to start building your own media presence. Listen/read here.
Resources Featured In This Episode
“Growing a Business” by Paul Hawken Brooke says this is the best business book he’s ever read.
“Moneyball” by Michael Lewis A fantastic example of how to use a good hook (baseball) to tell a much larger story (how we value things) that will appeal to a wide audience.
“Clapton: The Autobiography” If you love the classic rock era as much as I do you won’t be able to put this down. But I’m recommending it because it’s a lesson in the power of honesty and vulnerability in writing.
Values Clarification Toolkit Click here to download this FREE tool and start living your values.
Steve Sanduski: In this era of fake news and clickbait headlines, it’s hard to tell what to believe or who to trust when it comes to the media. Well, back in 2009 in the heart of the great recession, a reporter decided he wanted to start an online, only news publication that was built on traditional journalistic values and used sourced journalism and editorial analysis to capture the rise of new models for providing client first financial advice against the backdrop of wall Street’s decline. And thus was born, RIABiz, which is now considered one of the go-to sources for deep, sophisticated analysis of the most important issues affecting the RIA business. And my guest today to talk about that is Brooke Southall. Brooke is the founder of riabiz.com and he and I talked about the state of journalism today, writing engaging stories, where ideas come from, the keys to being a great writer, the do’s and don’ts of working with the media and so much more. And with that, please enjoy my conversation with Brooke Southall. Brooke, welcome to the show.
Brooke Southall: Hi, Steve. Thank you for having me on it.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. Well, this is exciting. I always love talking to journalists, and you and I don’t think we’ve ever actually met in person. I know we’ve communicated a number of times via email over the years, and I’ve always admired the work that you’ve done here at RIABiz and just the audacity it took to start a financial publication just in the teeth of the great financial crisis and recession back in 08, 09. So I’m really looking forward to the time with you here.
Brooke Southall: Yes. Thank you very much. And probably audacious is a better word than a courageous.
Steve Sanduski: Probably takes both. Why don’t we start there? Let’s go back to that period of time. You had been working for InvestmentNews, I think from 2000 to 2008 or so. So about eight years at InvestmentNews, really understanding the business. What happened? How did you decide that you wanted to start an independent publication?
Brooke Southall: I left InvestmentNews with the idea that I just be a freelancer, and I was for about six months to a year with all the publications that we now compete with, with the exception of InvestmentNews. And I found that I was pitching RIA related articles, which was my forte. And I was finding that very few of them were being accepted. And as a journalist, it was like having cash burning a hole in my pocket or something to know that I had a great story, but have editors who were not receptive to those stories.
And I was actually on the phone with a PR person from one of the big custodians that I mentioned that frustration and she said, “Why don’t you start your own?” And I said, “Well, I don’t have that sort of technical or business expertise.” And she said, “It’s really easy to start a publication these days, you just get a website and off you go, just start throwing things on there.” So I thought to myself, maybe I can even handle that. That pretty much sums up my thinking when I got going.
Steve Sanduski: Well, it’s certainly worked because you’ve been around now, here we are in 2020. And after that start there in 2008, I know this is a go-to publication for so many people in the financial industry. And I think you’ve really filled a hole that was out there. And you have a unique take on the industry, a unique take on the news, you have very high journalistic standards. So just a real kudos and pat on the back for what you’ve done there. So, what I’d love to talk about today in terms of kind of the crux of the conversation is just talking about story, talking about communication and how you and I, we both love journalism, we love writing, we love communicating in various forms. And I would just love to learn a little bit more about how you, as a journalist, how do you think about the stories that you’re telling in your publication? What makes a good story?
Brooke Southall: Well, I always joke that I have a bad case of ADHD and when I read articles, I get bored very easily. So when I think about what I’m going to write, I think about what won’t bore me. And I find that there are a few things that consistently are interesting to readers. It comes down to all the fundamentals that people talk about with storytelling, but it has to be hung on hard news, I believe. And if it’s not hard news, it has to at least be a hard change in opinion by somebody who matters, maybe. It has to be some new data. It has to be a transaction. Has to be a higher… And then that needs to be connected back to the bigger stream of what’s happening so that somebody feels a connection to that story. So, you cannot build a house without structure, without an infrastructure.
That’s what we spend a lot of our time doing, is trying to find what we can hang the story on. And it really requires both. We can’t just have some nifty little anecdote and we can’t just have a bunch of data. A minor symphony of things have to happen for any given story to take hold. And I think people tend to fixate on one or the other, maybe the way they would, if they’re on a diet, they’d want to just think of it a bit as it being a protein diet or a carbohydrate diet or, but the key is always balance and understanding that reader interest has to be placed highest on the list.
Has to be something that somebody is going to read the headline and that will get them to the first line, and then the first line will get them to the second line on down through. And it can’t be, can’t kind of back into it. It can’t be super subtle. It’s not a place for poetry and art and so on. It can be all that once you’ve done the compulsories of keeping somebody interested and letting them know why they’re reading it.
Steve Sanduski: So your audience is typically the financial advisory community and the corporations and people in those corporations that are supporting the financial advisory community. So they may be looking for the hard news. And how have you over the years navigated how the journalism industry, the media has evolved in recent years, maybe in the past decade or two, where it’s spent so much about clickbait headlines, listicles, I mean, all this stuff to get people to the page, to click on it so that they can get more page views, so that they can sell more ads. And then they can have these take over things that take over the home page and they want to get your email address so they can send you an email newsletter and those sorts of things. How have you been able to avoid the worst of those things yet still have a viable business over all these years?
Brooke Southall: Well, thank you for asking that question, because that is probably the question that I would most like to answer.
Steve Sanduski: Oh, good!
Brooke Southall: Well, when I started the publication with Frank Noto, he was the head of advertising for InvestmentNews on the West coast. And even in 2009, we were very frustrated with the direction that all that was going. And everything went from print, which commanded a very high advertising dollar. And then when we went to digital, it was much more difficult to command that dollar. So in my opinion, that is not what wrecks journalism or those publications, the journalist just kind of used that in my opinion, as an excuse, not to do their job anymore. And all of a sudden, the requirements that the publications I worked at before, where you needed to have at least two analysts and two principals, and there was literally a whole grid of things you needed to build a story, that seemed to all just go out the window when things went digital and everybody said, “Well, we just need to get that story out there. We need to be first.”
And it was pretty clear to me that when I read articles, that was not my criteria. I wasn’t understanding why everything was near to that. So yeah, we started our business with the idea that, A, nobody really was putting first priority on a digital publication. And when did, they used it as an excuse to write very thin articles. And we knew that ultimately people do buy quality and that we were patient and that we wanted to sell advertising to people who were willing to pay for a premium audience. And by having good articles, we actually screened out consumers. Most consumers have no interest in reading our articles, but we did get the attention of the readers that advertisers would most want to reach, namely decision makers and people who have larger advisory practices or service them or et cetera.
So it didn’t seem like rocket science. It really just seemed keeping to what successful journalistic publications had always done and realizing it still applied to the digital world, but that we did want to not be straddling the digital and the print world like everybody else was, where the digital was kind of this weak stepsister to the print while that was continuing to be milked, because it was still more profitable than digital. In short, we didn’t have the innovator’s dilemma. We could just put it all into our online publication. And I think it helped that we didn’t have layers of business people. The business people were the, Frank was our chief advertising sales person and I was the chief writer, and we were the owners. So we ran super lean and only later we added more writers and editors and advertising people.
Steve Sanduski: So, it started off as a digital first publication. And I’ve been writing for some of the industry trade magazines going back to the early 1990s and I remembered not long ago, I was going through some files here in my office and came across one of the industry trade magazines from the late 1990s where I had an article published. And that thing was 200 pages. I mean, it was crazy. And that same publication today is maybe 30 or 40 pages. So it’s just crazy how this industry has changed so much over the years. And I think you were certainly one of the pioneers, with this digital first strategy.
Brooke Southall: Well, we were digital only.
Steve Sanduski: Digital only. Yeah. Exactly.
Brooke Southall: And it cost a minor fortune to send out to 65,000 people a publication. I think we have finally made that turn to where maybe more advertising is sold digitally though, not to boast, but I think if you look at other publications, most of their ads still advertise in house things like they’ll advertise their own sponsored content or their own conferences, their own webinars, et cetera, as opposed to getting banner ads, brand building.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. So, you have a real focus here on the journalism, the quality of the journalism. So I’d love to talk a little bit more here about the actual writing process because I know a lot of the people that are listening to this, they might be blogging, they might be working on books, they might be trying to figure out how can I better communicate to my audience. So I would love to hear about your writing process. So if Brooke is going to be sitting down and writing an article, how do you approach that? Are you outlining your article? Do you have a title first? And you say, “Okay, here’s what I think my title is going to be.” And that’s going to help direct where this is going to go. How do you sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to pound out an article today.” Maybe a little bit about your process, I think it would be very interesting.
Brooke Southall: Every writer does it differently and probably even on our own staff. I am kind of the rewrite man for our publication. And whether I’m writing my own piece or rewriting somebody else’s, I do start with a headline. And part of that is because it’s important to the reader, but also it forces me to summarize what I’m going to write in 10 words or something. And if so, it focuses my mind.
Again, going back to what I said before, it’s interest of RIAs. And I think, I feel like we differ in what we consider interesting. We think our readers are extremely sophisticated in their knowledge of this business and in terms of what they choose to read. So often we will be writing about something that you wouldn’t necessarily call… We’re writing to RIAs, but we’re not necessarily writing, a how to article to RIAs or even necessarily about a vendor that they’re immediately using.
I guess, an example I might use would be, we wrote, I know at least a couple articles this winter about plaid being acquired by visa. And plaid is really a bit tangential, but it’s a great big aggregator in terms of software. It aggregates the view of assets. And I just remember, as an economics major in college, and then just being kind of a business buff all these years, I would read the Wall Street Journal and I wouldn’t pick articles necessarily that had anything to do with me, but I wanted them maybe to at least approximate something I was doing.
So we try to imagine that when the RIA is reading that article, A, they’re finding out something about technology that does connect to them, but also kind of points toward a future and in that case talks about how the market is valuing what is connected to this industry. And I just believe an RIA in this market is going to find more value in that than hearing about the 85th breakaway broker from Merrill Lynch, the 80th IBD rep that had to pay a fine or something like that.
We do see a lot of that sort of thing from our competitors and we think, that is not necessarily that edifying. It’s both science and art. I mean, I think it’s science in terms of finding news and what I try to do instead of telling the reader what they are learning, is to find words that mean things to RIAs and make sure those get in the headlines, the deck heads, the captions in the lead. And then of course I do my Brooke snowed on top, which I think of a little bit like the blurb you see on the back of a paperback that tells you what the story is about. I always read those. I’m always so grateful that those were there.
Steve Sanduski: Prevent you from having to read the whole book, right?
Brooke Southall: Prevents you from having people tell me that all the time. And I think we’re fine. I’d rather have them just read the back than read nothing. But I do think often enough, it gets somebody to read the article because sometimes you get finished reading an article, you read the article and you realize there was something you weren’t able to communicate in the article itself. And I like having that little last ability to say, “Okay, you may not see this when you read the article or hear this.” We view the business as holistically. When I say holistic, I don’t mean it the way everybody else does. I mean that at InvestmentNews, we had the coverage divided up into reporters who covered mutual funds, RIAs, IVD reps, wall street. It was all siloed.
And we do view the business as one thing, so that when our reporters cover something, we don’t get stuck saying, “Well, that’s a tech story and that’s a mutual fund story. And that’s a bundle story, investment.” Everybody can in theory, do everything. And what we try to have as the common denominator is RIA, and by RIA, we mean essentially the sale of good financial advice to a fiduciary standard, with the best technology possible and running the best business possible. And I think people have picked up on that, that to us, that’s what RIA means. It doesn’t mean being an angel necessarily, it’s real business. And the idea that doing good business in most industries has always to do the best for the customer, Wall Street has always struggled with that. That’s changing. The most successful companies will be the ones doing the best job for the consumer.
Steve Sanduski: I know a lot of times when people are thinking about, hey, I want to write a blog post, or I want to write an article or a story of some type. It’s like, “Okay, well, what am I going to write about?” You have this blank piece of paper, you have this blank screen. And it’s like, “Oh, that’s the hardest part, is just getting that first word down on paper.” So how do you think about the idea process? I know in a lot of media companies, the PR firms are constantly pitching them with story ideas.
And I have some fun sometimes when I’m reading a periodical and I say to myself, “Oh, that’s a story that came from a PR pitch,” because you can almost tell which ones are, look like this is a PR story versus something that came more from the news side. How do you think about where you get your story ideas? What percent of your stories are things that you sniff out, your team of reporters sniff out versus other people might come to you and pitch an idea to you that you say, “Oh yeah, actually that is a great idea. We’re going to investigate that.” Where do those ideas come from?
Brooke Southall: I actually did that on behalf of my writers a while ago. I went back and looked at the previous 30 articles we had done and asked myself where they originated from and it was almost like 30 different situations. A huge source of stories is reading other people’s stories, which often beg more questions than they answer. And then I get curious and want to go answer those questions and then that leads to a story.
I see headlines all the time in trade press, things like, why human advisors will always be better than robot advisors. I’ve seen that article now for 10 years. So clearly there’s something about that, that resonates. I would never read that article with that headline. But you can show the reader, the answer to that story without telling them, by finding something that’s new. We’re working on a story right now that has already been reported, but we didn’t think it was reported in a way that was helpful, namely that, Vanguard has finally gotten their robo-advisor onto the market, which is kind of interesting because they’ve been so successful with their human advisors.
They now have 165 billion of assets in just a few years using their call center, RIA. So now they’re, going to create it a competitor for it. And I felt like that needed to be sort of analyzed a little bit better and presented to the reader in a sort of an aha way, about exactly how they’re thinking, how they’re going to compete. They’re five years behind Schwab. They’re 10 years behind Betterment. They’re coming to market with something that’s more basic than most of them. What exactly is going on here?
Steve Sanduski: So now, are you just going to reach out to your execs at Vanguard and try and get them on the record to share that or what’s the next step in trying to get this different angle that’s not already been reported?
Brooke Southall: The trick is to go to their competitors first and say, I mean, to put it in sort of a exaggerated way, put them onto defensives, “How are you going to compete against Vanguard?” And then a Betterment will say, why or you know what they said? They said people want first rate technology. If they’re going to use a robot advisor, and we’ve been working with the best engineers for 10 years and Vanguard is using proprietary funds, right. That’s a difference. And then a Schwab will say, “Well, we have 24 hour service from humans that goes with our robo and we have a subscription fee and that’s the future, to be more like Netflix or something.” So then you go back to Vanguard and say, “Well, how are you going to compete with those things?” And Vanguard, they do have their story about why they have an edge there, but you’re going to have to read the story to find out what they said.
Steve Sanduski: Okay. You know what? Now you’re going to leave me as a cliffhanger here. Huh?
Brooke Southall: Right. So we can see how we can do the headline to give the reader a cliffhanger on something they thought they already knew everything about because there was a blurb put out when it first happened.
Steve Sanduski: Now, are you writing the headlines or do you have another person who comes up with the headlines for your articles?
Brooke Southall: I write 95% of the headlines. Yeah.
Steve Sanduski: Okay. What’s a key to writing a good headline? I mean, I’m not talking about a clickbaity, Buzzfeedy kind of thing. But when you think about, “I’m going to write a headline for this story,” what goes through your mind in terms of what do I want to communicate through this headline that’s going to get someone to say, “That’s important. I’m going to click on that because this is something I think I want to read.”
Brooke Southall: Well, the trick is to be very direct and to try to get in at least three things that are kind of buzzy without using crap buzzwords. I mean, there are certain things that are buzzy without even trying to be. I mean, if you put PIMCO in a headline or you put in any of the big brands and then put something that is counterintuitive about that brand, I guess that’s what we’re always seeking, is to have some sort of counterintuitive activity. The trick is to be short and to be absolutely allergic to or well. So anything that looks like an end to end solution and/or an integration, a seamlessness or a robust suite, there just are endless words in our industry that we use so many times, and I find if we get one of those in the headline, it’s poison, absolute poison to getting people to click on that article.
Steve Sanduski: I’m looking at your website right now, and I’m going to read a couple of headlines here and tell me what was the thinking behind that.
Brooke Southall: Okay.
Steve Sanduski: So, I’ve got one here, Fidelity bags $13 billion AUM digital assets win to its custody, as federal regulators, attempt to move Bitcoin custody from weirdo websites to mainstream banks. So did that come from you? Was that your headline?
Brooke Southall: I collaborated with Keith and Oisin on that. We actually got the weirdo quote somewhat late in the game and Keith got that into the headline. And I mean, what I love about that is that we all know exactly what that means. But nonetheless, you want to kind of get into the article to find out a little bit more where that comes from. Even for Fidelity, 13 billion sounds like a lot. A lot of people probably don’t even know Fidelity does digital asset custody.
But there’s for us, this is a followup article. It was our chance to say that it’s not just for show, they actually did win an account. It just happened that as we were finishing publishing this, the OCC came out with a ruling that banks can do cryptocurrency. So it gave us a second hook. I actually had a big debate with Oisin about whether or not we should have that in the headline or just trust our initial hook and let people find that in the article. We ended up spicing it up with weirdo websites so that it wouldn’t just be the gray regulatory stuff, can be a headline killer.
Steve Sanduski: Well, it got me to click on it.
Brooke Southall: Okay.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. And I’m very interested in cryptocurrencies and blockchain and have been for several years now, but I’ve also discovered that most financial advisors are not on the bandwagon at all, when it comes to cryptocurrencies. And it’s interesting to see here that Fidelity has been working on this for years and are going to be doing digital custody. And I think they believe that it’s going to be something very big. In fact, I was just on Twitter here recently and made some comment about Bitcoin and gold.
I mean, if you really want to get financial advisors riled up, at least some of them, at least the ones who responded to me, boy started talking about Bitcoin and gold and they’re like, “No, self-respecting financial advisor is going to touch Bitcoin,” for example. And then we’ve got people like Ric Edelman, who’s creating some kind of educational organization on crypto and blockchain and is a big proponent and has been for many years on the technology behind all of that. Yeah, so it’s really interesting how people think about this. And I think you guys can be a leading light for sure, in terms of talking about what’s happening in these areas, not from an editorial standpoint, but just letting people know that, “Hey, there’s big legitimate companies that are moving into this space.”
Brooke Southall: Right. I mean, I’ll have people say to me, “You shouldn’t be writing about this because it’s still this or that.” And I’ll say, “It’s a totally legitimate thing for us to write about because Fidelity is doing it and they’re doing it on behalf of RIAs, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is by doing it. They’re putting their CEO attention on this. That unto itself is news. It’s not up for us to judge as journalists, whether or not this is going to go poof in five years or be the next biggest thing.” Now, to tell you the truth. This article probably will not get a huge readership, but our objective isn’t always to get the biggest readership. It is to attract a certain type of reader. And the type of readers interested in this, we would consider to be desirable because they might be a sub-segment that we’re trying to reach.
Steve Sanduski: Now, as you think about the articles that you want to write about, the example that you just gave there and said, “Hey, we may not get a whole lot of readers for this one.” Do you think about, you’re probably going to laugh at me, but do you think about your brand, so to speak? Do you think about, is this a kind of article that’s in keeping with the RIABiz philosophy and is this going to enhance that? Is it going to deepen our relationship with our readers? I mean, how much, or how little do you think about that when it comes to the kinds of articles that you’re going to be pursuing here?
Brooke Southall: Yeah. I absolutely feel like this is in keeping with our brand, which is to be reaching and taking risks, to try to serve RIAs so they can serve their investors. So, like I said, it’s kind of out there on the edge, we don’t want to become a crypto website. But it’s something that I feel good about covering in the middle of the summer when there’s not that many stories around, I’d rather write this than some advisor gets a fine. But yeah, I mean, if you look at our last few, I’m just looking at our last few headlines. Yesterday we wrote about BlackRock, Microsoft’s teaming up to in theory, reinvent the pension system. I think that is out on the edge. Avant is creating a whole new DFA, Pershing hiring somebody who you might not think of being from central casting and Pershing a young woman from Goldman Sachs.
I like to think people would see a theme there. Or Betterment signaling to Bloomberg, but then not confirming that they are going to go to direct indexing. So in other words, the robo is striving to get to the next thing looking from behind. It’s not what you would have thought of as RIA 10 years ago, when our big story was that some guy with a billion dollars broke away from UBS and set up a practice in Milwaukee. And when we originally were founded, I tried to buy the URL, the breakaway broker, but I couldn’t get it. So I went to RIABiz, but I’m glad I did.
Steve Sanduski: So you’re a writer yourself, you work with writers, what do you think are some of the characteristics, the traits, the personalities that make a great writer?
Brooke Southall: I would say the number one quality, one in a reporter, is somebody who’s curious. It can be so tiring business to be, it’s almost like sales. You get a lot of nos when you call around, you get quotes that are soul killing because they don’t really answer your question. But when I look at, especially, Lisa and Oisin and now Charlie Packard, they all find this incredibly interesting. And that’s what really keeps them going. And so when I say, “I’m sorry, you got to call three more people for this article.” I remember my editors used to say that to me and I was like, “Ugh.” They generally are eager to do that. At least if I can give them a good rationale for it.
I say, “Well, here’s what we don’t know. But if we call these three people, one of them will know the answer to this. And then we’ll be able to write the headline much tighter and more aggressively,” et cetera, et cetera. So yeah, people always think it has something to do with how many English courses you took at Harvard or something. It has very little to do with that. I find it incredibly hard to hire writers because the ones who are coming into the industry now tend to go to the big publications where they work off press releases and the expectations are quite low. Calling five sources is something you do for a major project, not for everyday articles. And so I feel like I’m speaking a different language.
So, at least Lisa’s an old time reporter. She grew up expecting you had to call multiple sources. Oisin, same thing. When I hired him, he was not a reporter. He was just a very curious guy. And Charlie is an old time reporter. That is the main thing. And then, believing in old time, journalistic practices of reverse pyramids and really getting the facts and balancing the story, it’s all great if you’re a super artistic writer, but that really is secondary to getting a good piece out.
So it’s something I’ve worked at over the years. I mean, when I started out, I had never edited an article before. I’ve always actually been kind of bad at copy editing and so on. And I said, “Well, I just have faith that the reader will forgive me for that until I can get my act together on that, as long as I keep bringing good stories.” Now, I’m getting better at that. I have better editors. We’ve tidy things up, but led with the idea of, let’s get the news, let’s get the stories, let’s stay on point, let’s make this fun and engaging and thoughtful and hopefully the rest will follow.
Steve Sanduski: So a lot of the great writers out there, for example, Stephen King, now, some people may argue whether he’s great or not, but he certainly sold a lot of books. But a lot of the writers out there that names that we might recognize, they have written books about writing, about their writing process, about their tips on writing. I think Stephen King may have even been called on writing. So if Brooke is going to write a book about writing, what are some of the key tips and pointers that you would put in that book in terms of, “Hey, if you want to be a writer, if you want to effectively engage readers, these are some of the key things that you need to be thinking about.”
Brooke Southall: Well, I do think you have to be a hybrid of a writer and a buff of the topic. I watched Rachel Maddow the other day be asked this question, and she described the most exhausting process I’ve ever heard in my life. I thought, how is she even standing at the end of the day?
Steve Sanduski: Yeah, because she’s got a whole team of writers and people that do a lot of the legwork for her, I’m sure though.
Brooke Southall: Well, she does, but it has to be perfect and multi, so on by the end, every single day. But one thing she said that really struck me was that when she gets the entire script together, she tries to do it with two hours before Showtime. She spends that last two hours going back and reading everything she can on the topics she’s about to talk about. I don’t do that specifically, but I try to do that, unspecifically. I try to keep thinking about it. I do go back. Part of you just doesn’t even want to find out anything new because you might have to upend the entire thing. So it’s somewhat of a courageous thing to keep researching something you’ve already written. But when you find things, you know exactly how to fit them in, because you’ve already thought it all through. It’s sort of a relentless research process.
I think, whether you’re talking about Stephen King or Michael Lewis or whoever it is, they are just tenacious, relentless researchers because it always comes down to that information. I use the example that Lance Armstrong did not graduate from college. You do not think of him as a literary guy, but he has two bestselling books from the time when he was writing. And it’s because you wanted to hear about his story and you were less concerned about his writing credentials than the fact that he had a story to tell. Of course, he had an insider view on his own story. He obviously left some parts out in those books.
Steve Sanduski: You think?
Brooke Southall: They were still great.
Steve Sanduski: They were good. Oh, yeah. Yeah. I read them, yeah.
Brooke Southall: And they had his voice. And he did have a sports illustrated writer helping him in some of that.
Steve Sanduski: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. And she’s pretty good herself.
Brooke Southall: And she’s pretty damn good.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah.
Brooke Southall: But somehow his voice got in there, I thought. But I always think that, that’s as good an object lesson as anything is, I’d rather read a book by a guy who never went to college than the best writer in the world if the story is good. And I think that if you are really interested in something, it becomes infectious. The reader picks up on your interest in that topic, and the more interested you are, the more you research and it’s a virtuous circle. I do find that a lot of my fellow writers in this business are English majors, took some journalism courses or went to journalism school.
And frankly, business journalism is a bit of a red-headed stepchild in the journalism world. So they ended up here just as a place that pays pretty well to write. But if you are a real writer, you’re going to be writing about politics or the environment or national, foreign policy or something like that. So yeah, when I read financial journalism, I don’t necessarily feel a lot of passion in it, a lot of times. Thank God for people like Michael Lewis or something, who really have shown us all that it can be a great story.
Steve Sanduski: He’s so amazing. And I love listening to his podcasts. He’s got a new podcast out here and just some of the stories he tells like about Moneyball. And one of the things he talked about in that book was ostensibly it’s about baseball. It’s about what Billy Bean did in terms of being able to look at the numbers and the data and find players that were technically “undervalued” based on what they could actually contribute. But then he said, “But it’s really a much larger story that transcends baseball about valuation and undervaluing.”
And so he was able to take something and use the hook of baseball, to tell a much larger story that has a much broader message. And I thought, man, how many of those stories can a writer come up with in a lifetime, where you can take a fascinating story about baseball yet it tells a much larger story that anyone, even if you’re not interested in baseball, you can love this story because it can apply to what you’re doing. That to me is where great writing comes in, when it can apply even beyond just a baseball story like that particular one was.
Brooke Southall: Yeah. And I mean, what I tell my writers when they’re stumped about how to make a story interesting, I say, “It’s always interesting because everything somebody is doing in every one of our stories is a gamble.” So if somebody’s hiring somebody, that’s a big gamble. If somebody’s starting a company, that’s a big gamble. If BlackRock is trying a whole new approach to pension, that’s a gamble internally.
So if you put it that way and you put it as a gamble and how that gamble is working out, boom, it’s interesting because it’s people who are putting themselves on the line, they’re putting their reputations on the line, they’re putting the company’s money on the line. I think advisors could do a lot more with that because they are taking different kinds of risks every day in their lives and automatically that’s interesting. I think a lot of, the weakness I see in a lot of people’s writing is that they don’t feel like it’s okay to show any weakness. And if you’re not willing to show any weakness, then you’re never going to be interesting because that’s the only thing that is interesting. Success really is not interesting.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. And that’s such a good point. And I say this to advisors often when I’m talking about writing and communication is, it’s open up. It’s about tell your story, the words and all, I mean, because that’s what… You’re right. Exactly, right. That’s what people are going to be interested in. And I remember years ago when Eric Clapton came out with his autobiography, he said I had a ghost writer and I was working with this person and then I thought this isn’t coming out the way I want. So I fired that person and I sat down and I wrote it. And that was a book I could not put down. Well, first of all, I just, I love music. I love that period of time and all the people and all the areas that he was involved in from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and so on.
But man, I’m reading that book and I’m thinking, these people are still alive that he’s talking about it here. And I’m thinking, if I was that person and I heard Eric tell this story about me, I’m like, “Whoa.” And it’s like I couldn’t put the thing down. And what was interesting was, at the very same time, Patty, I forgot her name, but she was married to George Harrison and then she married Eric Clapton. So she came out with her autobiography at the same time as Eric Clapton did. And so I was reading both of these books at the same time and it was really fascinating to hear the same story from Eric’s perspective and from her perspective and how they were just, Eric was just wearing his heart on his sleeve. He was just pouring his guts out and she was much more fluffy and everything’s wonderful and kind, and all this. And I thought that’s a really fascinating contrast, two people with the same experience, but telling it in a very different way.
Brooke Southall: That’s a great example. I think that every time I listen to a Bob Dylan song, he’s always admitting these feelings he has about the people he loves in his life and they’re cringe-worthy, right?
Steve Sanduski: Yeah.
Brooke Southall: Don’t think twice it’s all right.
Steve Sanduski: Yup. But I will say, I think I see advisors getting actually more open about this. I think a lot more are having the confidence to share their stories. I mean, I’m certainly seeing much more openness on the part of advisors and I think it makes them much more interesting. Just like you said, that I want to know your story and that’s what makes you real, and that is what engages you to a reader, into other people that they want to know that you go through similar experiences as I do. And it helps you feel like I can connect with you because you go through the same troubles that I do and have the same issues that you deal with. And so I can have some empathy with that.
I also want to touch on the do’s and don’ts in working with the media. So I know you’re not looking for a bunch of people to be reaching out to you and pitching stories to you. But in your experience, if someone wants to get an article published in the media or they want to start developing a relationship with reporters so that maybe they could be quoted for an article someday, what thoughts do you have for folks listening that might want to get a better relationship with the media?
Brooke Southall: I remember sitting in on meetings at InvestmentNews. Well, us reporters would get invited to New York a few times a year and they’d sit us around a table, and one of the things they’d berate us for properly was that we kept using the same sources over and over again. So as much as an advisor or somebody else in the business wants to be in the articles, we as journalists want to get a greater diversity of sources. So there is a perception that we have too many sources or we already have as many as we need or whatever, and that’s just not true. The reason the same people get used over and over again is because journalists are human and we want to minimize the number of unpleasant phone calls we have in any given day or fruitless phone calls. So there are just certain people we know will be a good experience.
But also we just, they’re people we know for sure understand the topic we’re going to call them about and we know that they’ll do it in a timely fashion. So I’ve had advisors reach out to me over the years and say, “I really want to be in your story.” And I get to know them a little bit. I get to know what there might be expert in. And then I call them, this is their big moment. I say, “Here’s your question.” And then they say, “I’ll get back to you in 48 hours.”
Steve Sanduski: It’s not going to work.
Brooke Southall: I’ll say, “Well, look, I’ve got two minutes. You have two minutes right now. I really just need a thought.” They’ll say, “I don’t want to look stupid.” My goal is not to make you look stupid. And then they’ll just go on and on and on all this stuff. And I’ll say, “No, no, I just need your immediate reaction. I don’t need you to look smart. I need to show that an advisor reacts this way. And I know what you’re to say, so just say it.” I think advisers, they’ll overthink it. Then sometimes if I happen to have 48 hours, they’ll get back 48 hours later with some super dry comment. And I’ll think to myself, “What were you doing for 48 hours?”
Steve Sanduski: Yeah, that’s right. It took you 48 hours to come up with that?
Brooke Southall: Yeah. It gets back to what we were talking about before, which is the willingness to take a bit of a risk. An advisor thinks their entire media career is going to come down to that one article and that one quote, and I think they need to think of it more of being a source in 50 stories and that no one quote really matters that much. Instead of pitching to have their practice or their software company or what have you covered in an article, instead to start the relationship as either an expert or I mean, I just get to know people and they’ll tell me things off the record. And then eventually I get to know, they know me better and I know them better and we can figure out what to get on the record.
Steve Sanduski: Now, that’s a good point. I want to stop you there, if I could. This on the record, off the record, every so often you see in the media, something gets published and the person who was quoted is like, “Oh, that was supposed to be off the record.” And then the journalists would say, “Well, you never said it was off the record until after you said this,” blah, blah, blah. Tell me what off the record means? What on background means? What on the record means? How does that all work?
Brooke Southall: You won’t see in the trade press that happened. I don’t think, because we’re just a small community. So we’re typically going to give a source the benefit of the doubt. If they say, no, I don’t want that on the record. Now that said, anything is on the record, unless it’s just super explicitly off the record. I mean, what I have done on occasion is somebody has told me something, is saying, “I’m just going to give this to you on background.” And then I use it completely anonymously in an article. And then I hear from them saying, “No, I told you that was on background.” And I’ll say, “Well, that’s why I didn’t attribute it to you.” And they’ll say, “No, no, no. I’m the only one who could have possibly told you that.” So just the very fact-
Steve Sanduski: So, they could trace it back to me.
Brooke Southall: Yeah. Right. That’s where it can get fuzzy. So a lot of times people will say you can’t use this period, but just for your knowledge. But otherwise I’ll assume if somebody tells me something, they’re telling me because they want the world to know about it.
Steve Sanduski: Right. So just be explicit if it’s like, “Hey, I’m just telling you this because I want you to know, but don’t mention it. Don’t attribute it to me. This is just something for to file away.” Unless they explicitly say that, just assume whatever you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
Brooke Southall: Exactly. Exactly.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. Okay. All right. Also, would love to touch a little bit here on any trends that you’re seeing in the industry. So, as I mentioned, you’ve been around a long time, you’re deep into this every single day for years. What do you see as the biggest trend or the biggest issue that’s affecting the industry right now that maybe advisors are not paying enough attention to?
Brooke Southall: We assiduously never write about trends. People always tell me, “Here’s a trend. Will you write about this trend?” But I do think if I were to try to identify a trend, I would say it is that the people coming into this business at the high end of it and the companies that are coming into this business increasingly are the absolute top tier. So in the old days, we might have written about the breakaway broker with 100 million dollars coming from Merrill Lynch. And now we’re writing about that top retired Merrill Lynch executive doing some RIA related startup.
No one probably even blinks an eye now, when Pershing hires a new COO from Goldman Sachs. But that would have been kind of unthinkable 10 years ago. We see Goldman Sachs making acquisitions, I mean, I guess they would be sort of a premier brand or BlackRock would be a premier brand in our world. I want to keep impressing that upon our readers, that we are the big leagues. Tim Wells famously referred to RIA as long ago as the ragtag army, taking on the Brits kind of thing in their beautiful uniforms. I think the industry increasingly needs to think of itself as it’s an elite force.
Steve Sanduski: I mean, nothing to apologize for. I mean, the folks in this industry are absolute top tier, just like you mentioned.
Brooke Southall: Yeah. And I think that, that’s a whole mindset shift, right?
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. And I think a lot of it has gone from moving from a transaction business. So when I got into this industry back in 1993, it was still very much a transaction business. And just in the early days of moving from a commission business to a fee based business and back in the 90s, it was really about asset allocation. And then in the 2000s, we really started moving more toward financial planning. Now, it’s more toward life planning and really advising and guiding on a client’s whole life and not just the financial aspect of it because money touches every aspect of life. So it’s really been this evolution and I think that evolution has certainly attracted the top tier people as well.
Brooke Southall: And we concentrate less on that aspect of it, the sort of micro aspect of, that it’s changing from an investment business to a wellness business or a planning business or whatever terminology you want to use. But it was really the deconstruction of Wall Street spilled out into the RIA world and now the RIA world is being built back up again and it’s bringing in the big players again and it’s rebuilding.
So there’s kind of a, what’s big and what’s small are starting to be unclear. And yeah, it’s just a very exciting dynamic situation where you have the Ric Edelmans and Ron Carson’s, the world competing with the Schwabs and the Peter Malouk’s and the Goldman Sachs, who’s to say, who has the advantage and all that. And a sub-current of the articles we write about is that now that RIAs are getting big again, they need to police themselves and not start acting big, making decisions saying, “Well, we’re big. So we have to do this because we’re big,” because that’s what led to the demise of Wall Street in the first place.
Steve Sanduski: What’s old is new again, if we don’t watch out.
Brooke Southall: Right. Right.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. All right. Well, let’s wrap up with a couple of things here. So I always like to ask here toward the end, if there’s anything else that you want to share that we haven’t talked about or maybe is there a question that you wish that I would have asked you that I haven’t asked you yet?
Brooke Southall: In theory, it might be a question about, what, because nobody’s looking to see what I’m doing all day, what I’m able to do that maybe is different, that I feel like is contributed to us being able to succeed. I think what I’d say is, you see in the management books and so on that you do need to leave time for people to stare at the walls where it’s sort of you’re actively passive. I think I build that a fair amount of that into my day. We discussed before this call, I live in a houseboat. I’ll start off my day making coffee there, going through emails, maybe beginning to do some editing, maybe take a phone call and then switch to our office in Mill Valley, which is just the two of us over here.
But I do spend about a couple hours in the afternoon doing a hike with my dogs. The process of writing sort of never stops in your subconscious and so on. And I find that the process of writing is much easier the more times I can engineer leaving a piece and coming back to it because I’m much less attached to it when I come back to it and edit it much more dispassionately, sort of thing. My evil twin wrote that first draft and I’m going to fix it. Yeah, so being deliberate about creating enough space for, that whatever creative process goes into writing, so that it’s not forced.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. And I’m very similar to that as well. So I definitely have buffer time built into my schedule as much as I can. And like this afternoon, it’s a beautiful day here. I went out for about a half hour walk and get some of that vitamin D and unfortunately my mind rarely stops. It’s like it’s always going. I’m always thinking. And maybe similar to what you were just trying to describe here about, I’m thinking about it, I wrote something, I step away, I go for a walk, my mind is working on it. I come back, maybe I have a different angle, maybe I have a slightly different tone because I’ve thought about it, and then I can get right back to it. So yeah, I definitely, that’s part of my creative process as well as just having some time to step away and think about it and let it stew overnight. And then the next morning, when I look at it, it’s like, “What was I thinking when I wrote that?”
Brooke Southall: But when you get back to it, you do have to buckle down.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. Well, that’s true. Yeah. You can’t get away from the fact that this is hard work and I always forget who to attribute this to, but one of the famous writers said, “I only write when inspiration strikes. It just so happens that it strikes every morning at 8:00 AM.”
Brooke Southall: That’s pretty good.
Steve Sanduski: Here’s a random question. You mentioned coffee, so what coffee do you drink?
Brooke Southall: I keep evolving up the chain.
Steve Sanduski: You’re past Folgers now, or what?
Brooke Southall: I got past Maxwell House-
Steve Sanduski: Maxwell House.
Brooke Southall: … a couple weeks ago.
Steve Sanduski: Okay.
Brooke Southall: There’s Equator, is the brand. Because everybody went from Starbucks and then they thought they were a super sophisticated they go to Peet’s. And then-
Steve Sanduski: Starbucks buys Peet’s, right?
Brooke Southall: Yeah. And then along came a Blue Bottle, but the latest is Equator.
Steve Sanduski: Equator. Is that a San Francisco Bay Area brand or?
Brooke Southall: Yes, it is. Yeah.
Steve Sanduski: All right. Well, Hey, let’s just jump into a few rapid fire questions here. Let’s talk about books. So obviously, you’re a writer that must mean you’re a reader as well. So what would be one of your favorite books? Could be on any topic.
Brooke Southall: Well, when anybody asks me what the best business book I ever read, I say Paul Hawkins’ book, Growing a Business. And he used to have a PBS TV show that sprang out of that book. It’s super basic. It gets to the heart of the matter. I mean, and when he founded Smith & Hawken, he literally just sold shovels because he hated the shovels that were on the market and then he expanded from there. I think about that book almost daily. I read it probably 30 years ago, initially. He also happens to be my neighbor. And he says he absolutely hates the fact that everybody loves that book because he wrote it in about three days.
Steve Sanduski: How about one of your habits that has led to your success?
Brooke Southall: Well, I already told you about one of them, which is that maybe going for walks and so on, so I’ll stay away from that. It’s continuously asking people questions, assuming that absolutely everybody knows tons more than I do, or at least about what’s in their immediate vicinity of life. Everything is so connected that anybody can tell you a lot that you don’t know.
Steve Sanduski: Yeah. I mean, I totally agree with that. This idea of asking questions, curiosity, you’ve touched on that. I think curiosity is an absolute superpower and people that are just naturally curious or whether you develop curiosity, but I think that is just, makes life so much better when you’re just curious about everything. So I’m totally on board with that. All right. One final question here. And this is something that I’ve started to ask here recently, because I find it interesting from a psychological standpoint, how people respond to this and that is, in the past year or so, is there something that you’ve changed your mind about? And if so, what is it?
Brooke Southall: If you ask anybody who knows me, they’d say the most interesting thing I changed is I never used a cell phone before. And I finally have given in. I’ve given in on a number of things like that. What I would say is that I’m glad I didn’t do it before, but then I’m glad I have now done it.
Steve Sanduski: What was the switch here? What made you decide I’m going to go from old school landline to a cell phone?
Brooke Southall: I flew into Logan airport, my mother drove down from Maine to pick me up and we could not find each other.
Steve Sanduski: Well, it didn’t make mom happy.
Brooke Southall: Well, my mother ended up in Cambridge somehow and was calling my brother who had a cell phone and she had one, but I didn’t. And anyway, that was the incident where I said I can’t do that ever again to my mother.
Steve Sanduski: Right. Awesome. All right. Well, Brooke, I appreciate it. It’s been great. It’s been great catching up with you here and congratulations on all the great success at RIABiz, the wonderful stories that you’re telling and the great news that you’re breaking there. So, appreciate that and I look forward to all the great work that’s going to be coming out from you folks down the road as well.
Brooke Southall: All right. Well, thank you for a great interview. I really appreciated the questions and your approach to this podcast.