Updated: Jan 19
Seminar Sessions now being held online.
“A blog needs to have purpose and personality” – Jacqui McCallum talks about weaving words that wow
Blog writing. For a lot of us, it’s something we aim to do but never quite get around to. Or we do it, don’t get results and don’t know why. Writing a great blog takes creativity and skill. Not only do we need an interesting topic, we need to know how to structure our words and optimise them for search engines. It can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to.
Enter copywriter, Jacqui McCallum from Blue Budgie. Jacqui has been writing blogs for the last 15 years, for businesses like Disney, Myer, Coles, Foxtel and Westfield. For the past year, Jacqui has also been our go-to blog writer at The Design Coach. While she’s normally the one doing the interviewing, Jacqui switched chairs to talk to us about her career and her upcoming TDC seminar, Blog Writing for Designers on 20 August.
TDC: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
JM: As a child I was pretty shy and I loved to read and write stories. I grew up in South Africa and one of my earliest memories is of me folding pieces of paper, stapling them and creating books and magazines which I would sell to my parents for 65 cents a copy. At school my teachers often commented on my imaginative stories and poems. Writing was always my ‘thing’. Even today, when I’m writing I feel like the best version of myself.
TDC: You’ve earned a great reputation as a copywriter for some of Australia’s top companies and CEOs but you initially pursued a different career, is that right?
JM: My other great love is performing. My mother is a dance teacher so I had tap shoes before I could walk. Despite being very academic, when I left school I decided to study musical theatre. After completing my three year course at Tshwane University, I moved to Australia and expected to be embraced by the professional theatre community. Instead, I felt like a complete outsider.
I would stick a number on my chest and bare my soul to a panel of strangers only to get rejected, over and over again. I was constantly on a starvation diet and would tie myself in knots before every audition then freeze when I was in front of the panel. I was alone in a strange country and I started to loathe the thing I had always loved. As a performer, I was good but not good enough. It was a hard but necessary realisation.
TDC: So how did you get from there to running a successful copywriting business?
JM: I enrolled in the Professional Writing and Editing diploma at RMIT University. One of my lecturers encouraged me to send a political essay I had written about growing up in apartheid South Africa to an editor at The Age. To my absolute shock, the editor loved it and published it. From there I got a gig writing opinion pieces for Fairfax and sponsored content for Mamamia. My growing portfolio got me a job in corporate communications and within a year I was managing a comms team while also freelancing.
When I started to pursue writing, everything just fell into place. For the first time I had found something that I not only loved but I was really good at. After years of soul-crushing rejection, it was a revelation!
I returned to RMIT to complete a Master of Communication and was firing on all cylinders when I fell pregnant with my first child. When he was nine months old, I fell pregnant with my second son – a delightful surprise package! Working, studying, freelancing and raising two kids under two taught me just how much can be achieved on two hours’ sleep. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it.
Like many working parents, I reassessed my career path after my children arrived. I wanted to have more flexibility and starting my own business gave me that, in theory at least.
TDC: Why Blue Budgie? Does the name have a specific meaning for you?
JM: People might think the name is a bit weird. It probably is but so am I in a lot of ways. I didn’t want my business to be another generic consultancy. I wanted it to reflect my writing style which is creative, conversational and a bit quirky.
Budgies are great communicators – they’re mad for chat and like to hang out with other budgies. As for the colour, blue represents clarity which is vital in communication. It’s also the colour of both my sons’ eyes and they’re the reason I work so hard and aim so high. I want them to have a strong and independent female role model in their lives. Gender equality is incredibly important to me. The change we need starts at home.
TDC: What have you learned about running a successful business?
JM: Most of what I’ve learned has been through making mistakes. When I started, I did a bit of everything. It took me a while to find my feet and niche down into the thing I really love, copywriting. I also way undercharged at the beginning. I would tailor quotes to my client’s budgets instead of charging my worth. Now I charge market rates for my experience and skills. As a result, I’ve connected with my ideal clients and I’m booked out most months. I‘ve also learned that Quickbooks and I are not compatible so now I outsource the finance stuff to my CFO husband. He works for lamb roast.
I’ve discovered how vital it is to have access to an industry network and constantly invest in professional development. I’m a member of a few industry and business communities and regularly participate in one-on-one coaching and courses.
TDC: How are you managing running a business with homeschooling kids at the moment?
JM: I’ve joined an online wine club which has been a huge help. And I’m popping St John’s Wort like Tic Tacs. In all seriousness, it’s tough but I try and keep things in perspective. During Lockdown 1.0, I would teach the kids from 9am until 3pm, go for a walk, then work from 4pm until midnight. I was exhausted and grumpy.
This time around, I’ve taken the pressure off. We do as much school work as we can by 12pm, then we head out for a bike ride. I do three to four hours work in the afternoon and I go to bed at a reasonable hour. I also manage client expectations and clearly communicate lead times. And I’m on a health kick which means no scoffing Cadbury’s Caramilk for energy.
TDC: Has your business been impacted by COVID-19?
JM: I’ve been really lucky. I work with two of Victoria’s leading digital agencies who send me a steady stream of copywriting work, mainly websites and blogs. As for my regular clients, it’s been business as usual. I’ve only had one big website project put on hold. I manage communications for an architecture and construction company, BCT Group and they’ve been insanely busy. I think isolation has made people look at their home’s shortcomings and feel the urge to renovate, spurred by the Homebuilder package.
When I have some spare time in 2045, I would like to finish writing the manuscript I started in 2009 and get myself a decent website. It’s ironic that I do a great job for my clients and such a shit job for myself.
The impact on me has been on a more personal level. My Mum, my sister and two nieces live in the UK. My Dad lives in South Africa. This whole situation has made the distance feel more vast and real. Not being able to hop on a plane and see them is difficult. My Mum is my best friend and my greatest supporter, in business and in life.
There have also been some positive revelations. Not having to rush around constantly and getting to spend more time with my boys has helped us forge a deeper connection, when they aren’t trashing the house or wrestling each other that is. I feel like I’ve missed too many moments in the haze of day-to-day life. Now I’m being forced to breathe and refocus on the things that matter most – good health and healthy relationships.
TDC: If you weren’t a copywriter, what would you be?
JM: Now I’m not just saying this for your benefit, but I reckon I’d be an interior designer or stylist. I spend a good chunk of my business profit on homewares and art. We renovated our home in 2015 and I was in heaven working with the architect on all the details. I have been known to spend hours layering the bed in our spare room and perfecting the cushion karate chop. I nearly divorced my husband for using a Bonnie and Neil cushion as a foot rest.
TDC: What are the biggest mistakes designers make when it comes to blog writing?
JM: They don’t write any. Or they roll out the same old stuff we’ve read time and time again. I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh. A good blog need to have purpose and personality. It needs to be interesting, informative or offer a refreshing perspective on a topic.
If you’re asking people to take time out of their busy day to read your content, you need to make it worth their while. Blogs also need to include SEO optimisation so they come up in search results. There is no point investing time in writing a blog if no one sees it. Have some fun with it. And once you’re done, recycle that sucker on as many platforms as possible.
TDC: What can designers expect at your online Seminar Session?
JM: A lot of practical and actionable learnings. I want everyone who participates to walk away with the skills they need to write blogs that will drive traffic to their website, build a community around their brand and establish them as thought leaders in the design industry. I’ll talk through some basic SEO optimisation tips and tricks, encourage people to develop a tone of voice that reflects their brand, and run through the techniques professional copywriters use to make blogs easy to digest and enjoyable to read.
Designers are already creative by nature so that gives you a big head start. I don’t think the creative juju can be taught but the technical stuff can. When the two come together, it’s magic. And I am here for it.
Time & Location
Seminar Session: Blog Writing for Designers
Date: Thursday 20th August 2020 Time: 4pm – 6pm
Location: Live online seminar
Cost: $60 (includes e-book summary and blog template)