Following up on last week’s embarrassing Fulbright story post, here’s part 2 of the series on editing promo materials with my best kept secrets for musicians. If you’d like to improve your bio, online profile, website text, résumé or CV, cover letter, teaching philosophy statement, or grant proposal—in order to book more work and live the life you desire—then this is for you!

When musicians ask me “How can I get more (or better) work?” one of the first areas we look at is their promo materials. Why? Because if your promo materials aren’t getting you past the gatekeepers, that’s a problem.

music promo edits

Why are most musicians’ promo materials so bad?

Musicians’ promo materials are often boring, cliché-ridden, and unconvincing. As a result these promo pieces fail to create the desired reaction in readers. They fail to pique readers’ curiosity to get them to click “play” to listen, watch, or connect. As for why musicians don’t do better with their promo efforts, here’s the conclusion I’ve come to (but if you have other ideas, I’d love to hear them!):

5 Musician Obstacles

What stands in the way of musicians creating better promo material:

  1. Musicians don’t have a focused sense of the reader they’re writing for.
  2. They haven’t clarified what they actually want to say.
  3. They’ve misinterpreted the purpose of the piece they’re working on. (It’s NOT about impressing the reader. It IS about directly stating how what you have to offer meets her needs.)
  4. Musicians’ ego and self-esteem issues distract them from speaking their truth.
  5. They think that once they’ve written a first draft and had someone check over the spelling and grammar, that they should be done. (It’s never that easy.)

So when musicians ask for feedback on their promotional material, here’s what I do:

Practice empathy: focus on your reader

Before reading the piece, I put myself in the shoes of the intended recipient. So I imagine that I’m a concert series presenter, or a contractor, conductor, a search committee member, or a grant officer—whomever the promo piece is aimed at. When working on your own promo materials, get used to imagining that you are the intended recipient—set your ego aside and think about what that person would be most interested in.


As I read I monitor my own reactions. I have a kind of internal interest-level tracking device—an EKG screen running in my head. It tracks when my interest is piqued, when it’s nose diving, and when it’s flatlining. I also have a highly sensitized bullshit monitor. It indicates any places where there are unsubstantiated claims, sweeping generalizations, an overuse of adjectives, and of course, the thing that automatically turns readers off: clichés.

Get real feedback

Once I’ve read the piece, I give honest and direct feedback. I say what captured my interest and where the “energy” in the piece is. I’ll point out the places where I wanted more detail and the places that made me want to keep reading.

But I don’t sugar coat my feedback. I point out whatever is unclear, what’s missing, where the specific problem areas are, and at what point I’d stop reading or start skimming because I’m bored. I’ll also ask the musician what’s the overarching impression she wants the piece to convey. And then what’s the main point she wants to make in each paragraph or section. I tell her honestly whether or not the intended messaging comes across and say what the overall impression the piece leaves me with.

Can you handle the truth?

Here’s the weird thing. No matter how detailed I am with this feedback, musicians inevitably respond with questions like, “So should I start with this sentence instead?” or “Should I delete this one paragraph?” They often think that they can fix the piece with a few quick tweaks. That the revising I’m recommending is cosmetic and minimal.

It’s not.

To clarify, imagine this. You go to a teacher to get feedback on a piece you’re preparing to perform. After hearing it, the teacher points out some good moments, but also says that the overall impression is lackluster. That your performance isn’t holding her attention. She points to a number of specific places that need to be completely re-thought. She says that overall, your interpretation is unclear and unfocused.

If that happened, would you think that you only needed to make a few quick fixes?

Somehow, we imagine that writing about ourselves, our work, and our purpose should take less time and effort to prepare than our music does. But we need to apply the same care we use in shaping musical phrases when we work on our promo materials.

Whether it’s your bio, your cover letter, or a grant proposal, it’s what others encounter BEFORE they meet you or hear your music. Your promo materials are your introduction — they need to present you at your very best. Because you only get one shot at making a great first impression.

How much editing do you need?

Keep in mind a promo piece is not something you can knock out in 20 minutes. A strong bio (or a strong cover letter, CV, or grant proposal) is the result of multiple revisions.

Most of writing is, in fact, re-writing. It’s typical for musicians to do 7 or more complete revisions, but an effective piece is well worth it. So start weeks before your deadline, not the night before.

The reason you need to do this work yourself is that you’re the only one who knows your full story, your own experience, values, and mission. Sure, you can get help, but you can’t delegate the essentials of drafting and revising. That’s why I don’t write people’s material from scratch, but partner with them and help them uncover and hone their own stories. The good news is that in the process of working on their materials musicians end up being more confident and better prepared for networking, booking performances, and getting hired.

What’s the best way to start revising?

Start with the fundamentals. Put your old draft away so that you aren’t tempted to try to wordsmith it and make superficial edits.

Instead, try mind mapping. It’s an efficient way to brainstorm on paper to help you capture ideas and find connecting threads. There are computer programs for this but I like to go old school with pen and paper. It helps free up your thinking. You can use mind mapping for drafting and brainstorming just about anything.

mindmap for editing

Mind Mapping

In the middle of the page write down the main focus or idea you want to convey in the piece. (In the example above, I was working on the talk I need to give next month at a conference in Oslo. So you’ll see the topic in the middle and my “brain dump” around it for the subtopic areas I was thinking of. And in some cases, with arrows and what’s near what, I was working out how related ideas might be sequenced.)

For your mind map, let’s say your main focus is your performance experience. Or if you’re a composer it’s your original works. Write that down and draw a circle around it.

Then brainstorm key topics and examples of your experience that you want to include in your promo piece. So these might be key performance venues, ensembles you’ve worked with, and key collaborators or conductors. You’re not looking to include everything, but the most noteworthy, surprising, or contrasting items.

Then ask yourself what other aspects of you and your music belong in the promo piece. What else does the reader need to know about you? Think special repertoire and projects you’ve been involved in, awards and honors, and education.

And what about your mission: why you do what you do. Think of an anecdote that helps illustrate this. Get it on the page: write a few key words to remind yourself of it.

With a mind map you can get a fresh start and uncover material you’ve left out before. My experience with this is that mind maps help loosen up the writing process and identify more organic and engaging material than comes from simply making lists or working from an existing document.

Once you have your mind map, make a new “first draft” of your promo piece. Think like your intended recipient. What subtopics are top priority? What are second and third priority?

Don’t go for perfect, just get it going.

Don’t get hung up on finding the perfect phrases, sentences, or starting points. I like to aim for what author Anne LaMott calls the “shitty first draft.” You need to get your content down before you start reworking it. So just get your material on the page in simple and direct language.

Anne Lamott Shitty First Draft

When I’m feeling overwhelmed with the writing (which is often these days as I’m working on the 3rd edition of my book), I remind myself to breathe and take just one step at a time. There’s another bit of Anne LaMott wisdom. It’s the advice her Dad gave her brother when as a kid he had a big report due the next day on birds and didn’t know how to get started. Anne’s Dad said, “just take it bird by bird, buddy.”

Once you’ve got your shitty first draft completed, then you can work on improving it. For the actual editing process, my two best pieces of advice are:

1. Read your drafts out loud slowly—loud enough so you really listen to how it sounds. Listen for awkward phrases or transitions, redundancies, and run-on sentences. Your ear will pick these up faster than your eye. Have other people whose writing skills and feedback you trust also read it and tell them you want to know where it seems awkward, where it loses energy, anything that seems oddly worded, or out of place.

2. For clarity of message and content I also like to read one sentence at a time. After each sentence I pause and ask myself, What am I really trying to say here? Because 9 times out of ten, when I think it over, there’s a more direct and clear way of making my point.

This week: Try mind mapping to help clarify your thinking and planning. I’d love to hear how it goes!

As always, I welcome your feedback and suggestions! Reach me at

And if you’d like to discuss your promotional materials, your career goals, and find out how coaching can help, let’s talk! I’m at

Looking forward to hearing from you,



Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!


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