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Nicole Belanger

Creator of 'Conversations With Her'

Nicole Belanger is a writer, speaker, and media maker with a deep love for women's stories. She is the creator of Conversations With Her, an interview series profiling women from various walks of life sharing their powerful stories in an effort to make the rest of us feel a little less alone. She is at work on some new projects this summer, you can find her at nicole-belanger.com.

Tell me more about what you do?

I’ve always struggled with “what do I call myself?” For a long time, I called myself a writer because a lot of the content I produce just happens to be using written word as the medium of choice. I don’t think that sums it up fully though, and I’m also really tired of just freelancing and writing when other people want me to. So the title that I settled on for myself is Media Maker, which I feel is a lot more spacious and open and allows for a lot more different things. I don’t necessarily just want to write forever.

I produce women-centered content. I believe that when a woman tells her story she becomes possibility in it’s purest form for other women taking in that story. It can illuminate new ways of thinking, new ways of being in the world, and possibilities that we never knew existed for ourselves. For example, it wasn’t until recently when I heard friends telling me their stories of raising money for their projects and their companies that I thought, “oh you know what? I could do that too.” It just makes it seem a little bit more possible for you. I focus on collecting and telling women’s stories and I have to say that I’m not totally sure what that’s going to look like in the end. Right now I’m in this phase of playing around and just creating the content that resonates with me, seeing how other people pick up on that and pivoting and changing course as need be.

Currently, my biggest focus is an interview series called ‘Conversations With Her’, which profiles women from different walks of life talking about the different things that matter to them. We’ve touched on things from invisible disability, entrepreneurship, anxiety as an entrepreneur, miscarriage - all sorts of different topics that matter to women. That’s what I’m working on right now and this summer I’m going to be publishing a themed collection of stories, right now I’m working on finding women and pulling that together and also considering expanding into doing a podcast as well. We will see how all that progresses, but that’s sort of the plan for the next few months.

When did you decide to turn your writing and speaking abilities into a business?

That all started about a year ago in May 2014 when I left my role at a non-profit called Ladies Learning Code, I had been working remotely and not quite full-time. I’ve always written, and published on little websites here and there or on my own blog, just because I love doing it and chronicling my experiences. From that, I got an invitation to speak at a local TEDx event in March of 2014. That was the first real major speaking engagement I had, and I realized not only how much I loved it but how much other people loved it. All of the sudden I was getting calls from people asking me to come speak at their events or to write for them. That was sort of the moment of, “oh, I can actually make some money doing this, and this is what’s really interesting to me.”

So in May I left my job and the past year to be totally frank has been a process of figuring out less of what I want to do and instead all of the things I don’t want to do. When I left full-time employment, I had to find a way to replace that income. I didn't want to rely solely on writing, partly because making a living doing that is tough, and also because I had other interests and skills that I wanted to explore. So I looked to a lot of the female entrepreneurs who have these content-heavy businesses that I really admired. People like Danielle Lapore, Marie Forleo and Gabby Bernstein and a lot of them started with coaching and I thought “well that works with my personality, that works with my skill set, people have told me that that’s something they want from me so I guess I’ll do that.” Fast forward a couple months and realize that - oh my goodness I did not want to do that at all. It was really just what I thought I had to do, the model I had to follow in order to be a successful content creator. I was basically just performing other women’s experiences in business and not carving out my own path.

So for the last few months I’ve been experimenting with different things, I did some consulting work - it was fun but I didn’t really love it, I was doing some pure freelance writing work - ehh it was fun but I didn’t really like it and it wasn’t until this past Spring where I realized , "you know what I quit my job to be independent and I’ve ended up kind of doing it half way for the last year, doing a lot of contract work for companies." I thought it was time to just dive into it. So, I started doing ‘Conversations With Her’ and I was responding to it in a way I hadn’t responded to anything I’d done before and other people were responding to it in a way that they hadn’t responded to anything I've done over the last year and I knew that this was what I needed to focus on, this was what I needed to spend all my time and energy and focus on.

“I was responding to it in a way I hadn’t responded to anything I’d done before and other people were responding to it in a way that they hadn’t responded to anything I've done over the last year and I knew that this was what I needed to focus on.”

It’s funny because I look at all the baskets in my life that I could put my eggs into and this was the only one that had no money attached to it, but you know what, I just had to figure out a way to make this work because this is the one thing that finally felt so right. I also knew that I wanted to move towards original content and production because I didn't want to be at the mercy of when other people wanted to hire me to create content for them. I want to make the things that I want to see in the world. So this summer I raised a little bit of seed money from family and I’m spending the next couple of months experimenting and producing my first bits of original content.

'Conversations With Her' is such a fantastic project, how did you get started with that?

I don’t remember exactly how the idea came. I remember the realization that I had this amazing network of phenomenal women from all different areas that I’d kind of amassed over the last few years. I always wanted to tell everyone, “this person is so great, and - you should be following all these people. They’re so amazing and I want you to know about them all!” I decided that I wanted to start showcasing them and I didn’t just want to write about them, I wanted their voice and their insight in it as well.

I really enjoy the format you write in, the way you tell a story within the interview. It’s quite different from the format of Ways We Work.

It never really occurred to me to do a question and answer style interview, I guess I’ve always kind of loved those traditional magazines like Vanity Fair or Rolling Stone where they set the scene about this person sitting in a restaurant and what they’re wearing and how they’re behaving and it’s always just so much more appealing to me when it’s told as a story.

The very first one I did, I had no model for it, I literally just got on the phone with someone who I thought was interesting. That’s been the key with ‘Conversations With Her’, I just interview people that I personally find interesting. I don’t take random recommendations and I don’t base it on who has a good audience, but rather who do I genuinely find interesting. For example, I called up this woman Kate Combs, she’s this sex educator in New York, and I prepared these questions based on my genuine curiosity about her. I got her on the phone, interviewed her and realized I had like 4000 words of raw text that I had to somehow turn into an interview. I did find however that there were themes within it. That’s where I developed this style where I have a 2000 word interview and it’s broken up into that woman’s thoughts on X, Y and Z.

The next interview I did was with and old friend of mine who was a freelance writer and used to work in non-profits with me. When I called her up she said “why do you want to interview me? I’m not that interesting, my story isn’t that interesting.” I realized how powerful the format I use is because I can take these women’s stories, be curious about their experiences, and then write up a piece on them and I find when I send it to them they’re like “oh my god, I didn’t know that other people thought of me that way.” I feel like adding my perspective adds something to it. When people just talk about themselves they’re not going to… people don’t tend to default to making themselves shine, but that’s what I do when I’m writing about these incredible women who I love and admire.

What do you find most rewarding about what you do?

Probably the most rewarding is when I write a piece and send it to a woman and she says “oh my god, that is so flattering and it makes me feel so special and so confident.” Recently, something happened that made me say: “yes, this is what success is for this series, this project.” I wrote up an interview with a woman named Jennifer Chen who is a pregnancy loss advocate and that interview piece is now listed on her website that provides different resources for women going through pregnancy loss. That is success, that is what this series is. Yes the views are great, and other spinoff stuff is great but that is what this project is all about. Making women more visible and as a result making people feel less alone. That’s what I want, I want to create those moments of “oh my god, me too, I thought I was the only one, but I’m not.”

“Yes the views are great, and other spinoff stuff is great but that is what this project is all about. Making women more visible and as a result making people feel less alone.”

What do you find most challenging?

Transcribing is a bitch. You can PG that if you want or not, I don’t care. Right now my biggest challenge is formatting the process. I publish on a bi-weekly schedule and so making sure I’ve got people in the queue that I prep questions for, do the interview with, transcribe that full hour-long interview into 4000 words and then condense it. One of the big things that I find challenging but I find super important as part of the process is I send a draft to the woman before it gets published, because I want to make sure she’s comfortable with all the quotes and how the content was laid out after I’ve added my own perspective to it. That definitely adds another step, but I think it’s really important given the kind of stuff that we’re talking about. I think some of the magic is lost of someone telling their story if they’re not totally comfortable with how it’s presented. I might have to move to using something like Odesk or Elance to get people to transcribe for me in the future because it is very time-consuming. Ironing out the process is definitely the most challenging right now.

What's the structure of your typical day like?

When I was working, my day was pretty standard. Get up in the morning, start working. I was working from home so I’d get to actually working by about 9 or 10, stop - break for lunch, work till 5 or 6 and then in theory be done for the day. I find my problem that I haven’t totally sorted is that, from 5 to 8 is like magical production time for me and the afternoon from 12 to 4 can sometimes be a write off - so that’s something I’m struggling with.

Over the last year it’s been tough. I find my days haven’t really had much structure and I’ve experimented with having one day where I have meetings, one where I don’t, but nothing really stuck in terms of making me feel like I had structure. It wasn’t until - and I’m realizing this as I’m saying it to you - but it wasn’t until I started with this project - something that I truly loved and wanted to work hard on and wanted to get up and get going on - that I’ve found more consistent work ethic throughout the day. I guess the other stuff just wasn’t as compelling for me, so maybe that’s why. I feel like for the first time in a long time I’m ready and energized to work hard on something again and so naturally it's been easier. I find I’ve been getting up around 7:30 now - I marvel at how much longer the day feels getting up at 7 instead of 8 or 8:30 - so that now I’m ready to work by 9 and I can make use of the whole morning. The other thing I’ve had to let go of is that I don’t usually shower until 10 or 11 or maybe lunch time and I’ve always heard people say that if you work at home you have to get up and shower and get dressed and make yourself think you’re working, but that’s just not my jam. Just letting go and realizing that I like to spend the morning working and not worrying about getting up, getting dressed, showering, blow drying my hair and putting on all my makeup - it’s a good rhythm I find.

Also, my boyfriend and I both work from home so negotiating the balance of realizing maybe some of my time off is during the day instead of the evening because I work really well in the evening and not during the afternoon. Managing a lot of guilt around that has been interesting, I struggle with a lot of “I should be doing this” guilt.

What are some of your favourite tools that you use regularly?

eCamm - I’m really going to hype their product. This has been my godsend, you can record phone calls or video calls. That’s been a huge help for me.

Any.do - Being back in this feeling of being ready to do hard work I’ve been back to using a todo list manager. Any.do feels easy and casual and feels more like an iPhone note than a big task management program like Asana.

Calendars5 - I’ve never used the regular calendar app. I just find this so much more pleasant.

MailChimp - It’s been super helpful for doing all my mailing lists.

Sattva - It’s a meditation app that I find really helpful. Just an easy way to do it during the day whenever I feel like it.

Pablo - Buffer’s social media image design tool. I use that to make all the images I use for social media for ‘Conversations with Her’. It takes me like two seconds to pull it all together. It’s so helpful because I’m not a designer, I have no idea how to use Photoshop or anything like that.

I'm curious to know what your interview process is like?

I have a running list of women that I would like to interview, a wish list of sorts, and I usually schedule interviews 2-3 weeks before I publish them. That said, I also keep my eye open for women who pique my curiosity. Whenever I see someone interesting online, I quickly find their email address and send off a note asking if they'd be interested in being interviewed. I usually spend about an hour doing background research on them, so if it’s a writer I will read a dozen of their articles, I’ll look for videos of talks they’ve given or interviews they’ve given or look through their whole website. I’ll have a piece of paper so I can just jot down questions that I think of as I do that. Again, just determining what I’m curious about and asking that.

Then I sit down and open a Pages document and formally write out some of the questions and if there’s a structure, like some of them are better in sequence then I’ll write them like that so that I have that to reference when I’m interviewing them. Then I’ll do an hour-long Skype call with them. I’ve noticed they’re getting shorter and shorter, closer to 45 minutes as I’ve gotten more consistent and gotten more of a flow. So I do the hour-long interview, I definitely do not stick to all of my prescribed questions and let the conversation flow, again it’s just being curious. If they say something interesting, being able to talk about that more. So I have that recorded and then I’ll spend about an hour and half to transcribe them and then I’ll print all the raw notes off, I'll then annotate the notes with a pen or marker, identify different themes and annotate them with a little acronym so I can look back. So if there’s something from the start of the interview, middle and end that all go together I can structure it that way.

If I’m really lost, I’ll print the whole thing off, physically cut sections up and move them around on the table and put them together. Then I’ll take my Pages document, cut and paste those sections as I see them in my hard copy and paste them into Google Drive and write the actual piece. Then I send the Drive link to the person. They give me their notes and then I write an introduction. I keep the introduction private because it’s a nice surprise for people. Then I pop it into Wordpress, pop it into MailChimp and I publish Tuesday mornings around 9am.

“I write and I make this content because I have a debt to repay to all those women who did this for me, I want to do this for other people. I want women to feel more seen and less alone and so I’m producing the content that hopefully will help some people feel that way.”

What's the best career advice or wisdom you've received?

This year was a long process of learning one simple lesson: do you in the way that you want to do it, don't blindly follow other models of success. I didn't have a clear sense of what my vision for what I wanted my life, my business, and my impact on the world to be, I was easily swayed by other people. My brief coaching stint is the best example of that. It was a bit of a perfect storm: I got the idea by looking to other people's businesses (as mentioned previously), it actually really jived with my personality and skills, and it was something that I actually had people asking me for.

Sounds like a perfect fit, right? Except for the fact that I didn't actually really want to be a coach. Thankfully that realization came quickly, before I took on any clients, and I was able to shut that down with any real collateral damage.

Recently I’ve been toying with adding a video piece to my interviews and I was talking with my friend Chelsea Lupkin (she’s a filmmaker) about it on the phone. I was feeling all worked up about how I didn’t know anything about the logistics of putting together video content and she asked: “Do you really want to be doing video or are you just doing it because everyone else is doing it and you feel like you should be doing it? Do audio or do something else that really resonates with you.” Talking with Chelsea, I realized that I was getting taught that same lesson for the 178th time (approximately). It's imperative that you do what you genuinely are excited to do and not to let yourself be swayed too much by what other people want from you, especially if you’re doing creative work. It has to be true to your vision and it has to be what you really want to do or else you’re going to be miserable at it. You may be successful doing it - probably not - but you’ll be unhappy while you do it and it’s just going to take you off course. Do you to the truest extent and stay in your lane.

If someone had told me that a year ago though, I feel like it wouldn’t have registered the same way. I feel like I had do the painful work of learning that lesson myself. When I know something’s right, I just do it.

Why do you do what you do? What makes everything worth it for you?

I do what I do because other people have done it for me. The best example is, my mom passed away two years ago and you know you do all sorts of things. You do therapy, you read self-help books - whatever, but what really helped me the most, is on the days where I’d just feel terrible out of nowhere I would Google “mom died two years ago, feeling sad” and up would pop all these essays, articles and blog posts that women had written about their experiences and it made me feel so seen and so normal and less alone. All these people talking about how tough it was but they got through it and it made me feel like I could be successful and happy and get through this too.

I write and I make this content because I have a debt to repay to all those women who did this for me, I want to do this for other people. I want women to feel more seen and less alone and so I’m producing the content that hopefully will help some people feel that way. That’s why I do what I do because stories have a tremendous healing power, they’re a safe comfortable way of teaching lessons, they’re a new way of seeing ourselves, of seeing the world around us, they just make us feel less alone. That’s why I do what I do, to produce those stories and give them life.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Definitely Danielle Lapore or Rebecca Soffer.