The Human Freelancer

Happy and honest self-employment for conscientious newcomers

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I had a curious experience the other day. No, I’ve not been lurking in public toilets again – but the outcome has been no less eye-opening.

Here’s how it went.

An enquiry came in for a plain sounding job. There was the usual of to-ing and fro-ing, then alarm bells started to ring when they’d go silent, then resurface weeks later. I suppose this sort of behaviour is to be expected, to a degree, when clients procrastinate and panic about bringing in a specialist like our good selves.

I wasn’t exactly enthused by the brief

It looked like some vague exercise in writing about a management consultancy. Nothing terribly exciting. But they sounded as though they were in a right pickle – indecisive and unsure what direction to take. On one call, my contact sounded genuinely appreciative of a frank chat about how to get themselves out of the mess they were in. All I’d done was talk about why these sort of situations arise, and how sometimes you need to step back from a problem, and think about what it is you[re trying to achieve, before diving straight in to solving it.

It turns out I’d inadvertently hit their nail on the head, and that won me their affections.

After another long silence, I was just about to sever all ties when their call came in. They happened to be near my office and invited me over for a casual chat. Given that they were still interested in hiring me, despite their delays, I felt obliged to give them the benefit of the doubt and head on over.

Off I marched one blustery morn

I wasn’t feeling terribly spritely beneath the oppressive gloom of autumn’s defeat at the frosty hands of winter. And the meet-up was in some bland corporate HQ of a city solicitors – not a great start if you know anything about my distaste for suits and boardrooms.

In I went though, and everything played out exactly as expected.

First, I got the usual pitch full of generic buzzwords that mean little to normal human beings like you and I. Then a full-on charm offensive from two polite, yet very smartly suited rich white gentlemen.

On the big screen, glaring over the unnecessarily large boardroom table, was their sparkly new logo and some empty platitude about ‘delivery’. When they asked for my opinion I thought about being polite, and feigning interest like I have many times before when I needed the work.

But this time I didn’t

I spoke what was on my mind. I told them many average copywriters out there would be happy to write more of the same, take the cheque, then move on to their next helping of delicious corporate horse shit. But I’m not one of them. I said I cannot sit here and tell people what they want to hear. I said good writing is all about story, emotion, persuasion, tension, empathy and all the good things you don’t find in bluechip brands like the ones they aspired to.

I said if they want something deliberately different, that might rock the boat a bit and push them out their comfort zones, maybe I’d have a think and get back to them with a proposal.

The grenade was detonated

Admittedly, it was tossed by someone passionate about the nature of the problem and their art, if not the subject matter – that certainly helped. But the important thing is that I sincerely didn’t care whether they hired me or not. Not in an arrogant way. I just had a crystal clear understanding in my mind of what I do best, how that can help, and the sort of people willing to join me on a creative journey.

I braced myself for the polite squirming and hesitance you might expect from suited folk desperate to sound unique, yet who always seem to end up sounding like everyone else.

But they fucking loved it

They even said they wanted me to challenge them. They wanted me to speak up if I thought their ideas were too safe or bland. Everything I said sounded good to them. That’s why they thought I was a perfect fit.

I was astonished and left the meeting feeling part enthused by the essence of the problem – a clear cut exercise in helping a business find their voice, but part (if not mostly) excited that I’d just won a job because of who I am and what I stand for.

My pitch must have blended just the right amount of confidence in my ability, with a healthy measure of vision and mission – why I do what I do.

I’ve long pondered over this, since watching a powerful TEDtalk about how people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. But this was first-hand evidence that it really is the case, and it can make or break a sale.

While the job should be fairly straightforward, it’s become something of a milestone in my development as a freelancer. I came away from that meeting scrutinising where my pitch had come from – what secret, hidden cues had I spilled on the boardroom table that won me it. I suspect it’s simply jettisoning fear and not pretending to be something you’re not.

Now I’m steering my operation in the direction of being blunt about the values that sit behind my business. I’ve decided to be myself, rather than try and appeal to everyone. The theory is that this attracts more of the right kind of clients, and means I’m happier too – not having to sound all safe and with broad appeal.

That’s the advice I already give my clients, so why not do the same myself?

What you can take away from this

It’s taken me the best part of a decade to even begin feeling comfortable about letting my personality and values bleed into how I present my freelance services. OK, I’m a part-timer, and it does take time to find yourself, but this is a long time to vacillate over your angle.

So be quicker than me. Don’t be afraid to assert who you are and what you stand for. How do your values underpin everything you do? If you’re not letting them dictate your direction, you’ll attract mediocrity and a business that just ambles along. This isn’t about ramping up growth, it’s just about being focused on what you want out of this. Life can truly align with your freelance work, if you let it, and if you’re honest with yourself and your clients.

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