Monday, March 17, 2008

Landing the Gig Despite Your Youth

When I was first starting out as a freelance writer, I remember talking to a friend I knew who owned his own business. I asked him what he'd look for if he wanted to hire a freelancer, and he told me one thing: experience. It made sense--why would you hire an outside contractor who had no demonstrable experience?--but it also made me worry. Not because I was just starting out and didn't have decades of experience in the field, but because of something more personal--and less easy to fake.

The thing is, even if you're just starting out as a freelancer, you can fake experience. You can write up your own portfolio of samples, and you can even put them into a graphic design program and make them look like real advertising pieces. You can leverage your experience in a different career as the specialist qualification that separates you from other writers. In the vast majority of my client cases, I don't get asked for a list of my prior clients or even for a resume. If your samples are strong, experience is assumed.

However, I had something working against me that I didn't think I could help: I look young. Depending on what I'm wearing, I can look like I'm in my early-to-mid twenties (I'm actually a little older than that) or I can look like a high school student. The way I looked gave me an instant disadvantage: it was hard for people who met me personally to assume experience, the way they might if they were looking at someone who looks the part. They'd look at me and think, "how could this kid know more than me about how to reach my audience? She's barely out of college."

You can get around this and land the job--but you may have to work a little harder to prove yourself first. Here are a few things I've learned about how to get around it.

There's a positive side to being perceived as young. Not all youth prejudices and preconceptions are bad--some can work in your favor. For example, because I'm young it's usually assumed that I'm pretty technically capable. I'm not a programmer or web designer, but I'm familiar with basic SEO, social marketing, blogging, and other things that are very valuable skills to the right clients--and because I'm young-looking, my facility with these things is often assumed. It's part of the reason I drifted into writing web copy--it's an area where my youth won't hurt me as much, and may actually help. Be aware of the positive preconceptions that exist about young people--for example, we're technically savvy and familiar with cutting-edge marketing techniques--and try to capitalize on that.

Good camouflage is key. Dressing the part is more important than you'd think. If you're meeting a client in person, you want to look like their perception of a professional. That means a nice suit, nice shoes, professional-looking hair and makeup and jewelry for women, and ties for guys. Even if you're young, try to look like them and they'll be more likely to assume you're one of them.

Give concrete examples of your skills. When clients ask you about why they should work for you, do the best you can to emphasize your past experience. Tell them about the effects your writing has had in other projects--did your landing page increase someone's click-through rate? Did your article library put someone at the top of the SERPs for relevant keywords? Emphasize the effects your writing has had in the past, and you'll get your clients to see you as someone who gets results--regardless of age.

Get your former clients to plug for you. Building credibility is crucial for any writer, but it's especially important if you look younger--because credibility isn't always assumed on first meeting. If you can, get some former clients to write you testimonials. Don't have a former client? Then volunteer to write for your current employer, a nonprofit you're interested in or an organization you belong to. Ask whoever supervised the project to write you a testimonial giving specific results--for example, I wrote a donation letter for a choir I joined that increased donations over the previous year's, and I used that testimonial for ages.

The most important part about getting around your age--or your percieved age--is to keep the emphasis on your skills, not your age. With strong writing samples and plenty of confidence, it shouldn't be too difficult to prove you can do the job.

14 comments:

Irreverent Freelancer said...

Heck, I've got almost 10 years on you and I'm still told I look far younger than I am. And get this, yesterday I was talking to a prospective client and he said, "You sound young." I'm at the age where I'm flattered by such observations, but still, it can add a bit more to the effort required to sell yourself.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, ladies...time will take care of this...

Anonymous said...

Jennifer,
This is a great post on accentuating your strengths to land the job.
You say -
Give concrete examples of your skills. When clients ask you about why they should work for you, do the best you can to emphasize your past experience.
Is this the definition of an expert salesperson? :)
@irreverent freelancer - are you still asked for photo ID when buying liquor? It's rare now that I can even have a cashier joke about that now, it's a known!
Mark W.

WordVixen said...

I have friends who started their book (buying/selling/finding) business before they turned 20. They're now 28 (twins) and still look 13. One is a freelance writer on top of the book biz, and the other is a novelist/short story writer. I've been told that they're still praying for their first grey hairs, and avoid having photos posted publicly because of the mis-perception of their abilities based on their ages.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention that you seem to be meeting one of your New Year's resolutions to do more posts - especially when looking at 2007 total to your current number of posts this year. I think the real test will be when the good weather breaks.:) We do notice and appreciate it.
Mark W.

Ed Gandia said...

You can overcome a lot of this by ensuring that your website does a heck of a job of selling YOU.

That means strong copy. A clear and powerful value proposition and USP. A few excellent testimonials. A handful of excellent samples. Maybe even a list of sample clients.

If you sell yourself well on your site, your prospect will be 60% - 80% sold on hiring you before you enven meet them.

That's exactly where you want to be before a meeting or initial call.

Lori said...

I won't even tell you how many years I have on ALL of you...

It's just insane that someone can judge your talent on how old you are, but it happens on both ends of the spectrum. But I think doing everything you can to present yourself as a professional is critical. It's not "giving in" to the man to dress appropriately in order to look older or younger. It's just sensible.

Irreverent Freelancer said...

@Mark - Honestly, I'm not a drinker, so I'm not sure, but I suspect in some cases I probably would be carded. Isn't the unspoken rule to card anyone under 30? I'm older than that but often told I don't look it.

@wordvixen - Tell your friends to enjoy their youthful appearance as long as they can. I am!

@Lori - You don't look or act a day over 30. ;o)

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Kathy: I've gotten the "you sound young" thing on the phone too. Which is why I try to breathe deeply a lot and talk like Darth Vader. It helps!

@Mark: yes, I think good salesmanship has a ton to do with it! Oh, and I'm glad you appreciate the more frequent posts. I'm definitely making the effort.

@Wordvixen: I can relate to that. I'm not about to pray for gray hairs yet, but I did wonder whether it was the right idea to post my picture. So far I've still been getting work, although I might have missed out on a few jobs because I look fairly young in it. Who knows?

@Ed: Absolutely; pre-selling makes the in-person or phone work so much easier--and I'm much better at written communication than in-person sales, fortunately.

@Lori: It took me forever to realize that. I actually cried when I bought my first suit. Now I like suits and don't get a lot of opportunities to wear them!

Amber said...

Oh, I can so identify with this post! I, too, look much younger than I am: a lot of the time I can pass for a high school student - I still get carded buying alcohol from time to time (and the legal age here is 18), and people always react with surprize when they find out my age. It can be really, really hard to overcome age-driven prejudice, and I guess the only way to do it is to have a really strong performance. For me, it helps that most people who employ me find me omline, so at least they've read some of my work before they meet me!

ellen said...

@Ed - So true. Blogs and site portfolios are HERE! They no longer are the wave of the future. That's why I'm working my butt off on my new site.

I look young. I'm not old. But probably as old or older as most people here.

Lori said...

Kathy, there was this Guess Your Age booth at Hershey Park, and the woman there knocked about 12 years off my age. I paid a buck for an ego stroke and a cheap stuffed monkey, but it was sooooo worth it!

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Kathy and Lori: I know I'm talking to two fellow Pennsylvanians here, so have either of you been to the Bloomsburg Fair? We go every year, and the age-guesser there is creepily accurate.

Irreverent Freelancer said...

Hmm, I've been to the Bloomsburg Fair in the past, but not in quite a few years. Perhaps I'll have to attend this year to see if I can fool the age-guesser. Hey, maybe we should all meet up and try to triple fool him! ;o)