Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Anti-Networker's Guide to Networking

I'm probably not the only person in the world who isn't crazy about networking. Seriously...put me in a networking event, and chances are I'll be the one camped out by the chips and dip, conspicuously not talking to people. Don't get me wrong; I love to socialize, meet new people and talk about my work. But what makes me uncomfortable is socializing with an agenda. Still, we all have to do it if we want to get to the next level. Here are a few tricks I've learned that have helped me get out there and talk to people.

Remember: you're not being smarmy. You're talking about your passion. This is the biggest thing I have to remind myself every time I'm at a networking event: I'm not selling. Selling has a bad reputation among creative types, I believe; when I sell in writing, I'm simply telling readers why whatever I'm selling is worthwhile. But in person, I feel fake when I try to sell myself.

But I love to talk about what I do. In a no-pressure social situation, I will talk all night about my job to anyone who's interested. I love explaining how web copywriting works and how I can help clients succeed, and I've landed new clients this way. In a networking event, I have to repeat to myself that I'm not selling and there's no ulterior motive here; there's just a room full of people who are interested in what I do and want to hear all about it.

Have a pitch ready. It really helps to know how to describe yourself. I just attended a 15 Second Pitch workshop with Laura Allen, who discussed how a concise pitch can land you huge opportunities in seconds. To break it down to its component parts, a good pitch contains:

1. An introduction: who you are and the name of your company;

2. What you do;

3. Why you're the best at it (your USP);

4. A call to action.

Simple, right? We write this kind of thing every day in various promotional materials. Why not create one for yourself?

Be prepared. I always forget business cards. I've got a huge new box of them sitting on my desk and they've been there for months. I never remember to bring them anywhere with me, and I'm always running into people who ask for my card. It's gotten so bad I think I'm doing it on purpose. Maybe it's because subconsciously I think the design isn't that great or the tagline I wrote on the cards is a bit cheesy. But they're not doing a good job selling me in the box.

Networking can be intimidating--especially for writers, who often prefer to work alone. But if you're willing to do it, you could land some new business--so it's worth getting good at it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Working Vacation 101

In the past few months, I've gotten really lucky: I've gotten the opportunity to go on three really random, really spontaneous trips. Friends and family have called me last-minute with an opportunity to chill on the beach or in a swanky hotel for free or very cheap, and each time, i've gone. I didn't need to get permission from my boss, negotiate use of sick days, or trade off vacation time. I just went.

That's the beauty of what we do, right? We can pick up and leave whenever we want. However, real life is often not that simple. if I've got an ongoing project that's on a delivery schedule, a lot of the time I can't afford to just drop off the face of the earth for a week--I have to keep working and keep in touch with my clients throughout most of the vacation. If this was planned in advance, the way most regular employees plan their travels, I could schedule this out-of-touch time and make sure future projects won't interfere with it--but last minute, I have to be more flexible. Here are a few tips i've found effective for taking your work on vacation.

Know your party's schedule. In the recent few months I've been out of town for a week or so with my sister, my brother and a group of friends. All times, I've told the party beforehand that I need to work during this vacation. Luckily, all the groups so far have had the same schedule: they've gotten up around ten, hung around for a leisurely breakfast, and not been ready to head out and do active things until noon--sometimes later. This has worked to my advantage, because I've been able to get up at eight in the morning and finish a good portion of my work while most of my fellow travelers have been asleep.

When you're on a working vacation, you'll have to be able to negotiate work time. You probably won't be able to spend all day out and about. If your friends want to hang out on the beach, negotiate a chill by the pool instead--bring your laptop and sit as far away from the pool as possible to prevent splash issues. If you're traveling with a bunch of early risers, you may need to do your work at night. But have an idea before you go how much time you can expect to spend at work every day--I usually count on a half day to a few hours--so you can have a realistic idea of how much you can get accomplished.

Make sure your regulars know. In the past, I haven't told my regulars when I've been out because it hasn't affected my delivery schedule. But now I'm starting to think I should--just so they know I may be a little slower in responding to emails than usual. Generally I'd tell them that I'll be on a working vacation, will respond to emails but possibly a bit slower than usual, and to expect an away message when they email me.

Set up email away messages. I set up an email away message as well--just to give myself less to do. It's more for new prospects than regulars. When a new prospect gets in touch, they often want a price quote or detailed response to a question about a project--and I can get a bit stressed out responding to those requests and trying to jam a full-day's work into a few hours. I leave those requests for when I return, and send automatic messages so they know why I'm not responding right away.

Get as much done beforehand as possible. This is so important. My blog posting drops off when I go away, mainly because I think I can handle blogging and working in the limited time I have to do both--and it turns out I can't. Pull a few long days, work on a few weekends to prepare for your trip--and sometimes this is possible and sometimes it's not--and you'll do much better on your vacation. I definitely recommend having a few emergency posts lined up and turning off comment moderation.

Have a backup plan. Or three. I can't count how many times someone's assured me there will be wireless Internet at so-and-so's vacation cottage--and there isn't. Or there is, but for some reason it doesn't work on your computer and nobody can figure out why. Know where all the wireless Internet cafes are within walking distance of where you're staying. have the phone number of a local tech support company. Invite your friend's brother who has a networking degree. Plan to bring a thumb drive or external hard drive to back up your work and transfer to the house computer, which IS connected to the Internet. Plan for things to go wrong.

It takes some forethought and experience to do the working vacation right. In the best situations, everything goes smoothly and your work doesn't need to slow down. Remember: impromptu vacations are part of the reason our job rocks--so enjoy it!

Monday, June 15, 2009

In Nantucket!

Lately I've had a lot of free vacations come my way. This week it's a free guest house in Nantucket for the weekend, courtesy of my brother's girlfriend's family. I'll be working on the porch with a beautiful ocean view over the next day or so, and will be back Wednesday!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Reciprocal Linking: What's Your Policy?

This has come up a lot this week, for some reason. I've had several people tell me they were linking to my site and asked politely if I would mind linking to theirs. While I appreciated the link love, I declined to reciprocate. I don't think it's a good idea for bloggers or website owners in general to place a link to whoever links to them or pays them money. Here's why.

It dilutes your brand. This is a freelance writing/entrepreneurship blog, right? Then what are links to a sunglasses shop, a jewelry store, and a baby toys website doing front and center? What's this blog about again? Advertising random websites that don't focus on the audience takes the message and attention away from your main focus.

It makes you seem less useful. As an audience member, I don't really mind links on blogs I like that point me toward services that might be helpful to my business. Even if I know I'm not in the market for those services right now, at least I know where to go if I ever do need that kind of thing. A website that offers links to things I have NO interest in--and that's far more likely if you're putting links on your site that aren't specific to your audience--gives me the impression that they don't know who they're writing to.

It's not great for the business you're linking to, either. As a website owner, you should be looking for websites that target your specific audience. Getting your links out on every site that will take them is an unfocused strategy. Yes, it's good to get the word out--but if you're getting the word out to the wrong people, you're wasting your time.

It's a turn-off to your audience. I feel that putting links on your site that don't relate to your audience shows that you're not in tune with them--and that's generally the impression I get when I see websites that do this.

Whenever anyone puts a link to my site on theirs, I'm grateful. But I don't feel bound to reciprocate if the website in question isn't specific to my audience--and even if they are, I typically don't just post links to random businesses. I post links to blogs I like and support in my blogroll, and I'm generally willing to link to other relevant blogs there when the owners link to me and request it--but that's about it. What's your policy on reciprocal linking?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Catalyst's On Facebook!

Love Catalyst? Now you can be our friend on Facebook.

Sign up and become a fan! I'm looking forward to initiating discussions, posting photos at networking events, and other fun stuff. See you there!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Asking For Advice? Do Your Research First

I get a lot of emails from people--sometimes people I know personally, sometimes people who've found me through this blog--asking for advice on starting a freelance writing career. Much of the time, the questions they ask are very general: "How can I get started? Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?" I used to write long, detailed responses to these emails. But lately that's been overwhelming--and I usually give very short responses nowadays.

I don't mean to be curt or unapproachable--and I certainly don't mean to dissuade anyone else from taking this path. But I do get tired of answering this question all the time. Here's why:

Because the answer is long. And it's always changing. "How to get started" isn't a few paragraphs. It's a page or more. People have written whole books on how to get started. And the answer I would have given a few years ago is different than the one I would give now, knowing a little more about the business. I also got my start on Elance, but the way Elance's structure has changed I wouldn't recommend anyone else doing that now. Writing out an entire dissertation on "how to start" every time I get these emails is something I just don't have time for anymore, unfortunately.

Because this question signifies you've done no research. There are so many resources out there for people who want to start freelance writing. Pick any one of the blogs in my blogroll and start reading. Heck, start reading all the posts on this blog--it's a pretty comprehensive account of the things I learned when I got started and as I grew my business. And for God's sake, buy Peter Bowerman's books--they give a great game plan to start with, and I credit them with getting me started. Whatever you do, don't use me as a shortcut.

Ask me something specific instead. If you ask me how to get started, I'll probably just point you in the direction of a few online resources. If you ask me a specific question, I'm likely to answer your question in better detail. I might even write a blog post about it. Show me you've done your research, have a good sense of the generalities of "how to start," and need more specific answers, and it's easier for me to get engaged.

When you're asking advice of anyone--me included--who gets a lot of questions like this, don't ask a general question. Ask something specific that you've wondered about that your past research hasn't taught you. That helps us narrow down your answer to something we can both manage.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Job Ads Worth Applying For

Over at Words on the Page, fellow writer Lori Widmer has written an interesting blog post that details her BS Litmus Test--the signs that she considers a "no go" when applying to job ads online.

I don't apply to a lot of job ads online, but occasionally I go this route when business is slow and I need a quick and easy way to find new clients. I don't think it's as effective as cold emailing, though--and that's saying a lot about its ineffectiveness. Still, every so often I find something that looks like a good bet. Here are the things I look for when choosing which job ads to apply for.

1. They're looking for a professional. Any suggestion that they're looking for "students" or "beginning writers looking to build a portfolio" suggests they're looking for free or very cheap labor.

2. They ask for my rate--they don't state theirs. 99 times out of a hundred, when a job ad states its rate, it's much, much too low. I won't turn down a job that states a good going rate, of course, but that's rare. I go for ads that explicitly ask for writers to send their rates without stating their budget.

3. They know what they want. They're looking for ad copy, articles, website copy, a brochure--they're not vague about what they want and I know exactly which samples to send them. Extra points if they know how many pages they need.

4. They're not a head case. This is kind of hard to spot, but I tend to avoid ads looking for a writer to "express someone's vision" or write a long nonfiction narrative about their personal experience. I look for signs of huge egos looking for someone to faithfully transcribe their greatness. It sounds to me like a lot of enmeshment and impossibly high expectations for projects with limited potential.

Straightforwardness is a good sign in job ads--it suggests the client has nothing to hide and will be straightforward in his dealings with you. Of course, nothing is a sure bet--but these principles have helped me navigate online job ads with some degree of success.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why Selling is Like Dating

After a very long-term, committed relationship came to an end for me recently, I'm now single again. I haven't been single in a very long time, and dating...well, let's just say it isn't my forte. But I love observing human behavior--and I've noticed that my single friends who are very successful daters share a few key principles with highly effective networking and in-person sales. Here are a few keys to success I've noticed--both in the dating world and in the business world.

Don't be too available. If you're in demand, there must be a very good reason--and people are going to assume it boils down to the fact that you're awesome. In both the dating world and the business world, this translates into looking busy. Give the impression that you have a lot going on in your life--personally or professionally--and clients and suitors will flock to you.

Look good. You don't have to be a perfect 10 to make it in the dating world or in the business world, but you do need to put some effort into your appearance. When you're confident in yourself and you look the part of a successful businessperson--nice suit, nice haircut, nice portfolio case--people make assumptions that you've already made it. It makes your work of convincing them to hire you that much easier.

Chemistry is key. The way you make people feel will make a big difference--both in your dating life and in your professional life. I used to think being "businesslike" meant being serious and smart; never not knowing the right answer and never breaking into a smile. Now I realize being professional and being human are one and the same--and the way you relate to people could get you the sale. People would much rather work with people they like and trust.

Desperation kills the sale. Desperation can be smelled a mile away--and it always drives people away, whether you're on a date or on a sales meeting. Remember: there are plenty of fish in the sea. If you don't get this one, you probably weren't a good fit to begin with. Consider each rejection a blessing--it helps you stay out of bad partnerships, which are a nightmare at work and in your personal life.

Courting others isn't easy--whether you're talking romance or your next big client. It's easy to give the advice of projecting an aura of success, not desperation; and not to be afraid to show your personality in a positive way. But in reality, confidence takes practice. The more you meet people--in business and personal situations--the easier the interaction will be.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A New Month, a New Resolution

It's been a long few months.

I've been out of commission on the blog for a long time. My life got incredibly hectic, and I realized around March that I wasn't dealing with a few changes in my life as well as I'd thought. In the course of a few months I ended a nine year relationship, changed cities, and landed a few new and very prolific regular clients. My days got hectic, and between the personal things and the work-related things it was all I could do to keep meeting everyone's expectations.

Anyway, just wanted to let you know I've renewed my commitment to posting regularly--and here are a few things I've learned in the interim.

Admit it when things are going south.I know when this sort of thing happens, what you're supposed to do is post on your blog letting everyone know you'll be out of commission for a few months. I didn't. Mainly because every day I kept thinking, "I'll get to it soon. I don't need to post anything now." Well, I didn't get to it soon, and that was probably a bit of self delusion on my part. I also didn't want to admit that I needed a break. But one day led to a week, and then to a month, and then to a couple of months..and each month it got more difficult to get back to a routine. My lesson? As soon as you feel yourself slipping, let people know. It's okay to slip. But people need to know what to expect.

Even good change causes upheaval. The changes in my life, scary as they sound, have all been good changes. I'm happy in my new place, and I've made some adjustments that absolutely needed to be made. Plus, the new client work has been a blessing. But still it caused me enough disturbance that I felt I had to let everything in my life that wasn't an absolute necessity go, at least for a little while.

Take things one day at a time. There were plenty of days when I had time to post, and didn't. I'm not sure why. Maybe I felt overwhelmed looking back on all that time I'd missed, and had no idea what I'd say in response to that. Until I got to today, and realized I missed it and wanted to start again. Realized I still had things to say.

Change is exhilarating, but sometimes it takes a lot out of you. I had to be away for awhile--but now I'm back, and hopefully I can bring enough insight to this blog that others can learn from my missteps and successes in the meantime.