LOIs That Get Attention

Blue Fox manual typewriter with white page in its carriage
image courtesy of Dean Moriarty via pixabay.com

One of my favorite ways to expand my client base is through the LOI (Letter of Introduction). An LOI is different than the cover letter used with a resume; it covers some of the same points, but has more breadth and depth, and is far more individualized.

When do I send LOIs?

When I see a company that I suspect I’d enjoy working with, and adding something of value to their business. Even if I have a fairly busy client roster, I send out LOIs regularly, because freelance is ebb and flow. If I’m at an ebb, maybe they’ll be at overflow and need someone extra on a project. Keeping a steady stream of LOIs going out is a good idea. I admit, I’ve been lax about it the past few months, but I’m ramping up again.

Once the company catches my interest, I research them. My research on companies has gotten more thorough over the years. I dig into their website, looking for tone, content, values. I read as much as I can ABOUT them – do they take the values they claim to hold out into the world? If they don’t, or if they fund politicians who work to strip away rights and overturn democracy, I move on. People who say working for a company “has nothing to do with politics” have the privilege of ignoring a company’s stance on something. I do not.

Once I’ve decided that yes, I really do like this company, I sit down and write the LOI.

One of the best tools I’ve integrated into the LOI is the hook. When I write a cover letter for a submission for fiction or drama, I open with a hook, which is a statement tied to the theme of the piece to get their attention and keep reading.

Using that same technique in the LOI has served me well, but rather than it being about my piece, it has to do with their company, and is usually tied to what caught my attention about them in the first place (without using that phrasing). It’s tied to what caught my attention and what I offer that supports it. Which means it’s individual to each letter and company.

I then highlight skills of mine and previous work that is relevant; or, if something isn’t relevant but supports the company’s mission, how that feeds into it. I add links to my portfolios, or attach a relevant PDF. I have recently added a clause stating that I do not use AI in my work. A few years ago, I added a clause about having a separate contract for tests or project-specific content created as part of the interview process. Refusing to do free labor as part of the interview process is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. That includes one-way video interviews. A good video interview, even one minute, is about $3K of unpaid labor on the job seeker’s part, not to mention that interviews need to be CONVERSATIONS, not PERFOMANCES. You are interviewing the potential client as much as they are interviewing you.

The one-way interview is akin to an actor sending in an audition reel. Not the way I, as a writer, do business.

After all the business clauses and boundaries, I thank them for their time, sign off, and put the appropriate website of mine under the signature line.

Attachments are usually a resume and/or a PDF portfolio where appropriate, if I haven’t sent them a link within the letter.

Some LOIs get quick responses. Others get a response of, “We don’t have anything right now, but please keep in touch.” When the latter is the case, I let them know that I will, and then add them to the quarterly post card mailing (if there’s an office address) or do a quarterly check-in email. It can take a year or more to get an assignment, but it happens, and they’ve been some of the most satisfying for both of us.

How do you craft a Letter of Introduction? How has it boosted your business?

Research Gets Harder

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Research Gets Harder

As we build our freelance careers, we and our clients find each other through a myriad of ways: referrals, seeing work and wanting to work with the creator, putting out an ad, LOIs (Letters of Introduction).

One of the most important (and time-consuming) portions of the finding-clients process is researching and vetting them. This is getting more and more difficult, because of all the disinformation out there. Is what you’re hearing/reading about a potential client true? How do you vet?

If it’s a referral, then the person making the referral matters. If I’m referred by someone with whom I’ve had a bad experience (such as late payment or change of direction without renegotiating a contract or multiple points of contact trying to be heard instead of the single point in the contract), then I do extra research.  Because if a problematic client refers me, the person to which I’m being referred may also be problematic.

Freelancers talking to each other is important, especially when there’s a sense of trust between them. If you talk to a fellow freelancer and trust them to tell you the truth of their experience, rather than worried they will try to sabotage you, everyone wins. If another freelancer, especially one I know well and respect, has a bad experience with a company, that’s a red flag on the company for me.

I keep a list of companies that have asked me for free labor as a part of the interview process. This includes any sort of “test” or expecting me to create something specific to their company, especially before any conversation has happened. “Oh, it’s just a headline” or “it’s just 300 words, it should take ten minutes” means they don’t understand what I do, and they don’t respect it.

Big Red Flag.

I have a specific contract for tests and samples. When the demand is made, I send the contract. Nine times out of ten, the company ghosts me. The tenth time, someone argues with me and says, “But I had to do it. It’s not a big deal.”

And my response is, “I’m sorry your self-esteem is so low. This company and I are not compatible.”

If someone asks me about a company and they’re on my list, I let them know the company expects free labor as part of the interview process, and the individual can decide from there.

I research the company online, see what kind of “giving to the community” they involve themselves in, check out Salary.com and Glassdoor’s reviews about companies, interview experiences, etc. Although, for the latter, if I don’t know the individual, I am less likely to take it at face value without digging deeper.

It gets even more complicated if you want to know the ethics and political positioning of the company. I don’t want to work for a company that funds politicians working to strip me of my rights and promoting authoritarianism. For me, there is no middle ground. Others will say, “Oh, politics doesn’t matter when you’re a professional. Just do the work.”

Fine for you. Not fine for me. Why would I give my time, energy, and creativity to a company actively working to cause harm? For a little cash? In the short run, it might help me as an individual. In the long run, it hurts the collective community.

Saying no up front is a better choice for me.

If I’m vetting a non-profit, I start here: Charity Navigator. Then, I take the information, and look for at least two independent, trustworthy confirmation sources (the way I did as a journalist).

When I want to know which candidates companies or executives donate to, I see if I can locate the politician’s public donor list. I check Followthemoney.org and Open Secrets. I use the FEC’s database of individual contributors. I also keep an eye on Marc Elias’s Democracy Docket, which fights to protect voting rights. With Citizens United, there’s plenty of dark money that’s harder to track, but these are places to start, and then, again, get independent, trustworthy confirmation sources.

Decisions are made from there.

This takes time.

But instead of saying “I don’t have time” I believe that choosing to place my time in this research serves my overall vision for my work and my career better.

How do you research companies in which you are interested?

Once More, For Those in the Back: No Unpaid Labor As Part of the Interview Process

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I’ve talked about this before, and it needs to be said again: If a company expects unpaid work as part of the interview process, they do not have a positive work culture, no matter how much they’ve paid for whatever award they claim.

This includes assessments, tests, and project-specific samples.

An ethical company will pay you for your time and skills.

You fill out an application and send it through Indeed and they immediately send you a series of tests?

Ignore them.

In my cover letter, I clearly state that I do not do unpaid tests or project-specific samples, and I will provide my rates upon request. I also have a contract specifically to such tests and samples, which requires that they are scheduled in advance, and half of the fee paid up front.

Or the test doesn’t happen.

If the company sends me a form rejection because I did not take their unpaid assessments, it merely affirms they were not the right fit in the first place.

If a recruiter or HR person tries to convince me to create unpaid work samples because, “everyone who works here has to do that. I had to do that” they get a copy of the contract and the terms to schedule the tests and samples. There are also instances where I have said to the HR person, “I’m sorry you have such low self-esteem you felt you had to work for free.”

That shuts them up.

Or, if the response is, “but you have decades of experience, it will only take you a few minutes to do the test” my response is, “Yes, I have decades of experience. I have no need to take the test.”

I repeat: ethical companies will pay you for your time.

Early, early on in my freelance career, there was a company that asked potential freelancers for unpaid samples, which they assigned. I declined, but I heard from several other freelancers who did it, against all our better judgements. Turned out, the company assigned pieces of a big project as the different “samples” and thereby go the entire project done for free. They told all the potential freelancers that they were hiring other people, then changed the name of the company and used the work on their website, without paying anyone. How do I know this? Several of us who pitched to the company had crossed paths on computer bulletin boards (yes, that long ago) and found out we’d pitched. Those who created free samples shared their experience, and one particularly industrious freelancer found out what the company did after telling those writers who did free samples that they were not hired. The writers whose work was used wanted to sue, but had no grounds, because there had never been any contract or agreement not to use said samples without payment.

A company who says they need to see if I can “write in their voice”? Honey, I was in theatre for decades. I can mimic any voice any time anywhere. Read my portfolio. A lack of reading comprehension on your part is not a lack of skill on my part.

Pay for assessments. Pay for tests and samples. The most talented, skilled prospects have enough self-respect not to fall for this crap.

I was irritated beyond belief when, this week, a high-profile company approached me about applying for an open position. They sent a short job description and several pages about why they were such a great place in which to work. Then, the kicker: along with my application I was to send a “sample email” telling a potential customer about why their product was so great and why that customer should buy it.

Um, that would be unpaid labor as part of an interview process, and negates all the positive work culture details the company sent.

Nope.

Even more irritating, LinkedIn sent me an email this week, telling me I should take their special assessments (unpaid, of course) and “earn” skill badges that will attract recruiters. The subject line of that email was “Your skills are in demand.”

Hell, yeah, and that’s why I’m paid for them.

You know where LinkedIn can shove those badges.

Have I ever done unpaid tests or samples? Yes. There was only one instance in which I did not completely regret it. And in that case, I had a slightly different agreement in place, stating they could not use that sample unless they paid me for it, whether or not I was hired for anything else.

I’ve started keeping a list of companies who expect unpaid labor before they even schedule an interview, or as part of an interview process. Referring to that list when something hits my inbox is saving me a lot of frustration and time.

The request/demand for unpaid labor as part of an interview process, or as a condition of interview, denotes an unethical company. Don’t fall for it.

Additional Early Meeting Questions

image courtesy of Headway via Unsplash.com

Among the many questions that come with initial meetings/interviews for vetting new clients and projects, I’ve recently added a few additional questions. The pandemic has sharpened my focus on the kinds of companies with whom I want to or do not want to do business, and these questions help me in the vetting process.

If the potential client gets prickly or offended by any of them, it gives me information I need to make my decisions.

Among the questions I’ve added are:

–How did you support your employees during the pandemic?

–How many employees did you furlough or lay off?

–How many of them were asked to return, and, if so, was it at least their previous rate? Are new employees brought in at the same rate as those let go? Lower or higher?

–How much money did you get in PPP loans? (I look up the answer to this on the SBA website, which distributed those loans. It is public record, and it tells me a lot if the company lowballs me, especially if they laid off employees during the pandemic).

–What did you learn that you will use for the next pandemic? (Because there will be more pandemics, natural disasters, etc.).

Companies that simply cut loose employees, collected PPP loans, and then tried to hire either former employees or new ones at a lower rate are not companies with whom I want to do business.

Getting this information in an early conversation helps me vet the potential client. If you’re on the job hunt and having a more traditional type of interview, I suggest also asking these questions. It will give you far more information about the vision and ethics for the company than the interviewer’s rehearsed spiel.

What questions have you added to your initial information sessions?

(Note: Apologies. This should have posted already, and did not, due to technical glitches. The plan is to post here every other Wednesday, rather than every Wednesday. This time it was every other other Wednesday).

Ink-Dipped Advice: Interview Questions We Hate: “Where Do You See Yourself in Five Years?”

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Hello, February! January seemed like it was about 27 months long. February is supposed to be a short month. We’ll see.

There are plenty tired old chestnuts in interview situations that need to be retired. Some are illegal, some are toxic, some are racist or misogynist or ageist, some are ableist, and many have nothing to do with the job and nothing to do with “getting to know you.”

One of these questions is “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

That’s a question your high school guidance counselor asks when they’re helping you prepare your college applications. It’s the kind of question that might come up, in a different format, with co-workers at the bar (in the years where we could actually go to a bar with co-workers without worrying it would, quite literally, kill us). It’s the kind of question you ask yourself on retreat, when you are trying to avoid or recover from burnout.

But in a professional interview situation? Inappropriate.

That question was dumb in 1985. After 2020, it’s even worse. It shows that the company asking has learned nothing from the pandemic. It sends up a big red flag.

You can type the question into an internet search engine and get a bunch of advice from corporate-leaning “experts” on how to answer it with vague softballs that don’t “threaten” the person interviewing you.

I tried those placating responses a few times, and the experience made me want to vomit. I was not being true to myself, to my core integrity. That’s no way to start a new working relationship.

There is a more direct approach.

Generally, as soon as I hear the question, I mentally cross that company off as an organization for a potential working relationship, and try to end the conversation as smoothly and pleasantly as possible.

I start flippantly. “That depends on whether or not you hire me.”

This is met with shocked silence, and then nervous laughter. Usually, some stuttering and backpedaling occurs. I let the interviewer twist in the wind for a few beats – after all, this was a “gotcha” question, with malicious intent (every “gotcha” question is designed with malicious intent), and my subtext makes that clear.

After a few beats of the interviewer flailing, I add, “Seriously, wherever I land, five years from now, I will be working with smart people who are passionate about what they do.”

They can decide if I mean their company or not.

It is a 100% genuine answer.  I seek out opportunities to work with smart people who are passionate about what they do. Some of those work relationships are long-term, some are short-term, and some are on-and-off. When I’m seeking new opportunities, everything else builds on that foundation.

Anything less wastes all our time.

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Real Costs of the One-Way Video Interview

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One-way interviews have become more common during the virtual interview process of pandemic. “Send us a three-minute introductory video.” My response to that is, “Are you high, sweetie?”

First of all, any interview is a two-way street, or you are the WRONG place for me. I’m interviewing you as much as you’re interviewing me.

A one-way interview is a waste of the interviewee’s time.

I am not an actor. I do not make audition tapes and perform for you.

I am a writer. I’ll write the scripts for the spokespeople in your video spots to rehearse and perform.

But I am not performing in order to “earn” an actual conversation with someone in the company.

As someone who worked in production, let me break down what it means, in terms of time, production, labor, and cost to do a three-minute video:

Script. You need to know what you’re saying, even for (especially for) an introductory video. When I started writing short corporate script videos, that paid per finished scripted minute, it was $85-110/hour. Now, it’s more likely to be $200-$300/hour. Right there, it’s a loss from $255-$600. Figure that includes 2 rounds of revisions, possibly more as you rehearse. How fast do you write? How many hours will it take you to come up with 3 minutes of material? If you’re used to corporate video shoots or short shoots, probably 3-4 hours. If not, it could take three or four times that.

Location. Where will you shoot it? Inside? Outside? We’re in a pandemic, so your options are limited. Hopefully, you won’t have to pay a location fee (if you don’t use your own premises, but there’s still the time and decision involved). On the low side, it’s another $100 .

Set. How will you decorate your surroundings? Even if the video is head-and-shoulders, what kind of chair will you sit in? How much does the camera take in? You’ll need to set decorate your workspace. Is part of the interview showing them your remote work set-up? On the low end, that’s $125/hour. Figure 2 hours to set up the space the way you want it. That’s $250.

-Props. Again, even if you’re doing a head-and-shoulders at the desk, or standing, shooting on your phone, you may need props. A pen? A notebook? You want them to see your tech? Figure at least one hour at $100.

Lighting. Good lighting is vital to a decent video. Figure $50/hour. Once you get the set, props, costume, make-up in place, you’ll need to light it, shoot tests, and relight. Remember that, unless you’re blocking out daylight, as the sun moves, it affects your video. Figure 4 hours or $200.

Wardrobe. What will you wear on camera? You need something that doesn’t wash you out, isn’t too busy or distracting, and makes you both look and feel good. If it feels uncomfortable, your body will react, and the camera will read it. A wardrobe/stylist is about $120/hour. Figure 2 hours of deciding what to wear and how to accessorize, and at least an hour of prepping the clothes – steaming, ironing. Alterations are an additional time at an additional fee. Do you have to buy something for the video? That’s another cost. But it’s at least 3 hours at $120/hour or $360.

Makeup/Hair. Again, you’ll need to play with it in the lighting, with the wardrobe and do tests.

Non-union can start as low as $25/hour. A good one will cost you a good deal more than that. You’re probably non-union. Figure an hour to play with makeup and hair to decide what you want, and then an hour to actually do it. Again, you’ll need to shoot tests, but we’ll get to that later. Figure $100.

Sound. Does your recording device have decent sound? Is it tinny or does it sound like you? Do you have to unplug anything that runs in the background, shut doors, muffle anything? Chances are you can’t/won’t need to edit the sound or add Foley. Sound techs start around $20/hour and go up from there, depending on skill level and specialty. Give yourself an hour to play with your options. $20.

Rehearsal. You’ll need time to rehearse, revise, memorize. Actor fees can start as low as $50/hour and sky’s the limit. Figure 4-6 hours rehearsal time, so $200-$300. You are your own actor/spokesperson for your brand.

Test shoots. You’ll need to shoot test footage for the look, the sound, and shoot some of the rehearsals. If you really have your act together, two hours at $50/hour, for $100. That’s lowballing A LOT, because you’re putting together all the elements you worked on.

The actual shoot.  When I production managed film, we broke it down by 1/8 of a page for the schedule. For feature film production, one hoped to get through 2 pages per day. When I worked one-hour drama television production, it’s much faster. It’s broken down the same way, but you usually need to get through 7-10 pages per day. You’ll need multiple takes, and you’ll need to look at the takes and make adjustments for other takes. Give yourself 3 hours. Since you’re wearing all the hats, and you did all the prep, and should be in good shape, figure $250/hour for 3 hours, or $750. You think three hours sounds crazy for a three-minute video, but it’s less time than you’ll probably need. You’ll note I haven’t listed a director’s fee in this set-up. If you’re lucky enough to have someone to act as your director, that’s another fee, but I’m assuming you’ll go director-less. Since this is more of an audition tape.

-Editing. Are you going to edit the video? Do you have the editing software? Do you have editing skills/experience. Direct Images Interactive talks about how a 2-minute video takes about 34 editing hours, and can cost between $3400 and $4250. If you don’t have a bunch of cuts because the entire interview is done in single takes and you don’t edit sounds or effects, dubbing, or adding music, but just shaving a few seconds here and there or adding filtering, figure 10 hours or $1000.

In order to make your “quick, 3-minute intro” you’ve put in the equivalent of:

40 hours (a full work week) AT LEAST

$3435 – $3520 unpaid physical labor

We haven’t even gotten into the unpaid emotional labor involved.

All your work HAS value and needs to be valued. This attitude of “well, everyone has a YouTube Channel” and “everyone is slapping up videos” — no. Putting together a production is skilled work with many aspects, all of which have a price tag and deserve to be valued. In the age of COVID, there are many more one-person production teams. Again, ALL of the elements must be valued.

Even if the job pays $60K/year, you’ve put in the equivalent of nearly 2 weeks’ worth of salary to submit something that will never be reimbursed, and where you don’t get to have a conversation/ask questions/get a sense if this is a place you want to be.

“Make an introductory video” robs you of $3500 worth of billable hours with zero promise of return. For a job that is unlikely to have any video production involved in it.

Because if it WAS a video production job – they’d look at your reel, and not expect you to create something “introductory” for them without pay.

Because professionals should not demand unpaid labor, especially not as part of the interview process.

Basically, you’re being asked to audition like an actor, but without the benefits an actor gets from making an audition tape. And yes, plenty of actors spend this much time, money, and effort on audition tapes. Which is a form of unpaid labor inherent in the acting profession, and can lead to a labor conversation on a different post.

Beverlyboy.com, which deals in professional video services, suggests figuring $1500 to $10,000 PER FINISHED MINUTE for a video. A three-minute video would cost $4500-$30,000. Yes, it’s for something polished with a professional crew. They have a great breakdown, and show some terrific examples of their work.

“But it’s not professional, it’s just an introductory video.”

If it looks like crap, you won’t go any further in the process. Even if you’re doing it yourself, you’re wearing all the hats. Every job you undertake to put together the video needs to be costed out and deserves payment.

If you like the idea of an introductory interview/audition tape, now you know what you need to create one that’s unique to YOU, not a particular job. Put it on your website. You do it once, and then use the link to send potential clients/employers to it. But it is about YOU — not specific to any given company.

If you start your relationship with a new-to-you company by doing this kind of work for free, it does not bode well for your future relationship. You’ve already said you are willing to be overworked and underpaid (not paid) for maybe-someday getting rewarded. Which doesn’t happen.

Don’t do it. When you see the demand for a one-way video interview in the job description, click away. It’s not worth it. The real test they’re giving you is to see if you’re willing to let them take advantage of you.