Ink-Dipped Advice: Inspiration For & From Your Clients

image courtesy of Jordan_Singh via Pixabay.com

We convince our clients to hire us because we bring a fresh, creative perspective to their message and their business. We’re excited about their product or service, and eager to get the message out. They’re excited by our excitement and (hopefully) by the results our messaging brings in, and up their game some more. It can be a lovely upward spiral.

How can clients inspire us?

What is it about their story, product, or service, that makes them unique?

One of my clients is a women’s clothing designer. Many of her designs are Asian-inspired styles and fun fabrics. But you know what one of the most exciting aspects of her designs are? Most of her pieces have pockets!

Pockets!!!!

I can’t tell you how often I’ve bought men’s jackets at thrift shops and worn them just so I have pockets. I get tired of feeling like a snail, carrying my house on my back, as most women I know do, especially women who commute.

I want pockets, damn it!

As a member of her target market, the pockets are one of the major selling features for me. I get excited about them, and use it as part of the marketing.

Marketing that includes mention of the pockets results in more sales than the materials which don’t.

I inspire that client because we share a love of cats and mysteries. We talk about both a lot. One of her styles is a Thumbprint shirt that’s great for mystery lovers, which grew out of our conversations, and she puts cats on lots of her pieces.

Thumbprint shirt

Conversations with a client who’s a bread maker spurs fun little flash fiction with unusual flavors and shapes of bread. Which comes first? The bread or the story? They play off each other (the site has not gone live yet). We get going with our brainstorming; she does recipe development and I do flash fiction and other content.

A former landscaping client became the focus for an article pitch to a national magazine. A theatre client liked my idea of using holiday cards as a way to stay in touch with former performers/presenters and current sponsors, especially when the emphasis was on not asking them for anything! (Yes, that breaks the “rule” many nonprofits tout about using EVERY opportunity to ask for a donation. That’s a rule with which I disagree, and backfires when used on me, so I’m sure it gets old for others). I’m using a theatre based on hers in one of my novels (although I’ve set it in a different state and changed a few things).

Everything can spark inspiration, if you let it.

The basis of that is conversation as real people, not just in terms of market-speak and analytics. Get to know each other. Have real conversations. 

That leads to real creativity.

Which translates into tangibles that benefit you both.

Adjusting To Remote Work

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I’m in between surgeries this week, so I thought I’d pop in and offer some tips on remote work, since it’s become a necessity to do as much of that as we can to keep us all safe.

As an introvert too often forced to behave like an extrovert, remote work is ideal for me. Plus, as a writer, there’s rarely reason I HAVE to be onsite (although far too many employers don’t believe you’re actually working unless they can stare at you, which, when you think about it, is a little stalky/creepy).

If you’re not used to working remotely, it can be a paradox of the freedom of your own schedule and the lack of structure. Personally, I’m far more productive remotely, which means better quality of work and better bang for the buck. But it’s not just doing whatever you want whenever you want.

Here are some suggestions:

Have a Designated Workspace. This is important. You may be working from home; you may move around where you work (especially on a laptop or mobile device), but have a designated space to set up and spread out your materials, so you don’t lose things or get disorganized. It also helps you get into the work headspace.

Set Boundaries With Others in the Home. If you and your partner or roommates are both working from home, talk about how you’ll use the space together. If your partner’s not used to you being around, again, set boundaries. If kids are at home, discuss it with them. Parents are under huge stress, juggling their kids’ online education and their own remote work, or child care if they’re not allowed to work from home and their kids are out of school. It’s huge. Not enough support has been built in for the parents with kids at home, especially single parents. Figuring out how to share electronic devices when necessary, manage time and needs is huge.

You are working; you can’t be interrupted for any little thing or “this’ll just take a minute.” Interact at designated break times. Define “emergency” so if one happens, that’s an interruption. Set the boundaries, then HOLD them. There’s a difference between having some flexibility in your work day and not getting any actual work done because you’re being interrupted every two minutes. You are WORKING. That needs to be respected. And you need to respect the boundaries of anyone else in the house. Talk about it beforehand, make an agreement. If you need to modify, do it after the designated workday, in preparation for the next one. If you’ve got kids home, set up their activities/schoolwork close enough for everyone to feel comfortable, but with enough space for focused work, and take more breaks to hang out with them, answer questions, etc.

Shower. You’ll feel better, if you start the day with your normal shower routine (or maybe you’re someone who does that at the end of the day — whatever works).

Get Dressed. Plenty of remote workers will disagree with me on this. Some of them have “day pajamas” and “night pajamas.” Glad it works for them. My remote work clothes are definitely more casual than for on-site (except for videoconferencing). But they’re clothes. I joke about having to put on “real people pants” if I have to actually leave the house, but the writing clothes I spend my day in are different from what I sleep in, and not pajamas. It indicates to me that I’m in professional work mode.

Keep Hours Close to Your Regular Workday. The lack of commute should help make getting ready for your workday easier.  Maybe you can linger over your first cup of coffee, enjoy your breakfast, take a walk (keeping a safe distance from others). But be at your desk the time you would normally be at the desk; walk away from your desk at the time you would normally leave. Especially the first few days of remote work, keeping a similar schedule will help you adjust.

However, if you have a more flexible remote work schedule and you find your best hours are different than a normal work day, go for it. Clear it with your boss first, so you’re not getting calls and texts in the middle of the day when you’re asleep, make sure people understand you’ll be responding to emails at different hours (and don’t expect an immediate answer if you send an email at 3 AM),  and make sure you hit all deadlines. But if your natural rhythm is to work at 3 AM and you can do it within the framework of your remote situation, do so.

Time Blocks. Instead of checking email whenever it pings; check it once every few hours. Bundle your phone calls together. Better yet, make phone appointments via email. I only do phone by appointment (and charge for it in 15-minute increments). It saves a world of time and a world of pain. Have blocks of uninterrupted time when you work on what you’d work on at your desk — be it a newsletter or a report or a proposal. Track how much time you spend on different things, and your productivity levels. See where you might need to adjust.

Take Breaks. If you were in the office, you’d get up to refill the coffee or ask a co-worker a question or use the restroom. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to do that when you’re in your home office. If your kids are home, take longer breaks in your work and their schooling to do something fun together, if at all possible.

Take Lunch.You might eat at your desk in the office, but take the break for lunch. It’ll give you energy for your afternoon. Maybe step outside for a few minutes (if you’ve got enough yard or a balcony).

Communicate With Bosses and Co-Workers. Maybe you’re texting and emailing. Maybe it’s Skype. Maybe it’s Zoom or Slack or Trello or KanTree. But stay in touch.  Let your co-workers know your progress on projects; ask about theirs. Check in to see how they’re doing.  Research some other remote tools and suggest them.

Don’t Blow Off Virtual Meetings. Pay attention. Take notes. Especially if you’re in a position where you often had onsite meetings, the virtual meetings might need a bit of adjustment. But if a time set for a meeting is way out of line, speak up. 

Set an End Time. Especially early in the process. Aim to end at the same time you normally end your work day. If, for some reason, you took a chunk out of the middle of the day to do something or take care of something, you might need to add in at the end, either now or after dinner. But set an end time and walk away. Don’t keep answering work-related emails or texts or calls around the clock. That way lies madness, unpaid time, and resentment. Working remotely does NOT mean you are on call and working 24/7.

Tidy up Your Workspace At the End of the Day. It’ll make it easier to come back the next morning.

Exercise! If you’ve been walking to and from mass transit, you need something to do.  Try yoga or meditation or home workouts. If there’s a place you can walk safely while not breaking quarantine, do so. If you’re got stairs in your house, use them more frequently. I have yoga, meditation cushions, weights, a jump rope, and an exercise bicycle in the house. It makes a huge difference, both physically and mentally. There are some terrific exercise apps.

Connect With Other Remote Workers. There’s a great community of remote workers, happy to share resources. Scott Dawson, the author of THE ART OF WORKING REMOTELY, runs a weekly Twitter chat under the hash tag #remotechat. It’s on Wednesdays, at 1 PM EST. Michelle Garrett runs #freelancechat on Twitter on Thursdays at noon EST. There are dozens more. Participants are friendly and happy to share resources.

Set Up A Remote Hangout for Co-Workers. Whether it’s a free chat room on ProBoards or something on Zoom or Kantree, make sure you stay connected to your co-workers, especially if any of them are stressed and having a hard time.

Enjoy. Enjoy uninterrupted work time. Enjoy the lack of commute. Enjoy learning new tools and skills. Enjoy being around your family and pets more. Appreciate small moments you might miss in an ordinary day.

Adjust What Doesn’t Work. Some things will work; some will not. Adjust as you need to adjust. Keep lines of communication open. Don’t let worries fester. Try new tools and techniques. Let this be a type of professional development instead of a frightening inconvenience. Talk to those of us who love it –we’ll help all we can. See what tools and techniques you feel make your work and life better, and consider ways to integrate them into working onsite, when that’s ready to happen again.

Fellow remote workers, please feel free to jump in and leave any additional advice in the comments. New-to-remote workers, ask any questions, and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. 

Stay healthy!

Ink-Dipped Advice: The Artist Statement

One of my favorite projects to work on with clients is the Artist Statement. I love learning about the passion that drives an artist to make particular choices, and to help that artist articulate the passion, vision, and work ethic to an audience.

While it’s most often visual artists such as painters and sculptors who use artist statements, they are useful for writers, dancers, musicians, filmmakers, fiber artists, actors, and basically any other art form.

Why? What possible use is an Artist Statement?

On a public level, it introduces you to a larger audience and provides context for your work. The Artist Statement is used in:

—Grant Proposals

—Residency Applications

—Web sites

—Media kits/rooms

—Introductions to your work that go deeper into context than the bio

Bios are important, too, and I’m an advocate of the three bio lengths: 50 words, 100 words, 250 words, to cover every occasion.

The Artist Statement runs between 150-250 words. You want enough to inform and tantalize, but don’t want to run on and bore. Even if you’ve had a thrilling career, attention spans are short.

The Artist Statement needs to include:

Your medium. Talk about what your form is and why you chose it.

The passion that drives your work. Why do you do this? Why not spend your time and energy on something safe? What drives you to create? That can include a couple of biographical sentences, provided they are relevant to your work.

Project specifics. This is a changeable paragraph. In some uses, you will need to talk about a project to which the statement/proposal/residency is geared. In other uses, you will give a sentence or two about a handful of your best/favorite projects and their context — the why and where of the creation.

Process. This is a short, succinct paragraph on HOW you do what you do. Avoid run-on sentences and navel-gazing. Use active language throughout the statement, but it is especially important here.

Avoid:

Passive voice

Overuse of adverbs

Ego-centric adjectives

Exclamation points (unless they are part of a work’s title)

Write your initial statement longer than you need, and cut. Cut, cut, cut. Tweak language and word choice. You want it to sparkle. You want it to have impact to engage and enchant, not to make the audience recoil (even the work itself is meant to disturb).

Read it out loud. Read it, record it, listen to it. Better yet, have someone else read it, so you can really hear it. You want a musicality to the flow. You want it to build, not be a set of disjointed paragraphs. You are sharing a piece of your soul.

Realize it is a living part of your body of work. Revisit your statement after any major project, and at least once a year. Make necessary changes. Update it in all the places you post it publicly. 

As your work grows, so will your Artist Statement — although it doesn’t get longer! You adjust it for different phases of your career.

Keep your old statements. Keep a file of your old statements and re-read them every few years. You will see the growth and change. You can also decide if you want to use any of the information for your Career Overview, which is a different type of piece.

Don’t be afraid to pour your passion into your drafts. Then use craft to hone the final draft. Ultimately, your Artist Statement melds your passion to your talent to your craft, and shares it with the world.

If you have any questions about the Artist Statement, leave it in the comments, and I will respond as soon as I can. If you want to contact me about help writing your statement, you can email me at contact – at – fearlessink – dot – com. My rates are reasonable.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Creating Client Voice

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How does one create client voice?

There are dozens of techniques. Because of my background in theatre, I approach it as developing a character that represents the company, product, service.

This is a little different than if the company’s owner/founder/CEO is the primary spokesperson. That involves melding the individual’s personality with the personality they want to project to the public with the product or service. It’s more layered, and one often deals with more ego, especially in small business. Something the owner’s family thinks is a “cute” trait does not always go over well as part of a marketing campaign.

To create client voice, I need to know and understand:

–the company’s vision

–the company’s mission

–the product or service

–the creation process

–the target audience

–the possible extended audience

Plenty of freelancers I’ve encountered along the way will say this is more complicated than it needs to be. All you need is product/service and target market. That’s their approach, and more power to them.

But I’m creating a layered, complex character to engage an audience in a simple, direct way.

Because I am a theatre person, I approach the marketing piece as a play or film or radio drama, and I create characters. Not “representational” characters — they’re flat and boring. Not caricatures. But nuanced individuals who can communicate the company’s message.

Preliminary information is often on the website. If I’ve been hired to do a complete overhaul from the company, then we talk about how to change the tone and cadence of what’s on those sites and carry it through all the marketing materials.

“Vision” and “mission” are often thought of in terms of non-profits or large corporations, but they’re useful for small businesses, too.

“I create clothing (with pockets) that makes women feel beautiful and confident” is the vision statement for one of my clients who is a designer.

“I create pieces that flatter the figure, have pockets, and can be dressed up or down with confidence for any occasion” is the mission statement for the same client.

Yes, I created both of those to help focus her campaigns in my time with her.

But they are specific. My client is not trying to change the fashion industry or create shows for Fashion Week. She wants to make pieces that real women can wear and accessorize in flattering cuts that make them feel good. Some of them even have inspirational quotes sewn into the garment, so the wearer smiles and is inspired whenever she puts it on. She also knows the value of pockets in women’s garments, so most of her pieces have pockets.

There’s a sense of fun, easy elegance, and the use of natural fabrics that breathe and drape.

Her audience is women of all ages. Her extended audience is anyone who buys these women gifts or gift certificates.

Another client is an organic landscaper. His vision is that this area contains organic, sustainable yards around homes and in public areas that are beautiful, permaculture, and more habitat than putting green. His mission is to work with clients, one at a time, helping them create the yard of their dreams that is all of those things, and either continuing the maintenance, or teach them to care for it. His company also does educational programs for people from 7 to 97.

His target audience is residents of our area. His extended audience is anyone and everyone interested in sustainable, edible landscaping.

Both of these small business owners are strong personalities with distinct voices. It was a case of enlarging and dramatizing natural cadence and massaging out unnecessary words, such as qualifiers, too many adverbs, and passive voice.

What if a company or service does more than one thing?

Then, I create an overall “company tone.” I use what already works, and tweak, unless they specifically want a re-branding with a fresh voice. To change it simply to change it is ego on the writer’s part.

By “company tone” I mean the way any marketing material sounds inside the head of a potential audience member as they encounter it. We all “hear” as we read. By the choice and arrangement of words, I create a distinct voice that the reader hears as they read.

Within that company tone, each product/service gets a slight tweak to make it unique, but still fit within that tone. Each product or service becomes a character within the ensemble.

Part of creating the company tone is then rehearsing those who go out into the world and speak the company’s mission in that tone. The executives, the marketing people, the Board of Trustees (where appropriate). Again, this is something that many writers don’t do or see as part of their job. Technically, it’s not. The writer writes. What’s done with it from that point is not their business and out of their control.

But again, because of my theatre training, I can come in (or do via Skype) sessions that are similar to working with actors in a rehearsal studio to teach them how to speak in the company voice when they go to Chamber Events or do outreach in booths at fairs/tradeshows or however they physically deploy people to get the message out. It’s a lot of fun. It uses role-playing and rehearsal techniques to help people feel comfortable and have confidence to speak in the moment with enthusiasm and skill.  It helps the introverts of the company who are too often forced into extroversion have training and knowledge to sound spontaneous. They don’t have to search or fumble; it’s there for them to pull when they need it. They realize it’s not about them as Harry or Mabel or Serge, but about the company, and they are a conduit. Training in the voice takes a huge amount of pressure off the individuals who actually have to speak in that voice. Even for extroverts, it’s helpful for them to have the tone and points at the fingertips of their minds, ready to pull out in an instant.

We also laugh a lot, which makes any training seminar or workshop better!

I’m not telling them to be fake or be someone else or mislead the potential audience — I’m teaching them to layer the company voice over their own cadence and merge the two when they are out in the world as representatives of that company.

It’s sometimes a fine line, but an important one.

That tone is then consistent on the website, in the newsletters, correspondence, media kits, social media posts, and whatever other materials a particular company uses. It’s modified for blog posts, because it’s vitally important to have unique voices when you have more than one blogger. Still within the framework of the company tone, but with each voice being unique. I think of it as the way singers work in a choral ensemble: the unique voices blend in harmony to sing the company song. Or the way different instruments in an orchestra blend to create a symphony.

In my opinion, one of the reasons many magazines tank is because the individual writers’ voices are smoothed out to an even tone throughout the publication. I used to read magazines to get excited by snippets of unique voices; now, every article sounds the same, and the same type of piece shows up every year in the same season.

A way to make one’s blog more engaging is to have more than one person writing content, or at least SOUND like more than one person writes content if it’s in-house. I admit, I have ghostwritten blogs where I’ve written in more than one contributor’s voice. I’ve written it all, but we talked it through, and each post sounds like the individual under whose by-line it appears. Another possibility is to invite guest posters who are knowledgeable about the product or service. Yes, they’ll all need editing, but if the editor keeps the writer’s voice and lets it sing within the company voice, the blog’s readership grows. The blog will both engage and sustain.

Getting back to the “how” on creating voice:

Listen, listen, listen, listen. Then listen some more.

I talk about listening constantly.  I ask questions. I listen to the words. I listen to what is under the words. I listen to what is between the words. Subtext matters in marketing, although it needs to be even more delicate than in fiction or on stage. I look at the actions. I prefer to do this in person, or via Skype. Phone-only is the last choice (and, since I charge for phone time in 15-minute increments, more costly for the client). Meeting time is paid, not free, although a set number of meetings either in person or via Skype are part of the standard contract. Phone time is always separate.

Then I create.

The creative process is difficult to break down and dissect. Much of what I do to create client voice comes from within, once I absorb mission, vision, cadence, target, and once I know, inside-out, about what I’m writing. It’s taking the best of what I know about character development from writing scripts and fiction and melding it with a real product. Background, motivation, frame of reference, stakes, desires — all of that go into building a character. All of that relates to how an individual responds to a product. It relates to how to convince the audience, through the character, that the product or service is worthwhile.

It borders the realm of marketing writing with mission-specific entertainment.

Writing a video or audio script with actual characters to sell a product is a little different. That adds another layer to the client voice, by breaking it down into facets and challenges, and will be the basis for another post (or this one will go on forever). That is closer to mission-specific entertainment, but again, there’s a subtle difference.

I take the process seriously, and it gets results. That’s why content mill work and “you’re expected to write 10-20 articles a week” isn’t the type of situation that works for me.

Creating a client voice that shows the best of the product/service/organization and engages, enchants, and expands an audience takes time, care, LOTS of revision along the way, and focus.

But the results are worth it, for everyone involved.

How do you create client voice?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Before the LOI

Recent conversations with fellow freelancers have included discussions on how to decide where to send one’s LOIs. Because I work in different arenas — the business equivalent of working across genre lines — I thought I’d share some of my experiences.

What Do I Want?

The flippant answer is, of course, the gig. But it’s more complicated than that.

It goes back to the work we did on our personal strategic plan. What do I want?

I want to tell stories that engage and enlarge audiences for business people and creatives who are passionate about their work. I want to help them spread the message.

That means I have to give a damn about what they do, and I have to trust their ethics. Plenty of writers don’t have to care, they sit down and write the gig. It’s about craft and communicating the client’s passion, and has little to do with their own. More power to them. My best work is when I also care about what I’m writing about — whether it’s forwarding a non-profit’s mission or extolling a client’s new product. I need to give a damn.

Ethics-wise, I have turned down high-paid gigs because I would be writing to promote something I believed was wrong. To accept the job, the money, and do the work, I would not be true to myself. Therefore, I am not the best person for the job, and refused the job.

If another writer chooses to write against what they believe in for the cash, that is their choice. I don’t live in their skins; they don’t live in mine. We have to make the decisions we need to make, for the various reasons we make them.

In addition, I want to be paid a fair price for the job. I want to be paid on time, as a professional in the field. This is my business, my livelihood, not my hobby. I have the right to enjoy my job. To say that people who love their jobs “don’t need” to be paid for them is ridiculous. So is saying writing isn’t a “real job.”

I want reasonable working hours and decent working conditions. I want to be treated with respect and dignity.

Who Needs My Skills & Do They Meet My Needs?

That’s where research comes in. I keep an eye out for companies and businesses that do interesting things. Sometimes it’s in the arts; sometimes it’s environmental/conservation/non-profit. Sometimes it’s a small business with a product or service. As I said, I do many different things. I’m interested in many different things.

Sometimes I meet someone at a networking event. Or I see a listing for a company and decide to do some research. If I like what I see, I write an LOI introducing myself, why I’m excited about the company, and where I think my skills might be a positive addition to their team.

I don’t bash what they’re doing or demean their current team. I’m there to help them, not get someone fired.

Research

I also dig a bit to find out what negative comments are made about the company, personnel, mission, or product. Then, I try to look at it in context. There are many reasons someone might have a bad experience. Is this something with evidence I can further research? Or a bad match and this is lashing out? It’s not always easy to find out; that’s where I trust my instincts.

I read a lot & try to keep up to date on who’s doing what where, who moves from position to position, how companies change their branding and business models. I also listen at networking events. Sometimes, a throwaway comment over a glass of wine and a crab puff can give you more information than a profile in a business mag.

Quite a bit of work goes into the LOI. It has to, or it’s not worth it for the recipient to respond. Well-researched, well-written introductions can set the stage for a positive partnership. Maybe it won’t be next week. Maybe it will be six months or a year down the line.

But long-term is as important as short-term. We could go into bad garden analogies here, but you get the idea.

How do you decide who to target? Or who not to target, when you create your LOIs?