Constantly selling yourself is one of the hardest parts of freelancing. Even when we have great ideas and solid writing skills, many of us don’t know where to begin when it comes to self-marketing. CMG Freelance held a panel discussion on self-marketing last Friday in Toronto at the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel.
Vancouver-based freelance broadcaster Paolo Pietropaolo moderated the discussion between freelance print and broadcast journalist Aparita Bhandari, NGO campaigner, playwright and artist Maggie MacDonald, documentary director Juan Baquero, and freelance writer Kelli Korducki. Here are some of the questions that were raised and the advice that was offered by this diverse and talented group of freelancers.
What’s your primary tool for selling yourself?
Juan: Social media. Having a website that’s well designed and reflects who you are is very important. There’s always pressure as a freelancer to take on whatever work comes your way, but in the last couple of years he’s learned that by being what you are and not everything everyone wants you to be, you can reach a greater level of success. So he has started saying no to jobs that don’t fit his personal brand.
Kelli: Twitter. Target specific people whose attention you want to reach. Facebook is for more social connections.
Maggie: Engaging socially in person is important. Staying in touch with communities your work would appeal to is crucial.
Part of our skill as storytellers is being able to meet people and draw stories out of them. But it’s hard to tell stories about yourself when you’re trying to market your skills. Any advice?
Kelli: Ask friends and colleagues to help. Ask them to tell you what you do. This helps you come up with “keywords” that will help you sell yourself.
How do you find a balance between enough self promotion and too much?
Maggie: Keep in mind that you’re contributing to a public conversation by sharing your work. Engage with your community.
Aparita: She will often retweet people she admires in journalism or activism. When she promotes her own work, she tries to keep the focus on the people she’s profiled so that it’s more of a conversation. She tries to make sure her tweets don’t come off as bragging.
Juan: He doesn’t share things about himself directly, just information he comes across that he finds useful and that he thinks other people will find useful as well. He’s also quite self-conscious about putting himself out there and potentially “wasting people’s time.”
You often hear the advice that you should be yourself on social media and the rest will follow. Do you agree?
Kelli: She thinks it’s essential to inject your voice into your Twitter. People get a sense of your work from your tweets. Not always being on-message is a good idea. Don’t say something that’s going to piss off your audience, but a little bit of weirdness is probably a good thing. The people who are best at Twitter are the people who balance commentary with personality.
Juan: There’s so much noise out there that he’s hesitant to put himself out there and create more noise. But there’s a need for experts to curate information. That’s his comfort zone — not tweeting about himself but helping make some sense about what is out there.
What about selling yourself privately to individual editors in order to get work? What are some of the things to keep in mind?
Maggie: Gather as much information as possible beforehand. This helps to prevent you from wasting your time. Keep everything for later use. You can use bits of rejected pitches or grant proposals for new ones later on. Every time you’re thinking these things through, it’s useful for future pitches.
Kelli: Keep it succinct, to the point. What you want to get across is: “this is my idea, this is why I will do it better than anyone else, this is why I want to do it.”
Aparita: All her pitches are pretty much the same. She tries to find out as much as she can in a pre-interview so she talks to people as much as she can to find out what the story is even before the story is commissioned. Write a nut graph encapsulating the essence of the story. It’s easier when you already have a relationship with the editor you’re pitching to.
How do you find new relationships with editors?
Aparita: Use your existing relationships to find new relationships. She never begins with a pitch, always introduces herself first, says she’d love to meet the editor before sending an idea. She hates pitching blind.
Maggie: She tries to set up longview connections, coffee dates and networking meetings with people she can see herself pitching to even years in the future. Especially when she’s travelling, she tries to make use of existing connections to make new connections while she’s there. She’s always looking for people to start relationship building with.
If you get a rejection or no response at all from an editor, how do you handle it? How do you turn that negative into a positive?
Aparita: The best advice is to never get discouraged. It’s not that people don’t want to listen to you, they might just not have time. Sometimes there’s a soul-sucking aspect to pitching, but you have to brush it off and keep going. Sometimes it’s worth it to repurpose the pitch, sometimes you should just let it go and move on.
Kelli: If she gets radio silence, she follows up afterwards. Sometimes you’ll get some idea of why the person didn’t like it. That might give you an idea how you can rework it and send it somewhere else.
Maggie: With a rejection, there’s often vague or false encouragement. Same with a friendly rejection. She loves to pester and keep sending ideas if she’s received a friendly response or vague encouragement. She’s gotten helpful feedback that way.
Juan: Don’t take it personally. There are so many reasons why people don’t want to commission your work. But if you stick around and you’re serious and you’re respectful, things will happen eventually. Now commissioning editors call him asking if he’s looking for work. And that’s because he’s built those relationships over time. Put your ego aside.
What about that moment when you have an idea and decide it’s time to take it straight to the audience?
Aparita: She hasn’t acted on that impulse yet. She’s contemplating it increasingly day by day. The industry is in such a moment of flux that it’s still figuring itself out. She’s contemplating self-publishing very seriously. For her own personal development, she needs to start doing it seriously so she can prove herself and build her chops.
Juan: In film, new platforms have popped up to fill the void left by editors no longer commissioning creative documentaries. “The gathr“crowdfunding site, for example.
Maggie: She used Indiegogo for the last play she put on. She only needed $1000 so it was quick because they were specific. They made an outline of the things they were going to do with that money and she was surprised at how well it worked. This is also becoming the norm in the music industry.
Where do you get your ideas?
Kelli: She comes up with ideas when she’s not thinking about coming up with ideas and is just living in the world. She writes them down immediately and pitches them when she’s procrastinating on a writing deadline.
Juan: He finds general themes he’s interested in and starts reaching out to people who are doing something related. This sometimes brings a lot of bad ideas but it leads to a deeper understanding of what the subject has to offer.
It’s hard to get email responses from editors a lot of the time, so how do you get editors to agree to an in person meeting?
Maggie: She looks for people in her network who can introduce her. She also goes to a lot of events where she might have a chance to interact with people she might want to work with. Hang out at the snack tray and try to meet people! She doesn’t tend to be mercenary about it, though. She tends to be actually interested in what the person is doing or working on. It’s a good foot to start on, to build conversations.
What’s the best type of contact with editors: email or phone?
Kelli: She usually uses email, but she thinks the phone is underused and keeps meaning to use it more because it’s a big time saver.
Aparita: She sends an email and says she’s going to follow up by phone. The phone has the advantage of taking people by surprise. Once even sent a handwritten letter!
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