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What the pool guy can teach us about selling freelance creative

I’ve recently moved into a house which, two owners ago, was tricked out with all the bells and whistles available in the early 1990s. Most of these tchotchkes have fallen into disrepair and must either be abandoned (like the in-wall coax cabling throughout the house) or gussied up. This has caused visits by a stream of spa guys, pool guys and sprinkler guys and I’ve noticed something interesting and consistent in the way they address my wife and me which can help in selling freelance creative.

“See the three holes in the top of that sprinkler head?” says the sprinkler guy. “That’s a Toro. They require a special tool to open the head, so you have to call a service to do it for you. I’ll replace all those with Rainbirds you can adjust yourself.”

“This is junk,” says the pool guy as he turns the handle on the filter tank. “$125 for a new one.” Water starts to ooze out. “Look at that.” As the gaskets become saturated, the leaks stop. “Well, maybe it’s good for one more season. But keep an eye on it. If you lose your prime [which for some reason is what they call pressure in the system] then your pool will become filled with algae.”

What’s happening in both these instances is that the contractor is sharing a do-it-yourself tip to make me, the client, feel in control while simultaneously instill fears, uncertainties and doubts that I’ll actually be able to do it.

“Write like you talk,” you might tell a client who thinks they can do their own copywriting. “Short sentences, no more than 10 words on average but break those up with an occasional one- or two-word sentence. Paragraphs no longer than five lines, but break them up with an occasional one-line or even one-word paragraph. And your vocabulary should be plain English. No words over ten characters if possible.”

Now who’s going to remember all that? The guy is going to dutifully write it down, and possibly try it, but will quickly abandon the effort and call you. And you may well be able to ease your estimate a bit higher because they now have more appreciation of your craft.

This is why I shake my head at creatives who present their work as a black box and refuse to open the kimono and explain what they’re doing. The more you tell them, the more they will respect and trust you, and the more likely they are to hire you to do it for them. Now I’ve got to go down in the basement, because the last owner loved to tinker with his sprinklers and I’m pretty sure he had one of those special Toro tools.

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