I recently attended a writers’ conference and listened to a panel teaching us “Brand You.”
Not the hot metal mark seared into your butt kind.
The “I’m unique because” kind.
I’m lousy at sound-bite self-definition, which is driving American business as never before, thanks to Twitter, (which I don’t use), Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media.
And tomorrow in Manhattan I’m attending a huge blogging conference, BlogHer, where I’ll have to tout yourself in a few pithy syllables.
I was raised, culturally (Canada) and by my (accomplished but quiet about it) family and by my profession (journalism) not to toot my horn all the damn time.
Have you ever heard of “tall poppy” syndrome? In Australia, the tallest poppy — i.e. the boastful braggart — gets its pretty little head lopped off for its temerity. The Japanese and Swedes have their own expressions for this as well.
Canadians just find chest-beating socially gauche, and assume you’re a pushy American. So that whole brand-building thing, there, is often considered about as attractive as passing wind. Modesty is highly prized, so how to “be a brand” and do so in a low-key way, somehow escapes me.
(Being modest is easier in a smaller nation with tighter social and professional networks. There are more than 300 million Americans, some of them breathtakingly aggressive. Remaining invisible often means professional suicide.)
I still think (yes, I know I’m wrong!), that the quality of my body of work should speak for itself. This constant, tedious “watchmewatchmewatchmeeeeeeee!” of a three-year-old at the pool — now considered part of “building your personal brand” — remains a behavior I find a little infantile. Even after 20+ years in the U.S. and near New York City, where sharp elbows are a pre-requisite for survival.
Here are a few phrases I think define me and my work:
I love this song, Helplessness Blues, by Fleet Foxes:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see
What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I began selling my photos when I was 17, and my writing when I was 19, so I’ve been at this for a while. I also grew up, as I’ve written here before, in a family of freelancers. No one had a paycheck or pension, just their talent, hard work and ability to negotiate — or have an agent or lawyer do it for them.
So I grew up lucky in this respect, knowing firsthand that many things in life are negotiable.
— Know what you want to achieve before you take/make the call, send the email, Fed-Ex a work sample or schedule a meeting. People are busy, juggling family and work, study and travel. The kind of people you probably most want to negotiate with, i.e. with a budget or network that might use your skills, are probably really busy. Decide exactly what you want to have happen as a result of your interaction with this person: a gig, a contract, a column, an ongoing relationship, a referral. That clarity will focus your thoughts and actions.
— What’s your fallback position? We all know we might not get exactly what we want or even 20 percent of what we want. So what are your Plans B-F? Have a few alternative outcomes in mind, and ones less demanding or risky to your contact, so you don’t have to end the conversation with a shrug or silence. I’ve asked for all kinds of things I never got. It’s all experience, information and practice.
— Know, and stick to, your absolute deal-breakers. We all have them. They’re called principles. Know when and why you will simply walk away from a deal. Unless you’re about to become homeless if you don’t take on this gig, you have choices. Never assume you have to take on anything because you are young or inexperienced or new to the city, whatever. If a contact really skeeves you out, drop it. There are other clients out there! Yes, really.
— Do your due diligence. Before you initiate contact with anyone with whom you hope to do business, you must try to find out who they are, how they think, where they were educated, (back to grade school, if possible), their cultural or religious background, their global perspective (or lack of same) and some of their private passions, whether soccer, Chopin or ska. Your goal is not only not to offend, but to connect, authentically and enthusiastically, with their interests, experiences and values. Most people want to work with smart and enjoyable people, not just perky opaque robots trying to suck up to them and sellsellsell. Between every form of social media, and some thoughtful sleuthing, you can easily come to the table with a deep(er) appreciation of your contact’s perspective.
— What do they want? Basic, but easily forgotten in our rush to get the gig, get paid, get paid more, become famous, get the referral, whatever. You must have some clear notion how they’re thinking about this meeting, (even only by phone or email), in order to think through your arguments and talking points. What’s their motivation for taking your call, reading your email or coming to a meeting with you now?
— Have you investigated the potential obstacles to getting what you want from them? Maybe your contact’s life is in turmoil professionally or personally, (i.e. be patient), or their business/industry is tanking (see: due diligence), or they don’t know enough about you to feel you’re worth their time or money or (worst case) they might have heard or seen something negative about you. Until and unless you anticipate (and overcome) these possible roadblocks, your negotiation is imperiled by poor preparation.
— Never arrive empty-handed. I don’t mean arrive at a business meeting carrying flowers, but bring some intellectual brio to the game. I had two meetings in the past two days, one by phone with someone who is an absolute leader in his field and one this morning with another like him. I was honored, and nervous! In both instances, to my surprise, I shared some information with them that was news to each. The point? Offer something of value to them — a book, a link, a blog they might not have heard of, re-con on a client or conference in your shared field of interest. Don’t just suck up their time and energy.
— Assistants and secretaries are your best friends. I’ve often been on a first-name basis with someone’s right hand long — i.e. months of calls and emails to them alone — before I ever got to deal with my target client/source directly. Be kind, patient and genuinely friendly with them. They’re making decisions about you with every contact, and can grease the wheels to a meeting, (and that negotiation you’re itching for) or kill it.
— Know what your competitors are doing. Every freelancer in the world is competing with dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of others with excellent skills/education/contacts/experience. Don’t freak out about it. But be aware what others are getting (in payment, terms, conditions) by staying on top of your industry. So if you come in quoting rates much higher than your competitors’, be ready for push-back and know how to clearly explain the value you offer. (If you’re always desperately low-balling, that’s a failed negotiation in my book.)
— Why do they want you? This is key to a successful outcome. Unless or until you’ve established a clear, consistent and impressive track record that shows your value, you don’t have much. This puts you in a weak(er) negotiating position. So what’s your strategy? Will you work for less? (Maybe there are other significant benefits here beyond cash.) Can you get a referral or reference from this client? If you have a strong hand, use it! I’ve asked for more, and gotten it. You can’t get (any of) what you don’t ask for.
— What’s their budget? A standard question I get is: “How much will it cost me to have you….” Edit a manuscript or write website copy or help tailor a query letter. My standard answer is: “What’s your budget?” That often kills it right there, as they have no idea, or they hope it’s really cheap, and I’m not. You also to determine their goals, timeline, internal and external obstacles and resources. If they can’t pony up the money you want(ed), is there another benefit this gig or client can offer?
At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates…
We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.
One of the rituals my husband and I enjoy is my driving him to the commuter train station in the morning. It’s only about 10 minutes door to door, but it’s a nice chance to connect and chat before his 40-minute commute and a crazy life working at the Times, one with six meetings every day.
We talk a lot, usually two or three times, briefly, by phone and maybe an hour or two in the evening. That’s a great deal more than many couples, certainly those with multiple children juggling conflicting schedules.
But sitting across the table from someone, sharing a glass of wine or cup of coffee, seems to have become an unimaginable luxury. How else can we ever get to know one another? I’ve had two female friends tell me, only after many years of knowing them, that they had each been sexually abused as a child.
That took a lot of trust and courage. I don’t think most of us would want to share such intimacies only through a computer or phone screen.
I love road trips, six or eight or ten hours in a vehicle with my husband, or friends, or my Dad. You get a lot said, and the silences are companionable.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, (on Virgin Air, maybe the reason for such indie fellow travelers), my outbound flight had a career musician beside me, Homer Flynn, who has spent a long life making very cool music in a band called The Residents. Their Wikipedia entry is huge! We had a great conversation, for more than an hour, about the nature of creativity, about managing a long and productive worklife, about inspiration.
On the flight home — 5.5 hours — I had a similar conversation with my seatmate, a visual artist a little older than I.
Ironically, she’d just opened and started to read a book about introverts and I figured she’d never want to chat. But we discovered we had so much in common we talked the whole way! She had even attended the same East Coast prep school as my mother.
Another flight, from Winnipeg to Vancouver, placed me beside a coach for the Toronto Argonauts, a professional football team. Orlando Steinauer and I had a great time comparing notes on the world of professional sport and professional writing. We found it hard to decide which is more bruising!
As you can see, conversation is my oxygen. I love meeting fun new people and hearing their stories.
It’s why, after 36 years as a journalist, I still enjoy my work — and the comments I get here. I’m endlessly curious about people.
Do you make time in your life now for face to face conversations?
Signs are multiplying that the rate of growth of blogs has slowed in many parts of the world. In some countries growth has even stalled.
Blogs are a confection of several things that do not necessarily have to go together: easy-to-use publishing tools, reverse-chronological ordering, a breezy writing style and the ability to comment. But for maintaining an online journal or sharing links and photos with friends, services such as Facebook and Twitter (which broadcasts short messages) are quicker and simpler.
Charting the impact of these newcomers is difficult. Solid data about the blogosphere are hard to come by. Such signs as there are, however, all point in the same direction. Earlier in the decade, rates of growth for both the numbers of blogs and those visiting them approached the vertical. Now traffic to two of the most popular blog-hosting sites, Blogger and WordPress, is stagnating, according to Nielsen, a media-research firm. By contrast, Facebook’s traffic grew by 66% last year and Twitter’s by 47%. Growth in advertisements is slowing, too. Blogads, which sells them, says media buyers’ inquiries increased nearly tenfold between 2004 and 2008, but have grown by only 17% since then. Search engines show declining interest, too.
People are not tiring of the chance to publish and communicate on the internet easily and at almost no cost. Experimentation has brought innovations, such as comment threads, and the ability to mix thoughts, pictures and links in a stream, with the most recent on top. Yet Facebook, Twitter and the like have broken the blogs’ monopoly.
I am about to start a new blog, for an Australian website, on women and work (only twice a month, luckily) and have been sadly neglecting/ignoring the blog I began at theopencase.com, which covers crime.
How much can anyone have to say?
Blogging, for me, has a number of challenges:
1) I need to be paid for my work and most blogs don’t pay; 2) I need what I say to be intelligent, amusing, helpful. I don’t feel that everything I think is worth posting. That slows my production. 3) There is an insatiable quality to blogging, the feeling that you have to be on top of your issues all the time which (see point 1) is lovely if you’re independently wealthy and can take lots of unpaid time to opine on-line or you are OK shooting your mouth off and knowing it’s out there for all sorts of people to see; 4) people whose opinions can make a difference to my career are reading this stuff. Which is good. It’s very flattering indeed to see some of the links to major websites that analyze journalism, but it reminds me that I need to be thoughtful — not just fast or first.
This blog began July 1, 2009 and this is my 844th post. Crazy. I’m pooped!
I don’t think I’m that fascinating, so the frequency isn’t a reflection of my ego, and need to be heard (which it may well look like!) but my desire to hit the numbers I needed — 5,000 or 10,000 unique visitors per month — to reach my T/S bonuses. My best month was May, with more than 15,000. That was pocket change to people like Matt Taibbi, but a lot for me.
Today, more people are tweeting or using Facebook to communicate their own thoughts and personal data, while blogs are becoming niche or micro-niche areas of specialty, like the one referenced in that story from Sweden on how to paint your house.
Now I’m becoming even more of a dinosaur…if I used to be Stegosaurus (being a generalist in a hyper-specialized medium) I’m starting to feel like a trilobite…primordial ooze, even.
I still read very few blogs, but I do read Facebook several times a day, and have found many items I use here — like this one — from others’ posts there. I have FB friends in Bhutan, Paris, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and many of them are fellow journos or photographers, people traveling or noticing fun stuff. A few (sigh) are endless, tedious self-promoters.
I’ll soon start tweeting (saying what exactly?!) as instructed by the publicist for my book publisher. I need to (further) build a set of readers eager, one hopes, to reach for my retail book when it appears next spring. I wouldn’t tweet unless ordered to do so. But this is the new world. Many writers now spend as much time, sometimes more, publicizing their work than actually producing it.
Do you spend more time now on Facebook and Twitter than reading or writing blogs? Why?
They’re called “aperos geants” — huge, boozy street parties organized through Facebook. Sort of flash mob meets keg party.
There have been five of them so far this year, reports Liberation, the leftist Parisian daily, in the provincial, mid-sized cities of Nantes, Brest, Nimes, Rennes and Montpellier. They began November 10, 2009 in Nantes when 3,000 people gathered. Last Wednesday, a 21 year-old fell, drunk, off a bridge to his death, prompting a meeting of local, regional and federal officials to prevent the trend from spreading or causing any further deaths.
Plus tôt dans la matinée, Jean-Marc Ayrault, le maire PS de Nantes, avait demandé au ministère de l’Intérieur d’organiser «une concertation» pour «casser la spirale» de ces apéros géants.
«L’interdiction pure et simple? Ce n’est pas forcément la solution. Regardez, à Montpellier, le préfet a pris un arrêté d’interdiction et il y avait 11.000 personnes dans les rues», a jugé le chef de file des députés PS. Deux députés socialistes, Claude Bartolone et Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, ont estimé de leur côté qu’il ne fallait pas interdire les apéros géants mais les réguler.
I found this New York Times story compelling — selfishly — as someone recently largely confined to quarters recovering from a bad bout of osteoarthritis and a back spasm. Two friends, both self-employed writers, one living in a fourth-floor walk-up, are also at home with their own back issues. Comparing notes, checking in with one another and commiserating has made it more bearable.
Thank heaven for email and Facebook!
A diagnosis of a chronic or terminal illness is bad enough — but the added, enforced social, physical and emotional isolation that often comes with it can make things a lot worse.
If you are, as many are, much younger than those typically facing a specific illness or condition, friends in your peer group may have no idea what you face, and may find it depressing or frightening to discuss.
If no one in your family has it — my Dad, 80, and I are comparing athritis meds these days! — who really understands your daily struggles?
You need people who get it and can help:
For many people, social networks are a place for idle chatter about what they made for dinner or sharing cute pictures of their pets. But for people living with chronic diseases or disabilities, they play a more vital role.
“It’s really literally saved my life, just to be able to connect with other people,” said Sean Fogerty, 50, who has multiple sclerosis, is recovering from brain cancer and spends an hour and a half each night talking with other patients online.
People fighting chronic illnesses are less likely than others to have Internet access, but once online they are more likely to blog or participate in online discussions about health problems, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the California HealthCare Foundation.
“If they can break free from the anchors holding them down, people living with chronic disease who go online are finding resources that are more useful than the rest of the population,” said Susannah Fox, associate director of digital strategy at Pew and author of the report.