Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On First Impressions

Originally posted on, Gotham friend (and speechwriting pro) Colin Moorhouse advises freelancers and their clients on the art of the first meeting.

Freelancers: How to win a speechwriting client
By Colin Moorhouse
What freelancers and clients should listen for in the first five minutes of a conversation

If you’re an experienced freelance writer, you know this already: Prospective clients make up their minds about you very quickly—by the sound of your voice over the telephone, and the intelligence of your conversation. You don’t pass muster in that first five minutes, you know there will be no subsequent face-to-face to determine if you fill the bill.

I can’t help you with the sound of your voice, but you should know that they are listening for beneath-the-surface clues. Can they trust you to put words—the right words—in their or their boss’s mouths?

As for the conversation, the best way to sound intelligent is to say little. After the introductions are over, just shut up and listen. It is their dime after all, and you really need to hear what they are saying and what they are not. And frankly the more they talk, the more committed to you they become.

While you’re listening, you can take in other considerations:

They ask about money right off the bat. That means they don’t have much.

They have left the job to the last minute and expect you to bail them out of a jam. If you could only do a so-so job in a short time frame, turn it down and explain why. The good ones will appreciate your honesty and professionalism and think of you the next time. The others you don’t need.

The steepness of the learning curve. Alarm bells should begin to go off if the topic is highly specialized— particularly if the speech is for an internal audience of experts. I was once asked to write a speech for a defense establishment—to be delivered to an audience who specialized in buying—“procuring” I believe was the quaint phrase they used—military equipment. I knew immediately that there would be a lingo of military jargon that I didn’t have a chance of learning, much less understanding, before I would even begin to know the right questions to ask. Pass.

The biggest deal-killer of all is if the speakers don’t know the message they want to deliver. I am happy to walk them through the matter of messaging. Hell, I will even make one up for them. But unless or until we agree on the message, it’s a no-go.

Now of course specific messaging is not something you will hammer out in that first five minutes, but it is important that, in the limited amount of talking you allow yourself to do, you let them know that is the first thing you will be broaching when you get down to work.

Of course, if you happen to be the client doing the calling, flip the perspective.

In your five minutes you should listen for something else. Does the speechwriter appear to have a pulse? Is there any enthusiasm behind his/her words? I found out how important that was to a CEO client of very large international concern a few years ago. After we decided to do business I asked him why he chose me over two scriptwriters he interviewed.

Apparently they made him feel like they were doing him a favor by taking on his speech—something to do while waiting for their next (read important) television job. They didn’t say that of course but that was the impression they clearly left. He said that he felt I really liked what I did and that I would bring a similar enthusiasm to what he did. Deal sealed.

It is not a bad initial litmus test. Speechwriters might be able to fake sincerity over the phone about their mastery of their craft, but not their passion for it. You know they have a track record, or you wouldn’t have called them in the first place. So, if they also love what they do, if they do more listening than talking but are assertive enough to lay down a few ground rules of their own, and if they are likable (no small matter, that) then I would grab them fast.

You both can talk money in the sixth minute.

Colin Moorhouse has been winning over clients to his Vancouver-based freelance speechwriting business for many years. He may be reached at

No comments: