February 12, 2013Shut up and prosper

A guest post by Tom Albrighton

I shake my head when I look back at my younger freelancing self. Fresh on the market, I imagined that getting clients meant telling everybody about the incredible array of skills I’d built up over my ‘career’. Once they saw how good I was, commissions would surely follow.

So I created a rather fussy little website at, entitled it ‘business content consultancy’ (what?) and filled it with pages on the stuff I could do and (shudder) my ‘approach’. Here’s a screenshot:


My website circa 2006

Admittedly, I was ahead of the game in banging on about ‘content’, but the attitude of the site is a complete facepalm. Could I have been more wrong?

Listen and learn

When people work with freelancers, they’re not looking for an expert. They’re looking for a friend.

Oh sure, they’ll need to see some clients and projects to post-rationalise their choice. Some may even ask you about your background. But whenever I start talking about mine, the prospect usually starts drifting off, and often interrupts me so they can talk some more about themselves.

What people really want is a professional scratching post. Someone with no political agenda or emotional baggage. Someone who will offer them, insofar as it’s possible in a business setting, unconditional love. Someone, in other words, completely unlike their colleagues in every way.

Such a person isn’t a talker. They are a listener.

To put it another way, clients don’t care about you. Your skills, your experience, your history – it’s all irrelevant. All they’re interested in is what you can offer them – right now.

Think about first impressions

Listening starts on the home page. Having tried it several ways, I’ve found the most success with a layout that includes very few words. I know other very successful writers have very busy home pages, full of content and panels and stuff, but I’ve found myself moving away from that.

Instead of trying to lay out all my wares, or offer a range of ‘hooks’ to reel the first-time visitor in, I try to create a space on to which the visitor can, to some extent, project themselves. Insofar as a web page can ‘listen’, I try to make mine do exactly that.

For my money, my host Alastaire Allday is a great example of a writer who’s got the first impressions absolutely right.

His home page says little, but promises much. There he is with his notepad, ready to take your brief. He looks like someone you can open up and talk to – someone you can do business with – and that’s what clients really want.


OK, Al talks about himself. He shows his own picture. He’s doesn’t say ‘you’ every other word. In that sense, he’s not ‘listening’. But by using so little copy, he says his piece and then gets out of the reader’s way. The resulting white space – which is psychological as well as visual – gives the visitor plenty of ‘breathing room’ in which to start making a buying decision.

At the same time, Al’s copy sends three very important meta-messages: ‘I’m confident in my abilities’, ‘I communicate clearly’ and ‘I can do this for you’.

Focus your offer

Getting this right is hard. I have worked with several first-time entrepreneurs who were guilty of overtalking about their offer. Instead of a clear, simple proposition with an easy-to-understand price tag, there were myriad add-ons, discounts, features, customisations and options whirling about.

Such hypercommuncation does not convey confidence. Nor does it close the sale. It flows from an understandable desire to cover all bases, to be all things to all people. The result, however, is an incoherent mess.

Because the copywriter has to turn all that stuff into something relatively focused, they’re well placed to make the business owner think through what is really valuable, and what is not. Here, the writer’s role is not really saying things, but deciding which things need not be said.

Don’t talk yourself out of a sale

Negotiating a freelance job is another time when it can be prudent to zip it. As all good salesmen know, there comes a point at which you have taken the prospect as far as you can. You’ve set out the offer, answered the queries and quoted the price. It’s time for the client to make up their mind.

Now, the inexperienced freelancer may continue to talk at this point. In the process, they may talk themselves out of the sale. No-one likes uncomfortable silences, and ‘dead air’ in a conversation with a potential new client can be excruciating. Sometimes, though, it’s essential – because it provides the ‘white space’ in which the prospect decides.

I guess it might seem strange for someone who sells words to be telling people to use less of them. But there are the words you use, and there are the words your audience hears in their minds. If you’re going to reach them, you need to think about both.

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter based in Norwich and tweets at @tomcopy

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2013 at 10:06 pm and is filed under Blog, Guest Post. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.


  1. Matt says:

    Oh, so true!

    Until you reach a “guru” level you’re wise to just focus your communication on showing how your input is going to lead to their benefit. Subcommunications convey certainty, authority, credibility etc.

    Before guru level there just isn’t a high enough level belief in you as an achiever for them to reason that listening intently to details that don’t concern them is worth their time.

  2. Thanks. You’ve convinced me. Also, I think it’s important to resist the pressure to fill space, and use typography and positioning to make few words say much.

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