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The Flush Freelancer Five (FFF) #5: Your Communication Skills

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a.k.a. Get Great on the Phone

Pity the poor phone. Once a miracle of long-distance communication and the centerpiece of a million spy movies and film noir epics, it’s been relegated to a device for watching YouTube cat videos, taking selfies at the edge of dangerous gorges, swiping right for late-night hookups, and ordering General Tso’s chicken delivery. It’s been superseded by Zoom, Google Meet, Go2Meeting, and the intruding annoyance of video calls. (Did it ever occur to anyone that I don’t want to have to shave in order to conduct business?) Sometimes, we forget that even as they have become massively powerful supercomputers, our phones are also incredible tools for relationship building—and closing deals.

In this series, I’ve stated that I have many go-to tools for building a consistent flow of top-quality work: my website, reputation building, and my professional network, among others. But this last one is a deep, dark secret that I’ve never heard talked about by any other writers in any other part of the profession. It’s a tool that has enabled me to close clients other writers can’t—even clients who have spoken to ten other ghostwriters before me and are sick to death of the lot of us. It’s a tool that’s cheap, simple, familiar, and incredibly powerful. It also has the distinct advantage of being overlooked by about 75 percent of the freelance professionals out there, which means if you can master it, you will have a distinct competitive advantage.

It’s the telephone.

If you want to set yourself apart from the pack, develop first-class phone conversation and interview skills. Become charismatic, confidence-inspiring, reassuring, forthright, transparent, and enjoyable to talk to on the phone. One of the biggest mistakes I see freelancers make is that they rely on email, text messages, and short-message services such as Slack for nearly all their communication. I suppose some of this is due to the fact that many writers are introverts, but come on. If you want to level up and build a writing practice that changes how you live your life, it’s time to stop being afraid of the phone.

Instead, think of this old-new technology—“old” in the sense that it goes back to the late 19th century with rotary dials and operators, “new” in the sense that phones are now supercomputers that run practically every aspect of our lives—as your secret weapon. The phone is a competitive power tool that lets you stand out against the truculent, uncommunicative grunters who can’t talk on the phone for more than five minutes without having a panic attack. Use it right, and it will help you close more business more quickly and easily than you ever thought possible.

Here’s how:

Practice L2T

“L2T” is shorthand for “listen twice as much as you talk.” That should be common sense, but not everyone knows it. Do it. Yes, you’re on the call to tell the prospect or agent or whomever about your next-level writing mojo, but that should be apparent from your awesome clips and writing credits. The primary reason for any early call is to establish a relationship and build rapport and trust. You do that by listening and learning about the other person. I love to talk, so one of my key tricks is to set the timer on my iPhone to one minute when it’s my turn to talk. When the timer goes off (with the phone on silent, of course), I can say something like, “You know, I’ve been droning on, but I’m really here to learn about how I can help you.” That helps ensure that the other party is the star.

Ask Great Questions

This is a vital companion to L2T. Do NOT improvise the questions you want to ask the prospective client, agent, publisher, or whomever you’re going to be on the phone with. Write a short list of four or five key questions you can ask each of the important people you’ll be talking to. For example, when I talk with a prospective author, I ask the same question about 90 percent of the time: “Why do you want to write a book?” It’s a broad, open question that always elicits good information. Other questions I keep in my phone toolkit:

  • What do you want your book to do for you?
  • How do you want to publish your book?
  • What would be your ideal relationship with your ghostwriter?

Good questions do much more than get you information you can use and tell you something about your prospective client. They also inform the prospective client about your intellect, your thoughtfulness, and your perceptiveness.

Have Go-To Lines

As with questions, I also have a telephone golf bag filled with standard lines I know authors, agents, and others love—and I use them on many, many of my calls when the context allows them. Some of my go-to lines:

  • All books are personal.
  • I’m not here to give my authors what they want, but what they need.
  • I’m here to make writing a book as easy for you as possible.
  • I’m going to ask you some hard questions and make you think.
  • My priority is to work with people and stories I care about.

Every one of those lines has the virtue of being true—and they are also powerful messages about my ethical core, my values, and my view of what I do. Out of all the phone tools I use to close business, I think my collection of power phrases is probably the most valuable. Prospects love to hear what I think about a business or self-help book as a personal project—because to them, it is personal.

Great go-to lines really aren’t something you can write; they more often come naturally out of your passions and values. However, if you really hit it out of the park with something you say on a call, write it down. Pretty soon, you’ll have your own golf bag.

TIC: Transparent, In Control, and Candid

I use the TIC mnemonic device to remind myself to be transparent, in control, and candid on every call.

  • Transparent: Be up front about everything from your fees to how you work to your approach to your own private time.
  • In Control: Take charge of the call. You’re the specialist, and your potential client—especially someone who’s inexperienced—is going to need you to be in control. Set the agenda, lead off the conversation, project confidence, and be the one who decides what the next steps are.
  • Candid: Be direct and honest. You’re skilled, you’re experienced, and yes, you’re worth the money. If you have types of projects you like working on and others you avoid, say so. If you have off-limits hours for family time, speak up. Don’t be arrogant or negative, but be an open book.

Offer Ideas for Free

In the course of the last few years, I’ve given away advice on phone calls that probably would’ve been worth thousands of dollars in other circumstances. I’ve given authors ideas on how to structure and write their books, made suggestions for agents and publishers, offered ideas on marketing and promotion, and even critiqued chapters and outlines. Never once in those cases, as long as the request was reasonable, did I consider asking the people I was talking to for money. As I said in an earlier peace, building goodwill and trust are far more valuable to you in your career than any one short-term payday.

When you’re on a phone call with prospects, it is in your best interest to be a resource of advice, insight, and professional opinion at no cost or risk to the other party. Not only does this make you look generous and magnanimous, it also enhances your image as an expert in the field. I also do not hesitate to offer my advice or knowledge to a caller, usually asking permission first, as in, “Could I make a suggestion?” If someone offers to pay you for your time or your ideas, thank them but decline, saying that you’re happy to help. This can only make you look good.

Reveal Who You Are … a Little

Over the years on business calls, I’ve gotten into conversations about baseball, jazz, Marvel comics, sailing, travel to Scotland, child rearing, marriage, knee injuries, Costco, democratic politics, and a host of other subjects that are personally important to me. To a degree, it is wise to share personal information on business calls, both to create a comfort level and to let the other parties see who you are—to give them a glimpse of the man or woman behind the curtain, so to speak. If you and your prospect have something meaningful in common—you both have three kids, for example, or you both went to the same university—that can kick-start your bond.

Revealing some of your inner workings is a great way to create intimacy with your client. And if you’re ghostwriting, intimacy is crucial because authors will often be called on to share intimate stories and opinions they can only share with someone with whom they’re comfortable. However, there are limits. You can overshare personal information and either seem self-absorbed or like someone who doesn’t have strong professional boundaries. Both are a turn-off.

I look at it this way: No matter how much I may like my client at first, our relationship must begin on a purely professional basis. If we become genuine friends later on, that’s great, but I don’t presume that we will be best buddies from day one. Keeping some professional distance also allows you to have hard conversations, and to do things later on that are unpleasant but critical, such as firing a bad client.

Read the Room

Finally, listen to the emotion and word choices in the conversation. They are clues to the attentive observer of how things are going. For example, not long ago, I was on a call with a prospective client who was talking to six ghostwriters (me included) about writing her book about a particularly harrowing true crime experience. During the course of our conversation, I made what I thought was a useful suggestion about how to structure her book, to which her reaction was hesitant and uneasy. Right away, I knew she wasn’t going to choose me as her ghost, and I withdrew from consideration in order to make her choice easier.

Learning to “read the room” on a call will help you steer the tone and content of the call to where you want it to go. It will also help you dig yourself out of a hole if you say something the prospect doesn’t like or agree with. Maybe most important, it will tell you a great deal about the person you’re talking to. Does this person have no sense of humor, or a short fuse? Maybe that’s not who you want as a client. This skill comes with practice and time, so if you’re conscious about it, you’ll get better at it.

These tips apply whether you’re calling on a telephone or using Zoom or Google Meet. In fact, if you’re talking to a prospect on video (which, like me, you’re probably sick of), there are other commonsense rules of etiquette you should already know. Dress nicely, comb your hair, keep your cat out of your lap, avoid having naked children or adults walking around behind you, and so on. It’s worth it to master these skills, because the phone is the great leveler among freelancers. Some writers might have a better resume than you do, but they might suck on the phone. If you can be knowledgeable, charismatic, helpful, and confident in real time, you stand a much better chance of closing more work and staying very, very busy.

Tim Vandehey is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, author, entrepreneur, and musician. A native Californian, he now lives in Kansas City, Missouri (go Chiefs!). He’s also the founder of Freelancium, a coaching and resource site for freelance writers. For more info on Tim, please visit timvandehey.com.

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