A juicy-looking project arrives on your doorstep. Maybe a client who could change everything. Or at least get the mortgage paid for the next few months.

How do you play it? How eager should you sound?

The answer is:  About 74% eager.

And be eager about the right thing.

I have gotten this wrong about eleven different ways.

Example.

I noticed that when I tried to turn down a project, or a potential client, for whatever reason, they would often keep calling anyway.

Many times — not always, but sometimes — they would come back with “If your schedule is tight now, would April work better?. . . “Actually, we could get more budget for this if needed . . .”  or, “You wouldn’t have to handle the technical section. We would write that in-house.”

Hmm. It gave me a genius idea. The trick was to play hard to get. At least a little. It’s human nature to lust for that shiny apple just out of reach, right?

You see, with my consummate skill, I was in such demand that, well, sometimes it’s difficult to get me. And you sorta have to sell me on the project.

So for a while there, I went 32% eager. (Same as 68% aloof, technically.)

When a call came in, I would do that thing where you pout out your lower lip and blow upward to lift the hair off your forehead. “I’ll have to look at the schedule here. Could I get back to you tomorrow?” . . . or “You sell conveyor systems? Gee, that sounds . . . well, uh.  Can I get back to you tomorrow?”

But I would be clever. I wouldn’t email them until the day after tomorrow, when their desire had simmered to a fever pitch.

Of course, by then, the client was happily working with another freelancer who wasn’t such an arrogant ass. “Oh, sorry. We figured you didn’t give a shit.”

Hmm.

So I did the prudent thing. I swung wildly to the opposite extreme.

I started leaping all over every project, inquiry, or half-serious email that came in the door. I went 104% eager, several points into irritating range.

I was a-bubble with energy, percolating with confidence. “Yep. Can do it by Friday, sure”. . . “Yes, I’ve done 87 projects just like this” . . . “I can send you samples”  . . . “Whatever you want.”

After all, who wouldn’t want an enthusiastic freelancer?

I would email them every nine hours. “Just wondering, have you made a decision yet?” . . .  “Just wanted to send these references ” . . . “We might be able to do this for about $200 less if that’s an issue” . . . “Here’s my cell number in case you need to call after midnight.”

And, naturally, they shunned me as if I had festering sores and bad breath.

I reeked of desperation, like a starving loser who hadn’t done a job in weeks.

They didn’t see enthusiasm. They saw a pest-in-the ass.

There’s a PR director named Janis who, to this day, won’t open my emails.

Okay. What works?

You’re aching to land this person as a client. The project is dead-on perfect for you. There is apparently money here. This is the best thing to cross your desk this month.

How do you play it?

The pro move:  What intrigues you is the project. You are fascinated by the unique creative or technical issues. You’re attracted to the subject matter (which is dear to your heart).

You’re enlivened by the possibility of doing something cool, or breaking some new ground, or untangling this particular knot.

You are pretty sure, pretty confident, there is a way to do this.

Which means your follow-up is about the project. The client’s mission. Her challenge. What she is trying to do. She wants to feel that you’re engaged. That you get it.

(You know this, of course, because you’ve been listening more than talking.)

The discussion is always about them. Not you.

And it’s never that you want the job, never that you need the work right now, and heavens, never that you need the money. Even if you do.

Your follow-up email starts with, “I’ve been thinking. . . what if. . .”

Clients seem to love the notion that someone has been thinking about them.

You share ideas. You ask a few questions to clarify, to show you’re interested in the situation.

The overall vibe:  You’re interested. “Of the four things I’d want to do this month, this would be number two. Maybe number one. You’re on the right track here. I’d love to work on this.”  But, shrug, if it doesn’t come together this time, that’s okay. Let’s talk again sometime.”

The best closing line I have ever found for any email, proposal, follow-up, or phone call:

“This could be good.”