Would you ever forget a freelancer named Donna Coney Island?
Me neither. I know twenty people in her business. But I always remember Donna Coney Island.
Is that her real name? It doesn’t matter, does it? She has a unique story either way.
When I first started freelancing (back when we actually used lances) I was trying to get assignments from ad agencies. But my resume, my CV, was meager.
I had no credentials and a lame portfolio. I had no reason at all to call myself a writer.
The only option was to adorn the usual bullshit.
I added a section called “Additional Skills.”
Can clap with one hand.
Can say ‘Toy Boat’ five times fast.
Did this silliness and irreverence land me more assignments? Not a one. I was hopelessly unhirable back then. I still am, mostly.
But this quirky addendum certainly won me interviews and conversations.
Creative Directors always noted it. “Nice touch,” they’d say. Many asked me to demonstrate. I felt like a trained seal there in the office. But I wanted work. I needed to show how ‘creative’ I was.
(Just so you know, neither are phony tricks. They just require concentration.)
Weeks later, when I called the Creative Directors back they said, “Oh yeah, the one hand clapping guy.” Then, “No, we don’t have anything for you right now.”
“Oh,’Toy Boat’. Nah, nothing. But call back in a month.”
No work. But they knew who I was. At least I wasn’t a zero.
I was a 0.3.
Just a month ago, one of my clients was looking for a video producer to create ‘commercials’ to post on her web site. She talked to maybe eight producers.
“They all blended together,” she said. “After a while they all sounded the same, looked the same, all said exactly the same things. Blah blah. It was dizzying.”
“But there was one guy,” she said, “He had an Australian accent. He didn’t talk jargon. He wore a pocket watch. He was the only guy I remembered. I’m embarrassed to say I hired him.”
Is that unfair and irrational? Absolutely.
Is that what actually happens? All the time.
I was helping my friend Bill write a promo for his sound studio. The big idea was his library of like 10 jillion music clips and sound effects.
So in the headline I used the word “plethora”. (It was the best I could do in 23 minutes. There was no pay involved.)
Bill said “Plethora?” He had to get a dictionary. “Who the hell knows ‘plethora’?”
But we sent it out anyway.
His phone rang and rang.
Even months later, clients would say,”Oh yeah, plethora, hey.” It was a word no one used in normal life, but always remembered from high school.
How not to be the same
On the ‘distinctive-and-memorable’ scale of 1 to 10, most of us think we are 7s. The same way we all consider ourselves above-average drivers. We are the center of our universes, after all.
But we are mostly 3s. At least to the world out there.
Rather hard to tell apart. Difficult to remember nine minutes later. (Including me. Been neglectful there.)
It’s not because we are all hopelessly dull and unremarkable.
Mostly, we end up trying too hard to be “what clients like.” Or what we think it means to look professional, businesslike, qualified, experienced, competent, creative, innovative, whatever.
Or we’re scared that we’ll turn someone off, or look too this or too that.
Trouble is, it is hard to win business in that generic middle ground. Too many people milling around there in that middle ground, all the same.
Worse, we end up competing on price, because, well, everybody’s the same, so why not?
Let’s do this.
Quit fighting your instincts.
Be what you are, only moreso.
If you are nerdy, be extra nerdy. Cultivate and amplify your nerdity. Really let it fly. Free yourself to bliss out.
You say you are too conservative? Then be the most conservative and unimaginative and painfully stuffy editor/proofreader/translator on the continent. To the impossibly and terminally conservative clients out there, you will be a kindred spirit, a dream come true. They are your clients.
That thing you wanted to put on your web site, but were too chicken? Put it there. Say it. If the world crumbles around you, which it won’t, you can always take it down.
If nothing at all happens. Try something else. Make sure it scares you.
One of my favorite readers here, Sarah, sends me an email: “I’m an editor. A damn good one.” Boy that hit me. Why not say that? Because it’s ‘just not done?’
If you have a cringe-worthy middle name, use it. Jane Hortencia Smith.
Or just use your first name. Or your last name. Or your phone number.
Wear Converse sneakers to meetings, like Melissa was thinking of. Put a carnation on your lapel.
Stand for something. You have strong opinions about your craft? Say so. For every ten people you piss off, ten will cheer you on. And you’ll be out of the middle. Take sides.
Say what you’re not good at.
Be a person, not a company, not a resume.
“This is all foofy crap,” my engineer friend says. “All my clients care about is credentials, certifications, relevant experience. Checklists.”
Okay. Could be.
But what if there are nine guys with the same credentials and checklists?
Who are they going to remember?