Giving It Away

Throughout your freelance career, from time to time, you will be asked to work for free. Trust me on this. You will. Before you consider any such requests, you have to set up some ground rules for yourself. This is my take on the subject.

First, if you undervalue your work, you are telling the world that it has little worth. And if you give it away, you are giving it zero value. In the first instance, you will attract only those who want the cheapest bargain, not the best one. In the second, you will attract those who would take advantage. If you are professional, then act accordingly. If your plumber or your lawyer doesn’t give it away, neither should you. But I am always amazed at the number of writers who do exactly that. Magazine writers and web writers, please take note.

You might infer from that little diatribe that I would never “give it away.” Not so. I have, and I do. Under circumstances of my own choosing.

As citizens of good standing in our community and in our country, we undertake a social contract. A contract to give back to our collective family. At home. Next door. Down the street. Around the world. Some citizens fulfill their contractual obligations through volunteer work for nonprofit organizations. Others through coaching Little League. Still others with financial means choose the philanthropic route by donating to their favorite charity or cause.

As writers and communicators, we have a skill much in demand by those who are willing to pay for it and much in need by those who can’t. Think of all the non-profit agencies that don’t have extensive PR budgets but are in desperate need of some communications help. The newly elected board member who needs to make a speech but has never done so before. The countless newsletters that must be written with the sweat equity of volunteers. Pick up the phone and inquire. My bet is that they will welcome you with open arms.

But there's another way of fulfilling your end of the social contract bargain and that is taking your professional expertise and passing it on to others.

Put it under the heading of what goes around should come around. On your way up the freelance ladder, as you've networked and relied on others for advice, you were building up a debt of sorts. When people freely gave you the wisdom of their experience, they were also giving you another precious commodity – their time. There comes a moment in your career when you can – and should – reciprocate.

So when people – most often young people – come knocking on my door to pick my brain for advice and whatever wisdom I have picked up over the years – I am usually inclined to give it to them.

That said, I listen very carefully how they ask for advice and whether they are respectful of my time. Although I am predisposed to give just about anyone the benefit of the doubt, I must advise you that what is very annoying is to have people ask you for advice and then give a whole slate of reasons why they might not be able to follow it.

Then there are those who want you to do the work for them. They say things like, "You probably have more clients than you can use. Can you pass your overflow on to me?" They don't want to do any of the marketing work. Rather, they just want to grab the clients you may have spent months or even years cultivating.

In fairness, those who take this route are rare. Most people are genuinely looking for advice and encouragement. I believe it is incumbent upon all of us who have been around for a while to freely dispense both.

There's another instance when you might want to give your expertise away and that is when doing so becomes a good marketing tool. For example, I write articles like this from time to time. I never know who might be reading them. If the email I get in response to them is any indication, quite a few people are. Most of the emails I get are – to be frank – from people looking for free advice. Which I am happy to give for reasons already noted.

But I also get comments from other professionals who might need my services, and we enter into the arena of dialogue. A cautionary note here. One of my mantras is that for any marketing activity you undertake, you should never be attached to the outcome of any single interaction. Rather, you should have enough marketing efforts out there in the ozone that you never count on any single effort paying off at any particular time or in any particular way.

For essays like this, I write it and forget about it. If it generates a response that leads to other things, that's fine. If it leads to nothing, that's okay too. Because at the very least, I have a track record of writing articles that might be recycled for other purposes. And writing them helps me to focus my thinking about the subject at hand. I simply enjoy what I do, and that is its own reward.

From a “good business practice” perspective, there's another concern about "giving it away." As a speechwriter, I am very happy to talk to potential clients about particular challenges and concerns they might have about writing or giving a speech. I am pleased to answer questions that will lead them to conclusions they might reach on how next to proceed. And I am not at all perturbed if they should decide to do the work in-house rather than use me.

On the other hand, I won’t write their drafts, do their research, or tell their stories. And I never write on spec. The bottom line is I don’t do their writing for them. That's what I get paid for. The initial advice is free. The work is not.

In the end, it’s all a judgment call, of course. That’s how I do it. You might find other ways to meet your social contract. “Giving It Away” is just one aspect of your professional and personal life you need to think about and act on. One thing for sure. The subject will come up. Forewarned is forearmed.

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Published: August 1, 2011

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