New Clothes for Your New Career

It’s Brian E. Whitaker, writing again for The Writer’s Life this week.

As I mentioned yesterday, this month is all about kindergarten in my family. We’re trying to go through our list of to-dos before our eldest heads off to school for the first time.

It’s an exciting time, but there’s a lot to think about.

Fortunately for us, the school took care of one issue faced by most parents – they provided clear guidelines on acceptable clothes.

The school doesn’t mandate a uniform, but it also doesn’t allow halter tops or clothing with inappropriate imagery. They struck a balance aimed at a child’s best interest – balancing individuality and acceptability.

Much like the balance you have to maintain when starting a freelance career.

For me, a hard part of becoming a freelancer was deciding how I’d portray myself online. For years, I had been a corporate marketing manager, so 90 percent of my style, so to speak, was corporate. It was delivered through the brand presence of a corporate website. There were things I could say and things I couldn’t say. There were clothes I could wear and clothes I couldn’t wear.

In a sense, becoming a freelancer was like starting at a new school. I had a clean slate for how I wanted to look. I’d be making first impressions with hundreds or thousands of people. Suddenly, I seemed to have complete freedom to remake myself online.

But unlike school, there aren’t clear guidelines on the proper way to portray ourselves as freelancers. That means we have a lot of decisions to make.

So how will you find the “right clothes” to wear online?

When we craft a personal style in real life, we have a sense of what’s appropriate or inappropriate. Clown shoes, for example, just aren’t appropriate at funerals, and suits don’t belong on the beach. We shift according to time and place.

But that’s much harder online because it’s tough to gauge the circumstances. So when I started designing my website, I struggled with:

  • Should my site be creative or subdued?
  • Should I portray myself as an individual or a corporation?
  • What colors should I use?
  • What voice should I use? Should I be bold and brash or calm and professional?

That’s why it’s important to take cues from sites in your niche.

I’m a business-to-business (B2B) content consultant. I work with businesses who sell to businesses. So to begin, I started looking at B2B consultants. I looked at the giants in the field, including Bob Bly, Ed Gandia, and Steve Slaunwhite. I learned a great deal about how they portrayed themselves in the market.

From Bob’s site, I learned about the strength of a personal tone. From Steve, the wisdom of portraying yourself as a consultant. And from Ed, the value of simplicity.

My clients’ websites taught me a lot as well. For interesting reasons, my clients favor the color blue for their sites. So I decided to use a blue design theme as well.

But I also wanted to explore my individuality.

I intentionally used a very personal, slightly irreverent, and somewhat funny style on my site. I wanted to balance fitting in with standing out. I strongly recommend doing that – to continue the school analogy, you don’t want to be the kid in the back of the room no one notices, but you also don’t want to be the loudmouth kid who’s always in the corner.

To find strong insights, visit your prospects’ sites and pay close attention to them.

  • Are they using similar tones?
  • Do they favor the same colors?
  • Do they do anything unusual with site structure or design?

And then do the same with potential peers. A good place to find peers is within AWAI – their writers are good sources of inspiration.

  • Are their sites written as an individual or as a company? Which works best for you?
  • Are they simple or complex? How would you structure your site in comparison?
  • How are they capturing leads or contacts? Is developing an email list important to you?
  • Are they using colors & images in attractive ways or offputting ways?

What you’re doing with your presence online isn’t any different than what we do when we move to a new town, start a new job, or attend a new school.

I’ve moved a lot, and each place has a predominant style. You make choices to balance fitting in with individual expression. Being too conformist or too expressive will undermine your effectiveness.

How will you strike a balance? Any other ideas you’d like to share in the comments?

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Published: August 7, 2012

2 Responses to “New Clothes for Your New Career”

  1. Hi Brian, As a graphic designer, naturally I wanted to "make my own statement" with the look and feel of my site. However, no need to re-invent the wheel, as the cliche goes. My solution was to take the default 2011 theme in Wordpress—since it has all the functionality offered by the Wordpress platform and will always be up to date feature-wise—and customize it from header to footer!
    Keith

    KeithAugust 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

  2. Thanks Brian, I'm going through that process now. Also the web has a long memory, so I have to be aware that the images of my past should be in harmony with my present.

    Colin NodenAugust 7, 2012 at 10:44 pm


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