Storytelling is well established as a mainstream marketing technique. But it can also be very useful for freelancers. In fact, it’s arguably a much better fit for people than it is for products, companies and brands.
Telling your freelance story has several benefits. Externally, you can use it to promote yourself by featuring it on your website, your cv, your LinkedIn profile or even (if it’s short enough) your Twitter bio. This gives potential clients a simple, memorable and engaging way to find out about you. It also lets you speak with a more personal tone of voice, differentiating you from those who use more neutral ‘job description’ language to explain what they do.
Internally, a story that you ‘tell yourself’ can shape the way you think about your freelance career. By imposing order on the twists and turns that brought you here, it makes sense of your experience, giving it form and purpose. You can also build your sense of control and confidence by framing or interpreting events in certain ways. And by extending your story into the future, you can also use it to visualise what you want to happen, in both your work and your life.
When new clients say, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ I tell them a story that goes something like this.
I started my career in publishing, where I learned about writing, design and printing. Then I moved on to a small design studio where I learned about working with clients. When I was made redundant from there, I decided to try freelancing, and ten years on I’m still trying it.
I follow this up with a brief ‘what I do’ bit – services, clients – that’s descriptive rather than narrative.
Structure and scope
A regular story structure gives readers a sense of familiarity and reassurance. Notice how my story conforms to the rule of threes: publishing, design studio, freelancing. This sort of structure is inherently balanced and pleasing: not too long, and not too short, with a beginning, middle and end.
Two roles would be thin, suggesting a lack of variety or initiative. Four or more would be meandering and tedious, testing the patience of the listener. Three is just right: I started over there, then I moved there, and now I’m here.
To impose this structure, I start my story at a time I choose. In reality, I had other jobs before I got into publishing – that’s how I got the experience to break in. But I’ve decided that my story begins at that point, and not before. In a film, the earlier stuff would be covered in a flashback.
I’ve also taken out a lot of detail within my chosen timescale, because ‘Tell me about yourself’ doesn’t mean ‘Tell me everything’. In reality, I had several different roles within publishing, and I did more at the design studio than just client work. But this is the edited highlights, not the entire match.
Every story needs a plot. Does yours twist and turn, or is it linear and predictable? Can you already tell how it might end? Is it original and surprising or derivative and familiar?
You’ll probably want to edit your story to take out the ‘bad bits’. But that doesn’t mean turning your story into a sequence of unqualified wins. It means downplaying the parts of it that make you look bad.
My story has a negative turn – redundancy – but it doesn’t reflect too badly on me because I managed to turn it into an opportunity by going freelance. That sort of ‘bad bit’ is good, because all the best stories involve overcoming challenges (see What really makes a good story?).
However, there were long periods of my career when I drifted sideways. I was on the dole an amateur musician for two or three years before I got my first permanent job, and even then I hung around for too long instead of making things happen. I could easily have got where I am now by the age of 32; in fact, I’m ten years older.
Obviously, none of that goes into the story I tell clients, and it doesn’t go into the story I tell myself either. Remember, you’re not just telling your story – you’re listening to it too. In order to build confidence, it should be more Rocky than Waiting for Godot.
The main aim of your freelance story is not to impart information, but to convey progress, variety and ability. At the time when I tell my story, the prospect is 95% sure they are going to use me; they just want some ammo to rationalise their decision. My story does that, while reassuring them that our collaboration will be the next chapter in a narrative of success (for both sides).
Active or passive?
Behind every story is a storyteller – so who’s telling yours? Are you the author, or is someone else directing the action? Are you the hero, or just a minor character?
You have a choice over how much agency you give yourself. Your story can be passive, with things that happened to you – jobs you were offered, people who spotted your talent, opportunities that came along. Or it can be active, with things you did – jobs you got, contacts you made, openings you saw.
Obviously, the more agency you give yourself, the more ‘dynamic’ or ‘proactive’ you’ll appear to your prospect. But bear in mind that your story must also be believable, and everyone knows from their own experience that careers turn on luck as much as judgement.
You might also want to manage the impression that you give, because the word for one who does nothing but impose their will on the world is not ‘achiever’ but ‘psychopath’. Consistent winners can be dull and unsympathetic; we all love the underdog who wins out in the end.
You might also sacrifice drama if you whitewash your setbacks. For example, depending on who I’m talking to, I sometimes euphemistically say that I ‘left’ the design studio, rather than being made redundant. This turns a passive event into an active choice, but I lose the ‘overcoming challenge’ aspect of my story.
Writing your future history
Your story needn’t end in the present. You can continue it into the future too, using story as a way to visualise the future.
The strength of this sort of storytelling is the way it links the present with the future with a chain of action and consequence. What companies call a ‘vision statement’ is all very well, but if it’s a static image, it doesn’t necessarily explain how the vision will be realised. A story, on the other hand, can set out the stepping stones to the far side of the river.
Since your future history is probably just for you, it can cover whatever you want. There’s no need to separate your work and personal life, as you probably do when talking to clients. Your story can say what will happen in every area: clients, skills, money, lifestyle, health, family and relationships. And you can continue it for as long as you like – right to the end of your life, if you want.
There’s been enough of me in this post, so here’s a fictitious example.
Over the next five years, I’ll gradually increase my rate to £xxx a day by pricing smaller clients out. After that, I’ll start taking more time off, turning jobs down if I have to, and make sure I spend a lot of quality time with my children before they go to college. I’ll build up a savings cushion of £xxxx by saving £xxx a month.
Don’t underestimate the power of writing things down like this. Once you’ve committed an aim to paper, you’re far more likely to achieve it. On top of that, narrative is a natural, intuitive form that we find easy to remember and relate to – in contrast to, say, a list of bullet points.
As I hope I’ve shown, story is a powerful tool that every freelancer can use to shape the way they think about their work. You don’t have to be a professional writer – the same skills you used to write stories at school will be more than enough. And everyone has their own story to tell.