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How to communicate as a freelancer: effective comms beyond a brief

29 October 2021

What’s the hardest kind of comms to get right?

For many freelance charity comms professionals it isn’t tricky annual reports or fiddly Facebook ads. It’s actually everyday communications like client emails.

That’s because we tend to put all our creative energy into commissioned content and copy. So much so that comms to a client, or fellow freelancer, can be an after-thought.

It’s taken me over ten years as a freelancer to work this out. So if you’re just starting out, here’s some tips on nailing comms outside of the brief.

Communicating with clients

Every single client is different. Some love long Zoom calls to talk through a project. Others simply send a simple brief and a deadline.

This isn’t just about mirroring what they do (maybe you need more information beyond that two-line email, or can’t do a long call every day). It’s your job to understand their communication style and complement it so you can do the best work possible.

Often, after nailing the brief, getting feedback is the stage you’ll communicate most closely with your clients. Always ask them how they prefer to do this (on a call or through tracked changes, for instance).

Also, bear in mind that they might have professional motives they can’t communicate with you. For example, you may be aiming to ensure that you understand all the amends and can incorporate them given the scope of the project. They may be driven by making sure a ‘tricky’ senior staff member has their say. Together, find an approach where you both get your needs met.

Accept that a few clients use external contractors as sounding boards to discuss frustrations about their job. Sympathise where you can (they might be under a lot of pressure) but beware of getting involved in office politics – especially if you can’t see the whole picture.

Boundary-setting is useful here too. Always be flexible, but just because an urgent email comes in at 9pm doesn’t mean you have to answer it there and then.

Think about a tone of voice you can use across your client comms and marketing. Polite, clear and enthusiastic could be building blocks to start from.

Communicating about money

To support their beneficiaries, organisations need to be upfront about money – and so should you.

When starting a job everyone needs to fully understand how much it’s expected to cost and what needs to be produced by the deadline. This is your responsibility.

To achieve this, communicate the details in the clearest language possible. If you favour a cute ‘Innocent smoothies-style’ tone of voice this isn’t the time to apply it. Never hide behind jargon or the small print, which makes you look sketchy.

Keep a record of everything. All verbal agreements need to be confirmed by email so everyone has a ‘paper trail’ of what’s agreed. Naturally, sometimes the scope of a project will change. If this is going to alter the cost, communicate it at the earliest possible opportunity. Remember details like VAT and payment terms (i.e. when you expect to be paid).

Always provide incredible value for money while delivering what you promised. If you’re exploiting a charity in any way, shape or form, please stop reading and leave the sector immediately.

If you’re starting out, ask someone to recommend an accountant. A good one will save you money while ensuring you don’t get any nasty financial surprises down the line.

Communicating with fellow freelancers

Every freelancer has their war stories of eccentric CEOs and drafts that extended way into double figures. These can be massively entertaining shared behind closed doors. But never openly criticise anyone: especially in a public forum or a group email. If you’re yet to find your freelance tribe try searching LinkedIn for relevant groups or join the brilliant Third Sector PR & Comms Network on Facebook [though be aware this isn’t a place to market yourself directly to clients].

Always be kind and remember that working in-house can be extremely stressful, especially over the last few years.

Even when on a tight deadline be courteous to other freelancers. If we work together we raise the whole sector’s game. Never knowingly under-cut anyone on price, or seek to ‘steal’ anyone else’s gig behind their back. Freelancer karma exists – so don’t mess with it. 

Equally, don’t be that person you meet at a networking do who fires you a LinkedIn message the next day demanding you share all your hard-won contacts. Never exploit others who may be less experienced than you. If you’ve climbed a little up the ladder look for opportunities to hoist other people up, especially if they don’t look like you (mentoring can be a great way to do this).

Finally, don’t stress too much over whether you sign off emails using ‘best’, ‘all the best’ or ‘Thanks in advance’. But never add a kiss (‘x’) unless you’ve cried on each shoulders following a stressful client call in the British Library Members’ Room. And even then, think twice.

Banner Image: Girl with red hat on Unsplash

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Matt Chittock

copywriter, freelance

Matt Chittock is an experienced copywriter, journalist and proofreader working in the not-for-profit sector.