A New Client: Frequent Questions

Q: How do you write for a new client you’ve never talked to?

A: Usually badly.

I should probably expand on that.

Everyone who’s ever started a new job knows that you’re not going to do it perfectly right out of the starting gate. I always tell my clients that’s why the first draft says DRAFT at the top. But I’m not just talking about writing jobs. Think about any new job you’ve had—whether it’s your high school gig flipping burgers on Saturday or your most recent move into the Chief Development Officer’s chair. You got some training or orientation. Someone talked to you about expectations, gave you the tools you would need to get the job done.

I already know how to write—you know that, or you wouldn’t have hired me to craft speeches for the CEO. But to do my job properly, I need some other tools. And if I’m writing for a specific person, one of the tools I need is access to that specific person’s voice and way of thinking.

Getting to know you: new client/new writer edition

You don’t have to buy your writer a steak dinner—as one new client recently did—but if you expect the writer to convey a sense of your personality and what’s important to you, plan to invest some of your time in a conversation. (Phone and Skype work just as well as steak, with less fuss and fewer calories.)

That dinner yielded a story idea neither of us would have thought of if we hadn’t had that conversation, as well as three op-ed pieces my client loved. We built the foundation of a solid, hopefully long-lasting, relationship. And a couple of days ago, the client sent me the kind of email you don’t usually get so early in the game: “I love it! You really get me, Elaine.”

And then there’s my friend Sam, who started writing for a new client about the same time I did. Sam has still not met—or even spoken to—his client. He’s making do with watching videos and reading things his client wrote.

Of course, most of those things were probably ghost-written for the client by Sam’s predecessors. At this point, it’s like reading a copy of a copy of a copy. (Ooh, add that one to the heap of analogies that no longer work in the digital age. Gather around, kids: Back in the 20th century, if you wanted to share something you had to “copy” it. Sort of like scanning, but the quality of the image degraded with each generation. So the first copy was fine, the copy of the copy was less legible, and the copy of the copy of the copy was…Oh, never mind.)

The bottom line is, if you don’t have time to speak to your speechwriter, don’t hire a speechwriter—hire a psychic.

Frequent Questions: Terse or concise?

Frequent questions—not the usual FAQ, Frequently Asked Questions? Okay, let’s start my new Q&A series right there.

Q: What is a “frequently asked question”?

A: Redundant.

Questions are always asked—that’s what makes them questions. So I’m calling this series Frequent Questions. Next?

Q: You often talk about concise writing. Being a Southerner, I was practically born telling a story and “concise” often feels more like “terse” to me—unfriendly and cold. What’s the difference?

A: Great question. For an example of “terse,” see my answer to the question above: one word. I could easily have combined that one word with the information in the following sentence:

Questions are always asked: That’s what makes them questions. So the term “frequently asked questions” is redundant.

Same information, but with a much less snarky feeling. Concise, not terse.

Read concise writing here

The best explanation of concise writing I’ve ever read came from Peggy Noonan’s classic, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. Whatever you think of her politics, the lady is a damn fine writer. And not a bad teacher, either. Peggy Noonan offers some great writing lessons, one of which answers a frequent question I get

Here’s your lesson in concise writing—so vivid and memorable that I’ve been repeating it almost verbatim since I read the book 26 years ago:

Remember the waterfront shack with the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE. Of course it’s fresh, we’re on the ocean. Of course it’s for sale, we’re not giving it away. Of course it’s here, otherwise the sign would be someplace else. The final sign: FISH.

I called my one-word answer above “terse,” but this one-word sign is concise. Can you guess why?

Signs only need to inform, they don’t need to create a bond between reader and writer. Answers to frequent questions should inform as well, but in a way that helps you see the authentic me. A one-word answer says “Go away. I’m having a bad day.” A fuller, yet still concise answer, invites you to begin a dialogue with me.

Have a question you’d like me to answer? Comment below.