Freelance life, The Sharper Point

How to be confident in a world full of anxious freelancers

Imagine this.

You are about to go into a meeting with a prospective client, the MD of a big local company.

As you sit in the reception area, here are a few ideas that might be swimming around inside your head:

“Is she going to like me?”

“I hope I don’t trip up on a detail.”

“This is going to be a breeze – I can feel the contract in my hand already.”

“I wish we could have done this by email.”

“Ooh, that’s a nice picture on the wall.”

Now, which one sounds most like you?

I’ve met a lot of freelancers who would go for the first, second or fourth options.

Why success isn’t about money

Confidence is key for freelancers.
She has it – do you?

These anxious freelancers are chronically and, at times, acutely, unconfident.

Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, described the challenge like this:

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.”

I’ve written a lot about how if you want to be successful as a freelancer, you need to charge high fees. Or certainly higher fees than you’re charging now.

But as I delved deeper into the idea I realised that I was off in my thinking.

Because your total annual revenue isn’t simply determined by your fees. It’s a product of your fees multiplied by the number of times you charge them.

Stay with me if this all sounds like the science of the bleeding obvious.

Who moved my confidence?

Because the real determining factor behind that equation is your level of confidence.

A lack of confidence will cause you to under-price your services. And it will cause you to miss out on deals you should, by rights, have closed.

So it’s a double-whammy.

If you’re going to achieve your full potential as a freelancer, therefore, you’re going to have to have confidence. And lots of it.

As I prepared to write this post, I was having several parallel conversations with different freelancers who all reported the same problem:

“I just don’t have the confidence to charge that much”, was a common refrain.

People have often said to me, “You have so much confidence; I could never say that to a client.” (Whatever “that” might be.)

Where does this lack of confidence come from?

It’s likely that low self-confidence has one of three sources. Your childhood, your previous job, or the manner in which you came to be a freelancer.

Without wanting to put you on the psychoanalyst’s couch (though, believe me, it’s a great place to spend some time) let’s look briefly at the childhood roots of lack of confidence.

Not good enough

The unconfident adult may, as a child, have struggled to please a distant or demanding parent, for whom nothing was ever good enough.

That feeling, of never being up to their standards, can persist into adult relationships, including professional relationships. The phenomenon is called transference and was one of Sigmund Freud’s greatest discoveries.

The client assumes (unknowingly) the mantle of the disapproving, hard-to-please parent. And it’s very hard to be confident in front of them.

The other source of anxiety about your abilities may stem from your route into freelancing.

We’re going to have to let you go

Like many freelancers, I changed my mode of working after being fired.

The reason – spending too much writing copy and not enough being a director – was also my salvation. But it deals a fairly solid whack to your self-esteem, one of the higher-order human needs identified by American psychologist Abraham Maslow.

So, a freelancer who has been made redundant, fired, or passed over for promotion may bring into their new career a lingering sense of self-doubt.

What do you MEAN I have to sell?

Or you may have been a technical specialist in your former role. An engineer, perhaps, or a middle manager, trainer or marketing executive.

As a freelancer, your technical skills appear to offer a tailor-made route into self-employment. Yet there is a problem.

While you were in your corporate role, other people were bringing in the business that kept you employed.

Other people were managing clients or customers.

Other people were looking after negotiating, invoicing, credit control and legal affairs.

Now it’s just you. (Or is it? More in a moment.)

In my case, I had spent ten years in increasingly senior marketing and sales roles, so that part of the job was easier for me (though I still found it daunting).

Here’s a great tip, from Katherine Wildman, Creative Director at Haydn Grey Ltd:

“The biggest boost to my confidence has been the realisation that the client has a problem – and I am their potential solution. Look at their existing materials before you quote – chances are the improvements you could make to them will leap out at you – and fill you with confidence. If you can give a couple of helpful examples as to what you’d do to ‘help’ the client improve their website/brochure/landing pages in the meeting, it can help to seal the deal.”

“What if I get found out?”

Impostors often feel they could be "found out" at any moment.
Impostors often feel they could be “found out” at any moment.

One particular expression of a lack of confidence is called Impostor Syndrome.

Nod if the following scenario sounds familiar.

Despite concrete evidence of your abilities – awards, promotions, pay rises, testimonials, pats on the back, endorsements or reviews – you feel that, any moment, “I’m going to be found out”.

People who have Impostor Syndrome – and it is a big number, men and women – remain convinced that all their success and achievements are down to luck, timing or the mistaken judgment of others.

And that when this fortuitousness is discovered, the pack will turn on them, baying for blood.

Interviewed for Psychology Today by Nancy Ancowitz, a business communication coach, Stephen Brookfield, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul, had this to say:

“It’s the feeling that you’re presenting a false self—you project a public sense of presumed competence and command that you know masks the fact that you’re just struggling to make it through to the end of the day, week, or month without falling flat on your face.

“You live your professional life smitten with a fear that sooner or later something is going to happen—probably that you’ll make a mistake—that will cause people to recoil in horror and say, “How did we hire this person? Obviously they’re not up to the job.”

Enough already with the problem, what about the cure?

Now for the $64,000 question.

What are you going to do about it?

Assuming that you want to improve your confidence (and I hope that’s one of the reasons you’re reading The Sharper Point), here are three options for you to consider:

You can take a cognitive approach.

Look objectively – it may help you if you write it down – at all your personal and professional achievements. Read client testimonials out loud. Count up the number of times you get rehired by a clients. Make a list and stick it somewhere you can see it when you’re working.

Remember, unless you believe that the people who hire you are idiots or incompetents, the fact that they hire you is evidence that smart business people trust you. That must count for something, right?

Or, you can take a behavioural approach. Ask yourself, “What would a confident person do in this situation?” and do that. It’s acting, sure, but I have done this from time to time, and little by little, the pretended confidence seeps into your soul and becomes the real deal.

I asked Tim Treslove, Head Voice and Presentation Coach at my copywriting agency Sunfish for some insights into the performance approach. Tim is an highly experienced film, TV and stage actor and also sits on the board of a theatre company.

He told me:

“Most actors I know have about as much self-confidence as a rabbit at a greyhound track. But they drive through it because they get such a buzz from the applause. They don’t have confidence, but they do a damn good job of feigning it.”

Or, you can take a commercial approach, and outsource the tasks you find daunting. If you don’t like cold-calling, find someone to set appointments for you. If it’s negotiating that turns your blood to water, find someone to act as a buffer between you and hard-nosed clients. Or, a simple but highly effective tip, this, type up a fee scale and stick it by your phone. When you are asked to quote, just say:

“Hold on a second, let me take a quick look at my rate card. OK, for a one-day workshop for eight people plus a follow-up webinar, I charge £1,000 + expenses.”

And my point is…

Unless you are naturally blessed with sky-high levels of confidence there will be times, maybe frequent times, when you feel anxious about doing business.

Nailing “the confidence thing” is more important than possessing technical skills, charging the right amount or any amount of advertising, social media marketing or networking.

But get it right – and I hope this article helps – and you can concentrate on your professional skills and learn to love the business side of freelancing.

Other ways we help you

There are plenty more articles about freelancing on our blog.

And every quarter, I run my Well-Paid Freelancer Masterclass. It’s a chance to try out new skills in a safe, non-threatening environment with other freelancers.

4 Comment(s)

  1. Pinky

    Absolutely spot-on! I read this while nodding all the way through.

    There is one other element to charging lower prices, which is that sometimes you just know the client can’t afford it. I can be a bit of a charity case with businesses I really like who have poor owners!

    27th June 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  2. Andy Maslen

    Pinky, I know what you mean about poor business owners. There’s nothing wrong with charging less for people who have less – I call it the Robin Hood approach. I would only suggest that it should be the exception rather than the rule, otherwise you can quickly find you have established a reputation for yourself as a pushover.

    1st July 2013 at 9:48 am | Reply
  3. Suzy B

    Hi Andy I stumbled on your blog while ‘researching’ (procrastinating) various copywriting related things and I just want to say this post is awesome and very helpful! I think I have a touch of the imposter syndrome due in part to how I abruptly gave up a very unfulfilling job to pursue freelancing. Even though I have steady work and my clients constantly praise me, I always feel a bit insecure that they will suddenly ‘find me out’ and declare me a fraud! It’s very refreshing to see this given a concrete explanation and some solid advice!

    31st July 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    1. Andy Maslen

      Hi Suzy, glad you found the post helpful. Remember, you are not alone!



      31st July 2013 at 2:50 pm | Reply

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