Words and interview by Simon Bland
For freelancers, having a unique and marketable talent sometimes isn’t all you need to succeed. In order to truly make yourself known to clients and ensure a steady stream of work finds its way to your inbox, a reliable set of networking skills could be the very thing that guarantees your dive into the world of self-employment is more than just an impulsive belly-flop. When it comes to perfecting these important communication traits, there’s plenty to consider – and with the pandemic forcing colleagues and potential clients online – there really couldn’t be a better time to brush up on some quick dos and don’ts to ensure you’re at the top of your game.
To help, Creative UK’s Screen Growth Programme called upon trainer, consultant and communications expert David Thomas to share his tips on how to stand out from the crowd. Having spent years helping people hone their business and networking skills and successfully transition into full-time self-employed careers, Thomas recently squeezed his insight into an hour-long digital seminar where he spilled on the key things everyone should be thinking when talking about what it is they do and why. He even found time to share thoughts on the changing state of networking and how we can all use this exciting new-normal to our advantage.
“I set up my business at the end of 2004, a point at which there were an awful lot of people going freelance because big broadcasters were cutting down on staff,” explains Thomas, recalling the impetus for creating his company, David Thomas Media. “I could see that people really needed help, not just on business and finance skills but on the networking side of things too.” It’s this area of the freelance world where Thomas believes most people struggle: “It’s about helping people understand you and what you do. It’s reminding them that you’re there, who you are, what your name is and helping them to remember you and what you enjoy doing.”
Spotting a gap in most people’s personal development, Thomas set out to fill it and in turn, help his clients get more work. “I realised there were some things that worked and some things that didn’t and that the best thing you can do is learn how to be a good listener,” he explains, demystifying the networking process. “The thing most people find surprising is that networking isn’t about talking about yourself. It’s actually about asking people questions and listening to their needs,” he says. “This means that you’re fitting what you do into other people’s needs – and they’re more likely to remember and engage with you if they can see you in that context.”
However what happens when you can no longer get face-to-face – or even in the same room – with the people in your network? With the pandemic ushering in a new digital era, the way people in freelancing circles connect has forever changed… or has it? After all, most of us have been plugged into the internet and shouting about ourselves on social media for the better part of the last decade – with our digital footprint available for just as long. According to Thomas, making the transition to digital networking is more about refining than learning something new.
“People are going to engage with you using a phone or a computer,” suggests Thomas, pointing out the most obvious change. “Your email and social media accounts might be people’s first impression of you, so what impression are you leaving? Is your email address a string of swear words that you’ve used since school or does it look professional? I’ve seen both of those from freelancers, by the way,” he chuckles. “If the first thing someone realises about you is that you have a weird and rather rude nickname that’s also your email address, that’s not very professional.” The other big thing to consider? Search engines: “People are going to find out more about you not by asking you face-to-face, they’re going to Google you – so what will they find?” asks Thomas. “That’s a really important question for a freelancer to be able to answer.”
Speaking of which, making yourself easy to find online by ensuring your domain names are easy to spell and consistent across all platforms is also key according to Thomas. “You’ve got to make sure people can find you easily through social media or search engines and that you’re not putting any barriers in people’s way. If they stick your name into a search engine with a job title, you should always come up in the first few sections,” he reasons. “That’s something you don’t have to pay for, it’s more a question of thinking a little bit about the words you use in your social media profiles or what your website name is. Once you’ve done a bit of thinking, it’s just a tweak here and there. It’s not difficult but I often notice people getting it wrong.”
Then there’s the conversation basics, like being able to answer that classic networking question “So what do you do for a living?” For this, Thomas has some very specific guidance. “There are a number of ways you can answer that,” he begins. “The first is simply your job title. Everybody does that because it’s easy but it doesn’t distinguish you from other people with the same job.” His solution? Be specific. If you’re a producer, what type of content do you produce? An artist? What kind of art do you create? “You’ve got very few seconds to capture people’s attention so you’ve got to say something that lodges in their brain and a job title alone isn’t going to do that.” Also, try focusing on the part of your job that helps other people. “You’ve got to think about how you do your job and what its effects are,” says Thomas. “Focus on the thing that’s helping other people instead of the ‘doing’ of the job.”
Of course, the most important part of networking – whether digital or in-real-life – is to deliver a strong lasting impression that leaves people eager to learn more and – hopefully – collaborate. According to Thomas, all of this comes back to the passion you engender in those you meet. “People have to get a feeling for the kind of person you are because being a freelancer is a unique business,” he admits. “I encourage freelancers to talk to friends or people they’ve worked with and trust to find out how they come across when they work. What feelings do people get when they work with you? When they think about you, what feeling is triggered in their minds?” he says. “It takes time to get right but by working these things into the conversation, you can really register with people.”