Podcast Episode 31: Gaining Credibility as a Freelancer and Specialist – 10 Tips to Get to the Top

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In order to be taken seriously, and to progress, in a freelance career, we need credibility, but how do we prove to potential clients that we know what we are doing, and that we can be trusted with their work? In this podcast episode, I go through ten top tips to gain credibility and become respected as an authority in your chosen area.

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Hello, and welcome to Episode 31 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

I am Philippa Willitts and today I’m going to be talking about how to build your credibility as a freelancer or as an expert in your field.

When somebody is looking for a writer they may have four or five websites open for different writers and you need to give them some clues to show them that you’re trustworthy, that you know what you’re talking about and so in this episode I’m going to talk about different ways you can build your own credibility.

Now first of all, apologies that this is slightly late; I have been ill and then when trying to record this morning I had workmen across the street making this noise…

[Sound of


Cheers fellas, just what I needed!

So slightly late but here.

Anyway, to make sure you never miss an episode of A Little Bird Told Me go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there you can subscribe to the podcast which means that rather than trying to remember every Tuesday to tune in you’ll actually be notified on your chosen platform, whether it’s Stitcher or iTunes or whether you use an RSS reader.  You can also find a link to our Facebook page, so go over there, like us and say hello, and there are also links to my own and Lorrie’s various social media profiles and websites and such.

So anyway, I’m Philippa Willitts and today, as I mentioned, I’m talking about credibility.

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

If you put yourself in the position of, say, a marketing manager for a business and they want to hire a freelance writer to write them a couple of blog posts a week.  So they do some searches and find some writers’ websites.  They’ve got to then make a decision about who to hire and part of that will be based on how credible you present yourself to be.  If you’ve got lots of links to other writing you’ve done that can help but there are other ways that can imply a level of credibility that can really help you get work and establish yourself as an authority in writing or in your specialist area, if you specialise in a particular subject or style of writing.

So I’m going to go through various different ways that freelancers can build their credibility and some are quick fixes and others are quite long term plans but it all depends on why it is you want to.  It may be something that if you build up over several years you can end up a real kind of name in your area or it may be that you’re just aware that your website’s a bit lacking in something and you want some quick fixes that you can do to start making a difference straightaway really.

The first way to demonstrate that you are good at what you do, because, you know, the client who’s looking for someone just doesn’t know that, you have to prove it, and a really effective thing is referrals.  If somebody you already work with recommends you to somebody else that’s instant credibility.  They can go, “That PR guy really likes what Philippa does so chances are she’s alright.  I’ll hire her.”  If you can get a referral from somebody else you already work with or have worked with in the past that’s great and it doesn’t actually have to be a client necessarily, it could be a colleague or somebody you’ve partnered with on a project.  If you’ve worked with a web designer on a big website redesign where you’ve provided all new content then next time someone asks that web designer if they know of a good copywriter they can refer people to you as well.  So it’s a really good way to make a start really on your credibility.  If other people recommend you then you’re probably doing something right.

The second idea is very similar actually and that is recommendations from other people.  Now this isn’t necessarily the same as referrals, although it might immediately sound like it.  What this can be is things like colleagues and clients who leave you a review on LinkedIn for instance, who will click those new little boxes that say you’re good at whatever it is you do.  You can also have a section of your website dedicated to the reviews and comments you’ve received from former clients.  You have to be careful with that; you probably need their permission, certainly if you’re going to name them and certainly if you write for them in a ghost writing type capacity rather than under your own name.  You’ve got to be careful but that kind of thing can be really helpful.

Image representing LinkedIn as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

If you want to get more reviews on LinkedIn there are different ways to go about that and one that a lot of people do, which probably isn’t the best way, is to just send your LinkedIn contacts a message saying, “Please recommend me” and it’s not a good move.  It’s people who receive the message, you know there’s nothing in it for them.  They’re busy, why would they take time out of their day to write you a recommendation?  You might be contacting people you’ve never worked with.  I’ve had LinkedIn messages from people I’ve never worked with saying, “Please can you recommend me?” and I can’t because I don’t know what they’re like to work with or how good they are at what they do.

A better way is to think carefully about people you’ve worked really closely with who know you quite well and who you know quite well and just writing them a recommendation; write down how they are to work with, write down what they’re good at, be honest but obviously positive.  They can choose whether or not to put it on their profile, it doesn’t appear automatically, but often if you write someone a recommendation then within a week or two they will reciprocate and write one for you as well.  It’s a better way of going about it than just randomly asking people to do it because, you know, they’ve got better things to do, whereas if you show willing first then you’ve got goodwill on your side.

There are dodgy ways of getting reviews as well.  You can pay people on Fiverr, and presumably other websites as well, to record a video talking about how wonderful you are or how great your book is and it will cost you $5, but actually it could cost you a lot of business because these people do hundreds and thousands of video reviews, and so if somebody is looking at your website trying to decide whether to hire you and they see someone saying how great you are but they recognise them from eight other sites that they’ve looked at where that same woman or same guy is saying just how good the person is it will not only not convince them that you’re good, it will destroy your credibility instantly I would think.  If I thought somebody had faked a review in that way I wouldn’t trust them at all.  I wouldn’t want to hire them in any circumstances.  So it’s not just that it wouldn’t be helpful, it could do your reputation some real damage.  People would wonder what you’ve got to hide, it’s no, just don’t do it.

The next way to prove yourself to potential clients is simply your website.  You have to make it as good as you possibly can; make sure there are no typos on there, make sure there’s no weird formatting in different browsers.  You’re a writer so it doesn’t have to look spectacular in terms of visual design.  If you’re a designer then it does but if you’re a writer you know it’s great if it looks spectacular but that’s not what people are looking for.  Instead the words, the writing, the text has to be really, really good.  I’m never content with my own websites.  Every time I look at them I end up changing a bit of text but hopefully it just keeps improving over time, but if you want to persuade people that they should hire you to write then make your website content not just persuasive but impressive.

The other thing about your website is it provides an opportunity for you to link to your other writing.  If you write for a blog under your own name link to that, if you write articles for constant content you can get a code for a little widget that you can put in your sidebar that’s got links to all your recent articles.  It’s more difficult if you do more ghost writing than writing under your own name.

I know I write blogs for several companies under their name.  My job is to write the content really well and then it’s theirs.  Lorrie and I talked in the finance episodes we did about the fact that my general rule with copywriting is that as soon as their invoice is paid then they own the writing, it’s entirely theirs.  They can say it’s written by themselves, by me, by the Queen, it’s entirely up to them.

So that is more difficult because you can’t link to these blogs and say, “I wrote that” if you’re ghost writing.  So you need to think of some other ways to get published with your own name.  So this might be writing guest blog posts for a couple of big blogs, it might be getting a couple of articles published in magazines and linking to those, particularly if you have a specialist subject this is a really good way to get clips if you specialise, or whatever area you specialise in there will be blogs dedicated to that subject and if you can get a few posts on those that really show that you do know what you’re talking about then people in that sector of business may well read those blogs and recognise your name and that is where credibility really begins to build.

Another idea for website content is something I mentioned earlier, is a page of people I’ve worked for, or a section of people I’ve worked for.  Now, again, this can be varied depending on who you have worked for and how open you can be.  I’ve done some work for some quite high profile clients for which I had to sign non-disclosure agreements; so as much as I would like to name them and say, “I’ve written for companies x, y and z”, and it would look impressive, I can’t do that.  There are other companies where I can.  I haven’t got one of these pages.  It’s a tricky one.  I know Lorrie and I have talked about it a few times just amongst ourselves, not on the podcast I don’t think, about the fact that it does look impressive if you look at a copywriter’s page, a copywriter’s website, and they have a section for people they’ve worked for and it’s got big companies, big national or international brand names and you do, that gives credibility, which is what we’re talking about.  You do think, “Wow!  If she’s written for Marks & Spencer’s you know she must be good.”  You make assumptions and that’s what building credibility is about quite a lot of the time, is kind of creating the right assumptions in people.

However, there can be ethical issues around privacy and confidentiality and I know Lorrie and I have both been a bit torn on this.  Is it do you need to contact each company, which companies do you mention, do you mention the small companies that might not be that impressive, do you want a long list, even if it’s tiny companies, or do you want a list of six or seven people that are well known?  It’s difficult but sites that do have that page, that have impressive companies, it gives a good impression.

Tip No. 4 is, again, related to the previous one and I mentioned being able to link to clips which is, you know, previously published articles and such.  This does really help and actually the better the… the more high profile the publication or the website the more impressed people are, understandably.  I can say I’ve been published in The Guardian and Independent websites and New Statesman and people think, “Oh, she knows what she’s doing”, which I like to think I do, and so sometimes even if these aren’t your target markets it may be something that you can work towards, that you can aspire to really, but you might want to start with, say, pitching guest blog posts to smaller blogs to gain confidence but pick the biggest ones or the print magazines in your area to really aim towards because it does immediately make a good impression.

Studying (Photo credit: Skakerman)

No. 5 tip about how to gain credibility is to make sure that if you’ve done any training or study you let people know, mention it on your website.  I’ve got a whole page on my website dedicated to the study I’ve already done and the on-going training and study that I do.  I want people to know that I take my job seriously and that I’m committed to continuing to improve and to grow and showing that I undertake regular training does help that, and also if somebody’s unsure about whether I’m really qualified to write about a particular aspect of, say, social media, which is one of my areas, they can look at my training and study page and see that I keep on top of the latest social media training all the time.  It helps them to believe that you take your job seriously, that you have an in-depth knowledge of your subject rather than just a very vague one and that you know what you’re talking about really.

Another link to this is certification.  Do you have any kind of professional certification?  Are you a member of some guild of copywriting or editors’ association?  If you are make sure people know.  Put it on your LinkedIn page; put it on your website.  If there’s a little logo that you can put in your sidebar then do it.  It helps people to gain in confidence.

Tip No. 6, and this is a form of social proof, which is where people react well to the implication that other people support you, which is why if you see a blog post and you’re not sure whether to Tweet it or not and then their, ‘Tweet This’ button has a little note that says, “This has been Tweeted by 2400 people you’re more likely to hit ‘Tweet This’ than if it says it’s been Tweeted by two people.  We react well to what we believe other people react well to and so showing that you have certification is a form of social proof because it means that someone else has also recognised your capabilities.

Now Point No. 6, I think we’re at, is another form of social proof, which is awards and prizes.  If you have any awards or prizes that you have won that relate to either writing, proofreading, editing, whatever your area is, or that relate to the topics you write about then display them on your website, mention them if it comes up in conversation.  If you write about cookery and you’ve won a national baking competition that will make people want to hire you to write for them about cookery.  The award you won or the prize you won gives other people confidence that you do genuinely deserve to be taken seriously in your specialism.

Social proof is effective in all sorts of areas of life and it’s particularly relevant in the area of credibility and being taken seriously.

In the introduction I mentioned that some of these tactics for gaining credibility were a longer term plan rather than a quick fix and this is one of those.  It’s quite a big, long term plan but when it works it works really, really well.  So you have to decide how much time you want to invest in this and the possible benefits you can get out of it.

So Tip No. 7 for gaining credibility is to create your own products.  Now by products I don’t necessarily mean a physical thing.  Something like a podcast or writing a book both take lots of hours for lots of months to get right and to be respected but if you do put that time in then the returns can be really, really rewarding.

Lorrie and I have made this podcast now for… this is the 31st episode and we spend hours a week recording.  I spend a good four hours a week doing the audio editing.  Lorrie spends I don’t know how many hours a week doing the transcription.  It’s not something we just throw together.  Yeah, that’s not even mentioning the planning actually.  This takes a lot of hours for both of us every week but we’ve invested that because we think it’s because we enjoy it, we like providing useful information, but also it proves to anyone who listens, hopefully, that we do know what we’re talking about; it builds our credibility.  The fact that we’re co-hosts of a freelance writing podcast automatically makes people think, “They must really know about freelance writing” and they can listen to it and hopefully that will cement in their mind what they think of us as a result of it.

Writing a book is similar.  Now some people find that there’s more credibility in being traditionally published.  Other people prefer the control you can have with self-publishing and self-publishing does have a bit of a bad reputation.  I know some people are trying to challenge that.  Guy Kawasaki has started calling it artisanal publishing to make it sound a bit better and it’s a debate that will go on for ever.

So traditional publishing may be considered slightly more authoritative.  Self-publishing you keep a lot more of the money.  Either way if you write a book and publish it, be it an e-book, a paper book, whatever, this makes people see that you do know what you’re talking about.  If you’re the food writer I mentioned earlier who’s won a national baking competition, if she then writes a whole book about how to decorate cupcakes then that, again, cements her credibility.  People think, “Wow!  She won that big award.  She’s written for BBC Food magazine and she’s written a whole book about cupcakes.  This woman knows what she’s doing.”

Now like I said, these kind of products, podcasts, books, all sorts of options really, are big undertakings.  They take a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of persistence but, like with many things, the more effort something takes the bigger the rewards will be.  So if you do want to be freelancing still in three years’ time and you want by then to have a bigger name and be more in demand and be more known for your particular specialism then creating a significant product is a really good way to build your authority, build your credibility and make people believe in you.

Tip No. 8 is another one that not everybody will agree with, which is completely fine, and that’s to specialise if you choose an area that you want to write about that you already know a lot about.  Maybe you studied medicine at university and decided not to become a doctor you can specialise in health writing and you’ll be respected because you have a medical degree, you’re a doctor and you will be able to get a lot more not just work but work that’s probably better paid because of your credibility if you work in health and medical writing.  If you do general copywriting you won’t be able to demand better fees because the fact that you’re a medical doctor makes no difference when you’re writing about town planning or the latest film.

So specialising, especially if you can prove that you actually are a specialist in that area, can lead to more interesting work I find and better paid work because people are happy to pay more if they can get someone who really knows what they’re talking about in a certain area, but also specialising is a good way to build your credibility because you’re trying to be the big fish in a pond that’s a lot smaller than just business or commercial or blogs.  If you want people to start saying, “Yeah, she’s good” you’ve got a much better chance of that if you’re writing about just, say, travel than if you’re writing about everything.  If you only approach the magazines in your specialist area then you can really get to know the editors and become their ‘go to’ person when they need a particular article, whereas if you write an article for anybody and everybody there’s just no way to build yourself up as a specialist, and specialist implies credibility immediately.

Point No. 9 about gaining credibility is good old social media.  You can make sure that the Tweets you send out show that you know what you’re talking about, you can mention the work you’re doing on Facebook, but also, and probably more effective, is things like communities on Google+ and groups on LinkedIn where you can go into a group of freelance writers or of food critics, or whatever your area, and contribute to discussions that gets your name out there.  Again it shows people that you know what you’re talking about.  So don’t do it if you don’t know what you’re talking about.  If you don’t know what you’re talking about then you can’t specialise in that area yet until you do, but presuming you do know what you’re talking about Google+ communities, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups are all great ways to demonstrate that you can do what you say you can do and that you do know what you say you know.  Don’t just contribute to writing groups.  Look for where you want to be, what areas you want to be writing about and go to groups in that area as well.  Make your name familiar to the people who have the power to hire and fire you.

And a final point, Point No. 10, about building credibility as a freelance writer is once you’ve got it or once you’re starting to get it don’t lose it by doing something stupid like submitting bad work or getting a reputation for being a diva or giving in work late, or even things like promising more than you can deliver.

If you work really hard to build up a reputation, if you work really hard to prove to people that you’re credible, that you know what you’re doing, that you really are a specialist in the area you say you specialise in that’s a lot of work and to throw that away by being careless, by planning badly, by taking too much on, by not communicating with your clients you’ll lose it instantly.  Clients can’t be bothered with somebody who regularly submits work late.  If you submit work late once but that meant they missed a deadline they won’t bother using you ever again.  Once you start building credibility don’t lose it.  Do your best.  You can only do your best but do your best to maintain the image you’re portraying and prove people right.  If they put their trust in you make sure that your behaviour merits that trust.

So that’s 10 points about gaining credibility as a freelance writer and now it is time for my Little Bird recommendation of the week and it’s a bit of a light hearted one this week.  It is a Twitter account called GooglePoetics and you know when you do a search on Google and it gives you dropdown options for what people commonly search for, or what it suspects you might be searching for, people are spotting poetry, I guess found poetry in some ways, in some of the dropdown predictions that Google are giving out and some of them are really quite beautiful.  So head over to @GooglePoetics to have a look at the screenshots of spontaneous Google poetry which are just lovely and a bit of light relief.  As an example one person did a search for ‘I wish I knew’ and it auto-completed in the following poem:

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free

I wish I knew how to quit you

I wish I knew then what I know now

I wish I knew Natalie Portman

So there we have it.  Enjoy your Google poetry recommendation of the week.  The link will be in the show notes.

I’m sorry if it’s been a bit choppy.  I’ve had to stop and start a lot of times either because of power tools across the road or because I’ve needed to cough and sneeze for a while, but that’s how committed we are to this podcast.  We come at you when we’re ill and when there are workmen.

Thank you for listening.  Do check us out at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.  Subscribe, leave us ratings and feedback on iTunes and Stitcher and anywhere really.  Tell your friends that we exist.  Like our Facebook page.  Come say hi to us on social media.

I have been Philippa Willitts and we will see you next time.