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Selling Yourself


Independent consultants need to find enough clients to match their overhead, and contractors need to land another contract after the current one ends. As a result, contractors and independent consultants need to know how to sell themselves. (Note: In this chapter, I often use the term “contractor” to include both contractors and independent consultants.)

According to an article in Business Wire (June 1999), “ … independent contractors, consultants and freelancers believe marketing and promoting themselves is the biggest drawback to being independently employed.” The article writer drew this conclusion from a survey of over 5500 existing and wannabe agents. The article claimed that nearly half of the contractors polled believe that having to constantly market themselves is a drawback to being independent.

Contractors and consultants who do not like to selling and promoting themselves may find it difficult to make ends meet, for there will be competitors for the same clients who are out there, selling themselves, and getting the attention. However, with practice and encouragement, people who want to work independently can master the basics of self promotion and enjoy the freedom afforded those who work independently.

Continual Self Promotion

For independent technical communicators, maintaining steady income involves continual self promotion, which includes promoting yourself even when you have a full plate of work. Rather than vacillating between times of working and times of searching for work, successful contractors learn to braid their working and self promotion efforts in such a way as to create a continuous flow of contracts, clients and inquiries.

Granted, you may need to reduce marketing activities when you are extremely busy, but do not stop them altogether. When the current contract ends, you don’t want to be left without a single assignment or lead.

Learn to cultivate contacts today so that you will have prospects six months from now. To quote Harvey MacKay, remember to “dig your well before you’re thirsty.”

Business Cards

Having personalized business cards with current information is as rudimentary as having an updated copy of your resume. Giving out your business card can mean the difference between being remembered or being forgotten.

I like to use both sides of a business card. The front contains my logo, company name, address and phone numbers. The back lists the URLs of my related Websites. I have seen others use the back to list their experience and skills, add a positive thought, or give interesting statistics. Using both sides of the card allows you to pack a little more data onto your business card without crowding it all on the face.

For over a decade I’ve used PageMaker to create my own business cards. I would rather create and print 100 cards at a sitting than place an order for 500 cards, mostly because I move around a lot. But whether you make your own or order them made ready-made, remember to use fonts that can be quickly and easily deciphered. When it comes to fonts, resist the urge to be cute or unique.


You can find great advice for building a resume on,, and It goes without saying that as a contractor, you need to update your resume more often than a regular employee. When I decided to become a technical writing contractor, I took advantage of the resume service offered by my alma mater. As my existing resume stressed teaching experience, I needed to downplay that in preference of writing experience; and as I had more computer skills than industry experience, I placed my skills right up front. I recommend taking advantage of a resume coach if you can. I believe you will find it worth your time.

Maintain Separate Resumes
If you work in more than one area of expertise (i.e. technical writing and project management), you could maintain two different resumes. Specializing your resumes and then submitting the most appropriate one for the position helps potential clients think you are just the person they need. Granted, a few opportunities may demand all your skills, but most won't — and you probably won’t get an interview if you present an unfocused or irrelevant resume. Hiring managers don't want to pay for experience they can't use.

Focus On Current Opening
Good ways to focus your resume:

  • fine-tune your Objective statement
  • switch the order of some of your bullet points
  • delete (or at least rewrite) entries which are specific to skills not required
  • elaborate on responsibilities and accomplishments relevant to the position requirements
  • alter your previous job titles (within reason, of course)

To get inside the hiring manager's head, ask yourself "what will convince this decision-maker that I'm perfect for his or her opportunity but also that I won't abandon it for an even better one as soon as it comes along?"

Don’t Appear Overqualified
When managers believe a candidate is overqualified, they may be thinking:

  • "this resume doesn't convince me that the candidate will commit completely to doing what I want done"
  • "this candidate has skills that are more valuable than the ones I need”
  • “this candidate will probably be a flight risk"
  • "this resume inflates the candidate's accomplishments and makes me doubt their veracity"

In addition, giving the recruiter more information about your varied experience than they need may cause you to seem less suitable for the opening. It takes time, but focusing your resume for the opportunity pays off in the long run.


Like your resume, edit your examples to death because your portfolio is considered representative of your best efforts. If your example is flawed, and you haven’t previously explained how/why/what you would improve it, you are sunk. You may want to include a short prefatory note with some of your samples, indicating some of the following:

  • the context in which it was created (who you worked with, under what circumstances, how long it took, who reviewed it)
  • what you like and don’t like about the work
  • what you would have done differently if you had the resources

If you are unable to show a portfolio sample for confidentiality reasons, at least show some of the non-proprietary information (e.g. the TOC and index) and a neutered version of the kind of content that will prove your ability to do the job.

Here are some ideas for getting around NDAs so that you can demonstrate your work:

  • Let’s say you created some in-house training for a new software system installed in an insurance firm. The insurance firm insisted that you sign a NDA before you started working for them. Keep a digital copy of the training and then 'neuter' a copy of what you kept by changing all the proprietary details (like substituting the name of company with XYZ and making up a different logo) so that the reader cannot gain access to intellectual property, but will still be able to understand what you wrote and appreciate how you presented it.
  • You can also scan a redacted (blacked out) hardcopy of your work, save it in Adobe Acrobat format, and lock the document so it can't be printed, copied, exported, or altered, then post the file on a password-protected Website that you control. Then you can supply the URL and password information to your potential client or employer.
  • Ask your former client for permission to share certain parts of deliverables you created on their behalf. Show them the actual pages, chapters or books you plan to share with others. If the material is sufficiently dated, vague, or irrelevant to their current activities, they may agree to share it. If they do, get the permission in writing and then share it with your prospect.

Multiple Deliverable Types
Bring or submit multiple kinds of deliverables. Show and guide interviewers through the types of samples they have asked for, but also ask them if they would be interested in seeing some of your other work. It can’t hurt.

Writing samples don't always have to have been done on the job. My portfolio contains some articles I have written for newsletters and some of my college project deliverables.

Your Own Website

It is important for technical communicators to announce their existence and highlight their skills on their own Website. If you don’t have time to build your own, find someone (with a good portfolio of Websites) to build it for you. Take the time to look at existing vendor and contractor Websites to see what you like and what seems to work best for your type of work. Personal Websites are great places for online resumes and online portfolios.

Domain Name
A business domain name shows that you are serious about your craft, that you are successful, and that you won’t skip town with the client’s money. If the .com or .net you want is already taken, then you could select .info instead, but that may not work in your favor. Old habits die hard and lots of users out there have a strong .com mindset. Remember that the Top Level Domains (.com, .org, and .net) get all the press.

Domain names can be 67 characters long. If the name you want is taken, and you don’t care for any of the obvious alternatives, consider making a domain name out of your slogan.

Flash and Splash
Forget the splash page. Really. Web designers and art majors like splash pages, but most business people don’t have time for them. Recruiters and hiring managers want content, not a picture of a forest that takes 30 seconds to load. Making business people sit through a lengthy splash screen is a waste of their time; show some of you creativity, but make it quick.

Selected Online Resume Examples
After an afternoon of searching for online resumes, I narrowed my list to five examples, plus my own.

1. Interesting layout and use of color. The text should be wider for less scrolling. The writer’s personal references are included – which is not recommended.

2. Interesting Website with some good information, but the layout requires lots of clicking.

3. Be careful with Flash presentations because they can be annoying …

4. This one is attractive:

5. Use tables or stylesheets to narrow, or tame, your text so that it doesn’t run from one side of the screen to the other. This is difficult to read – most people won’t even try past the first line or two.

6. This is my online resume which includes an online portfolio:

Public Speaking

Create a presentation about a technical writing or instructional design topic, a topic that not only interests you but about which you have personal experience or a unique perspective. Put notes to your PowerPoint presentation and create a handout. Then give your presentation to interested groups, like user groups, communication organizations, or even the local library.

Giving a presentation that you created sets you apart as an ‘expert’ in your field. It gives you exposure to managers who could use your skills for a current project and to other technical communicators who know about opening in your area. You can also add these presentations and handouts to your online portfolio.


Although it isn’t mandatory that you network with other writers, contracting agents and recruiters, networking certainly can make your life run smoother by making it easier to find the next client.

What is Networking, Really
For years I resisted networking because I thought it was an impersonal, rather intrusive form of sales. I had been turned off by people who abused networking by trying to ‘sell’ themselves at every event, by intruding inappropriately, and by always being in their ‘sales mode’. I didn’t want to be like that; I just wanted a contract.

Years later I learned that networking doesn’t have to be forced, impersonal or agenda-driven. Networking can be warm and polite, can involve a genuine expression of interest in others and a willingness to contribute. Effective win-win networking is all about gathering and disseminating information.

Elevator Speech
Do you want to learn how to tell people what you do without having to watch their eyes glaze over? Then learn an Elevator Speech. An elevator speech consists of a few sentences that you could deliver during the time it takes to ride an elevator, a brief description that expresses the essence of what you have to offer. It is much like a sound bite. Prepare your personal elevator speech and practice delivering it.

Helping Others and Yourself
Proper networking not only helps you reach your personal and professional goals, it also involves extending yourself to help others reach their goals. You do this by acting as a resource for others. When recruiters contact me about a job that does not interest me, either because I already have a contract or because the position isn’t a good match, I nevertheless respond immediately, thanking them for their consideration and offering them an alternate contact. They will remember me for my quick response and my willingness to help.

Effective networking is dynamic; it helps make the world a little smaller and more personal. Participating in an STC Special Interest Group and attending chapter development meetings is a good way to either start or expand your professional network.

Email Rolodex
Retain the email address of every recruiter or potential client who has ever sent you an inquiry or who has responded favorably to your resume. Even if you were not available at the time, or if your qualifications did not match the open position, keep this person’s name and email address. I save all inquiries (along with my responses) in a Job Contacts folder in my business email. Then, when if I find myself close to the end of a contract without a new one on the horizon, I resurrect those emails and send a note to the various recruiters or hiring managers, telling them when I will be available and reminding them of my qualifications.

References and Referrals

Client References
You can gather good references by focusing on the needs of the client. This may sound too basic to warrant mentioning, but I know contractors who will argue with a client in order to make their point. These writers are so convinced their view is the only right one that they would rather be right than employed! I don’t recommend this approach.

Beyond the old maxim “the client is always right,” it is good practice for contractors to occasionally stop writing / programming / designing and just focus on the client for a few moments. Each new client is a new relationship. The contractor needs to occasionally focus on what it is going to take to make this relationship work, to listen to what clients say they want and try to understand what they need. Besides working to make sure all of the client’s needs are covered, endeavor to understand and fulfill most of the client’s wants.

The client may not remember everything the contractor wrote or designed, but the client will remember how that client made him/her feel. If you mind the relationship you are creating with the client, you will be able to offer this client as a reference when looking for your next contract.

To have people referring you to potential clients and employers, you need to be out there, getting involved, doing things that will merit the approval of others and thus their eventual referral.

STC is a good place to start your activity, especially if you volunteer to serve on a committee, take a position on a board, or volunteer to write a chapter for an online book!

Interview Tips

The interview (whether with an employer or a client) is one of the most poignant parts of your self promotion package. Everything else leads up to these few moments.

Some Pitfalls to Avoid
Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t ramble. Telling your interviewer more than they need (or want) to know can be fatal. Your stories should be 60 seconds long or less and they should have a relevant point. Remember to Focus. Resist the urge to fill up any silent periods with unnecessary talk.
  • Don’t be overly familiar. A good interviewer will put you at ease, that’s what they are supposed to do, but that doesn’t mean they have just become your best friend. Don’t let your guard down in an interview. The interview is a business meeting. You have come to answer questions and to get answers to your questions.
  • Don’t be too needy. Interviewers pick up on this right away, and it turns some of them off just as quick. You do need air and water, you do not need this job. Remember to keep things in perspective.
  • Don’t forget to show your interest in the company. Read about the company before you go and arrive with a few questions to ask about the company. Try to ask What, How and Why questions instead of yes/no questions. Get your interviewer to talk and then take notes.

Something to Smile About
I can’t resist; I want share my favorite interview story. I arrived early for an interview with a large international company nestled in the Salt Lake City valley. A secretary led me to the third floor and into a small room. In a moment, a man entered, introduced himself as another instructional designer, and mumbled an apology that he was new at this. Behind him a tall thin woman entered and introduced herself as an area supervisor. As the nervous man worked down his list of unremarkable questions for me, and as I answered them, the woman promptly fell asleep, right there in her chair. The interview lasted 25 minutes and she slept 20 of them.

It was comical the way the man and I nervously ignored the sleeping woman, him trying not to appear mortified and me trying not to look at her. A few days later the company offered me a contract but I had already taken another opportunity.

The Last Word: Be Prepared

You never know where or when you are going to meet someone who knows someone else who needs what you can do. You might meet a potential client at a wine tasting event, at a book signing, or at the reception after a play.

Learn how to sum up what you do in two sentences. Then, when you are asked, your summary of what you do sounds succinct, easy to understand and easy to remember. And don’t forget those business cards!

Suggested Reading:

Like most contractors, I’ve perused plenty of self-help and freelance-type books; some were good, some were not. But I do recommend these two:
          Power Networking, 2 nd Ed., Donna Fisher & Sandy Vilas, Bard Press, 2000.
          Making Money in Technical Writing, Peter Kent, Arco, 1998.

by Ann Gordon, Assistant Manager
Consulting and Independent Contracting - SIG

Published as a Chapter in an online book, 2005

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