Don’t overestimate your market

How do you compare to the general public in terms of your computer skills?

The answer may be: much better than you would guess.

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., web usability consultant, has issued a report summarizing users’ computer skills as published in 2016 by the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The study tested almost 216,000 people between the ages of 16 and 65 in 33 countries between 2011 and 2015.

What the test looks like

Here are sample test questions used to determine each participant’s computer skills:

  • “Find all emails from John Smith.” That’s level 1.
  • “Find a sustainability-related document that was sent to you by John Smith in October last year.” Level 2.
  • “Find the percentage of emails sent by John Smith last month that were about sustainability.” Level 3.

Then there are two more categories:

  • Below level 1: The very lowest skills level, which somehow is differentiated from . . .
  • “Can’t use computer.”

Yes, I can pass all three tests. Most likely, you can too.

Yikes! More than a quarter of adults can’t use a computer

Even more surprising is the percentage of the population at each of these levels:

  • Level 1: 29% of adult population
  • Level 2: 26%
  • Level 3: only 5%!
  • Below level 1: 14%
  • Can’t use computer: 26%

The achievement levels are surprisingly low, perhaps in part because some of the data date back to 2011 because it took so many years to assemble and analyze all the numbers.

Further surprising is the low percentage of Americans with the highest level of computer skills studied. It’s only 5%. (Singapore and Japan are ahead with 8% scoring at level 3.) Thirty-one percent of the U.S. population scores at levels 2 or 3.

To Nielsen, this means the need for extreme simplicity in usability. It also means that it is quite easy for professionals to remain blissfully unaware of users’ mastery of even the simpler functions.

How about reading literacy?

The data on computer skills prompted me to question the public’s ability to read English.

The Institute of Education Sciences in its most recent study (2003) found that only 15% of adult Americans could function at the highest levels in measurements of prose, document and quantitative skills. This definition of full literacy is equivalent to a university undergraduate level. The “average” American is reported to read at a first or second grade level.

It is important to consider the computer skills and literacy levels of our audiences in our communications. We cannot assume that they function at the highest levels, but we don’t want to insult their intelligence either.

Food for thought. Comments?

Posted in creating content Tagged with: , , ,

Exercising the completion muscle

Isn’t it great when we discover the name for a practice we have long-ago adopted?

My newly discovered practice is “exercising the completion muscle.”

And specifically, I practice it by completing and posting to my blog and newsletter (almost) every week.

It’s one thing to start a project, it’s another to stick to it until completion. But every time we hang in till we’re done, we reinforce a valuable habit.

Earlier this year I got out of the weekly article habit for awhile. It was sort of an existential crisis. Did anyone care? Did Google care?

The blogging experts claim that readers avidly await each installment and are concerned when a publication date is missed. Frankly, I saw no such distress.

But interestingly, several people told me they had missed my articles after I reinstated publication. To those people, I say thank you for your encouragement.

How I exercise the completion muscle

I generally draft my article over the weekend and finalize it on Monday. Sometimes scheduling conflicts require me to postpone for a day or two.

I take this obligation seriously and prioritize it above almost all other work. However, if I can’t fulfill it due to travel or illness, I skip it. Nothing is worse than letting obligations pile up over time so that they transform from a reasonable challenge to an overwhelming weight.

Sometimes this means publishing something that is pretty good but somehow doesn’t fully meet my goals. And occasionally I am so dissatisfied with what I have written that I have to set it aside.

Still, no matter what is going on with bigger projects, I have this frequent experience of completion success.

Where I heard of the completion muscle

I credit the term to the podcasts of Michael Joseph Ferguson, author of The Drummer and the Great Mountain: A Guidebook to Transforming Adult ADD/ADHD, and Bahman Sarram, which I find enlightening.

How are you building your completion muscle?

Posted in creating content, writing Tagged with: , , ,

Three types of freelance craziness

No wonder many people think freelancing is the most wonderful lifestyle anyone could ever have, considering the stuff I’ve been seeing lately:

  1. The very, very short workweek

At a social / networking event I recently attended, a fellow freelancer told me that The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, represents the lifestyle he wants to achieve. Yes, he wants to live well while working only one-half day per week.

I was dumbstruck within but kept it together during the conversation.

I don’t remember what kind of freelancing or consulting he did. I think it was something about marketing. What was interesting was that he communicated neither the steak nor the sizzle.

Obviously he is much more intrigued by a freewheeling life involving little work than he is with the services he offers.

As a freelancer myself, I frequently contract with others to provide me with services that I don’t do for myself, either because I don’t enjoy them, I don’t know how, or as a one-person business I don’t have enough time.

However, I run from someone whose top priority is to avoid work. I don’t want my project sitting in the queue of a person with so little commitment to getting the job done.

I understand that many coaches of freelancers have a USP (selling proposition) on the theme of showing us how to make more money in less time while working with clients we love. That claim works for them because it appeals to their audience—freelancers.

But we freelancers do not attract the best clients, especially B2B, with that same USP. Sure, it sounds good to freelancers but it does not sound good to their clients.

  1. I’ll do your work as soon as I get to Indonesia

Along the same line, I see coaches of freelancers who have established international travel as their primary life goal and want to teach freelancers to do the same. They boast about how many continents and how many countries they have traveled, ideally working along the way.

They may get a lot of paying work done, but I’d demand to know exactly how before I’d sign up with them and even give a deposit. What’s the point of so much travel if it takes you to Starbucks around the globe that are pretty similar to the one down the street from your home? I think it would be difficult to maintain a regular work schedule living from a backpack.

  1. Now you see him, now you don’t

The third craziness I see are freelancers flaking out on work commitments. They get deep into a project, eliciting hours of input from the client and putting in billable hours for work that has not been finalized. Then they disappear, if not permanently at least for substantial periods of time. The client’s project is up in the air and they are worse off than if they had never contracted for the work.

Sometimes these freelancers have set their price too low, perhaps because it is for a friend.

Once the rate is set, that’s it. It’s not the client’s problem. The freelancer may accept the work as fill-in because there’s no other paying work at the moment, but it’s shortsighted without considering that better paying work may be on the horizon.

Sometimes we take on the assignment but explain that higher paying work will come first. So long as the client agrees and so long as we keep the friend / client religiously apprised of changes in scheduling, that’s OK.

How can people make a living with such loose work habits? Am I too critical? What do you think?

Posted in Freelance, Running a business Tagged with: , ,

The power to critique is the power to destroy

I used to welcome input on my writing from others. I saw it as free help. The more negative the advice, the more it was a test of my character and my ability to remain open minded to criticism.

I examined each point of criticism and seriously considered amending my work to incorporate it. I was really in a bind when multiple people gave contradictory input.

However, over time I recognized that I’m a sensitive person and criticism hurts. Plus I am highly discriminatory (in the positive sense) in distinguishing between valid and invalid input.

It’s especially annoying when the critique is wrong—correct the person critiquing and you’re seen as too defensive. Entertain the criticism and you may well be compromising the quality of your work or at least wallowing in indecision.

All in all, blunt critiquing can cripple writers. Yes, the power to critique is the power to destroy.

Hot seats. Ugh!

Hot seats are really bad. A paid leader or a group of paying participants, often with no or very little advance preparation, pile on the criticism. In my experience, they tend to find the very problems I have been wrestling with, but their solutions are perfunctory, not unique to my work or my situation.

Some fee-based, multi-session programs are built around lots of member critiquing. The organizer makes big bucks for organizing the program, while the work is done by volunteer members whose only qualification is coming up with the cash for enrollment. The more people critiquing and the less qualified they are, the worse the process.

As a professional writer, I am reluctant to put in a lot of unpaid time to fix the work of other participants, but being torn down by unqualified readers is even more upsetting.

I once sat in the hot seat at a self-publishing group where I presented my book on how to market freelance services. One loudmouth boldly told me my book would never sell. It needs a better title about how to make a fast fortune as a freelancer.

I was offended and the advice still rankles today. My book isn’t about how to get rich quick. She was actually saying my book is hopeless and can never sell because it is fundamentally a dud.

Sometimes there’s some positive feedback. However, I tend to hear negative comments more loudly than the positive. This is a negative trait I am trying to correct.

Critiquing book drafts

I see a different critiquing trend in the publishing world. Writers—especially self-published authors—create a “tribe” and ask members to proof and edit their book that is under way for free. Then they stack up the proposed revisions and review each and every suggestion.

I’d jump out a window at the tediousness of the task. When I want outside editing, I ask a single qualified person to do the job and gladly pay them.

In addition, much fan development and networking in the self-publishing world (or even traditional publishing) centers on voting on silly things to strengthen readers’ identification with the tribe.

Authors post six covers, all identical except for slight variations in font, element placement and color, and ask for a vote to choose the best. I have no consumer research to rely on and I have no idea what will sell. Nor do I care. I do not participate.

 And then there’s Toastmasters

Aside from writing, I also experience critiquing in my Toastmasters club. Each speech is thoughtfully critiqued by one speaker. Other members submit written suggestions directly to the speaker.

Most evaluators tend to a certain critiquing style: the sandwich. Say something good, say something negative, conclude with something good. Don’t pick out every fault, especially for a beginner. Choose the most helpful suggestion; avoid the laundry list.

There are also “professional” clubs where the gang points out every little flaw.

The latter approach may be beneficial to some professional speakers but it’s not for me. I am more concerned about developing confidence than beating myself up over every word choice.

Certainly input can be highly helpful if we want to grow in our talents. But if you are sensitive, I believe it’s important to guard against having your confidence shaken so badly that you step away from your work.

How about you? Do you invite critiques? How do you manage your emotions?

Posted in coaching Tagged with: , , ,

“Pick up the phone” works in politics too

In the last few weeks I’ve been doing volunteer phoning for my political party. It could be called “cold calling,” but it’s not really cold because the list I work from has been developed with carefully considered algorithms. And seeing how the system works, with individual voting data (but not specifically who we vote for) supplied to the parties, I assume it’s not cold for either party and that both parties use available data in similar ways.

The election process makes terrific data available to both parties. They can see who voted in which primaries, along with age, address and phone. Every day data are updated to show who has voted, whether at advance polling places or by mail. (Yes, every day.) Then the parties apply their algorithms to create lists for specific contacting purposes.

Months ago it was about phoning broad lists to determine current party preferences. As we get closer to the vote, phoning is about contacting one’s own party to encourage people to vote, vote early, and even volunteer to knock on doors and make calls.

I’ve been working on the last—asking people to volunteer—for several days now. Most calls are not answered so this is slow work . . . and frustrating if you expect it to be easier.

But over time there is some success, and each success is important because our impact multiplies with each individual canvasser.

Leave messages?

The conventional wisdom—and the advice of campaign experts—is not to leave a voicemail message.

However, my boss allowed me to give message-leaving a try. And yes, he is getting callbacks.

Some ideas on what to say on these calls

Like all phoning, the goal is to sound unscripted, conversational. You don’t want to sound like you are delivering a rote message. Convey that you personally care.

Some of the most persuasive telemarketers have a pleading tone in their voices. It’s the audio equivalent of the family dog seated by the dinner table, eyeing each bite of steak as we raise the fork to our mouths.

At the same time, it’s important to respect the guidance of managing staff. Scripts and instructions have been developed for a reason, so we should do as we are told even though we are volunteers who have the freedom to walk off the job.

Here are some lines I like:

  • I am a volunteer and I am phoning from the local [name of city] office.
  • At this point, the contact lists are well developed. We are contacting people from our party. So this is fun!, not stressful. (I personally love the word “fun” because it was a word—and concept—that my parents scorned.)
  • I’m doing it too and we’ll be doing it together. More fun.
  • I’d hate to wake up Wednesday and find out we should have tried a little harder.

We marketers and communicators have the abilities and experience to support our political views. So let’s commit to getting the job done.




Posted in The big issues Tagged with: , ,

Cold calling for freelance work: Leave a message? Yes, yes, yes!

Seems the consensus among marketers is never to leave a voicemail message when cold calling. The collective “they” say that cold calls are nuisances and therefore, so are voicemail messages.

It makes no sense to me. My calls are not nuisance calls and therefore my messages are not nuisances either.

First, let’s step back and define “cold calling.” In my dictionary, a cold call is one in which not only do you not know the person you are calling, but you’ve culled the name from a massive list that has no relevance to your product or service. (Think phone book or the electronic equivalent.)

By my definition, cold calling is useless.

Anything else is a warm call. Certainly the best calls are to previous clients and our closest friends. However, I consider a call to a business person who is quite likely to want the good news about my offer or to a fellow member of a professional organization to be a warm call.

I hate the term “cold calling,” but I have associates who use it freely. They say they are cold calling when they sit down to their lists of past clients and contacts they have made through networking.

I call it “picking up the phone”

I prefer to call it “telephoning,” but I use the term “cold calling” in this article solely because that’s the keyword readers may use to find it.

Let’s be clear about how I use the phone. I only call people who are likely to benefit from my services; I help them by informing them of a service that I believe they may want.

I make all calls myself. I call live with no recordings. I get to the point quickly and don’t waste time on useless chitchat. I phone only business numbers (but if a one-person business uses the same phone number for personal and work, that’s not my fault). I only phone during regular business hours. And if people ask to be taken off my list, I never call them again.

Unfortunately, I myself receive more nuisance calls than ever. Sometimes the same nuisance caller phones multiple times on the same day. Alas, these calls often come from what appears to be a local phone number.

I generally do not answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize, with the exception of some local numbers or possible clients or prospects. I figure that if the call is relevant, they’ll leave a message. And I always check my voicemail!

Unfortunately . . .

It is unfortunate that many are trying to transform the phone into a delivery mechanism for garbage.

If you believe that the message you leave is a nuisance, then your call itself is also a nuisance.

Keep calling until someone finally answers? Yuck!

Calling repeatedly till someone answers is not the answer, in my opinion. As the same number shows up repeatedly, it confirms my expectation that it’s a bad call. As I come to recognize the number, I am repelled, not intrigued.

I am proud of the calls I make. I believe I offer something of value  and the person called would gladly take my call if only he knew what I am calling about.

By the way, I try to use at least two channels each time I phone. I leave a message and I immediately follow up with an email describing my services. However, a postal letter would also be appropriate in some circumstances.

How about you? Are you phoning? What is your experience with leaving a message?



Posted in cold calling for freelance and consulting, phoning for freelance and consulting work Tagged with: , ,

How I would negotiate with Donald Trump

When Donald Trump talks about his negotiations with suppliers of business services and products, I, as a freelance writer, identify with the party on the opposite side of the table from The Donald.

If he negotiates as fiercely as he claims to, I would never consider working with him.

To be honest, I’ve never had the opportunity to turn down a Trump company. I’m far too small-potatoes for them. Which is fine with me.

A fundamental goal in negotiations is win-win. Except with Trump.

Trump claims to be committed to his winning, everyone else losing.

Apparently businesspeople are so turned on by the idea of getting into something h-u-g-e that they will accede to dreadful terms to get in on a really big deal.

In the real world, I’d guess that the bigger the risk, the more cautious and astute the other party is. If the deal involves hiring labor and / or purchasing product, the potential for financial loss is especially frightening.

Sure, no one would sign a contract with Trump without running it by an attorney and perhaps an accountant as well.

Still, he has such access to legal support that it would be darned hard to enforce the contract and even harder to collect. His personal assets are so isolated from his business entities that all I can say is “Good luck.”

And if he isn’t pleased with what he has received to his own internal criteria, he simply doesn’t have to pay, Trump apparently thinks.

Actually, I think much of what Trump is saying is poppycock. As a businessperson, he couldn’t function successfully in the long run with his I-win-you-lose approach.

Win-lose is not a sustainable business model; win-win is because both parties profit and are open to doing business together again.

Business organizations benefit from ongoing relationships. Any party having a miserable experience won’t be back again. Actually, if this experience forces them into bankruptcy, for sure they won’t be back.

In the real world, a mighty second generation / third generation enterprise benefits from long-term ties to suppliers.

The only reasonable way to have a business agreement with Trump as he presents himself to the public is to require full payment up front. If he’s not happy, let him try to get the money back. Put the burden on him.

I’d love to know how Kellyanne Conway is getting paid. She’s a smart cookie. Bet she got a huge advance. Right now Trump is saying everyone outside his campaign is crooked. If he loses, he may try to add her to the list of people who have harmed him.

How about you? How would you negotiate with Trump?

Something else I’ve written on The Donald:

Hey, Mr. Trump, sorry I haven’t had the honor of working for you

Posted in Getting paid Tagged with: , , ,

Freelancing: How to find out what your competition charges

Here’s how to find out what your competition charges: Ask!!

There’s a right way and a wrong way to ask. (Actually, there are many wrong ways to ask. And although the way I’m prescribing feels right to me, there may also be many right ways to ask.)

Here’s how I recommend doing it.

Approach someone you know personally who offers a service similar to yours. Then say something along the lines of:

I am reconsidering the hourly rates I charge to write a white paper on marketing challenges facing our industry in the next decade. My current rate is $85 per hour and the typical project takes about 30 hours. The per project fee would be around $3,000. Does that sound about right to you?

There’s nothing sacred about the specifics here. You may discuss hourly, per project, or any other calculation factor. You may describe the assignment of your choice. What’s important is to reveal your rate before asking someone else his rate.

When you do it this way, you tend to get solid data. When you ask in a vague way, you get vague data.

In American society, it is bad form to ask someone else her salary. Heck, oftentimes one spouse doesn’t know his partner’s salary. So why would someone volunteer this information if you haven’t revealed your number first?

Notice that this is best done in person, ideally in a one-on-one conversation. Post the question to a LinkedIn group, for instance, and you have no way of knowing who you are sharing your own personal data with. Nor do you have any gut feeling for the professionalism or expertise of your informant. Believe it or not, there are people on the internet who lie!

Sometimes the advice we receive from others is totally worthless. I was once preparing a proposal to write marketing copy for a local public university. I had no idea what an appropriate rate would be in the higher-education field, so I posed the question to a LinkedIn group representing a live, local freelance writers’ group of which I am a member.

I got no response except for one individual who only said “be sure not to undercharge.” I have no idea what that means. Such a statement introduces more self-doubt into the process rather than any degree of assistance.

Another great question: Who is my biggest competitor?

Great question! Most of us don’t know. I certainly don’t.

As a freelance writer, my competitors number in the tens of thousands, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. They can be found through searches on Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They may reside in online freelance job boards.

They may be local individuals I know well or they may be total strangers on the other side of the globe.

Some are soloists; some large agencies also compete in my space.

They may even have no internet presence but land assignments through relationships at church or at PTA meetings.

It cracks me up when I see self-proclaimed marketing gurus on the internet who offer to work with freelancers in developing positioning statements, web content and such. They start by asking the client for a list of his biggest competitors. If I knew exactly who my competitors are, branding and competing would be a breeze.

The best I could do if I were starting work with a consultant would be to identify websites, newsletters, logos, and / or slogans I like. This would give some direction but not the ideal level of input.

How about you? How have you been successful at collecting pricing data in your field? How well do you believe you know who your competitors are? I’d love to hear from you.



Posted in How much to charge Tagged with: , ,

Freelancing Millennials network differently from Boomers: Here’s how

I like to attend professional networking events with freelancers a generation younger than me. It’s fascinating how millennials network much differently from boomers. Here is what I’ve observed:

Posted in networking, Uncategorized Tagged with: , ,

Freelancing: Getting paid what you are worth

Demanding to get paid “what you are worth” can be UNhelpful advice. Too vague yet too emotionally fraught.

Here is a guest post on this topic that I wrote for Carol Roth’s blog.

Posted in How much to charge, Uncategorized Tagged with: , ,