Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Audrey Faye Henderson
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My "aha" moment occurred during a conversation with a friend and colleague when I lamented that consultants with no more talent and experience than I have (or less) were snagging plum assignments while many of my inquiries went without a response. "Audrey, it's not personal," my friend explained, "It's just that nobody knows who you are."
My friend was right. Although you may believe that your work should speak for itself (and in large measure, of course it does), it's simply not enough to be good at what you do. Many clients are seeking an authority. Building and maintaining a platform is one means of establishing yourself as a go-to expert in your field for potentially lucrative assignments.
Why Every Writer Needs a Platform
Done right, a writers' platform provides a vehicle to present your credentials and promote your published work. A platform can help to establish your brand, and provides a ready means of exposing your work to a wider variety of potential clients. Be forewarned, however: writers' platforms can have a multitude of moving parts. Just like many other tools in your arsenal, establishing and maintaining a platform takes work.
While I write on a variety of subjects for money, under my own name or a pseudonym, I am focusing my platform toward promoting my work in sustainability. By doing so, I have a means to present reports, blog posts, descriptions of speaking engagements and other sustainability-related activities in which I have participated.
Each aspect of your platform has the potential to reach a different set of would-be clients, while the whole of your platform lends you gravitas as a subject-matter expert. For instance, the platform I am developing consists of policy research reports, blog posts, speaking engagements and conferences. Each aspect is intended to reinforce credibility in sustainability to its respective audience, while the platform as a whole presents a single coherent package for all of my sustainability-related credentials.
Building a Platform
While each platform is unique, there are some elements that are common to most. You don't have to develop every element at once; different aspects of your platform will probably develop at different rates. The key is to ensure that you're making at least some progress on a consistent basis while you're building your platform, and to update your platform at regular intervals once you've put all the pieces in place.
Head Shot, Caption and Capsule Description
For the past couple of years, I've been a presenter at the Chicago Green Festival. The first year, the organizers asked for a photo and short bio to include in their printed schedules and other promotional materials. Being perpetually camera shy, I didn't have a package handy, so I had to improvise.
I found a digital photo of myself that looked professional and was reasonably flattering, cropped it on my computer it to show my head and shoulders, and sent it along with a caption that provided a capsule description (Audrey F. Henderson, J.D., M.A. / Writer, Researcher and Policy Analyst / Founder and Owner, Knowledge Empowerment). I've used the same photo and bio since then for blog posts I've written for Sustainable Cities Collective, which recently instituted a policy of requiring photos for its guest bloggers.
Since then, I have developed a standard capsule bio package that includes my head shot, educational credentials, the name of my consulting practice, my Twitter handle, and references to one or two published pieces or other relevant work. I saved the head shot and bio as a Word file from which I can copy and paste. I also created a PDF file of the entire package, which I can print out or send as an attached document.
Getting a professional head shot is ideal. However, if you use a snapshot, it should be clear and show your full face, not a profile. Dress professionally, just like you would for an important appointment. The background should be plain and the photo should be correctly exposed. It's also important to make a periodic and honest assessment of your head shot. If it is more than a few years old, consider having a new one taken. You don't need to change it every time you change your hairdo or buy new glasses, but people should be able to recognize you.
Update your bio regularly. Hopefully you'll be adding add new accomplishments regularly, and you'll want to include the most recent credentials in your bio while letting older achievements drop off the list. Of course, if you won a Pulitzer Prize or an award of a similar caliber, congratulations; you'll definitely keep that sort of accomplishment in your bio forever.
If you're like me, the decision between addressing a roomful of people and undergoing a root canal is a tough choice. You don't have to become a reality show star (please don't), but giving presentations on subjects related to your work before groups of actual people provides an unbelievable boost to your status as a subject matter expert among the general public, not to mention potential paying clients.
It sounds simplistic, but public speaking is much easier when you know what you're talking about and care about the message you're conveying. Choose issues and subjects for your presentations that are close to your heart and that will promote your professional status. In my case, I seek speaking engagements on issues related to sustainability, social justice and self-empowerment in general, and about affordable housing in particular. Prepare PowerPoint or other presentation documents that you can adapt to a variety of speaking engagements, so you can be prepared to speak on relatively short notice.
If you really are tongue-tied, consider the tried and true method of Toastmasters. Or, try other avenues until you find something that works for you. I took the somewhat less conventional route of training to be an architectural docent and giving walking tours. Talking about Chicago's spectacular architecture with small groups of people who actually want to hear what I have to say has given me the confidence to venture into speaking before larger audiences.
Possibilities for speaking engagements include meetings, seminars, courses and symposia, even Google+ hangouts. Offer to conduct in-house seminars to a company, group or organization. There may also be established speakers' bureaus for your specialty. Check local hard copy or online publications, or outlets like Craigslist. Try doing keyword searches for your specialty subjects to find local organizations to approach for speaking engagements.
If you're under age 35, using social media may come as naturally as breathing. If you're a bit more seasoned, perhaps not so much. I confess this is one area where I'm still in the development stage. I maintain a fairly active Twitter feed that is slowly building a following. I manage a group on LinkedIn related to sustainability, I write guest blog posts on sustainability, and I recently launched a blog relating to sustainable development in the built environment. I also have a static website that provides a basic description of my qualifications and provides links to published writing samples.
However, I don't have a video presence, and the Facebook and Google+ pages for my consulting practice are, shall we say, not quite ready for prime time. I'm also on the steep end of the learning curve for Tumblr, Reddit, Pinterest and other "sharing" services. Nonetheless, I'm plowing ahead, because social media has two major advantages: 1) you can potentially reach a huge audience (think thousands) and 2) most social media outlets are free. That said, it's really easy to spend a lot of time with social media to the detriment of other activities, like, say, writing. One way that I keep things manageable is to focus on efforts directly related to promoting my status in the sustainability arena.
Some social media outlets are easier than others. Twitter only requires that you choose a "handle" that appears next to your "tweets," which have up to 140 characters, including spaces. Facebook Pages are also surprisingly easy to set up, even if you don't have or want a personal Facebook account. LinkedIn Groups and company pages are also easy to establish, although you need to establish a basic LinkedIn account first. [Editor's Note: When this was written, most LinkedIn services were still free; now, LinkedIn is moving to a much more extensive paid-subscription model.] You can use a personal Google+ for professional purposes, or establish separate personal and company Google+ pages. The advantage of the latter option is that you can set tighter privacy settings for your personal Google+ page, while making your company Google+ page totally public.
To avoid becoming overwhelmed, start with one or two social media outlets. Facebook and LinkedIn are good choices, as are Twitter and Google+. You will need to have basic information on hand: your business name, an e-mail address and a brief description of your company or practice. You may also want to include a photo of yourself or your company logo.
A complete social media primer is beyond the scope of this discussion. However, I've assembled a collection of beginners' guides to popular social media outlets at the end of this article. You can also get a handle on social media by reading online publications like Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, Search Engine Land, Search Engine Watch and TechCrunch.
Writing and Other Samples
You may have wondered whether there would be any mention of written work in this discussion of platforms. Of course, written work should comprise a prominent role in your platform. Collect a list of the best work you've produced that is related to your platform, and compile the list into a document that includes the name of the piece, the publication where it appears and the URL (if it's online) or the month, date and year of publication (for hard copy). Keep photocopies or PDF files (having both doesn't hurt) of your writing samples handy to send to prospective clients.
Note the word "selected." Your list of writing samples shouldn't cover every word you've ever written, especially if you write on a range of subjects. You'll also need to refresh the list periodically with more recent writing samples to supplement or even replace other entries on your list.
If you've written extensively on subjects relating to your platform, you will need to judiciously (perhaps ruthlessly) make selections from your overall portfolio to include in your list of writing samples. The actual number of samples you include in your list is your decision, but each sample should represent your best work. You don't want to undo weeks or even months of effort involved in building a platform by including substandard writing samples.
Using Writers' Platforms
I have continued to write on other subjects, including travel, current affairs, politics and popular culture while building my platform. Doing so allows me to make money doing something I enjoy (writing) on subjects which I can address intelligently. At the same time, developing a platform focusing on my credentials and work in sustainability has allowed me to make a credible case for being a subject-matter expert to prospective eco-oriented clients. Now, if a potential client asks "What do you write?" I respond by saying that I write on a variety of subjects, but my major focus is on sustainability. Then I direct them to various elements of my platform.
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.
Audrey Faye Henderson is a writer, researcher, data analyst and policy analyst based in the Chicago area. Her company, Knowledge Empowerment (http://www.knowledge-empowerment.net/), specializes in social policy analysis concerning fair housing, affordable housing, higher education for nontraditional students, community development with an asset based approach and sustainable development in the built environment.