If freelancing is always and forever about people (and it is) then good communication is imperative. Learn how to get better at it. You can build the greatest websites ever, you can write code that angels envy, but if you can’t communicate with others, you’ll never succeed.
One of our business mentors is fond of saying:
“Communication is not the message sent, but the message received.”
So you must work continuously, tirelessly on learning how to communicate with the non-geek, non-coders of the world. Communication with non-techies is truly hard for both sides. It’s not that anyone is stupid, it’s just that there’s an incredible divide to overcome. You speak different languages. And it takes work.
So here are some tips on communicating with the non-geeks of the work world that will benefit your career greatly:
- Be forever patient. Like the long-suffering kind of patient. Stay calm and keep calm, even when you’ve hit a dead end. Always keep your composure. Never talk down to someone. And remind yourself that we don’t talk the same language and this is a communication barrier.
- Translate. After you mention your technical jargon, then say, “This means …” But the best translations are typically metaphors or analogies. It offers a comparison in terms others can understand.
- See the issue from the other person’s point of view, restate what you’ve heard and ask if your understanding is clear.
- Repeat the why until eyes glaze over.
- Explain how what you’re doing or what you ran into affects the project in terms of time, complexity and budget.
- If development is an expedition, share the hurdles, challenges, dangers of the journey you may run into. Then give options. Don’t just give one path of the journey, present different options even if they are all marginal options. And once you’ve presented the different options, give some input as to what you’d suggest or prefer and most importantly, why.
- Seek help and assistance from a translator. Find one of those weird blends of people who can walk and talk in both worlds. They are your ally. Stick close to them. Talk to them often. See how they might translate what you’re saying to others.
- Know yourself, know your strengths, know your personality. Understand how you communicate and how it may be different from how other people communicate.
The Technical Details of Communication
In addition to rocking good communication skills that can connect with people, you also need to master the technical skills. Freelancing can often mean working by yourself or remotely, and that can introduce a whole new set of communication problems.
Here are some tips to help you master the ins and outs of freelance communication:
- Shut up and listen. Sometimes the best thing you can do is be quiet. Let your clients do the talking and you do the listening. As you learn to listen you’ll realize that much of your job is figuring out what a client really wants.
- Learn the tech. Since you’re rarely in the room with the people you work with, it’s time to master the various methods of communication that make freelancing so easy: phone, email, text, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc. “We have the technology,” says WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. So use it. Get an account, mess with the settings, make sure you know how it works. Also be aware of the drawbacks. Realize it’s hard to understand tone in email. Know that video conferencing often goes wonky, so call in early to make sure everything works. Learn to use the mute button.
- Be very available. Basecamp’s Jason Fried35 emphasizes the importance of overcoming communication barriers: “Since you can’t meet face-to-face, you better return phone calls, emails, instant messages, etc. This is basic business stuff, but it’s tenfold more important when you’re working remotely. … When you’re remote, they’re going to be more suspicious when phone calls go unreturned or emails keep getting ‘lost’. Stay on top of communications and you’ll reap the benefits.”
- Stay in the loop. Clients have hired you to do a job and you have a responsibility to keep them apprised of how it’s going. Different clients will expect different levels of contact. Some will want constant hand holding, while others won’t care to talk until the project is complete.
- Confront problems. As problems arise, deadlines shift or revisions get out of hand, you must communicate. This is where you need to keep everyone on the same page, make sure the original project scope isn’t lost in the shuffle and move the project toward completion. If a client isn’t delivering what they need to, you have to let them know. Make sure everyone understands what’s happening and what the ramifications are.
- Build it. Sometimes the best way to stay connected is to build your own system. That’s what Automattic did, creating their own P2 WordPress theme and using a password-protected blog structure to encourage conversation among their few hundred employees, most of whom work remotely. That might be overkill for your freelance biz, but it might be a fun way to communicate with your clients.
- Take advantage of meetings. When you have meetings, share the meeting notes with the entire team. Publish them where everyone has access. This not only keeps everyone on the same page, it creates an archive of what decisions you made.
- Just ask. We all know what happens when we assume. Your invoice isn’t paid and you get mad, assuming your client is stiffing you. Or your project is late and your client gets mad, assuming you’re blowing off their project. But in both cases there’s probably a simple explanation. Just ask. When everybody knows what’s going on, people are less likely to get angry.