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Quick chat with Steven Lewis

What do you love about what you do?

I was briefly the editor of a couple of legal journals in the mid-90s, but I was ill-suited to it. I realised I wanted to be the one having my writing fixed, not the one fixing someone else’s writing. This led me to submit (terrible) journalism on spec to a few newspaper editors. One of them took mercy on me, and I’m not sure where I’d be if she’d not had that moment of madness.

I was a journalist from 1998 to the early mid-2000s, although once a journalist, always a journalist, even if I have given up drinking.

Since journalism, I’ve been many things:

  • Started a social media agency in 2004 (two years before Twitter or Facebook accounts for anyone out of university). Dumb move.
  • Professional podcaster
  • PR
  • Self-publishing expert
  • Internal communications manager
  • And for the longest stretch, running through to today, a copywriter.

So the common thread in my working life is communication, most particularly, answering the question: Why the hell should anyone care about this?

What I love about what I do is that most people are shite at answering that question before communicating, which is why their marketing is ineffective.

I love getting to why the audience should care for the transformation that happens for a client when you fix that problem for them.

Suddenly, a genuine expert is revealed to the right people as their obvious choice. As a result, the right people get the expertise they need, and the expert has the viable business they deserve because they’re bloody good at what they do; they just weren’t good at communicating that.

There is nothing quite like meeting someone who is brilliant at what they do, prompting them through their story, and then saying, “Why the hell isn’t any of that on your website?”

Plus, I love learning about all kinds of businesses and people. I’ve learned about financing bridges in Indonesia, specialised surgeries, oyster farming, adventure racing… And because it was my job, I could ask anything I liked, however personal, as long as the questions seemed relevant.

What have been the highlights of your career so far?

Early in my career, I was a Sunday magazine TV columnist. That might have been my best-ever gig working for someone else.

Recently, I launched Newsletter Magic, a five-week coaching program for business owners who want to install a personality-driven email newsletter as the marketing engine of their business. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve had some dust in my eye more than once in the final week when reviewing a brilliant email from someone who started the program thinking they couldn’t write at all. It turns out there is something better than telling people’s stories; it’s showing people how to tell their own stories.

How long have you been running your own agency?

I envy all the agency owners on Instagram with balloons celebrating the agency’s birthday. It seems like such a simple thing to have made a note of when you started, but I genuinely have no idea how long Taleist has been an agency. I know that sounds ridiculous, but we started off writing audio tours and, at some point, became a copywriting and training agency. LinkedIn says Taleist has turned 14, so maybe I should just buy a couple of balloons, choose a filter and post that.

What do freelancers need to know about the changing state of content?

I teach people ChatGPT skills, and I love ChatGPT as the best colleague I’ve ever had. However, people should know that ChatGPT isn’t ready to take the job of a good content writer. It is able to make a good content writer great or a bad content writer good, but only if the person driving knows what separates good content from bad. If you’re shit, ChatGPT will just help you make shit quicker.

If anyone thinks they can type a two-line prompt into ChatGPT and mint gold, I’ve got some NFTs to sell them.

And, if I can be old and cranky, I loathe the word “content” to sum up what we do. “Content” lumps together everything from the Mona Lisa to a LinkedIn post. There’s expertise that goes into saying the right things in the right places and the right ways at the right time.

What skills do you think are the most important for freelancers to acquire?

Asking questions, especially stupid ones. There are so many times I’ve unlocked massive opportunities for a client by asking the kind of question I wasted years being too embarrassed to ask.

It all comes back to imposter syndrome. We buy a laptop, anoint ourselves as communicators and then spend our whole careers paralysed with fear that we are unqualified for anything other than buying a laptop. Consequently, the last thing we want to do is prove our stupidity to a client whom we’ve fooled into engaging us. So we don’t ask enough questions to do a good job, and the whole sorry state of affairs continues because if you don’t ask enough questions you really can’t do a good job. Eighty per cent of what we do is research.

So here’s the second skill a freelancer needs: the confidence to say to a client, I am not an expert in your area. I am not a heart surgeon, a financial planner or an oyster farmer. I am an expert in communication, so it’s your job to give me the facts in a way that I will understand and it’s my job to arrange those facts in a way that makes you look like Ryan Gosling to your clients. Because if I were also an expert in your area, I’d have your job and all your clients; I wouldn’t be writing your website.

So here’s the second skill a freelancer needs: the confidence to say to a client, I am not an expert in your area. I am not a heart surgeon, a financial planner or an oyster farmer. I am an expert in communication

What are you hoping to communicate in your session?

That the world needs you, and that you are entitled to back yourself and to ask for what you’re worth rather than being grateful for what you’re given.

What learnings are you hoping that people will take away from your session?

That you will have a business in which you have pride and confidence as soon as you treat your business as real and necessary to others, so you don’t have to apologise for asking for things, including respect.

The conference theme is all about futureproofing your career. What steps are you taking to futureproof your own?

I’m all over ChatGPT and the changes it makes possible, and I’m moving much more into advice and training because it’s valued more than doing.

Do you think the future is exciting for freelancers, and if so, why?

A good freelancer is always learning and we are at a time where learning might well be the greatest skill of all. That puts us ahead of the corporate types who buy into the illusion of security that an employment contract offers. When I was an employee, I described myself as self-employed with a single client. My colleagues thought I was mad. But we’re “permanent”, they’d say. That’s a mindset that leads to complacency, which no one can afford now.

I would much rather have my own business with many clients than rely on one business to continue to do well enough to employ me and one manager to continue to like me well enough to keep me on. (Although I’m enormously likeable.)

People will need to be more plug-and-play in the future, and what better way to describe the skills of a freelancer?

What are you most looking forward to at the Summit?

Being among like-minded people who love reading, writing, business and the sheer power of words to change everything.

Steven is appearing on The freelance systems and processes panel on Day 2.

Find out more about Steven on his profile page.

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