Communication between clients and creative freelancers does not always go smoothly. A lack of a shared vocabulary, differences in communication style, and the vagaries of the creative process sometimes impede a freelance project. Avoid some of this trouble next time you hire freelancers when you make sure you’re both speaking the same business and creative language.

The Difficulties of Describing Art

A person sitting at a desk in front of a computer with head in hands, clearly frustrated.

Image via Flickr by Peter Alfred Hess

Have you ever tried to explain why you like a painting or a book? Putting that admiration into words isn’t easy, and when you come up with a description of your favorite parts of the work of art, often that description falls short of what’s in your head.

Figuring out why you do or don’t like an advertisement, web copy, or an infographic is similar. Web copy might not be Shakespeare, but it’s still a piece of creative work. You receive samples from the freelance writer you hired. Something about it wows you. Something about it falls flat. How can you explain those feelings?

You and your freelancers use different vocabularies to describe things. You’ve got a mental list of jargon necessary to work in your industry, and your freelancers have jargon they use in their industries. To start communicating effectively, you need to share those lists.

Sharing a Vocabulary

Talk to a graphic designer or a freelance writer and they’ll almost always have a story about miscommunication frustrations with a client, where they went through revision after revision with both parties getting increasingly frustrated. When the miscommunication is about the work itself (and not about something else, like the contract or the timeline) one major culprit of these mishaps is lack of a shared vocabulary.

Your industry has a vocabulary that your freelancer needs to know. Let’s say you’re a family-owned HVAC company and you’ve hired a writer to do your blog. If that freelancer doesn’t know what AFUE stands for, or why MERV ratings are important, they can’t produce quality content for your blog. A short list of important industry terms goes a long way for a writer starting a new project.

Knowing some of the vocabulary your freelancer is familiar with will help you communicate, too. When working with a freelancer on a new ad banner, do you need to know what ascender height is or the x-height of certain letters? Probably not. Is it helpful to know the difference between a serif and a sans-serif font? Absolutely. Otherwise, freelancers must figure out what clients mean when they say things like “that font is too fancy/scripty/curly.” That just means more back-and-forth for both of you.

Creating a Clear Vision

When you start working with a freelancer on a creative project, start with a vision of what you want. “Vision” doesn’t have to mean you know exactly what it needs to look like, or you wouldn’t need to hire a creative. Your vision for a project, say a content marketing project for your company’s website, should be about what you want to achieve.

Are you trying to boost SEO with long-tail keywords? Do you need to fill your blog with “how-to” copy? Have you changed your mission statement and need to alter your site’s content to match? You have a clear idea of your current market, and if your current customer base is the target market you want to be drawing in. (Writers call this your “target audience.”)

Words that describe your market/audience are an important part of your vocabulary, like baby-boomers, millennials, budgeters, travelers, foodies, DIY enthusiasts, business people, parents, grandparents.

How you want to communicate with your audience matters, too. A writer needs to know what tone you want. Should the copy sound like it belongs in an instruction manual? Maybe you want it to be conversational but not informal (i.e. you don’t want any slang or colloquialisms.) Is it okay to say “I” and “we” and “you,” or is the content strictly in the third-person? Read an article from a personal travel blog, then one from a law blog, to get a better idea of tone.

Gathering Examples

Words aren’t your only means of expression. Examples can be very powerful in showing someone what you do and do not want.

Give your freelancers two kinds of examples: things you’ve done in-house, and things from other sources. The in-house examples should be successes from the past that the freelancer can use as inspiration. This might mean a series of blog posts you did, an ad campaign that worked well, or a series of videos. Make it relevant to whatever you’re hiring the freelancer to do, and explain why that project was so successful.

Then, look at stuff other people have done. You have to think about how certain content stimulates, or fails to stimulate, you. That engaging ad might have bright colors you like. Perhaps it features a snappy headline that makes you want to buy the product. Maybe it evokes a feeling of nostalgia. This is the feedback your creative needs when you show them your examples.

Isn’t This More Work?

In a perfect world, your freelancer would need minimal communication and would be able to fill the holes in your vision with no problem. When you find a good freelancer, eventually you might get close to that sweet spot. At the beginning, however, communication is key.

Coming prepared with a vocab list and a bunch of examples might seem like more work, but it’ll save you lots of revision time later. What you really want to avoid is hiring someone, then receiving a product so far off what you imagined that it’s basically unusable. Neither you nor your freelancer will be happy having to start the project over.

Communication mishaps are part of being a human working in business. Keep them at a minimum when you take steps to ensure you and your freelancer are on the same page before they begin work on a project for you. You might be surprised to learn a few new things about your target audience or your business’s vision, too.