Understanding and working with people with talent

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Jonathan Rinny, photo by Tim Evanson

When I was an analyst I would appear on TV news programs from time to time. The production staff would sometimes refer to “the talent” (for example, “Have you miked the talent yet?”). It took a moment for me to understand that I was “the talent.”

The thing about the talent is that if you put it in a position to succeed, it does great and you succeed as well. If you don’t treat the talent right, you fail.

What to know about working with the talent

I’m going to talk about myself here, and I’ll apologize in advance if some of this sounds egotistical. But this isn’t about me — it’s about any talented people you hire to work with you on a freelance basis.

Here’s what you need to know.

  • Yeah, we’ve got mad skills. In my case, this is a facility with ideas, understanding how writing works, and writing and editing quickly. The results sometimes surprise clients. They shouldn’t. When you hire talent — whether it’s a graphic designer, an app developer, a strategic planner, a social media expert, a video producer, whatever — you should expect and depend on excellence. The compliments are nice, but all we really want is to do good work, get paid, and get referred.
  • We’ve seen it before. Your job may be new to you, but I’ve probably done something just like it before. This isn’t my first book project, contributed article, op-ed, white paper, blog post, Twitter thread, research report, or web page. So I can anticipate what’s going to happen and in what order — that’s part of my expertise. The same applies to any talent: you hired us because we’re experienced, so respect the value of that experience.
  • If you want good results, hire us to do what we’re good at. If you hire me to design graphics or write Python code, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you hire a photographer or coder, don’t ask them to write blocks of text. Talent tends to specialize, and work outside that specialization is hit or miss. If you’re not sure if we’re capable of doing something, ask; talented people will typically tell you when you’ve asked for something they’re not used to doing. We prefer work we can be proud of.
  • We love feedback. People think talent is touchy. But many of us love to respond to feedback. “It’s too long. It’s too salesy. I hate pastels. It seems unbalanced. You missed the main idea.” These are all criticisms we can respond to — and the challenge of turning our talent towards responding to your critiques is an enjoyable part of the job. Just stick to criticizing the work. “Your voice is annoying” or “I thought you’d be more original” are not comments we can do anything with.
  • Be nice. You know what? Talent has options. If you’re nice to us and you pay on time, we’ll gladly work with you again and again. But if you’re an asshole, we’ll just take on the next job and somehow never have time available when you ask again.
  • We have schedules. If you’re in a rush, let us know. If you have time, let us know that, too. We will fit you in among other tasks and make and fulfill promises about deadlines. What you can’t do is turn the job in at 4pm on Friday and just expect it to be ready at 8am on Monday. Or hire us on the first of the month and just expect us to be available to work on the third. We’ll be clear with you about what time we have available.
  • We prefer work we can talk about. We’ll do confidential jobs, but we love it when we can put our work for you in our portfolio.
  • We keep confidences. If you have proprietary content, we’ll keep your secrets. If you’re a pleasure to work with, we’ll tell everybody. But if you’re a pain in the ass — well, that’s not a trade secret, and we’re under no obligation to keep quiet about it.
  • The highest paying work may not be our favorite. Some of my favorite projects paid well. Some didn’t. And some of my high-paying work was frustrating and annoying. If I’m short of cash, I’ll take the high-paying job, but if I’m not, I’ll probably take the one that seems like the most fun. Experienced talent often makes similar decisions.
  • We do pro-bono work. But not for exposure. Talented people will often contribute their efforts to work that seems like it will be worth helping to get out in the world, just because it’s a good deed. But just because we sometimes work for free doesn’t mean we want to work for you for free. If you’re a successful business or nonprofit, expect to pay us. We rarely need the exposure.
  • We probably don’t want a full-time job. One of the best things about freelancing is the ability to pick your own clients and your own schedule, and to have a variety of different work. Some younger freelancers may be looking for a full-time gig, but if you’re working with an experienced talent, don’t be insulted if we don’t want to join your staff. It’s (probably) nothing personal.

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