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Sales Pitch

One writer discovers that sales training can help in her freelance career.

By Nancy Davidson - June 2, 2004

One morning, I awoke from uneasy dreams and found myself transformed into a salesperson. But, unlike Kafka's Gregor Samsa, I was not a hard-shelled bug. And rather than representing the start of a waking nightmare, my transformation was a positive one, for I had learned how to accomplish my goals by working better, not harder.

I am freelance writer. Recently, I've had to face the cruel—and obvious—fact that as gratifying as writing is, gratification won't pay my rent. In order to survive as a writer, I need to sell my ideas. I always thought that in order to be successful at selling, I would have to either (a) be a liar and/or (b) turn into a ruthless beast like Blake—Alec Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross. Though salespeople are almost always represented in literature and popular culture as akin to vermin—Gregor Samsa was a traveling salesman before he metamorphosized—the truth is that every writer, editor, agent, and publicist must also sell in order to survive in business.

I learned this the hard way, by not making enough sales to keep my 10-year-old graphic-design firm in business. I was subsequently hired to be the general manager of a creative recruiting firm. One requirement of my new job was enrollment in a sales-training course. I went along with it on the outside, but inside I was kicking and screaming; I shared the common view of salespeople as the lowest form of life, and I didn't want to learn how to become one.

But through Sandler sales training—named after its late founder and guru—I've learned important lessons that have helped me in every job I've had since. This training, which seems at times to be more like psychological counseling, turned my expectations of selling and salespeople upside down. It's based on the idea that rather than telling people what they need and hammering them over the head with it, you find out what they need by asking questions and listening, techniques that coincidentally also turns out to be valuable for interviewing sources for a story. As I writer, I'm not a typical Sandler client, but I've found the principles to be applicable to what I do. Pitching freelance pieces to magazines, after all, is a form of selling. And Sandler has some great advice that has helped me do that better. Here are just a few of the lessons I've learned, many of which are easier to comprehend than to implement:

It's not about me: It's more important to find out from an editor what she needs than to convince her how smart I am. This one is particularly hard, because I think I need to prove I'm an expert in a subject in order to have my pitches accepted. But really, it's more important that I understand the publication I'm pitching. Ideally, rather than just send email pitches, as most editors prefer, I'm more effective when I can work up the courage to get an editor on the phone, talk to her, and ask questions before I pitch.

What I do is not who I am: Even if I am baring my soul in a heart-wrenching confession, my work is not a reflection of my value as a person. It's important not to be emotionally involved with my work. If an editor rejects my idea, or even my completed assignment, this doesn't make me a bad person. She's not rejecting my life, even if that's the subject of my essay. It doesn't even necessarily mean I'm an inadequate writer. It just means my idea wasn't right for her.

Although I understood intellectually that it was important to separate my self-esteem from my role, whether I was a recruiter, an editor, or a writer, it took me several years of practice before I was able to implement this one. I always thought that in order to do a good job, I had to really care, but the truth is separating my role from my core identity enables me to do a better job. Now, when I feel myself getting emotional about a work-related issue, I take a deep breath and a step back. Seeing how well it works, and how much more effective I am able to be, is positive reinforcement that helps me maintain emotional detachment.

If my goal is to please another person, I will end up having the opposite effect: A high need for approval can be disastrous in business. When I worked in recruiting, I was so concerned about what my boss thought of me that I became ineffective, afraid to say or do things that needed to be done. It's not important for an editor to like me or want to be my friend. What's important is that I understand his business goals and help him to achieve them. Ultimately, I want an editor to like my work and to hire me again.

Go for the no: Fear of rejection can stymie even the most intrepid journalist. When I am pitching an idea that has immediate relevance I need to know as soon as possible whether the idea has been accepted. I'd rather get an immediate no than a two-week maybe that might prevent me from pitching the idea to another publication. And when I do get a no, I always try to think of it as an idea that the publication didn't need rather than as a rejection. After all, another publication often buys it, sometimes one that reaches a wider audience and pays at a higher rate. So how is that rejection?

Sometimes, it's hard for an editor to say no; she doesn't want to hurt my feelings or just wants me to leave her alone but doesn't feel comfortable saying so. My job is to help her say no, if that's what she really means, and to give her a chance to say yes. One way I might do this is to begin a dialogue beginning with: "You're not really interested in this idea, are you?" If she is, she'll contradict me. If she isn't, we can both move on and use our time more productively.

Up-front contract: I'm still trying to master this one. It's important to be clear from the beginning of a conversation what you expect—let's face it, a conversation with an editor is always a negotiation. Especially with less well-known publications, I need to find out what the payment will be and when I can expect it before I make my pitch. Sometime I get caught up in the excitement of having my idea accepted—that's my high need for approval being rewarded, not my high need for money. But feeling good about having my idea accepted means I'm blurring the boundaries between who I am and what I do.

Closing: Alec Baldwin as Blake had an admonition: "ABC," for "always be closing." Despite Blake's unsavory character, his point has resonance with all salespeople, even those who seek to sell a legitimate product to willing customers. For writers, this means making sure you really have the assignment. If the editor sounds vague or conditional, and the publication doesn't use contracts for writers, I try to get him to confirm the assignment in an email with a specific deadline. I don't want to start reporting and writing only to find out that the editor has changed his mind. If I've established a sufficient up-front contract, this should never happen.

Now when I look in the mirror, I see a salesperson (and a writer), and I'm not at all disturbed.

Nancy Davidson has used her Sandler sales training with varying degrees of success to sell to publications including Cooking Light, Gastronomica, Health, Saveur, the New York Post, The New York Sun, and Time Out New York.

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