Gifts that keep on giving: the Born Freelancer’s tips on testimonials

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

I was looking at some impressive freelancer websites the other day and noticed a common element on the sites that were the most effective at selling their particular brand.

The common element to which I refer costs nothing, has a huge impact, and is well worth a small investment of time to acquire.

Beginners frequently think they’re impossible to obtain. More seasoned pros sometimes overlook them because they think they are unnecessary after a certain point in their careers.

I’m talking testimonials.

I guess most people are naturally social creatures. No big insight there! If they see other people commenting agreeably about your work, those words can have a significant impact upon them. “Hey! Maybe I can get this person to work for me too!” It also means someone else has taken a chance on you already. Employers on the whole hate being the first to use a freelancer. They like to have the comfort of knowing you’ve already been “broken in” to the rigors of the profession. Some also seem to like to know what other folk think about your work ahead of time before they draw their own conclusions.

Some testimonials will be very general—ideal for a quick hit on your site or business card. “The Born Freelancer was born to freelance!” kind of thing. (Plus attribution, of course.) They are useful for a capsule view of your brand. Be wary of clichés, though. Even when written by someone else, testimonials are representing your brand.

Just as useful is the more thorough and thoughtful testimonial, the kind that describes in detail what
you did for them and how you helped them solve whatever creative problems they had. (Employers relate well to seeing that you’re good at solving their kind of problems.) Feel free to use only relevant extracts, although always
indicate that you have done so.

But how do I get such testimonials?

I’m now prepared to let you in on a little-known industry secret.

Just ask! Simple as that.

  • In the beginning, ask everyone. As you go along, you may choose to be more selective. You want an array of testimonials, each offering a slightly different perspective to help a prospective employer get a sense of your
    range and potential. Begin with anyone you might think could be helpful: university profs, campus paper editors, community radio program directors. Testimonials from young inexperienced editors or producers may become invaluable in time as their own stature and reputations grow in the business. Testimonials from them in time become golden.
  • Don’t hesitate to explain exactly the type of praise you need. I’ve even had satisfied employers tell me in the past, “Look, we love what you did for us. You’re the writer. You write it, I’ll sign it.” This may surprise you but ideally you should avoid this kind of scenario. It will stick out a mile and cast doubt on all the other genuine testimonials. In most cases an imperfect genuine testimonial will have much more impact than a perfect contrived one. The real ones have a certain “ring” to them while the others generally do not.
  • Make sure the writer of your testimonial understands how and where you want to use their comments. If it is for your website, say so. Make sure you credit them with their proper job title at the time and, for goodness sake, spell their name correctly. Nothing will undermine the effectiveness of a testimonial like a misspelled name or incorrect job title. (You can always modify it later to say “formerly”… or “while…” if they change jobs or
    businesses).
  • If you know a famous or semi-famous person but haven’t actually worked for them, a quote from them can still be a real attention-getter. By default it’s bound to be a more generic quote but it still can be useful. Just make sure
    it’s appropriate given your relationship and surrounded by more detail-oriented quotes from actual (albeit lesser-known) employers to round out your testimonials page.
  • The timing of asking for a testimonial is key. Too early in a project and you are being presumptuous. Too late and the “fire” is out and your employer’s mind has moved on to a million other things. Be wary of the
    old line “Ask me any time just not right now,” because it will almost always be too late with people like that. They might have moved on to another job, forgotten how great you were to work with, or become otherwise unreachable in the meantime. Be persistent if you have to, but get the testimonial while your work is fresh in their minds.
  • Today, with social networks, getting testimonials couldn’t be easier. On LinkedIn, for example, they’re called “recommendations” and are a key part of a professional’s profile. There’s even an easy automated process to ask someone to write a testimonial for your page.

More tips

Perhaps this should go without saying, but writing totally bogus testimonials from made-up employers will get you nowhere. In today’s interconnected age, they can easily be cross-checked and authenticated. Once you are found out, your reputation will never really recover.

Most freelancer websites devote a unique page to testimonials. Just use the very best—you want quality not quantity. Others scatter them (with appropriate attributions) throughout their site. It depends on your layout and design. I prefer to have them all in one place, although the pithy quick-hit generalizations can be useful when scattered about judiciously.

Irony and sarcasm in a testimonial can frequently be misinterpreted. If it is used, make it clear (by context) exactly what it is all about. The same goes with the modern use of language. Your testimonials should be age, culture, and genre appropriate. If you are trying to write for a particular demographic, a testimonial saying your work is “sick” might be high praise indeed. But a quick glance from an editor at a different point in their life might easily result in a misunderstanding.


The testimonial is the freelancer’s best friend. They cost nothing and keep on giving. They help define personality, uniqueness, and character for your brand. Use them wisely, keep them up to date and strategically deployed, and they will become one of your most useful and powerful sales tools.

Posted on November 24, 2011 at 11:53 am by story board · · Tagged with: , , , , , ,

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