A freelancer’s mini-guide to taking a good brief

If you’re reading this and you’re a creative, odds are you’ve seen a couple of bad briefs in your time — as in, “I dunno. Maybe make it blue? No, a less-blue blue.”

Now, there are two things I don’t like about being a creative:

1. Making changes to submitted work

2. Unhappy clients

Unfortunately, these are often related. Fortunately, they share a solution: Taking better briefs.

When I take a rock-solid brief, the success of my output doesn’t depend on my clients — some of whom are inexperienced when it comes to using creatives (and can’t give briefs because they don’t know how to, which isn’t their fault) or don’t know what they want and couldn’t give a good brief, even if they did know how.

The most important thing any creative needs to know? Ask lots of questions.

Like. A. Lot. Of. Questions.

Because I’m a writer, these questions have two objectives:

1. Get the factual and background info I need, plus context.

2. Identify the client’s desired or appropriate style and tone.

I have questionnaires for both processes. Sometimes I email them to the client and sometimes I complete them live in a facilitated fashion, during a call. Whatever your niche, you’ll want to cover these three sub-categories:

Psst! Wondering how to figure out freelance rates that reflect your worth (and have the confidence to stick to them)? There are 7 things you need to know + 1 trick that changes the game. Go get ‘em, by joining my newsletter community.

The basics
1. What business or sector are you in?
2. What are the company’s products/services?
3. Who are your customers, in general?
4. Who is the target market for this particular project?
5. Who are your main competitors?
6. What can you lay claim to that they can’t?

The specifics
8. What’s the main message you want to convey?
9. What’s the overall tone of voice of the brand?
10. Is there a particular style you like or don’t like?
11. What are the actual project deliverables?
12. What examples can you provide as guidance (either positive or negative)?
13. What background material is available (eg brochures, web copy, proposals)?
14. What mandatory inclusions are there, if any?
15. What’s the specific problem/challenge my work needs to solve?
16. How will you know whether the project has succeeded?

The context
17. Are there any social or environmental initiatives that could be tied to the project?
18. Would you want this project to be timeless, or to focus on current events/ideas?
19. Are there any industry misconceptions or contentions you’d like to address?
20. Where do you plan on publishing, sharing or featuring the project?
21. Who are you NOT targeting with this specific project?
22. Is this a once-off project or should it tie into past and possibly future projects?

Doing it online
In the ‘old’ days, when we could sit with a client over a coffee and take the brief face-to-face, it felt easier. But now we have two options: Email them a long list of questions (which, to be fair, some busy people seem to prefer) or talk them through it during a virtual meeting and take the notes yourself. I offer my clients the choice.

If you’re emailing the questions, give the client guidance on how to complete them, like so: “Please answer the questions in as much detail as you can but don’t stress about creating perfect prose and crafting magnificent sentences. I just need your wisdom and insights. Bullet points are fine.”

If you’re on a call, tell them upfront how long you think it will take, when you’re halfway, and when you’re one or two questions from the end. Ask if they’d like to see your notes afterwards, in case they want to add a few things. (They seldom do.)

Here’s something I know for sure: The two things I don’t like about freelancing happen very infrequently when I take care to elicit my own rockstar briefs from the client, by doing all of the heavy lifting for them. And then everyone’s happier.

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on freelancing. Want access to it?

Join Tiffany’s newsletter community by sharing your best email address, and get tips, tricks, info and advice whenever she has value to add.

This article originally appeared in my #WritersBlock column on MarkLives.com.