National Freelancers Day: An interview with Esther Stanhope

Thursday June 9th is National Freelancers Day in the UK – a great event that has become well established within the freelance community over the last few years. It centres around an annual conference – this year taking place at the Hospital Club in Covent Garden – that includes speaker events, workshops and a rather prestigious awards ceremony.
Ahead of National Freelancers Day, 2016, we caught up with Esther Stanhope, a speaker at this year’s conference who has established herself as the UK’s leading Impact Coach. Helping people in businesses large and small to make an impression on their industries, her talk will focus on how to network when you find small talk uncomfortable – a conundrum that plenty of freelancers and independent contractors stumble across.

In this interview she offers us a few hints and tips, as well as detailing her own journey from BBC producer to an entrepreneur in her own right.

Tell us about what it is that you do, Esther. Or, more to the point, what ‘the Esther Magic’ might be, and how we can get some? 

I give people a personality! Lawyers, bankers, accountants and hugely talented city professionals who are brilliant at their jobs technically often lack the tools and techniques to articulate their brilliance and be visually brilliant at their job. I help people feel, look and sound effortlessly confident in front of any audience. It’s what I’ve done for 25 years – I know how to do it and I love watching the transformation.

You’re involved with National Freelancers Day, which is on June 9th. Is this your first time, or have you been involved before? 

I’m a National Freelancers Day virgin and I’m very, very excited to be part of it. I’ll be hosting the Ask Me Anything panel and running the brilliant and very useful masterclass, ‘How to Network When You Hate Small Talk’.

I’m fascinated by the title of that masterclass. As a freelancer, this is actually my biggest bugbear. I find the tittle tattle of network excruciating. Is this a common problem? Are there people who are born naturally good at networking, or is everyone just pretending to enjoy it? 

(Laughs) Most people hate the idea of networking, having to impress a room full of people they don’t know and get work out of it. The truth is that, yes, if you approach networking with that in mind you will hate it. However, no matter what your personality type is, you can learn to love it. It can be hugely fun, it doesn’t (as you put it) have to be a bugbear – you just need a few tips, techniques and a strategy that works for you.

As everyone knows, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know – so it is important to get yourself out there and be seen if you’re needing to attract more work. Yes, extroverts tend to be better at talking to people and introverts tend to be more confident in a more controlled ‘pitch’ situation, where they won’t be interrupted, but both types can be brilliant at engaging their audience all of the time.

Without giving away too many of your secrets, what’s the trick to making the most of those situations? 

One big tip about networking is don’t sell! But you’ll have to come to the session to find out why that is much more likely to get you more work!

Freelancing in the UK is in rude health. Do you find you work as much with freelancers as with bigger companies? 

My big city clients – banks, law firms and the likes of Deloitte – use my services and love it. However, being able to articulate your business message and personal brand, and build the confidence to market yourself, is a game changer for a freelancer. I get lots of interest for my open classes, which I offer at the Groucho Club in Soho.

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What do you think freelancers tend to lack most that perhaps ‘the Esther Magic’ could put right? 

Freelancers (and most of the people I meet in the UK and Europe) find it extremely difficult to market themselves – ‘self promotion’ doesn’t come naturally to us brits! I often encourage my clients to ‘channel their inner American’ – and it works! We all need a bit of swagger. If you can’t sell yourself with confidence, enthusiasm and passion, quite simply you’re not going to attract work.

Can you tell us a little of your background? On your website, you mention that you were a BBC producer, and that you worked with big Hollywood names. Any juicy tales of confidence waning on the soundstage?

As a former live BBC producer, I worked with many big personalities. I’ve interviewed Madonna and George Clooney, among others, and many times I had to ‘produce’ Boris Johnson to make sure he stayed on track – quite tricky!

I remember a time when Alistair Campbell (then Tony Blair’s Spin Doctor) came in to do a live BBC Radio phone-in special. When he realized it was going to be live he suddenly lost his confidence and said to me, “I don’t think I can do this.”

I said, “Why not? You’re Alistair Campbell. You can do anything.”

He said, “I’m not sure I can answer a phone call live, not pre-recorded. What if… what it someone asks a question I can’t answer?”

Again, I replied “You’re Alistair Campbell – you can do anything.”

At that moment I looked at the clock and it said one minute until live on air, so I reassured him as I lead him by the hand to the chair in the studio and put his headphones on. “Hey,” I said, “we do vet the calls, we won’t be putting any cranks, rude or offensive people through live on air, our listeners are genuine, intelligent people most of the time! And we’re going live in 3…2…1.”

And there he was, live on air!

He was brilliant, but there was one thing he did, like all excellent world leaders and communicators: he loved his audience, and they loved him.

How did you go from being a BBC producer to helping people improve their impact? 

I discovered that the formula I had created to make people very good very quickly (oozing confidence and charisma) works exceedingly well in business. It helps people win pitches, win over audiences and get promoted. I also made the decision to enhance my work-life balance. Being a mum of two (I now have a 10 and a six-year-old) and running a live show is like being split into three pieces. Now I work for myself there’s no looking back. It’s the scariest but best decision I ever made!

If you had one piece of advice that you’d offer to someone new to the freelancing game, what would it be? 

I’m running my business as a business now – it’s a slightly different mindset to freelancing (it probably keeps you up at night more). Coming from broadcasting, I’ve freelanced a lot over the years. However, I am still out there on my own – just like a freelancer.

The simple tip I would give any ‘new’ freelancer is to get help. Whether it’s tax help, legal assistance or simply finding a mentor. You need to build contacts around you to get more work (other freelancers are likely to refer you), and to get advice that’s relevant to you so that you don’t feel isolated.

I have a business mentor and I’ve stretched myself and ventured out of my comfort zone way more than I would have on my own. I love it! I love helping people grow in confidence and encouraging them to ‘go for it!’ I help people go from ‘worrier to warrior’ – it seriously works!

The National Freelancers Day events take place on June 9th, from 3pm-10pm, at The Hospital Club. Amazingly, the event is free of charge, but you do have to register. Click here for more information. And for further information on life as a freelancer, check out our regular posts here on The Life Hub.