Chris is a copywriting coach based in Leeds. He helps freelancers and creative small businesses express their value through stories and insight. So they gain more meaningful work with their ideal clients. He believes self-employment is an ongoing journey to reconcile our appetite for adventure with fear of uncertainty.
What story would you like to share about your career change?
Our story begins with a man going mad in his basement. It began with good intentions: I love making and building things; so we decided to renovate our space for Airbnb. This was while I took a break from freelance copywriting. Problem is, I emerged 18 months later with no work, little money and a rapidly diminishing network of friends and clients.
Below ground, drill in hand, I’d grown bitter - especially towards the marketing industry. I felt annoyed that after a decade; now approaching middle age, I still struggled to make a living with purpose. This was partly by choice, partly because I’d fallen for the myth of freelancing. A myth that says you can’t have creatively fulfilling work you care about, and get paid well for it (when in fact, you can).
To cut a long story short: there wasn’t enough purpose in my life. Meanwhile the world carried on regardless, and that hurt too.
Things get more cheery now so hang in there... But first, a quick deviation.
Obviously, the solution to this existential crisis was a minimum-wage job babysitting teenagers with profoundly challenging behaviour, at an inner city college. Here I had a handful of rewarding encounters, but there was little scope to achieve anything in a hurry. Plus I was also woefully untrained.
However, what came out of that experience was I recognised my need to nurture people. And more importantly, to do it in accord with what I stand for. So I went back to the drawing board - to work out what that actually meant. I read a lot, wrote a lot and spoke to people plugged into that way of thinking. I also took a lot of long, soul-searching walks in what pockets of green space we have left in urban Leeds.
More recently, I’ve connected the dots with everything I know about copywriting, storytelling, behaviour and marketing. And I’ve pivoted into copywriting coaching for creatives. Plus I have a rough idea of the kind of people I’m best placed to serve. Now it’s all about reaching out to help them with their struggles - struggles not dissimilar to my own experiences over the last four decades. I’m still fixing and building things - the difference is that urge is diverted into the service of other people. It’s about them, not me.
What’s the moral of the story? Well, I think the meaning of life is to invent purpose. Meaning as such doesn’t exist but we do have permission to create it. And the joy of fulfilment is in its discovery and development (and helping other people do the same). That’s how I interpret that 'adventure' you (Sarah) talk about.
As people in career ruts tend to do, I got caught up in the how. I sought a single answer, career move or quick-fix solution to my lack of purpose: off-the-shelf meaning from without. When in fact, it’s within - it’s on you to forge all that. I eventually realised that why we do anything is more important than what you produce or how you deliver it. Hows and whats come and go. But your why is always consistent - that's where purpose lives; the themes and inclinations that constitute your being. It's your mission and vision combined. So I worked on that, in the context of life so far.
Things happen to us in life. We form values and beliefs from them. And along the way we find ourselves inexorably drawn to related hobbies, interests and people. We learn skills to develop our talents in line with them. Everything, however random, pleasant or tragic make us who we are. But they also place you perfectly to carve out a niche for yourself that is unique. And from that niche you can give others a leg-up into theirs, drawing on what you have in common.
The adventure is figuring all that out. And once you begin understanding your story and what you stand for, it’s really quite fulfilling and enjoyable - especially expressing it to make a living (my job).
Self-employment is one big adventure; the freedom and creativity that brings. It’s the only vehicle for independent-minded people like me. We crave variety, but also ways to cope with its inherent uncertainty.
I’d say the trick is to keep focus on serving other people. For me, that means helping like-minded freelancers and creative small businesses express their value. And use their stories, hone their messages to gain more meaningful work, clients they care about, and overcome all those (relatively avoidable) freelance pitfalls - like insecurity, fear, anxiety and inertia.
When do you feel most at ease to connect with people?
When we’re being vulnerable. That can be as simple as asking for advice, being accountable, or just opening up in conversation - letting someone know you feel the same pain. That’s why I prefer one-to-ones for lasting impact. I lead workshops too, but there's always joy in watching people grow independently under your care.
Professionally I enjoy talking about truth, stories, meaning and honesty. People who are really into their craft interest me. And people who've seemingly cracked the code.
Personally, I’ll happily chat ad infinitum about the latest political car crash to befall the UK. Or DIY. And madness in basements.
Here’s one for you… I once went hunting for Bigfoot in the Pacific north-west (honestly), for a documentary. Naturally, we didn’t find any mythical giant bipedal hominids. But I recall how exhilarating fear and anxiety felt in the dark of those quiet, ancient forests. Our instincts had context and relevance - making me acutely aware of threats and opportunities in the natural environment. Yet in modern life those instincts are misdirected - scanning for things that aren’t really there, or managing hazards we’re not well attuned to. I think that’s why people enjoy escaping to nature. To re-connect. What we’re really doing on mountains and in forests is giving our minds a break, by providing stimuli we’re more adapted to coping with, at least from an evolutionary perspective.
With that in mind I love the idea of coaxing creative people out on long walks, to help fathom their value and how to communicate that to clients. Away from the usual distractions, we’re free to be another self. (Maybe you know someone like that who can inspire me?)
Recently, I’ve found myself bumping heads with friends of different political persuasions - as is now our national pastime. It’s prompted me to reflect on how unproductive that is. We could all do with reflecting on how we communicate to and engage with others, if we want to find common ground and change the world for the better.
The fool in me also enjoys showing off in front of a crowd and provoking a reaction. I like speaking to a crowd, making them laugh, but only to get them off-guard so they realise something important. Humour has always been my primary armour, but it defends both ways.
How do you create new ideas for your freelance projects?
I frequently go for long walks to nearby nature spots. I cycle in the Dales and run a lot too. That’s when I have most of my brain waves. I like to think of the brain like an old-fashioned computer. In goes the problem to puzzle over, plus wider reading on the subject. That’s your input. Then you slip your trainers on, and let the subconscious crunch the numbers in its own time. Later, ideas emerge, and new ways to approach the problem. The body and mind are incredible tools. Treat them with respect, let them know what you’re focused on, and they’ll keep you alive to get there and beyond.
I read a lot too. Books about big ideas. Political history. Science fiction. Human behaviour fascinates me because I’ve always felt like an outsider. I watch and theorise. I’m a wannabe philosopher.
Adventure and the outdoors have always been my escape hatch. Whether up or down, just give me some boots and a coat and I’ll happily get lost in some trees. I think rest, distraction and exercise are as valid as applied problem-solving, when it comes to generating new ideas.
Who do you most want to impact through your work?
Creatives, freelancers and people with creative small businesses. People struggling to express their value to the world, wrestling with meaning and purpose. As a right-on leftie I’m also drawn to businesses who prioritise people and planet - sustainability, and social or environmental outcomes. I think everyone secretly wants the same thing - to leave behind a legacy.
I’m particularly interested in how people convey meaning to mobilise change. Sure, I have the usual hang-ups every copywriter has with language and tone. But I have bigger issues with how badly people, and businesses in particular, engage audiences into movements that champion a cause. By that I mean recruiting advocates outside of your echo chamber - which in today’s climate crisis (and ongoing political psychodrama), we need to do more of. And more effectively. If you think about it, every business, every cause, is just a movement of change like any other - one that could always recruit a few more champions.
Deconstructing fear is a big thing for me at the moment too. I’ve wrestled with anxiety and depression all my life. So I’m devising a toolkit to help creative people unlock their value and confront fear through the stories they tell themselves - then craft that into a message that resonates with prospective clients. So I’m interested in collaborating with people fighting that war. Writing, my preferred medium, seems to lend itself quite naturally to that too.
All I want to do is get meaning from one person’s head into another. So that it’s expressed and understood clearly. Then we can all get on with what really matters, like actually making things happen - transforming ideas into reality, fixing problems, and living to our true potential. Remember I was harping on about the why earlier? This is mine. What’s yours?
What question do you mostly ask people when they come to you with a problem?
(Good question. I had to take a poo break to think about this one clearly). Probably… What’s really going on here? What makes you/this tick? Or words to that effect. I deeply value truth and honesty. Superficiality and conformity wind me up. So if you mix all that together you get someone who’s obsessively curious about mechanics - digging deep to understand the way things work. I’m an analyst at heart. Quite helpful if you’re in the creative industry.
I find that creative people overly fixate on solutions, at the expense of deeply understanding a problem. If we spent more time analysing symptoms, diagnosing our clients’ true pain, and giving them the language and capacity to express that - then we’d all advance further in our crafts.
These days I’m increasingly asking people: what’s the story here? The story you tell yourself. The stories you tell others. The power of stories and storytelling fascinates me. They’re the original communication tools for making sense of the world and sharing meaning with others. I’m hacking that into my coaching too.
Chris stumbled upon my LinkedIn profile via our mutual connection Matt Essam. We haven't yet met in person but we've exchanged some really nice messages and had a chat on the phone, discovering interesting parallels.
To find out more about Chris' story and work you can watch a talk he gave for Glug Leeds, about going mad in his basement. He has a holding page which is work-in-progress for his new offering. You can read his Blog and connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter. His Podcast ‘Third Category Creatives’, co-hosted with Matt Essam, explores strategies and ideas for finding work that’s both creatively fulfilling and financially rewarding - as a freelancer or small business owner.