Translating freelance “Client Speak” into plain English

January 18, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

client speakFreelance copywriters face many challenges, especially when they just start out. One of those challenges is understanding the special language used by business clients, which I call “Client Speak.”

Client Speak shares many common traits with standard English, with one notable exception: All the words have a different meaning.

This may sound like it would cause confusion. But all it takes is a little experience, and you’ll be able to translate Client Speak all on your own.

Here are just a few examples of common phrases and their English translations.

“We’ve already invested a lot in this.”

Translation: We’ve wasted a pile of money on cheap writers and trying to do it ourselves. We’re screwed. I mean, totally screwed. Now we’re looking for someone with serious expertise to save our ass for dirt cheap.

“Our previous writer charged about half this.”

Translation: Our previous writer couldn’t handle the work, but we really liked the price. We think all writers should charge the same low price regardless of their skill or reputation. That’s because while we really, really , really need your skills, we think that has very little value in terms of dollars.

“We’re looking for someone to partner with us on a great opportunity.”

Translation: We want you to bear the risk of our business venture. If all the stars align, we’ll give you a little something for your trouble. If it doesn’t, why should we be out any money? All you really want is the pride of accomplishment, right?

“We need to see a few more samples of your work.”

Translation: We have no clue what we’re looking for, so we can’t tell if you’re qualified or not. We want something totally different and original, but along the same lines as what we’ve done previously, and with an edgy feel that communicates tradition to the highly targeted demographic of men and women aged 18 to 88 living inside or outside the U.S.

“We have a tight schedule for this project.”

Translation: We’re going to give ourselves plenty of time, and our other vendors won’t budget on the time line, so we want you to take up the slack and work really fast to keep us on schedule. Thanks sooo much.

“Can I get back to you on this?”

Translation: I have no intention of hiring you, but I don’t have the guts to tell you that straight up. The fact that you’ll spend the next 6 months wasting time checking in on the status of our project doesn’t concern me in the least. All I really care about is my upcoming Caribbean cruise. I’m taking mambo lessons!


Translation: I’m not communicating with you anymore because I was never serious in the first place. I guess I was just a little bored and wanted to talk to someone. And it made me look busy here in the office. But now I have some real work to do, so have a good life.

“You’ll be the first person I call.”

Translation: I threw away your business card a week ago. What was your name again?

“We need you to show us some concepts before we make a decision.”

Translation: We all got together and decided that if you put in a few days working for free, we’d get our solution for … well … FREE! We’ve always been a savvy and frugal organization. Oh, and when we finally tell you to take a hike, we’ll present your work as our own so we can take the credit.

All we really need are a few tweaks to what we’ve already done.

Translation: Our stuff if total crap and we need a massive overhaul. But there’s no way we’re going to admit that because we’re responsible for it. And we figure if we say the word “tweak” enough, you’ll be able to magically fix the problem quickly. Tweak tweak tweak.

“If this works out, there are plenty more projects.”

Translation: Our business is infinitely more important than your business. We assume you want to work with us so much, you’ll do nearly anything for the privilege. Here boy! Jump through the hoop. That’s it. Good boy.

I think we’re headed in the right direction, but …”

Translation: I think this sucks. And now I’m about to finally reveal to you the way I wanted it done in the first place. Abra cadabra!

Can you incorporate more of our corporate vision into the copy?

Translation: The president of the company thinks he’s a writer and wrote this inane copy for our annual report which he insists on jamming into everything, everywhere. No I don’t like it ether, but I have a presentation coming up and want to do a little sucking up.

I’ll circulate your work to the team and get feedback.

Translation: We believe in working by consensus here so that blame for failures can be spread around evenly. I’m going to let anyone and everyone get involved in this project even if their input is ill-informed, counterproductive, or contradictory. And it will be up to you to clean up the mess.

We’ll have to run this by legal.

Translation: The next time I talk to you you’d better be sitting down because we’re about to beat your copy to within an inch of its life. Your keyboard has an asterisk, right?

We’ve decided to put this project on the back burner.

Translation: This was never an actual project. I was just pulling your chain. Since you didn’t deliver any words yet, I’m sure you probably didn’t put any time into this, so no we’re not paying you for meeting with us a dozen times, doing research, brainstorming ideas, and finishing an outline. That’s not writing.

Do you have experience with Client Speak? Give me some more examples with your own translation.

Related posts:

  1. American English vs. British and Australian English
  2. Turn an angry client into a loyal client (with one word)
  3. Dear Client: A letter from your freelance copywriter
  4. 8 time-eating freelance client species to avoid

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14 Comments on Translating freelance “Client Speak” into plain English

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  1. Hugo Moolenaar on Jan 18th, 2010 10:49 am
  2. “My business partner doesn’t have to know all this.”

    I quite enjoyed brainstorming with you, on several occasions. Please don’t spend more than half an hour on writing the copy. That should be realistic, right? Thinking of having my secretary put the words on paper, they’re just words, anyway, aren’t they? From here, it doesn’t really matter. I know what I need to know. I think. So please leave and thanks, for the ideas! My ideas!

  3. Hugo Moolenaar on Jan 18th, 2010 11:08 am
  4. “I have to make some money too, you know!”

    That I made $ 150.000 plus in 2009, that doesn’t mean I care what happens to you. Not really I don’t! So your rates for copywriting, frankly I don’t think they apply to me. If you could cut off about 25%, then we’ll talk business. What do you think my clients would say? Come here and let me squeeze you like a lemon, you juicy old copywriter. The very last drop, that will be the end of our little cooperation. We’ll always be friends, ofcourse.

    Don’t know if I’ll ever have any clients that I could get interested in what you do. Because copywriting, I don’t take that all too seriously anyway. But I sure do like to make a buck, where ever I can. Have to hang up on you now, have someone important calling on the other line.

    Hi there, Dean. Like your blog. Just left two ‘transcripts’ of my encounters with my dear friends and clients.

    Kind regards from the Netherlands, Hugo Moolenaar.
    .-= Hugo Moolenaar’s last blog … Van idee naar resultaat =-.

  5. Dean Rieck on Jan 18th, 2010 11:15 am
  6. Hugo:
    I’ve actually pissed off some people when I tell them that, no, I can’t drive 3 hours to meet with them, share all my ideas, then drive 3 hours back, unless that’s part of a paid project. “Pay for a meeting? Pay for just talking?”

  7. Hugo Moolenaar on Jan 18th, 2010 12:16 pm
  8. Dean: As per january first, I started to charge for my advices too. Wonder how that wil go. In the past I did all the advice work for free. But I hated myself for doing so. So now I’m a copywriter and also a consultant. ‘Paying just for talking’ can make entrepreneurs a lot of money. Right?

    We’re the guys that come up with all the right questions and ideas, aren’t we? Now I’ll go on, convincing my clients…

  9. Lucy Smith on Jan 18th, 2010 10:50 pm
  10. I loved your one about *crickets*. I recently had an out-of-the-blue email (on a public holiday) from someone asking me to do copy and photo work, and wanting to know my rates. I never heard back from them after I told them what I’d charge, and politely explained that I’m a writer, not a certified Photoshop expert.

  11. Dean Rieck on Jan 19th, 2010 8:30 am
  12. Lucy:
    I don’t quote by email. I make people call me. It filters out many of the fakes. But it’s common for people to vanish once they know a price. That’s a key decision moment, and there’s something about paying for writing that freaks out some people.

  13. Lorraine on Jan 19th, 2010 11:30 pm
  14. Dean, I think you have a second career ahead in stand-up comedy.

    These are priceless–hard to choose a favorite, but I think I’d pick, “All we really need are a few tweaks to what we’ve already done.”

    Translation: “Our stuff is total crap and we need a massive overhaul.”

    I can think of a number of “translation” anecdotes, but mercifully, I’ll share just one:

    “The owner has a wacky sense of humor and is hands-on with the copy blocks.”

    Translation: “The owner will axe your tight, benefit-focused heads and insert his inane puns so you’ll blush with shame and never be able to use the copy blocks as samples.”
    .-= Lorraine’s last blog … Hire an Expensive Copywriter—and Start Saving Money =-.

  15. Star on Jan 27th, 2010 12:15 pm
  16. These are great guys. I actually had an editor tell me my pitches were in “the pile” and then she explained that “the pile” was kind of like a compost heap that she went to once in a while and reread. I am coffee grounds! Well, if you do pluck me from the muck–it will sure make your mag grow!

  17. Charles Cuninghame on Jan 27th, 2010 10:04 pm
  18. Dean – this is so spot on. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry!

  19. Meg on Jan 30th, 2010 4:57 pm
  20. “exciting new start-up”

    We can’t pay, but we’ll put your name on our PR0 webage. Just think! Your name and your writing right there on the internet! Next to ads, from which you won’t be making a penny, that is.
    .-= Meg’s last blog … This Is Just How Caesar’s Legions Got Started =-.

  21. Dean Rieck on Jan 30th, 2010 5:33 pm
  22. Meg:
    Oh, yeah. I’ve been there. This guy is called “the hustler.” See this:

  23. Kundenjargon | between drafts on Feb 8th, 2010 6:39 am
  24. [...] kann das so aussehen wie die Zusammenstellung “Translating Freelance ‘Client Speak’ Into Plain English” von Dean Rieck. “Client Speak”-Listen gibt es reichlich, aber diese ist speziell zugeschnitten [...]

  25. Dondu. N. Raghavan on Feb 9th, 2010 1:32 am
  26. Quite a good post.

    Dondu N. Raghavan
    .-= Dondu. N. Raghavan’s last blog … The present Miss France is future interpereter!!!!!!!! =-.