7 Tips for Professional Ghosts

A large slice of the work we do at RhetorIQ involves ghostwriting for professional services firms and other companies. We help get their experts’ thought leadership published on their websites or, more significantly, in journals such as Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. We’re generally engaged by content directors or CMOs at those firms.

We write a lot ourselves, but we also have a stable of excellent freelancers, most of whom have a lot of experience in journalism. Some, however, have had little experience as ghosts. To prepare them for what they’re in for, and to help them be successful, I often send them forth with the following seven best practices. Content directors and CMOs can use these too when they make the mistake of not engaging us and hiring their own ghosts. (Just kidding, of course. It is possible to produce good thought leadership without us – not easy, but possible.)

1. Prepare for that first call. The subject matter expert you’ll be speaking with will always know more about the topic than you do. That’s to be expected. However, it’s also expected that you will know enough to ask questions that are a bit more incisive than, “What do you mean?” So, prepare for that kick-off call. Use Google to give yourself a crash course on the topic, and check out whatever articles the expert has already published. (Bonus tip: If the subject area – let’s say it’s IT – is rife with acronyms, prepare a list of them before the call, with definitions, and write them down as a list to keep at hand. You can be sure your expert will rattle them off in a supersonic drone and it’s tedious for everyone if you have to ask, “Say what?” over and over.)

2. Don’t be late. Being late, or missing the first call (or any other), is bad.
Experts are late all the time, and sometimes they will blow off a scheduled call entirely, but they have day jobs that don’t include talking to you. This, however, is your job. Punctuality is not optional.

3. Present yourself as a human being. As noted, your conversations with your expert will be conducted by phone. You can mitigate the awkwardness of speaking to an unknown, unseen stranger if you begin on a human note. Devote the first few minutes of the call to convivial chit-chat. “Where are you?” is a good starter, followed, perhaps, by “How’s the weather where you are?” This is not scintillating dialogue, I know, but it conveys the fact that you are a person speaking to another person, not a question-widget grilling an answer-machine.

4. Be polite, but not obsequious. Yes, your expert will know more than you do about the topic at hand, but you know something he doesn’t: How to construct and draft an article that people will want to read. You are just as expert in your realm as he is in his. Remember that, and remember that the purpose of talking to this person is not to provide him with an opportunity to demonstrate how smart he is but to get what you need to write the article. Push to get that, politely, but firmly.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. As a ghostwriter, you have to understand what you’re writing about. Repeating gibberish is a dereliction of your ghostly duty. It may be hard work to understand the expert, but if you don’t, the reader won’t either and you will have failed in the most important part of your job: Producing an article people will want to read. Insist that the expert explain himself so you understand. If you have to, ask to have something explained as if you were the expert’s 12-year-old child. Most people enjoy explaining stuff to kids.

6. Do what you say you’ll do. If you promise an outline or draft to an expert by a certain date, deliver it on that date, or earlier. If that’s impossible, let the author know before the date arrives that you will not be able to keep your promise. In most cases, he or she will understand. Stuff happens. If you simply let it slide, they will not understand, and they shouldn’t. Missing deadlines is unprofessional.

7. Check your ego at the door. This is not your article. Your name will not appear on it. No one will ever know the words are yours. It has to satisfy your expert, whose name will be on it, and that means that it needs to sound like your expert, improved, and not like you. That’s the life of the ghost. If a client thanks you, that’s great, but that doesn’t happen all that often. If you can derive satisfaction from a job well done (and, of course, the check that arrives in the mail), you just may enjoy being a ghost.

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