I’ve been working a lot with overseas copywriting clients lately, especially with those for whom English is a second language. It’s different and exciting… and can be a lot of fun too. One thing I enjoy is getting fresh insights into other countries and cultures.
Yet, it’s not all fun and smooth sailing. There are cultural differences, alternative views, and different business practices that come into play when working with overseas clients.
And there are times the language barrier can be a challenge. The good news is there are easy ways to overcome the obstacles.
So let’s take a look…
Set Boundaries Upfront
Setting boundaries is a good place to start. Be firm, but diplomatic and respectful, and you will receive respect in return.
For example, in Japan, where I work, there’s a work ’till you drop and then keep going kind of mindset. You see this in unpaid overtime work and the mandatory drinks after work with the team. So tell them your work schedule and let them know that you have other client projects in order to set proper expectations.
No matter where they are in the world, or what they are paying you, some clients may assume you’re only working with them. Although, in general, I have found this to be more of an issue with smaller businesses, it is still beneficial to let them know you work with multiple clients. One way to address any concerns they have about your progress is to offer daily or weekly short email updates.
When it Goes “Ka-plooie”
Problems and misunderstandings are going to happen, but if you are prepared, then defusing any situation is much easier. Stay calm and consider the possibility it’s just a misunderstanding. Instead of firing off an email in anger, wait until you can respond calmly and professionally. In most situations, you’ll be able to work out the issues with your client.
Keep it Simple
Keep your communications and your copy as simple and straightforward as possible.
A good tool to use is the Flesch-Kincaid score. It is a tool that is commonly used to grade reports and other written pieces with a level of readability. If you have written a piece that gets a Flesch-Kincaid score of, say, 8.0, that means it is at eighth grade level, and an eighth grader in middle school should be able to read and comprehend your written piece — ideal for a client whose second language is English.
However, for even better clarity, aim for a Flesch-Kincaid score of 6.0 to 8.0. You can access the Flesch-Kincaid tool in Word, or for free online:
- Go to readability-score.com/text/.
- Copy and paste your text into the box.
- Click the “Measure Readability” button and get your Flesch-Kincaid score. Then you can adjust your copy as needed.
Have a Sense of Humor
This might be the most important factor. The more you can relax, roll with the punches, smile, and laugh it off, the more you can save time and trouble from having to “manage” issues.
It doesn’t mean everything is a joke, it just means that if you take a light approach to what is more than likely a simple misunderstanding, you can deal with things that pop up more quickly, in a more effective manner. Also, you can get back on track, with everyone on good terms.
A Not So Long Ago True Story
Recently, I found myself in a tricky situation. I was working on a contract (or “project terms of agreement,” as I often call it) for an upcoming client project. I worked extra hard on being very short, clear, and to the point.
When I sent the agreement over to them, I was confident it would be accepted. But then I received their reply. A key paragraph outlining the scope of my work, in regards to the project, had been highlighted and was followed by the short comment of:
“This is unreasonable.”
I was in shock. I had already made adjustments based on the needs they explained to me. I read the rest of their reply and began to smile, because…
They were 100% in agreement with what I had written.
Yet, I was at a roadblock. A frown formed as I began to ponder, “How can I tactfully handle this misunderstanding?” And then it clicked for me. I figured out that I just needed to explain that what I had said was the same as what they had said. So I wrote a positive email reply starting out with:
“Great! We are in agreement.”
I also copied and pasted the two conflicting (yet really the same) paragraphs with a linking sentence that said “this (A)” means the same as “this (B).” Furthermore, I followed with an explanation that we were on the same terms and in 100% agreement.
I also made sure to make no mention of a misunderstanding. I simply outlined our points of agreement. The reply I got to my response was positive, and we were all systems go after that.
These are a few guidelines for you based on my own knowledge and experience. Trust your gut if something feels off, but also remember that it’s very easy to misunderstand what is said when dealing across language and cultural differences.
So be firm, but give them some grace in your dealings. In other words, stay grounded, and realize you are dealing with clients working in their second, or even third, language so at times what they say may not be what they meant.
Then you’ll be able to offer your copywriting services wherever in the world you like!