Doctors are important, lawyers are important, and so are engineers; but never downplay the incredible value that you can bring to the world as a communicator. Jocelyn Wagner of Jocelyn Wagner Communications describes communications as the grease and the glue – the literal building blocks – that bring communities together. (And communities, of course, include those doctors, lawyers, and engineers).
Jocelyn, who officially calls herself a Communicator, Brand Strategist, and Community Activator, is a freelancer who runs her own consulting business. As a “Jill of all trades,” she does both external and internal communications for small and medium organizations: “I’ve gravitated towards overarching communications strategies, as well as giving advice and training people”. Everything she does, from events to websites, is rooted in a clear brand identity and strategy, and she regularly partners with freelance graphic designers, videographers and web developers to get the job done.
The seed of the idea that she could run her own business came about as the best ideas do: by seizing an opportunity and accepting a little luck from the universe. Tipped off by a manager while snowshoe guiding after university, she voluntarily took on all the communications for an outdoor education conference. From there she started her business, which picked up speed though networking, referrals, and not being afraid to call on friends and family for help. She describes herself as an initiator, but she also truly believes that our generation has been hardwired to be flexible and expect change. Think about it: as trends in the job market and economy change faster we know that change is inevitable. We’ve been born into a time that requires us to be adaptable; whether or not you practice those skills that will help you navigate uncertain times is up to you. “Our world and the economy is constantly changing, and who knows what’s going to happen?”
There are certainly tough days as a lone freelancer, with the cash flow worries, continual contract seeking, and social isolation that can come from working at home, but then there are the far-more frequent fulfilling days – the ones where Jocelyn gets to choose her projects (she’s most passionate about experiential education and stories of connection), create her own flexible schedule, and feel the incredible sense of reward that comes with resolving challenges for an amazing array of people and communities. Read on for Jocelyn’s journey as a freelancer, and her advice for those who want to do the same.
So how did you get started freelancing?
I’ve been freelancing since about 10 months after graduating university. I worked as a program assistant for the SFU Summer Publishing workshops, and then I started getting offered project work. It seemed like the universe was telling me to keep trying independent contracting, rather than full-time employment, and I was ready for it. I thought, I’ll work for myself and learn to run a business that way. I’ve been doing it for nearly 5 years.
Was it not intimidating, starting out?
Super intimidating. It was really scary because I thought I had to position myself like I knew more than I actually did. I thought I was going to get called out, or have people say, “You’re charging me this much money and you’re looking it up on the Internet!?” (Yeah, I learned a lot about communications from my colleagues on the internet!) But I quickly realized I did actually know a lot more than my clients. They didn’t know communication strategies, or how to tailor a message to an audience, or even that that’s a thing. I reminded myself that they were getting reassurance from me. And I was providing them a service they didn’t have time or experience to do effectively themselves.
Did you have any idea you’d be doing this while you were in university?
Did I know I was going to run my own business? No, but I’m glad I did it. My philosophy when I graduated was to let the universe guide me. I knew what I was excited about, I knew what I had a degree in, and I was going to look for signs. You’re in control of some things – like where you apply for work – but there’s a whole lot of other stuff that may just drop into your lap, and it’s your choice to take it or not.
So why did you join Communications?
Well, it meant I didn’t have to decide on a specific discipline. That was my problem leaving high school – I wanted to study everything. I was fascinated by history and psychology and publishing and art….you can make an argument that the jack-of-all-trades thing is a detriment, because it means you’re not specialized. But if you’re interested in everything, why limit yourself? Go with it and own it.
What would you go back and change about your university experience?
You know what? I might have just gone to the pub more!
What would you recommend to students in university?
Well, writing is a good skill, but you’re writing so much in your 4-5 year degree. That’s all you’re doing – researching and writing. But what would I say to do? Teamwork. Get on team projects. The one thing I was disappointed by in my degree was the lack of teamwork encouraged in classes. There were only a couple times I got to collaborate. Most of the time you came up with your own thesis, researched your own stuff and were graded on your ability to be very clear that this is your idea; even in tutorials it was each person for themselves. Working with different people and different behavior styles has been tremendously important to me as both a freelancer and an employee, so it’s good to learn to navigate those waters.
What else can they do to get experience?
Take on a big volunteer communications-related project and own it. Be really conscious about what you want to get out of it. Think about the job you want two years out and ask yourself, what kind of experience does that position need? With volunteering, there’s room to try and fail while also raising the bar.
So you say your passion is tribe building, what’s that?
Tribe is another word for community. (It’s Seth Godin’s term, not mine.) I’m fascinated by community – how people come together for each other, how needs are met and wants are aspired to. I love the role of communications being the glue and the grease that gets that community active. I get really excited about bringing people together, informing them, and then helping them use that information in a way that benefits them and the people in their community. If I wasn’t freelancing for non-profits and social enterprises, I’d probably work for them, or for the government.
What’s next for you?
Working socially. Working from home lowers my overhead, but it’s lonely. And working on contracts is diverse and exciting, but you don’t get to sink your teeth into a brand or an organization for very long. I’ve put out feelers for a longer term gig with a team, so I’m doing what I have control over, and letting the universe do the rest.
Do you think freelancing is a trend?
For now, at least in Vancouver, I don’t think it’s fleeting. There are a lot of companies that need to cut the fat and it’s easier to live in uncertain times when you contract out rather than employ people. I’m not currently employing someone, because it would mean I’d have to guarantee them income, and my business is not yet big enough to sustain that. It’s ironic – communications is the first part of an organization’s budget that gets cut in hard times, even though it’s literally the glue that gets you through a crisis.
How do you stay creative?
Always being curious and asking questions. I like to look around at how other professions are doing. [I was recently given] a stack of photography magazines, and all the articles are on topics like running your own photography business or tips for composing a photo. I’m not a photographer, but just reading how another trade handles their work gets me thinking about how I can apply those lessons to my own clients. That’s creativity in action.
Aside from technical skills, what would you look for in a hiree?
I would definitely want them to be curious. And willing to move outside of your job description by asking your peers and your manager if there’s anything you can do to support them – just demonstrate that you’ve got each other’s backs.
What aspect of your job do you love the most?
What I love most – which I’ve got from being an experiential educator of sorts – is working with people in person. Going through a challenge with them, then coming out the other side and hearing how resolving that challenge has impacted their life.
Have you ever dealt with clients you couldn’t work with?
Totally. In the last 6 months I’ve had to leave a couple contracts because they just weren’t the right fit. I’m starting to realize it’s not just about the money and the opportunity, but about my mental and personal well-being. You either keep going with the way things are, you propose to revise the working relationship, or you leave.
Someone gave me this advice once: only put on your resume work that you’re proud to share with your next client. It’s really scary to walk away from a contract. There’s guilt, there’s shame, and there’s the regret of giving up a paycheck. But if I go through with it, will the finished product be something I want ccto tell other people I did?
What are the best parts of working for yourself?
The best parts are choosing (to a point) what projects you get to work on, and creating the day-to-day that you want. I can go to the gym in the middle of the day! The flexibility and being in control is really nice. Another fun part is the networking. My style of networking is very much one-on-one. I’ll get introduced to someone or meet them at an event, and will ask them if they want to grab coffee and have a conversation. It’s very fun to meet new people all the time.
As an interviewer, I like to ask each alumni I talk to whether they have a philosophy in life. It’s a great way to wrap up their experiences and mantras. So, want to think like Jocelyn Wagner? Keep these suggestions in mind:
- “The universe has got a lot of control, and you don’t have nearly as much as you think – but that doesn’t have to be scary.”
- “Do something you’re passionate about, because then at least there’s going to be fun in hard times.”
- “Stay curious, and if you ever find yourself not being curious, take it as a sign that something’s got to change.”
-Kasia Cookson, Features Editor