Show Don’t Tell: The Trick To Short Circuiting Your Next Rate Negotiation

Some negotiations are almost complete before anyone even mentions price. As a freelancer you can’t avoid the “so what do you charge?” conversation. For many people even the thought of it brings them out in cold sweats. So how do you do most of your negotiating before you even mention your price?

When you meet a client they are assessing everything about you, to see if they think that you will be able to provide the service that they are looking for. Clients who aren’t truly confident of the value you bring, will often negotiate hard to be sure that they are getting good value.

To avoid difficult and protracted negotiations you need to demonstrate so clearly the value and rare skills that you can bring to the client, that they are truly confident in your value (here is a great video on this). This then makes your rate of secondary importance, as they are confident of the benefits you bring.

Rate Negotiation – What’s the trick?

So what’s the trick? “Show don’t tell.”

This is old advice in the writing community. People find stories far more compelling and believable when they are written, so that the reader experiences a story rather than being told it. Exactly the same is true for potential clients. To make them believe in you, you must show them what you can do, not just tell them.

Lets look at two key moments in a client meeting and see how you can change your pitch to show them that you will do an exceptional job for them. For more details on this please see this guide that was recently published.

We’ll finish with a section on “The Ask”. No matter how effectively you sell your services, you will still have to negotiate your rate. There’s no point in carefully positioning your services to avoid a protracted negotiation and then throw that away.

Rate Negotiations

1. First Impressions

These are key, so think about them. As the old adage goes “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.”

It’s key that their first impression of you is someone who is someone who is confident. After all, if you aren’t confident in yourself and your offering, then why should someone else put their confidence in you and buy your services.

Being relaxed and confident will set the stage for the rest of your interactions and ultimately your rates negotiation. A confident approach will show them that you aren’t unduly concerned about winning the business or unsure of your ability provide it.

So how do you make a confident first impression:


It’s amazing how many people forget to in the pressure of the moment. Make a conscious effort to remember to smile when you greet your client.

People who are nervous or worried don’t smile for exactly this reason, so by smiling you are signalling your confidence.

Move Deliberately, Speak Clearly

Speaking rapidly and moving quickly looks nervous and doesn’t not convey confidence. Confident people move deliberately and speak clearly. They are relaxed and aren’t concerned about taking their time.

In a meeting consciously try to slow down. You’re unlikely to actually appear to move deliberately and speak clearly, just to be a person who is relaxed and takes their time. This article has more great tips on confident body language.

Dress appropriately

This doesn’t mean wear a suit. If you are a banker, yes, wear a suit. If you’re a designer then smart jeans and a T-shirt is fine. Either way make sure that whatever you wear is clean and tidy. Whether you like it or not certain professions are expected to dress in certain ways. If you dress as expected that will help to reinforce with a client that you are what you say you are.

2. ‘So tell me about yourself’ / “So how can you help me?”

All meetings come to the point where you will be asked to tell them about your skills and how you can help the client. Remember “Show don’t tell.”

Which of these two do you find more engaging and convincing:

A. “I am a very experienced WordPress developer and your project would not take me very long to complete.”


B. “In the last two years I have built 17 WordPress websites for clients in 4 industries. On 6 of the projects I was also responsible for the overall project management of the new site build co-ordinating and managing the input from the designers, SEOs and other providers. I have delivered all of these projects on time. Given that I’m very confident that I can deliver your project in 12 working days. If you have time perhaps I could show you a section of the sites I’ve built, and some of the client testimonials from those projects.”

Clearly it’s B, the individual who is being very clear and specific. They are showing the client the work that they have done and the results that they have achieved, not just telling them what they can do. Talk is cheap and people know this. In order to get your customers to truly believe that you can do an excellent job for them, and so do most of your negotiating before you even get to price, you have to show them your past work and so how you could help them.

It’s even better, if you have time, to prepare some ideas for their project before the meeting that you can then show to them. The ideas don’t need to be perfect but even rough ideas well presented will help the client to imagine how much value you could bring to them.

3. The Ask

None of the tips above remove the need to actually negotiate your rate. They will make it a far simpler conversation but it’s a conversation you still need to have. So how do you best do this?

Go First

Despite widespread advice to the contrary this is very advantageous. It shows that you are confident in your rate and it also allows you to set the agenda. The first figure used in a negotiation becomes the anchor around which the negotiation is then conducted. You want this to be your price point for obvious reasons. If this makes you nervous remember this is backed up by high quality research (PDF from the University of Pennsylvania).

Don’t Say Too Much

You need to control your nerves at this point. Speaking at length will imply that you are nervous about your rate. So state your rate clearly and concisely and then shut up! If there is a silence don’t be tempted to fill it, let it lie for a few seconds. Filling the silence would indicate that you are nervous. It’s up to the client to respond and you should wait for them to do so.

Give Yourself Room

Don’t set your rate too low. Don’t ask for the minimum that you will accept. Everyone likes to feel that they’ve got a good deal and you should expect your client to negotiate on your rate. If you don’t set it high enough that you can afford to make some concessions and still take the business, then you’re backing yourself into a corner unnecessarily.

Remember people use price as a proxy for value. If something costs a lot they assume that it will be high quality, unless there is evidence to the contrary. By asking for more than you’ll accept, you will also be increasing the perceived value of your service.

Good luck. The secret to negotiation is to position yourself so well that it’s pretty much done before you even start. Or as the military would say – you want to win the battle before it has even begun.

For more tips on closing clients see here.


Ben Richardson

About the Author

Ben Richardson is managing director of Acuity Training and author of “The Freelancers Guide to Assertiveness.” Ben is an ex-investment banker and venture capitalist. Most recently he ran the new investment team for MMC Ventures in London. He now combines freelancing for start ups and early stage companies with running Acuity Training which is focused on offering high quality management and IT training.

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