You’re at a networking event, and you ask someone where they work.
‘Dead Red Design.’
‘What do you do?’
‘We help companies increase their brand awareness, and their brand value, through better graphic and product design.’
We all get this question. At dinner parties. In airplanes. On first dates.
For some of us, particularly those of us in the service sector, it can be hard to answer.
Hell, it can even be tough for entire companies to pin down what they do in one succinct blurb. Clients ask us to develop their ‘elevator pitches’ all the time.
The main issue is usually that we all do a little bit of a lot of things. People and companies. It’s hard to boil it all down without leaving some important parts out.
If you can come up with a compelling, comprehensive elevator pitch for your company, or for yourself, that’s excellent. But a generic, watered-down answer or pitch won’t make much of an impression on your questioner. Or potential customer. It might even leave you feeling a little blah about your own work.
So instead of describing your job, tell a story. Tell the story of your favourite project. The story of Last Tuesday at Work.
And if you’re a company, tell the story of your best-selling product, or a time you really helped a client turn it all around. Or maybe the story of how your company was founded. The need it was supposed to fill.
True, you might not get every important aspect of your work across. But a few memorable points are better than leaving people with a generic, mushy account of what you do.
Back at that networking event, you ask someone else about their job.
‘Where do you work?’
‘What do you do?’
‘Well, last week we got a call from a local supermarket chain. Their profits have been shrinking over the past couple of years. They wanted us to take a look at their entire business, see where they could save. We noticed some little things that were adding up to cause trouble for them: their beef supplier was charging them more than the industry standard; old equipment was driving their electric bill higher than it should have been. We put together a report that laid it all out for them. Then we helped them decide which areas they could attack immediately, and which would have to wait. Now we’ll watch their profits with them. If they go up, we’ll know we did a good job.’
Who would you remember? Who would you want to buy from or work with?
Or the guy who helped that supermarket save all that money, by doing all those things? Who gave you something to really think about, if only for a minute or two?
Granted, most of us aren’t firefighters saving people and pets from burning buildings. But we still have stories to tell. And a story always trumps an abstraction.
‘I've said “jiminy jillikers” so many times the words have lost all meaning!’
Milhouse Van Houten, The Simpsons
My wife and I were Googling potential honeymoon spots the other day when we came across this advertorial on Fodor’s site: 20 of the world’s best romantic hotels.
Regardless of the substance of the slideshow, and how romantic these hotels actually are, I like that title. A lot. Because it shows something that’s becoming increasingly rare in internet headlines: respect for the English language.
Think about it. Nine times out of ten these days, an article like that gets the title:
The 20 most romantic hotels on Earth
20 hotels that will redefine your perception of ‘romantic’
The 20 hotels you have to honeymoon in before you die
It’s obvious that the author, Megan Suckut, had to accommodate search engine optimization (SEO); hence the generic title and the counterintuitive choice of ‘best’ over ‘most’. But I appreciate her not using SEO as an excuse to go the superlatives-on-steroids route. Instead, she’s saying:
‘Here are 20 very romantic hotels. Are they the most romantic hotels on earth? Not necessarily. But they’re up there. So they’re probably worth checking out if you’re looking for a romantic place to stay.’
As a writer, it’s important to me that people use language as correctly and precisely as possible. It’s the most important tool of my trade, and when people misuse it for click bait-y titles, they’re blunting that instrument. Eventually we all lose. Even, if not especially, those same headline writers.
Because how many times can you write things like: The Hanukkah video you will not be able to stop watching before you reach boy-who-cried-wolf status?
That’s a real headline I saw on my Facebook feed today. Will I really not be able to stop watching this thing? It was originally posted on 22nd November. If the people who started viewing it then haven’t been able to turn away, they’re all either dead from starvation, or concerned family and friends have hooked them up to IVs while they sit half comatose, watching this four-and-a-half-minute video on an endless, Sisyphean loop.
Of course I know this hasn’t happened to anyone, but nevertheless, I can cross the website in question off my list of credible go-tos for amusement.
How about: A pretty cute Hanukkah video that’s bound to put a smile on your face?
That would stick out and get my attention.
No, not that hash.
I’m talking about hashtags.
I used to hate hashtags. More accurately, I hated how a lot of people used them.
I thought they should only be used to tag topics of interest, which was their original function on Twitter, the site that made them popular.
As in: ‘Stubborn Love is my favourite #Lumineers song.’
Twitter automatically turned a hashtag phrase into a hyperlink to search results for that phrase, which made for a tidy, useful system. If a tweet intrigued you and it contained a hashtag, you could click on it and quickly find all the other tweets on that topic.
But soon enough people started using them to just add free association nonsense to their tweets. And later, Facebook posts.
You know what I mean.
‘Going to see the #Lumineers tonight! #SoExcited #CantWait #GuitarsAndFedorasTogetherForever #LoveMyLife #DontHate #Blessed’
Why’d I hate stuff like that? Mainly because it was unwieldy. Aesthetically unpleasant, like getting to your hotel room to find a sweeping view of a brick wall.
But it also annoyed me because I felt that people were using hashtags as cover to say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say. Like they knew the things they were writing were obtuse but they were shoving them in my face anyway.
But I’ve had an epiphany. This ‘liberal’ use of hashtags ain’t so bad after all.
See, while I want things to look nice, at the same time I also wish people were less afraid of writing. Less reticent about expressing themselves.
And if my social network is at all a realistic sample, there’s no question that hashtags let people who ordinarily don’t say or write much of anything in public show another side of themselves. On balance, I have to say that’s a good thing.
It also got me thinking. If hashtags let people say things they wouldn’t normally say, and if they let people who wouldn’t usually say anything say something, then they might be a great cure for writer’s block.
I’m not suggesting that when you have writer’s block you get on Facebook and fill your status update with random thoughts.
But I am suggesting you pretend you are. Think about what hashtag phrases you’d use for your topic, and I bet you’ll free your mind up to produce words you wouldn’t ordinarily come up with.
So if I were coming up with a theme for this post, I might think about:
In helping clients with their writing, one of the most common misconceptions I have to fight against is the idea that good writing means a lot of writing.
I blame our schooling.
Grade school, high school, college and even grad school teachers in the US assign papers with a minimum page count requirement.
In some cases, that makes sense.
If the assignment’s on ‘The history of California’, it’s perfectly logical to have a minimum page count. That’s such an open-ended topic, and there’s a lot to cover. A minimum page count gives students some structure. (A maximum would probably be good too.)
But if the topic is ‘Why California should (or shouldn’t) be divided into two states’, that’s a different thing entirely. For that topic, the paper should be only as long as it takes to make the argument.
In that case, asking students to meet a minimum page count is begging them to pad whatever compelling points they have with fluff. It’s implicitly sending the message that quantity is as important as quality.
After writing dozens of papers over the course of a decade or so, it can be hard to shake that mentality. And before you know it, you’re writing a business brief or a bit of copy and instead of thinking, ‘The substance will determine the length of this thing,’ you’re thinking, ‘If this doesn’t reach a certain length, it can’t possibly be good.’ Which is counter-productive, to put it mildly.
I think most people are better writers than they realise. But then ingrained habits like minimum word counts enter their brains, practically forcing them into bad writing. It’s a shame.
So ask yourself: have I said everything my reader needs to hear? If the answer’s yes, then put your pen down.