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What Do You Do? 6

What Do You Do?

When people ask me what I do for a living, I’m never quite sure what to say. The easiest answer is to say that I’m a “motivational speaker,” because most people understand that label. “Motivational humorist” might be more accurate, though, because my typical delivery method is funny. My business card simply says that I am a “Speaker, Author, and Humorist.” In other words, I’ve chosen to refer to what I do rather than the outcome of what I do. 

Branding experts are probably blowing a gasket right now and would certainly not approve of my approach. Instead, they would encourage me to make sure that my clients understand the benefits of what I do rather than how I do what I do. In fact, I’m reminded of the story about a man who went to a hardware store to buy a drill when what he really needed back home was a hole. By explaining the outcome of the work he was doing, the clerk was better able to provide the tool he needed. By the way, these are the kinds of philosophical stories that motivational speakers love to tell.

But, I must admit that I’ve never had the stomach for talking about the outcome of my work. You see, I don’t solve major life problems. And I haven’t developed any miraculous “professional development system.” And I certainly haven’t discovered a cure for cancer. So it feels awkward to suggest that I have the answers to the problems my audiences have or for the lives they’re trying to lead. 

Perhaps I’m selling myself short but it feels a tad arrogant to make those kinds of assumptions. That being said, I have seen plenty of other professionals who have no problem making such claims, only to undermine them with their subsequent behavior. I’ve known leadership experts who couldn’t lead the way out of the building and customer service gurus who have publicly berated their own customers. Yet, they often promote themselves as “America’s Greatest ________ (fill in the blank).”

A few years ago, a trend caught on in the entrepreneurial world that encouraged us to create elevator speeches that showed how we solve problems. For instance, you might ask a business consultant what he does for a living and he would say, “I help organizations manage their workforce so that their employees are more successful, their customers are more satisfied, and their profits are more, well, profitably profitable. Oh, and I also make my own eco-friendly clothes and run an organic farm in my spare time.”

And do you know what happened as a result of this kind of broad reaching suggestion? We became robots and recited our elevator speeches every time someone asked what we did. It sounded so artificial. So, now, whenever someone launches into this kind of description, I’ve usually tuned out by the time they get to, “I help….”

I confess, though, that I did try this tactic for a while and even tried to put a humorous twist on it. When people asked what I did for a living, I used to say, “I make colonoscopies more fun.” That description always led to raised eyebrows and a hesitant, “Oh. Hmm. How do you do that?”

I would then explain that I speak at a lot of healthcare conferences where I encourage nurses and other staff to be better at their jobs while enjoying the experience. It seemed like a funny way to describe what I did but I started to notice that some people got a bit grossed out by this particular example. So, I threw out the cute elevator speech and decided it would be better to initiate a discussion rather than offering a sound bit. And it seems that people appreciate the straightforwardness of this approach.

Think about it. If I sold plumbing supplies, I would tell people I sold plumbing supplies. If I was a landscaper, I would tell people I was a landscaper. If I was a Chippendale dancer, I would tell people I was a landscaper.

I would not try to fabricate some sort of fancy way to describe what I did. Can you imagine asking a plumber what she did for a living and she said, “I improve the lives of my clients by keeping their spigots flowing, their toilets clear of clogs, and their septic systems free from odorous odors.”

Honestly, I think that description just stinks.

When it comes to communication, I’ve always been a fan of down-to-earth, honest, clear information rather than slick words and phrases. It’s not really complicated and I suspect that this is how most of us want to be spoken to.

A couple of years ago, actor Alan Alda wrote a book called, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? It focused on his work helping scientists communicate to non-scientists so that the scientists could be better understood. Sometimes, I think we try to impress others with flowery words and complicated sentences when all they really want is to understand.

When it comes to how we talk to one another or how we describe the work that we do, let’s keep it simple. I’m not suggesting that we dumb it down but instead, that we try to achieve clarity with less complication. If we can keep that in mind, I believe we’ll connect with one another more soundly and more authentically.

And I guess, that’s what I really do. I help people….oh, never mind.


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