Look Who’s Talking (About You)

Big day for us a couple of weeks ago; my oldest son, Evan, graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis. My wife Linda and I flew down from Boston to wallow in the festivities.

We’d been to Memphis a few times before, but not in the two years since Evan moved off campus to an apartment with friends Chandler and Jason. And so we were curious to see the place.

All in all, it turned out to be more or less what you’d expect from three twenty-something guys living together:

A display of empty beer bottles on a shelf; furniture that could generously be described as “weary;” a lone condom taped to the living room wall with these handwritten instructions: “In case of emergency, break seal. Warning: alarm will sound.”

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The boys live on the bottom floor of a two-story house and share a gravel parking lot out back with the house next door. Theoretically, the parking lot holds ten cars.

I say “theoretically,” because it’s just a gravel area. According to Evan, that means that as people arrive – particularly if there are just one or two other cars present when they do – they park haphazardly. The result is that when cars nine and ten show up, there’s often no more room.

And so Evan came up with what I thought was a pretty clever idea.

He bought a bunch of wooden stakes and found a big sheet of red plastic. Then he created “parking spots,” by stapling plastic strips to the stakes and pounding them into the ground at appropriate intervals along the edge of the lot.

Now, when people show up to park – even if there are no other cars in the lot – they place their cars in-between the stakes.

There are several things I like about this solution: It cost next to nothing ($4) and it solved a real problem.

But the thing I like most is that it didn’t require convincing the other tenants to play along. It didn’t even involve explicit instructions. People just naturally – and somewhat subconsciously – starting parking in the spots created.

Which got me thinking about you and me (I’m on the job 24/7).

Specifically, how do we solve our “word of mouth” problem? In other words, like parking in Evan’s lot, how do we get people to “naturally and somewhat subconsciously” tell others about us?

Because if you can figure that out, you benefit not just from the things you do and say, but from the legions of people you know and interact with who send others your way.

As with Evan’s solution, there are two important stipulations: It can’t require convincing people to want to help you (sorry, but they are busy with their own stuff). And it can’t require a learning curve (ditto).

And so when it comes to describing the work you do, I have three recommendations:

  1. Keep it simple. I know you’ve done many wonderful things in your career and that you are capable of even more. But if you try to jam all that into the way you describe your work, you’ll lose me from the start.
    Remember, it’s called “word of mouth,” not “word of here’s five case studies, my bio and a list of every company I’ve ever worked with.” Give me one thing to remember about you and maybe, just maybe, I’ll share that down the line with somebody else.
  1. Keep it narrow. You’re an executive coach? Terrific. See those five bazillion people standing over there? They are too. Slapping a broad, generic label on your work won’t help me pay attention or care (much less remember you) in a week, a month or a year, when I meet somebody who might need your services.
    If, on the other hand, you tell me that you’re “an executive coach who specializes in helping family businesses grow profits,” now you’re getting somewhere.
  1. Keep it consistent. If you want me to associate you with a particular thing, it’s really helpful to ring that bell everywhere you go. On your website, your business card, your LinkedIn profile, your email newsletter, etc. When your mailman knows what you do, you’re on the right track (don’t worry about your father-in-law; he’ll never get it).
    But if you change your description – based on whom you happen to be talking with or what you happen to be doing (or simply because you haven’t given it much thought) – you’ll never be known for anything.

Here’s the bottom line. An elegant solution to a given problem is one that works easily, consistently and without the need for explanation.

And whether that involves teaching people where to park or teaching people how to spread the word about you, the more mental friction you can remove, the more success you’re going to have.

How do you describe the work you do?
Post your comments below!

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29 thoughts on “Look Who’s Talking (About You)

  1. Mike Sweeney

    Thanks for this article Michael! While reading it I had a flash of inspiration regarding my personal brand and how I can make an impression on others… hopefully a good one. 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Terrific, Mike! I’m glad your insight has been flashed. Care to share some details?

  2. Charles Alexander

    First of all, I love the CopyKatz Creative site! Very easy to understand and it has personality.

    To answer the question:
    I work with busy professionals to create cool newsletters, that help them stand out in a crowd.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Charles. Almost all written by my son so I’ll let him know.

      And I like your explanation of what you do (I’m in a similar neighborhood)!

  3. kate

    I am a fun passionate 59 yr old lady who motivates, inspires, encourages, teaches and challenges young regional rugby teams!

  4. Lowell Klassen

    I always enjoy your business insights Michael. I was gonna try this self slogan on for size to see how the public spreads it: ” I’m a Graphic Designer that takes your company identity further.” Thoughts? Please be honest If you have a better way to word it.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Lowell!
      I think you need something more specific. What you have is kind of a slogan – takes your company further. But that’s more or less just restating what a good graphic designer does.

      Instead, can you pinpoint either a group you specialize in working with (grocery stores, architects, etc.) or a graphic design thing that you are particularly good at (logos, newsletters, book covers, etc.) Or both combined?

      Feel free to post back here again after you give it some thought.


          1. Michael Katz Post author

            It’s all a matter of degree, but if you give someone a laundry list, all they’ll remember is “graphic designer.”

            I’d actually pick one thing – logo or web sites. Doesn’t mean you can’t do other work, but the game, if you will, is to be remembered for something. It’s marketing, not reality, and so it’s about the story you want to tell.

  5. Stacey Shipman

    Thank you for always providing a lesson and a laugh on Friday!

    It’s taken me a long time to get that one liner but I feel good about this:

    I teach nervous (& novice) speakers how to deliver confident presentations.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Very nice. You’ve got the problem and solution baked into one sentence. Well done!

  6. Diane Spadola

    I am a face and body painter that specializes in helping my clients make their corporate and private special events more memorable with artistic entertainment.

  7. Alan Fairweather

    I’m too modest to talk about what I do (that’ll be right) but this reminded me of a conversation I had the other day with my friend Susan. We were talking about Sarah and the fact that she has her own business. Although Sarah had told me about her business, I still wasn’t sure what it was about; so I asked Susan. She didn’t have a clue either. Now that’s a real shame, because Susan is a Director and General Manager of a business that could possibly use the service offered by Sarah. I think it’s something to do with event management, but I’m not sure. So; missed opportunity for Sarah, and that IS a shame.
    Oh yeah; and I help business owners and managers, motivate their customers, motivate their staff and motivate themselves. (and I’m open to suggestions)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Alan,
      I think the susan/sarah story is pretty typical. We sort of know what other people do, but often with not nearly enough clarity to tell others.
      And I think your message is clear – motivation!

  8. Julia Brakhage

    I’ve been working on this since the first time I “heard” you talk about it. I realized my biggest problem was owning what I was really good at.

    I am a fishing tournament consultant. I specialize in managing registration, scoring and cash distribution for million dollar offshore tournaments.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That has the benefit of being both clear and unusual. So it’s easy to remember and, I’m guessing, when you tell people what you do they typically ask some follow-up questions. Really good.

  9. Terry Matlen

    This has always been a tough one for me, Michael, because I do so many different things in my particular field. For now, I say that I help women with ADHD, but that doesn’t explain that I work online, offer online group coaching, offer consultations, have written books on the topic, etc etc. Any suggestions? And I echo what others say- your newsletters are WONDERFUL.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Terry!
      I don’t think you need any of the how you do it, why you do it, what forms it takes when you do it stuff when answering the simple “what do you do?” question. At that point, you’re just trying to get stuck in somebody’s head so they can share you with others. Yes, when the conversation goes further and certainly when talking to a prospect, you need more detail. This is about being known for something (Tony Robbins = success and motivation. Whether it’s a book or class or weekend workshop is too much at the early stage). What do you want to be famous for?

      I would, however, at a bit (like two or three words) to explain what you help women with ADHD do. “succeed in business,” “live better lives,” etc. Otherwise I think it’s too vague to make an impact.

  10. Sharyn Inzunza

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you for another thought-provoking newsletter.

    I launched my writing business a couple of months ago, and I’m yet to nail my business description. When I tell people what I do…

    They understand: “I’m a writer.”

    “I’m a commercial writer for the food industry” gets a vague, “Oh….”

    When I describe what I do as, “I write promotional content for food industry clients – which may include a café’s blog posts or an olive oil producer’s home page,” they generally give me the “That’s cool” nod.

    So far, my description feels a little, ahem, half-baked.

    I would love to hear what you think 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Sharyn!

      I think you’re pretty close. I agree, saying simply, “I’m a writer,” is understandable, but too generic (and there are way too many of you).

      I like a two-step approach: “I’m a writer; I specialize in writing promotional content for the food industry. Olive oil, soup, cat food, etc.”

      It’s not as clean as some other people’s (some things are just easier to boil down), but I think the example above is understandable, intriguing, and sufficienty narrow that I’ll probably ask a few questions (“What kind of things have you written?”) and (most important) remember that “Sharyn is the food industry writer.”

      As always, I think it comes down to what can you reasonably hope to become famous for?


      1. Sharyn Inzunza

        Hi Michael,

        Thanks so much for your feedback!

        I guess the next step would be to put my description through the “cocktail party” test: Someone asks what I do, and when I’m done they’re either asking multiple questions (as you suggested) or scanning the crowd for an easy escape.

        I will keep working on it 🙂

        Thanks again.

  11. Stephanie

    Hi Michael–I still love your newsletters….and it’s been like 15 years since I first started reading them….(off and on and at various stages of employment) Now being self employed and actively building my business, I am reading your newsletters for more than the humor.

    so after much thought…and I mean like almost a year now since I took your webinar on creating a niche and becoming an expert…..(I guess I am a really slow learner/thinker) I have managed to come up with the following simple sentences

    I am a massage therapist specializing in the art of relaxation
    I am a yoga instructor specializing in the art of self awareness
    I am a Health Educator specializing in stress management skills

    So now….I am trying to come up with a way to combine all three statements, without being too long winded something along the lines of

    I teach stressed out people the art of relaxation using massage & yoga

    I am open to suggestions, thoughts and comments 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Stephanie!

      Congrats on joining the solo ranks (we’ve been waiting for you).

      I think you’re trying to jam too much in here. The one sentence, simple description is ALWAYS an oversimplification. That’s part of why it’s so hard to do … but it’s the only option. Either be boiled down to something that doesn’t do you justice or be forgotten. But that’s ok, the idea is to be remembered, the time to impress comes later.

      So of your three, I’d pick the one that seems to resonate the most with your prospects. Of stress, relaxation, or self-awareness, which one is most burning for people. Whether you achieve this via yoga, massage or whatever, is less important for your description. People are less interested in how you bake the cake than in what kind of cake it is!

      Good luck,


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