Is Your Cart Before Your Horse?

(Listen to this post, here.)

It turns out that I’ve been lying to you. 

Well, okay, maybe not exactly lying. Let’s call it oversimplifying.

For a long time now (years), I’ve been talking about the importance of simply stating what you do when you meet somebody new.

Small firms and solos like us live in a Word of Mouth world; we don’t spend money on advertising or promotion. Everything is referral-based.

So if you want people to understand and remember you – let alone, refer you to others – you have to figure out how to describe your work in a way that is simple, memorable and jargon-free. 

(Hint: If your description includes the phrase “leading provider of cross-platform solutions…” please move to the back of the class.)

But don’t worry; all of that is still 100% true.

Here comes the lying, I mean oversimplifying, part: Developing a simple statement like the ones below is really hard:


I’m a business coach who helps foreign-born professionals succeed in U.S. companies. 

I’m a mortgage broker specializing in newly divorced women. 

I’m a quality assurance consultant; I help biotech companies ensure their products are safe and effective.

It’s hard because it requires boiling down your decades of experience and accomplishment into one lousy sentence. 

But that’s not the really hard part.

It’s hard because it demands that you focus your marketing on the solution to a particular problem and/or a particular audience. 

Nope. That’s not the really hard part either.

The really hard part is that in order to arrive at a clear, concise, compelling sentence (or two) that describes your work, you need to first settle on what your clear, concise, compelling work is.

In other words, this isn’t a wordplay problem. It’s not about endlessly debating whether to say, “Succeed in U.S. companies…” or “Thrive in U.S. companies…” until you reach the right answer. That’s maybe 10% of the challenge.

The other 90% is in figuring out what part of Planet Earth you intend to dominate and then – and only then – trying to describe that well. 

I’ll even go one step further and say that if you’ve been struggling to talk about your work in a way that is simple, distinctive, and interesting, but all you keep coming up with is a bunch of generic blah, blah, it’s likely because you are trying to describe a thing that in and of itself isn’t simple, distinctive and interesting.

No amount of fancy words can describe what isn’t there. (Too zen?)

So how do you solve all this? Three suggestions:

    1. Think about the nonbusiness thing(s) at which you are particularly skilled. 
      I mean gifted. I mean when situation X occurs, your friends, relatives, volunteer committee co-members, etc., come to you first.Nonbusiness because if it’s happening in your spare time, in the rest of your life, it’s real.Think about it. What can you do easily that other people continually struggle with? 

      Is it handling interpersonal conflict? Is it your ability to fix mechanical things? Is it the way infants stare at you and, because of your huge, bald head, assume that you are the leader of their planet (that might just be me)?

      Identify your natural advantage … and bake it into your business in some way.

    2. Think about where you break ranks with some (or all) of your peers. A financial planner, for example, who claims to offer “customized, high quality financial solutions that help people sleep well at night,” is a snore. That’s just the definition of financial planning.But a financial planner who believes that actively managed funds are a rip-off; or that parents should contribute nothing to their children’s college education; or that what matters most in planning for retirement is long term care insurance; well, now that person is starting to separate themselves from the pack in a meaningful way.

      Will some people disagree? I guarantee it. In fact, when somebody else in your field who is equally qualified completely disagrees with your point of view, you know you’re onto something useful. 

    3. Decide what you’re willing to give up. Do you want to be viewed as an expert? Do you want to stand out from the pack? Do you want all heads in the room to turn your way the minute anybody even alludes to your specialty?Well then you need to pick something. And picking something means not picking lots and lots of other somethings.

      Look at those three descriptions of actual people from earlier in this article.  They could all be easily broadened – just take the first four or five words of each sentence and chop off the rest.

      That would give each of them more theoretical clients. The problem is, I’ve noticed that it’s the actual clients who pay you actual money.

      Until you have all the business you want and are literally turning away more, you need a niche. It really is that simple.

Here’s the bottom line. Polishing your “what I do” sentence is important, no doubt about it. That’s what the world uses to label us for future reference.

But writing these words happens at the end of a process, not the beginning. First figure out what makes you different; then focus on how you’re going to talk about it. 

Of course, I could be lying to you. It’s happened before.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What planet do babies assume you are from?
  1. Have you ever been asked to move to the back of the class? Explain.
  1. What natural skill or experience could you incorporated into your business?

Share your comments below!

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6 thoughts on “Is Your Cart Before Your Horse?

  1. Susan

    Hi Michael, you are very good at what you do as Chief Penguin of your business. And the funny way you think, sprinkled throughout your posts, makes you more memorable -and likeable – than anything else for me, but that is not in your one sentence of what you do… So, after reading this article, it seems that something you identify as a gift may be used in the one sentence description, and some other thing, like why you are likeable is another something to identify and bring in, even though it is not included in the statement of what you do.
    Could you say more about the unnamed but vital somethings? Perhaps this is covered in one of your courses that I haven’t taken yet…?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Susan!
      Like I said, it can get complicated quickly. Maybe an example will help. My friend Richard likes helping people sort through conflict. He has a very gentle, trusting way about him and if you needed someone to mediate a dispute, you’d call him. And he loves it. So he started a business where he helps businesses do that. He has a natural advantage here since he’s both good at it (I’m not, for example) and enjoys it (I hate it).
      My friend Betsy, on the other hand, is good at sizing people up. I don’t know why, she just is. Guess what – she’s a recruiter. Perfect match for her natural gift.
      You’re looking for the same kind of thing.

  2. Grace Kennedy

    1. Based on my children’s baby behavior, they thought I was from a magical planet where humans can survive on 1.5 hours of sleep.
    2. Seventh grade was where I tested out all the fun behaviors that got me sent to the back of the class. However, I got it all out of my system in 1992-1993 and have been a goody goody ever since.
    3. I am good at putting myself in other people’s shoes and understanding what makes them tick, which is why I love telling stories to connect nonprofits to potential donors and volunteers. I suppose I have used that for my “what I do” sentence, but I am open to input: I harness the power of storytelling to bring nonprofit mission statements to life.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Don’t remind me.
      2. What happened in 1992-93. (I’m guessing prison?)
      3. I like your sentence, although I wonder if you could make it simpler and maybe more to the point of the actual objective: I help nonprofits tell better stories so they raise more money, more easily. What do you think?

  3. Barry Shuchter

    I’m a self-employed WordPress blog comment notification fixer from New Jersey now living in Madison and sipping espresso. Too specific?


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