Sell Less, Earn More

(Listen to this post, here.)

Like you, I have absolutely no idea what takes place inside the Springsteen household. 

But I’m guessing it goes something like this: 


“Who wants to hear me play ‘Born to Run,’ right here, right now, live, in the living room? It’s considered one of the best rock songs ever written. 

“And, in case you need reminding, I am a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; my show on Broadway sold out for 236 performances in a row; and strangers on the street literally stop their cars and get out, just to have a look at me.” 

Springsteen children:

“Yeah, well, thanks dad, but we are ‘born to run’ to Starbucks so, um, see you later, I guess.”

World famous or not, it’s a pretty good bet that there is absolutely nothing you can do to impress your own children (other than peekaboo with a 9-month old, which never fails to amaze).

It’s kind of interesting, don’t you think? 

To the world, he’s the one and only Bruce Springsteen. But to his own kids, he’s just some goofy old guy telling the same dumb jokes over and over again (oh wait, that might be me). 

But, I suppose it’s not that big of a surprise – who your audience is matters just as much as the message itself. 

When it comes to communication, one size definitely does not fit all. (Same with toupees, but I won’t bore you with my personal challenges.) 

You need to look beneath the words themselves 

“Tell me about your work,” is a pretty common question. I ask it of others quite frequently. 

But even though the phrase may be identical, the audience and context in which it’s asked – and therefore its underlying intent – can vary a lot. 

If, for example, I’m sitting across from someone that I’m thinking of hiring, “Tell me about your work,” means: 

Give me details about your process, your credentials, previous clients you’ve helped and more, so that I can make an informed decision. 

If I’m talking to somebody at a business networking meeting, “Tell me about your work,” means: 

Give me about a paragraph’s worth of information. I want to understand and remember what you do, so I can tell other people about you. 

If I’m chatting with somebody at a neighborhood barbecue, “Tell me about your work,” means: 

I’m just looking to have a friendly conversation and get to know you a little bit better. 

If I am in the process of being cuffed and placed in the back of a cruiser, “Tell me about your work,” means: 

I don’t quite grasp the severity of what is happening. 

The point is, one phrase can encompass many different underlying questions. 

Your job, as communicator, is to pay attention to what’s really being asked and respond appropriately. 

Don’t sell too soon 

Most professionals, unfortunately, when asked this common question, default to the first scenario above, nearly every time: 

No matter who is asking, or what the context, they go directly into “selling mode,” responding as if they are talking to a live prospect. 

That’s fine, if that’s what’s happening. 

But if it isn’t, if you’re speaking with someone who has just a passing (or zero) interest in your work, not only are you boring the other person, you are missing an opportunity to generate future word of mouth. 

In that scenario, your job is to say something very short and very specific. Not to sell the other person, just to help them remember what you do. Period.

Here’s the bottom line. 

Ninety-nine percent of the people you’ll interact with today are not in a position to hire you, todayAnd the vast majority of them never will be. 

Which means that if you communicate with everyone you meet as if they are a prospect, you’re missing the bigger opportunity: The chance to plant a word of mouth seed that will blossom weeks, months or years down the road. 

That’s a big miss, given that as a small professional service firm or solo, nearly all of your clients arrive in this way. 

So try this instead. Stop looking at people as potential clients. Look at them as potential “word of mouthers” – people who can tell others about you should the opportunity arise. 

Do that often enough and well enough, and even the cops putting you in the back of the car may start sending leads your way (watch your head).

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been cuffed and placed in the back of a cruiser?

  2. How did you plead?

  3. How do you answer the “Tell me about your work” question when asked at a neighborhood barbecue?

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13 thoughts on “Sell Less, Earn More

  1. Stacey Shipman

    1. Nope. Too much of a rule follower.
    2. N/A
    3. Haven’t yet been to a neighborhood bbq since coming up with my new brand and short sentence to answer that question. However, last night at a business networking event I was asked many times “What do you do” and after reading this, and reflecting, each time the question was definitely asked differently. Some seemed like they were probing for credibility, others seemed genuinely interested and some asked because they had too (Really wish people would stop asking the “What do you do” question first!) But I digress. My answer has been some form of: “I work with technical folks who want/need to communicate and present themselves better when they become people managers or entrepreneurs.” People are getting it.

  2. Laurie Schnebly Campbell

    I love this advice!

    And I’ll hope if I ever get arrested the officers won’t ask ME that question, because the answer is:

    “I teach people how to write fiction.”

    That might not play so well in the back of a squad car…

  3. Diana

    1. Not yet
    2. N/A
    3. I love your suggested approach of asking folks about the work they do, rather than saying just “what do you do?” or “where do you work?” When asked about “what I do,” I typically share with folks that I help home-based and small business owners improve productivity. As a Professional Organizer, I help my clients clear the clutter so they can accomplish more every day.

    And by the way – my husband, who is from New Jersey, is the right audience for Springsteen, anytime, anywhere…

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I find a good follow up to the first question, if you really want to get to know someone, is to ask how they got into whatever line of work they are in. Everybody has a (usually very interesting) story!

  4. Gina

    1) Nope. I do my best to avoid any contact with the long arm of the law!
    2) I’d plead temporary insanity, just for the fun of it.
    3) Hard one to answer, this. I don’t go to neighborhood BBQs, mainly because I don’t know anyone in the neighborhood — I do know the dog people to wave at when they’re walking their dogs, but otherwise I’m afraid I don’t take much notice of people. (I only see the dogs, if I’m honest.) I’m also a pescetarian, so unless there’s shrimp on the barbie, I won’t be eating. 😉

  5. Marijo McCarthy

    1. My days of doing kinky and weird stuff like that are way in the rear view mirror (that WAS what you meant, right?)
    2. In those days, it was the other guy pleading!
    3. It is so helpful to have this issue constantly front and center. In fact, I can’t ever hear it too much. I am also a person who stops to pet every dog in my small neighborhood and I call their walkers Lucy’s mom or Congo’s dad (in other words, my neighbors are only in the context of their relation to their furry friends). But when I am not petting dogs, I do two things as a lawyer: I help my small business clients navigate contracts … which represent business and revenue to them … and, when it comes time to sell their business and enter phase 2 of life, I help them do it smoothly and securely.

  6. Srikrishna

    1. Not cuffed, but certainly placed in the back of the car, by a pair of Mexican cops. Once they informed me that for a special fine they’d let my buddies and me go, we knew we were going to be okay.
    2. I pleaded poverty and no access to cash
    3. On the rare occasions that I’m invited despite being a vegetarian, I tell ’em, I help leaders achieve clarity on what they want, why and how best to go about it.

  7. Mark Walker

    1. Thank goodness, NO!
    2. N/A
    3. I write for the web, helping businesses market their products and services.

    PS. In 1975/76 my suitemate played “Born to Run” at least five or six times EVERY SINGLE morning . . . unfortunately . . . so it’s now joined the ranks of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie” as one of those songs I can only take in small doses. But it was great the three times I got to see Springsteen live!
    Nice article, Michael!

  8. Stephen Church

    1. The closest I came was in the summer of ’75 in downtown Baltimore. I was caught in the act of breaking into a popcorn machine that had swallowed my dime but seemed reluctant to come up with the goods.

    2. I apologised to the arresting officer with my very best English accent. It turned out his family came from my home town in the UK – so all ended well.

    3. I explain that I’m an SEO Copywriter who gets businesses more clients by writing words for their websites that are clear, concise and compelling. If, as is often the case, they start looking at their watch half way through, I explain with, ‘In other words, I’m a purveyor of finely honed b******t’.


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