Lost In Translation

(Listen to this post, here.)

It’s been ten years since I last checked voicemail. 

Is it because I don’t care what you have to say? 

No. It’s because I use a cool service called YouMail which, among other things, sends me a text alert with a full transcription of every voice message I receive. 

It’s not one hundred percent accurate and its refusal to transcribe obscenities means that most messages left by my brother Al are nearly impossible to follow. But it’s pretty good. 

The other day, though, I received this text transcription:

Ball python buchongo to see how you said Homes Realty accounting team and bye. Bye. Ohh trans awaiting fool Mitsubishi UPS vehicle ID Neil using Valco a python to Django so she has a horse at home now the accounting team and bye bye. Ohh, Transylvania. 

[It’s even funnier if you read it out loud.]

Any message the involves pythons, Transylvania and “the accounting team” screams urgency. So I dialed in, located the audio, and listened.

Mystery solved: The message was in Chinese.

Tools are Just Tools

Today, whether as the owner of a business or not, we all create content for public consumption. 

Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, email, web sites … you name it … there are an ever-growing number of tools, forums and opportunities for getting your message out. 

For people like us, of course, that’s good news. 

Gone are the days where we were required to buy at least a quarter-page ad in the newspaper or commit to a minimum run of 30 radio spots a week for X number of weeks. (Or, more likely, sit out advertising entirely.) 

The problem, though, and like YouMail trying to transcribe a message left in another language, is that no matter how good the tools are, if the underlying words are not understandable – let alone targeted and compelling – you’re just spewing garbage. 

Words Matter 

Yesterday, I got a call from a prospective client. 

Thirty seconds into the conversation, and without any prompting from me, she told me that she liked the fact that I specialize in working with “tiny” professional service firms. 

She went on to say that it was “bold” of me to use such a word in the descriptive header of my web site. 

A few things worth noting…

  • Unusual language is what’s noticed. 

    Over the years, I’ve described my ideal client as “solo professional,” “independent professional,” “small business owner,” and more. All more or less true. 

    But none of it was eye-catching or worth commenting on. Tiny, is.

  • Simple language is what’s remembered. 

    Here’s a fun game: Without looking, write down the summary sentence that lives at the top of your web site. 

    In fact, let’s make it even easier: Write down any complete sentence from your own home page from memory. 

    Not so easy, is it? But if we can’t remember how we describe our work, we can’t really expect others to, either. 

    If, on the other hand, people – especially the kind of people you want to work with – start parroting your own words back to you, you know you’re on the right track. 

    (Hint: Unless you’ve got prospects calling to express their keen interest in hiring, “A leading provider of proven best practice human capital solutions,” I’d recommend staying away from that kind of language.)

  • Targeted language is what matters. 

    When I added the word “tiny” to the way I describe my ideal clients, a couple of well-intentioned friends raised a concern. 

    “It’s not very professional.” 

     “Nobody wants to think of themselves as ‘tiny.'” 

    I thanked them (they were only looking out for me) and promptly ignored them. 

    First, because my best clients recognize – and appreciate – the advantage that being tiny brings. I’m in the business of helping them flaunt their smallness, not hide it. 

    Second, because my best clients don’t take themselves too seriously. 

    Not to say they are not smart, successful, committed businesspeople. They certainly are. 

    But they are not stiff, corporate types either. 

    My use of “tiny” acts as a filter. If it scares you, you’re probably not for me. If it makes you smile, you probably are. 
    But what about all the other potential clients that cringe at the word? Isn’t that reason enough to use something a bit less edgy? 

    No. Because I’m not talking to them. 

    Twenty great new clients a year is all I can handle. Everyone else is welcome to (and should) walk on by.

Here’s the bottom line. 

For better or worse, the 21st century has given each of us more communication tools than we could ever take advantage of. 

But the tools are not the point. 

Breaking through the clutter, standing out from the pack, and connecting with the right people, is. 

First figure out what you are trying to communicate and to whom. 

Then, and only then, decide how you are going to do it. 

Ball Python Buchongo!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does my brother Al leave you obscene messages too? Explain.
  2. Is there a word or phrase you use that sets you apart?
  3. If that word is “tiny,” please find your own word.

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14 thoughts on “Lost In Translation

  1. Amelia Varner

    I am in the start-up phase of a one person professional accounting firm. Most people expect professional accountants to be stuffy and to keep their distance. I want to project a different image. One of my personal qualities is that I have strong intuitive skills, which means I instinctively know when something isn’t right. So I included a description of myself as an intuitive accountant. Part of me was scared about this because I know some people will think this is not what they want from an accountant. However, I want to attract people who understand that word. I appreciate your sense of humor and helping me to laugh during this creative process.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That’s a great story, Amelia. And I agree; I think your approach is the most productive way to differentiate yourself, particularly in a field where everyone is equally certified. All the best getting things going!

  2. Michelle Morris, CFP®, EA

    1. No but I do get calls in Chinese regularly…..

    2. My homepage (which you helped me with!) has a picture of 3 not-young women wearing exercise clothes sitting on the ground outside touching their toes. Underneath my blurb, in parentheses in smaller print, is “toe touching optional”.

    I’ve had colleagues tell me it’s hokey/unprofessional.

    But prospects on the other hand, call me and say “I love your website!”.

    People who think it’s hokey/unprofessional aren’t calling me.

    If you’re looking for a financial advisor who wears cuff links to the office everyday and has mahogany furniture I’m not your gal. (Though I must say my faux-cherry furniture looks pretty nice and people can put their drinks on it….)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I look forward to leaving a ring on your table in the future.

      And yes, I still love that home page photo of yours!

  3. Erich Switzer

    Yes I get obscene calls from brother Al, except his name it Big Jonny who happens to be my brother.

    On a smaller note I’m working to ‘convert’ our corporatese (is this a word, please check) into something people actually understand. I give you a tiny bit of credit for helping me see the need for the change.

  4. Gina Longo

    1) No, but I do get spammy calls from some Nigerian prince who promises me he can make me rich. Maybe I should call him back….

    2) The whole phrase (you’ve seen this before) is “Dog-friendly historical travel stories with a cheeky twist.”

    If I had to pick one word out of that, it would be “cheeky.” If you’re not someone who enjoys cheeky comments and parenthetical asides in your historical travel stories, then I’m not writing for you! 😉

  5. Christi Crane

    1. Al really doesn’t talk to me that way…
    2. Actually, mine is rather yawn-inducing. I need to work on that.
    3. Trying to figure out how to work Ball Python Buchongointo the tag line. What do you think?
    By the way, your discussion questions have become one of the best parts of my day, lol!

  6. Mark Casaburi

    You really live your brand. When we approached you for help creating a newsletter for our multi state company, you politely declined and referred us to another company.

    I didn’t understand your thought process but do now.

    TINY (solo) is the market you are focused on. Your clients are lucky to have you!


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