In a Pickle

Maybe you’ve heard. Tennis and Ping Pong had a baby – they named it “Pickleball.”

This game/sport is kind of a hybrid of the two, played with paddles, a wiffleball and a court with painted lines and a net strung across the middle.

I’ve been playing it for the last couple of months, something I never anticipated.

First, because I decided long ago that I would commit what little competitive testosterone I had left to playing basketball. But with that shut down for the foreseeable future, I was in search of a new, friend-based activity.

Second, because the name itself sent me running in the other direction. “Pickleball” doesn’t sound like a sport, let alone an inviting one; more like a formal dance at a farming cooperative.

And so, despite my friend Joe’s long-held enthusiasm for the game, whenever he brought it up, I pretty much wasn’t even listening. To rephrase that famous line from Jerry Maguire, you lost me at “pickleball.”

The Words You Use Matter

When it comes to generating interest in ourselves and our work, small professional service firms and solos are very much dependent on the words we choose.

Use them effectively and clients come your way. Use them poorly and, like a fun sport with a second-rate name, lots of people are going to walk right by.

These are the three big communication mistakes to watch out for:

Mistake #1. Your words are too complicated.

I get it. You want people to appreciate the breadth of your experience, the quality of your credentials, and the value that you bring.

And that’s fine – assuming you’re sitting across the table from a prospective client who just said, “Tell me about your work.”

In nearly every other circumstance, however, your goal isn’t to impress. It’s to be understood and remembered.

That’s because these (much more common) casual conversations – with a neighbor, brother-in-law, business colleague, parole officer, etc. – are primarily intended to plant a word of mouth seed.

These aren’t the people who hire you; these are the people who tell other people about you. And there are a lot of them.

But if your self-description is brimming with jargon and hundred-dollar words – “I’m a reptilian quadrant-based leadership-empowerment enabler,” nobody will understand (let alone remember) any of it long enough to pass the message to others.

Learn to explain what you do using simple, everyday words.

Mistake #2. Your words are too tentative.

Lately, my wife Linda and I have been watching the show Lenox Hill. It’s a documentary that follows the lives of four doctors in a New York City hospital.

Here’s what I’ve noticed: the surgeons, even when breaking the news to someone about a brain tumor or otherwise serious illness, do it in a way that always sounds reassuring. The message is clear: as bad as things are, you’re in the best possible hands.

Your clients, prospects and readers also want to believe that they are in the best possible hands. That means no hedging.

So, stop…

… saying/writing “I think” at the beginning of every sentence;

… taking a “middle of the road” stance on every controversial question in your field;

… biting your tongue instead of objecting when your client (who, by the way, knows not even one-tenth as much as you do about the subject matter for which you were hired) is about to do something that is clearly not in their best interest.

People want to work with experts. You need to start behaving like one.

Mistake #3. Your words are too boring.

It would be nice if all that mattered in standing out was your ability to share clear, accurate, useful information.

Of course, as long as we’re dreaming, it would be nice if left-handed bald men named Michael were revered as gods.

Neither is going to happen. For better or worse (probably worse) each of us has become a content publisher; all of us are overwhelmed with information.

In such a noisy, time-constrained environment, plain vanilla doesn’t cut it. Besides, I’ve met you – you’re not boring in person.

But when it comes to “important business communications,” your personality disappears and your words sleepwalk out the door with all the flair of a Supreme Court amicus brief (whatever that is).

Stop that. Your key differentiator as a small firm or solo is youStart sprinkling in real words, personal stories and the occasional, enthusiastic bits of punctuation!!!

Humans respond to other humans.

Here’s the bottom line.

When you sell “air,” as we professional service providers do, words are all we’ve got. There’s no taking it for a test drive, tasting a few bites, or lacing up a pair and walking around the store to see how it feels.

People talk about and/or hire you based on their completely unscientific assumptions about what you have to offer, nearly all of which is derived from the words you use.  

It’s not fair and it’s not logical. It’s called marketing.

See you at the dance formal.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think would be a better name for “pickleball?”
  2. Do you have any friends named “Joe?” Give examples.
  3. How do you describe the work you do?

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19 thoughts on “In a Pickle

  1. Roberta Rosenberg

    How do you describe the work you do?

    – When I was age 6, my immigrant grandmother would sit me down after each Sunday dinner and place a lined writing pad in front of me. “Darling, write a letter to Aunt [WHOMEVER] for Grandma.” “What should I write, Grandma?” “Write about what you’re doing in school and then I’ll have you add some more.”

    So I’d write to relatives and friends of hers I didn’t know. First in block letters and as I grew older, in script. This went on until she died some 25 years later. Sunday afternoon I wrote letters to people I didn’t know for my grandmother.

    I only realized in retrospect that I was actually priming the pump for my eventual career as a direct marketing copywriter.

    So today, although I have fancier titles, I generally describe my work this way – “I write letters to people I don’t know under other people’s signature for cash money.”

  2. Stephanie Patterson

    1. I can’t think of a better name for pickleball right at the moment, but there definitely should be one. You’re not the only one who’s been put off by the name–same goes for my husband. We’re avid tennis players, but here in Florida (and generally throughout the South, I understand) pickleball is VERY popular. I want to try it, but he doesn’t–and it’s all because of the name.

    2. I don’t have any friends named Joe, but I have a nephew named Joe!

    3. As an editor, I tell clients that I will help make their writing the best it can be, while preserving their unique voice. I’m their mentor and cheerleader, not their grouchy high-school English teacher.

    And btw, you are SOOO right about the power of words–all of your advice in this post is exactly the sorts of things I tell my clients and help them fix in their writing!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Definitely see if you can get your husband involved. I’m glad I’ve got it now as a weekly thing. Fun!

  3. Robert Hendrickson

    I heard the creators of this old-folks-whack-a-ball named it after their dog, Pickles. Another reason why I would never venture into this geriatric-gladiator arena.

    We had a drummer named Joe… have a nephew named Joe… and once had a dog named Joe… who would have loved to have met Pickles.

    I tell people I write really short stories… 150 word stories. Most people call them radio ad scripts. I call them let’s get people to fall in love with your company stories.

    Love your enews.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I suppose we should be grateful, then, that the inventor’s dog wasn’t named Winnie the Poodle…

  4. Terry Matlen

    I’m laughing, Michael, because I decided to try Pickleball, too. I used to play squash, pingpong, and badminton, and figured that I’d be able to hold my own just fine with folks older than me. Well, the first lob that came my way…I raced up towards the net for it and promptly fell and sustained a stress fracture or two in my knee. (I’m extremely competitive, so I forced myself up and continued to play- like an IDIOT).

    But to answer your questions:

    1. KosherPickelball
    2. Ex Son-in-law = Joe
    3. This is where I get stuck. I make it simple but it doesn’t tell the whole story:

    I help women with ADHD.

    But I have never figured out how to expand on that, as I consult, coach, support, and educate women. But I also authored two books on the topic and I write lots of articles, am invited as a guest on people’s webinars and podcasts, have a bunch of Facebook support groups, present at conferences, etc etc. In fact, I’m considered a leading expert in my field (that sounds like I’m bragging, but…)…so there it is.

    Love this newsletter, Michael. I always learn from you and in a FUN way.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Terry, I understand. Unfortuately nothing you say in one sentence is going to tell the whole story. Women with ADHD is good. See if you can add something about what “help” means. And see if you can do it with five words or fewer added on the back of your sentence:

      I help women with ADHD be more productive at work.
      I help women with ADHD earn more money.
      I help women with ADHD lose weight.

      That makes it feel like a solution to a problem, which is what you’re going for.

      1. Terry Matlen

        Thanks, Michael. It is tricky and I’m not as clever as you. Proof: I don’t know how to get my photo in my profile, here. But do either of these work? I sure could use something spunkier, though:

        I help women with ADHD feel comfortable in their own skin.
        I help women with ADHD learn new skills while feeling comfortable in their own skin.


          1. Terry Matlen

            Ok, maybe:

            I help women with ADHD manage their clutter and disorganization.

            Thing is- I focus also on how to ACCEPT their ADHD brain, but I can’t figure out how to put it all together. That part is so important to me.

            BTW, thanks for the Gravatar link. I had one, but not associated with this email address. Hopefully it’ll work here now, though I may have to wait for a new thread- I dunno.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Haha, love that shirt design, Laura! Although I’m thinking pickleball should maybe be placed post-walking-with-cane.

  5. Stephen Church

    1. Michael – your use of the word ‘wiffle-ball’ gave me a jolt. You reminded me of a moment at the Beijing Olympics. Our current Prime Minister, then Mayor of London, chose to remind the world of how we Brits earned our reputation for colonial arrogance.

    To be fair, I guess it was tongue-in-cheek, but he claimed that table-tennis or ping-pong ‘was invented on the dining tables of England’ and was originally called ‘Wiff-Waff’.

    But to answer your question, for me, Wiffleball is a preferable name to Pickleball.

    2. Yes, I have a friend called Joe. I envy him for his astonishing music and soccer skills. One of the many pleasures in my life is to hear him sing his little boy, Charlie Church, to sleep. Joe is my son.

    3. I describe my work as follows – “I’m an SEO Copywriter. I get SMEs more clients by writing words for their websites which are clear, concise and compelling”. My formula is to –

    – start with what I am/do.
    – follow this with the benefit I bring benefit (and I try to avoide the word ‘help’. Everyone uses this and it can sound a little lacking in confidence.)
    – end with how I bring that benefit.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Steve! I was secretly hoping that your fellow countrymen had an even odder name for the same game, like Codswallop-Cheeky-Ball or similar.

  6. Suzan Czajkowski

    Hi Michael!

    1. I spend time in Florida each year and get invited to learn how to play pickle ball EVERY. TIME. I’ve started to look into it but seriously… that name is not inviting. Robert Hendrickson, in your notes above, referred to it as a “whack-a-ball” game, and that sounded generick, but still better!

    2. When we get married, my fiance and I will each have a brother-in-law named Joe.

    3. My work description starts with this sentence: “I help introverted business owners thrive in an extroverted marketing world.” It always gets raised eyebrows and people nodding and saying “ooooh…” I struggle because I feel the need to explain further and I need to stop that. The one sentence seems to land so well, and yet I keep talking, and I think that undermines the power of the statement. I almost literally feel the energy of the statement leak away as I continue talking. But maybe I’m wrong? What do you think?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Definitely give it a try next time you are invited. I find that it’s more game than sport, in that your overall physical skills are less important than learning technique, but fun!

      On your #3, I always say that if you have to explain your explanation, it’s not working. So if your one sentence seems to have legs (i.e., other people use it back to you or to send people your way), you are definitely on the right track1


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