I was speaking a CEO of a pretty successful business and asked her to explain what her company actually does. She spun together a description filled with meaningless buzzwords about mobilizing stakeholders to facilitate increased communication, or something. 15 minutes of this, with me asking multiple questions, and I still had no idea what they actually did…or what her role was…or who the “stakeholders” were and what her company was facilitating and how.
If you think this is just a problem people have because their elevator speeches aren’t well-rehearsed, just check out websites for people in your industry and see if you can even tell what these companies actually do. What problem are they solving, and how do they solve it?
Of course, there’s the possibility that many of the people I speak with are reaching out to people in their industry who already know the code; that these fundamental details are obvious to insiders even if they’re not spelled out in a way that I’d understand. But who couldn’t benefit from a quick description for someone outside the industry?
Saying “Have you checked out my website” is not at all helpful if your site doesn’t explain what you actually do in a way that a 3rd grader could understand. No matter how complex your business is, there’s a way to explain with simplicity and clarity.
“We do ____ for ____ so that they can do ____.” Can you fill in those blanks?
Better yet, take a step back and describe the problem. If you work in the micro, honing in on a very specific area, you may sometimes forget that people don’t often understand the actual problem you’re solving. “You know how _____” can help you start where they’re at. A quizzical look (“no, I don’t know how ___. what are you talking about?”) may demand more initial explanation.
Example: If I tell a room full of people that I’m a freelance writer, half of them will think I’m unemployed and the other half will think I’m penning fiction. And because I cover multiple topics (health, business, tech, etc.), it’s hard to describe what I do in just one sentence. Instead, I start a conversation.
“You know how people try to find technical information online, but they either can’t understand what they find, or it’s dumbed down to the point where it’s meaningless or inaccurate?” (Most people will nod in agreement.) “I help translate complicated information–so that normal people can understand and use it–without killing the nuance or complexity.” That’s a bit long-winded, but you get the point.
This isn’t just about your business or job description, either. It’s for social situations, too. Recently I wanted to get out of giving an introduction to someone. “It doesn’t even make sense for the two of them to speak,” I said to a friend when describing this predicament. “Why don’t you just say that?” he asked. I scrapped the email I’d crafted about how I unfortunately can’t make an introduction but wished her success with her project.
I wanted to take the easy route; to gloss over the details in hopes that she wouldn’t say anything, but then what’s the point of responding? Likewise, it’s easy to hide behind jargon and buzzwords to try to sound wildly successful, but most people aren’t impressed by terms describing something they don’t understand. Either they’ll feel dumb or think you’re pompous.
It’s tempting to try to impress others with flowery language, but good communication means meeting people where they’re at and talking in a way they understand.
So what DO you do?