23 February 2010

Communication Breakdown: How Clear Are You About What You Do?

Sculptor David Mach, Out of Order
SCULPTOR: David Mach, Out of Order. Photograph by Spencer Wood.

It's a funny thing, what happens when you are asked for an interview: basic communication skills can often go flying out of the window. A train of thought can split into different directions, leaving a simple question left unanswered. Nerves get the best of us. And, although I mention this in the context of interviews, it's really something that happens in your day-to-day when someone asks you an uncomplicated question like "What do you do?"

A couple years ago I remember sitting at a table full of strangers at a friend's wedding reception in Montreal. My friend, being quick on the draw, made sure that his artist friends were grouped together. So doing the rounds, the question finally came up, to myself and my date, as to what type of art we make. Truth be told, I floundered in the moment. Goddess only knows what I said, but let's just say that whatever it was left more glaze in their eyes than on the wedding cake. And in short order, I was left in the dust of my date's very vibrant and engaging description of his recent and upcoming project. Ugh, to cherish the day.

I recount this wonderfully uplifting memory because recently I've been reading the answers to questions I've asked of artist friends about the type of business they run and how they made the choice to start it. The answers have really run the gamut. But not very well. And I realized that it's not just our art that we're having problems discussing, it's our businesses too.

Idioms by Kids
PICTURE: from Idioms by Kids

Spitting It Out 101

Keep It Real

Okay, so telling you to spit it out is just me being a little crazy. What I mean is stick to the basic point and elaborate. More importantly? Eliminate terms that may not be used by the average person. And remember, if someone wants to know your mission statement, they'll read it, so don't explain things like they're written on paper for a bank loan or an MA thesis. Be personable.

Just the other day I experienced this rule in action when a friendly telephone repair man came over to replace a broken outlet in my studio.

"So you're an artist? What kind of stuff do you make?" My response started off with "mixed-media," but I was abruptly interrupted when he said that he didn't know what that was. So I quickly switched gears and described my art as two-dimensional paintings that are made using found materials, collage and sequins, which I sew directly into the canvas. And that he got.

I recount this to illustrate that one of the worst things you can do is alienate someone who is interested in what you're doing. Keeping mindful of your choice of words can work to keep people engaged. Whether in person, in print, or on-line, beware of slipping into shop talk, academic phrasing or artspeak. Don't get complicated. Keep things simple and direct. Forget the jargon. Eliminate the verbal clutter.

Explain What & Why...From Your Client's Perspective

What's key to doing this? Well for starters, no one really cares why your business is important to you. They care why your business should be important to them and the people you are trying to help.

Start thinking of your business as a problem solver, because that's what it is. I'm thirsty, so I buy an Alo Drink. I want to feel inspired, so I buy a biography on someone who I think just kicks ass and kicked it under great adversity. It's like your business. Whether you're running a photography business, a DIY blog, or a non-profit, for others to understand its direct value to them is key. What problem is your business solving?

Share What's Unique About What You Are Doing

If you haven't considered this then it may take a bit of journaling to suss it out. But if your business has a snappy and appropriate tagline (more on that in a future post), well then you're pretty much there. Jotting down all the words and phrases that you think best describes your business, or even coming back to your passion and noting what was instrumental in you starting your initiative, will help you to focus. Looking at what your colleagues do and separating out what you do differently from them will also definitely help.

Think about it this way: What service does your business provide that others don't? and What do others in your field provide that you don't? Sounds like the same question, but really it isn't.

Speak About the People You Help

You know who does this well? New Leaf Yoga Foundation. They provide yoga classes to incarcerated and at-risk youth. Their tagline alone is cause for more discussion. You don't need to hear their mission statement, you don't even need to know who's running things. But it will engage you to want to know more about the ways in which yoga impacts the youth they serve. And you want people to react that way about what you do. What can you say about the services you provide and for whom?

Assume Nothing

The absolute worst thing you could do when speaking to someone about your business is to assume they are or are not part of your constituent. And why is that? If in person, believe me, you have no idea who this person is, who they know or what their larger networks are like. True, they may not be in need of your services now, but perhaps they will in the future — or, perhaps they never will be. But never underestimate how people are connected to others who will definitely be interested in what you have to offer now.

If you're given an opportunity to talk about your business in print or on-line, this issue is even more important. Assuming that your clients or audience have no interest in a print or Web publication is one of the worst things you could do. You would have dropped the ball on reaching your key supporters. Remember: everyone on the Net finds the information they are looking for based on searches, not necessarily for the site your interview, feature or business profile is on, but for the content that is within it. And not to take advantage of that? Sorry, but that's just supercilious.


Now, What Say You?

Find a friend and pretend you are meeting for the first time. Have that person start by asking you two basic questions: "What do you do?" and "What type of business is it?" Attempt to keep your answers short but to the point. If this was a networking opportunity, you'd want to say enough information to keep the conversation going rather than dominating it. If you're going on for more than 30 seconds, you're rambling. If this is for print or an on-line publication, you should be able to keep things to three sentences max.

Just as important, pay attention to what is actually different about those two questions.

Next: have your friend ask: "How/Why did you decide to do that?" Just be yourself and elaborate. Again, for print or on-line, now you have wiggle room and should easily be able to go on for a few relevant paragraphs.

And finally, ask your friend what they've learned about your business just from what you've said. It's one of the best ways to find out if you're clearly communicating the best of what you do.
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