Clearly and Simply State What You Do

For reasons I frankly can’t remember, I volunteered to coach my son Jonathan’s basketball team this year. It’s not a huge time commitment, however as someone whose involvement with organized basketball (i.e., referees, scoreboards, fans) came to a screeching halt midway through the Carter administration, I found myself scrambling in the first few weeks, trying to pull things together.

One of my responsibilities as coach involves communicating with the parents. One day, after a brief email exchange regarding an upcoming game, I received a question from one of the moms, in response to my email signature listing my job title as “Chief Penguin.” Here’s what she said:

“I just have to ask … What exactly does a Chief Penguin do? Sounds fresh, but I was wondering what your company does.”

First of all, you’ll be proud to know I resisted the temptation to tell her that a Chief Penguin does whatever the heck he wants.

It did get me thinking, however. Because having a good answer to the “What does your company do?” question is both important and challenging.

It’s important because if you believe in the power of word-of-mouth as a way to grow your business, it’s in your best interest to take advantage of every opportunity that arises to spread the word. When somebody actually asks the question, you want to be ready.

It’s challenging, however, because unless you give the other person something that can be both understood and remembered (more or less), they’ll never be able to carry your message to the next person.

For a long time, I thought I had this problem solved with my “elevator statement.” If you’re not familiar with this concept, it refers to a short, pithy summary of a person or business, so named because you’re supposed to be able to spit one out in the time it takes to ride in an elevator.

What I eventually realized, however, was that my pat, highly-polished statement was both hard to understand and too slick for the recipient to hold onto. Like wedding china, it was the kind of thing I would trot out of the cabinet whenever company came over, but as a practical matter, it wasn’t quite right for everyday use.

The thing is, most of the word-of-mouth-ish opportunities that arise in my life (and, I’m willing to bet, in yours) are not formal ones. They happen at the supermarket, or at the movie theater, or when somebody’s mother asks, “What exactly does a Chief Penguin do?”

And so, with that in mind, I encourage you to get going on your ‘spontaneous’ word-of-mouth lingo by developing a more conversational description of your business. Here are some specific suggestions for doing that:

  • Lose the jargon. Telling your next-door neighbor that your company is “the leading provider of cross-promulgated supercalifragilized wolverines” may impress, but believe me, your message will die right there on your front lawn.
  • Focus on what you do, not how you got there. In my (former) corporate life, it mattered how I got to my current position; history was tied to credibility. When I went off on my own, I (slowly) realized that nobody cares. All they want to know is what you do and how it can help solve a problem (today).
  • Keep it short. Last week, I made the mistake of asking somebody what his company specializes in. After prefacing his answer with, “In a nutshell … ” (a red flag for lack of brevity if ever there was one), he spent the next 20 minutes answering my simple question. Even if I understood and remembered the gist of what he said (I didn’t), it was just too much for me to hold onto.

By the way, in case you’re wondering what I emailed back to that boy’s mother, here it is:

“I’m a marketing consultant, and I specialize in electronic newsletters for solo professionals (attorneys, financial planners, executive recruiters, etc.). You know how everybody wants more clients? What I do is help professionals create informative, non-salesy newsletters they can send to their house list of contacts. As a result, they stay top of mind, and when somebody has a need that they can fill, the phone rings.”

It’s not poetry, I admit, but her reply back to me — “Got it.” — was all I was looking for.



Michael Katz


  • Thanks, Michael.

    Great information and I’m taking another look at my elevator speech because of it.
    I’ll get it to be more conversational than it has been.

    Right now it sound too “canned” and need to be more “impromptu.”

    Thanks again,

  • Perfect Michael, what does the chief Penguin do? I love that one.. ……how many times have I heard something like that come back at me with a blank stare. Got it? Ha. Later, DP

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