Will: Hello Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve: Will, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Will: So Steve, what is one or two common mistakes that people make when they are working to communicate their message? Particularly, you know, boutique or small consulting firms?
Steve: I think the most common mistake Will, is that we try to say too much. We really want to get across five bullet points or some condensed version of our white paper when we talk to people. In fact, people have a very short attention span and we need to condense and crystallize our message into very short, succinct, what I call memory cards that can go right through the brain’s filtering system and light up the understanding, and the memory. And that is an art form that you probably know having met many people and networked in many meetings, you shake hands with someone, you say what do you do? And they give this answer and you walk away going, “I have no idea what I just heard.” That is the main problem I’m trying to fix with clarity.
Will: So consultants trying to say too much, trying, you know, I do this service, I do strategy and operations, and I also do some cost cutting, and I serve financial services. And I also did some work in Pharma and at the end of it you’re, okay, I have no idea what that person just said.
Steve: Well, yeah, that person that has now spread themselves so thin that they are a commodity, they are now competing with everybody because they do this, that the other. And oh, by the way, this too. Now the reason we do that, I understand the reason we want to make sure that we keep ourselves open for a lot of opportunities, but the way that this works against us is that the human brain is not wired to remember us for multiple disparate things. People only have a few pixels of memory for us. And so we have to pick the one thing that really matters, that distinguishes us, that people can understand and lead with that as opposed to trying to give someone a bullet point list of everything.
Will: Great. So you are, have been referred to as the king of clarity. Walk us through, you know, one or two case examples of how you’ve worked with a client or you could sort of make up a representative example of the messaging that someone might start with and the process that you go through to help them come up with a tighter, crisper message.
Steve: Here’s an example that was quite interesting because this is a gentleman that I knew for a couple of years and he talked about having a practice providing cashflow insurance for businesses. And I was perplexed by this, I had no idea what that really meant. I mean, we understand life insurance, health insurance, you know, casualty, what the heck is cashflow insurance? So at one point I sat down with my friend Trey Parker and I said, “Would you please explain this to me? I don’t get it.” And he said, one of the majors things that every company has to deal with is there’s a certain hidden risk in their cashflow, because they’ve extended credit to people that are maybe going to pay them in 60 days or whatever their customers, their suppliers, and this risk prevents them sometimes from getting alone or being able to really grow the business because it’s uninsured and his little niche company provides this insurance for accounts receivable.
Steve: It’s brilliant actually, but it’s something that nobody really understood. Very few of us until he put it in those terms. And he launched this great website that explained cashflow insurance and all this wonderful stuff. And then I sat down for a coffee with him and I said, “Trey, tell me who’s actually buying this, because it sounds like you have to educate people about the need for it.” And he said, “That’s true. A lot of the business owners don’t even know they need it. They don’t know the risks very well, but my buyers are actually bankers and brokers who know about it and they’re trying to close a deal. And so, they need to bring me in as a partner.” And all of a sudden it became clear that his message and his approach, all of his strategy in fact is not to go after the end user, it’s to go after the bankers and the brokers, because they’re the ones that he doesn’t have to convert. He just has to show that he can help them.
Steve: And then I asked another question. This is how I arrive at clarity, is just asking a bunch of questions, “Between the bankers and the brokers what’s your most important?” He said, “Well, actually it’s the bankers, cause I don’t have to split the commission.” So now we’ve simplified his approach even more. His whole approach needs to focus on bankers and his message and his service to bankers not trying to educate the entire marketplace. So just asking a few questions like that and narrowing down and crystallizing where the real opportunities are can completely transform how someone conducts their business.
Will: And how did that conversation shift the messaging, what was the final kind of point of clarity?
Steve: Well, for him, he was confused on a regular basis on what to do each day and what he was to pursue, and all the different opportunities and people that would come his way. But as soon as we settled on the fact that bankers were main thing, he’d know could shift his message away from educating about the need for this insurance. Simply, I’m the best provider you can partner with to get this done. Because as it turns out, his bankers, his is real customers, they already knew the need. They just need someone that can help them.
Will: So, he no longer had to focus much on the website or so forth on saying what is cashflow insurance. And I admit, I did not know what that is and I can imagine the use of it. So he focused much more ongoing to targeting bankers in the collateral and saying, you know, I’m the best provider because of XYZ reasons.
Steve: Right. I had a similar conversation with a consultant recently who is starting a practice and there were just lots and lots of potential avenues to go down. And anytime you have a lot of potential avenues and many consultants that are experienced do have a lot of potential avenues, it’s actually more confusing and harder to decide what to do. But in this individual’s case, he had a real interest in servant leadership, but that’s a big topic and there’s a lot of people that don’t understand it and there’s a potentially a lot of evangelistic work to be done. But what we decided after talking it over is there’s this whole class of unpreserved people who are aware of it, who have bought into it but don’t know how to implement it. And that is an entire rich vein of work that could last for decades. How to implement at a practical level, servant leadership, and all of a sudden the message then becomes clear, you know, an implementation partner that’s been there, done that and knows how to walk you through the process.
Will: You mentioned that you typically approach this by asking questions. So for someone who wants to try to do this at home, walk me through the set of questions that are your kind of go to questions that someone should be asking themselves.
Steve: My go to questions always when I work with people on a clarity session, I start with talk to me about your best customers, your worst customers, the things you’ve done that really worked well. The things that you tried that didn’t work well, the roles that you played that were good, the types of companies that were successful and the types that weren’t. Generally people in their 30s, 40s and 50s have enough track record and enough raw material of stories that once you start pulling these stories out, you begin to hear certain themes and those themes have to do with the things that really work well, the things that don’t and the strengths, the unique strengths of the person or company start to cut out. And the themes, the hashtags, what I call them, the keywords. And also, by asking about the particular customer’s, you begin to get a feel for the right type of customer also. So typically, just by looking at the past track record and also asking questions about where they want to go and what they feel like their best opportunities are, the roadmaps starts to take shape at that point.
Will: Okay. So as you go through this process, you know, my conversations with a lot of independent management consultants, they may do a variety of different projects. Maybe they were a engagement manager at a top tier consulting firm, they can work in a variety of different things. They could do, you know, a strategy type project, they could help do more of a market landscape or due diligence type work. They maybe even could do, go and do some operational improvement and you know, they’re kind of willing to do any one of those, and you kind of don’t want to necessarily carve off areas and say, “Well, I’m going to say no to that kind of project.” So for someone who’s in that situation and trying to figure out where to focus, how would you work with someone like that?
Steve: I would challenge the premise that they want to be a generalist and if that’s the best course. Now, you can make a living being a generalist and maybe you just want to do interesting stuff and it doesn’t matter to you as long as it’s kind of within the broad wheelhouse. But I think for most of us we really need to define our pigeon hole and my book Clarity Wins, if you want to boil it down to one concept, it’s figure out, embrace and love your pigeon hole. And here’s why, we are going to be pigeon holed by people no matter what. They only have a little bit of memory space for us. They’re going to have numbers for maybe one thing and what happens is if we do too many things and if our message is too many things, nobody can really know what we’re good at, what we specialize in or what kind of work we want to do, and therefore it’s much harder to get any referrals, because people may be referring all the wrong kinds of things to us.
Steve: So because we’re going to be pigeon holed, I believe we should be very clear on what we really want and what we’re best at and that’s the message we put forth to the marketplace. And I use what I call the, very arbitrary, 85%, 15% rule. 85% the main messages here’s what I really want to do. Here’s basically the ideal client. There’s maybe 15% that I’m willing to do that I’m good at, I’ll keep that in my back pocket. But if I talk about that as if it was equal to the 85% now I’m confusing my message and I think it’s important if we’re going to go after our best work with us clients that we define pigeon hole, and we pursue that work instead of being in reactive mode and just taking whatever comes.
Will: Got it. So, first step ask questions, talk to me about your best work, your worst work, your clients that you love, that didn’t work out so the greatest. What projects were really successful ones? Other ones not so much. So someone goes through that reflective exercise and then walk us through the subsequent stages of, you know, if someone’s going to try this at home, one of the listeners here on the show, what do they do next after, you know, maybe you do some free journaling and write for several, you know, an hour answering these questions. What do you do next?
Steve: So, the next step in the process is identifying the main superpowers that you have and may just be one or maybe a couple. But the goal of going through all that history and the stories is to find the themes, to find the opportunities, to find the superpowers. Where do I really excel? And then identifying it as sort of a DNA and skill level, where do I excel? Now let’s take a look at the opportunities in the marketplace and see where this can be applied. And it may be in a different form that I’ve even thought about. Sometimes what we’ve done within one industry can move easily over into another industry or sometimes what we’ve done, there’s so much opportunity in one vertical, we just need to harvest that vertical. And so, that’s the next step in the process is identifying our strong suits, looking at opportunities. And then once we’ve got some kind of direction to go in, so cossetting the compass in some direction, then it comes down to crafting the message.
Steve: And in the book, I look at clarity with five elements for any business to have, affirms, roadmaps, strategy and messaging. And, it’s actually the five elements that I stole directly from good journalism. Good journalism is the what, the who, the why, the how, the where. It turns out that’s what clarity is for any business. The what is exactly what it is that we do, what we’re offering, our value. The for whom is a precise sketch of our target or our ideal customer. The why is the business pain or hope that we’re looking to address, what are we fixing, what are we allowing someone to accomplish? And this is an emotional as well as professional terms. The how is the super power that we bring to bear and the where is, is there a particular sector of the market? Is there a particular location? Are we global, virtual, local? Those five elements of clarity actually set forth exactly where I’m going, who I am and what I’m after.
Steve: And it answers so many questions once we have those down, and it makes it much easier to say no. Oh no, that’s not what I’m about. I don’t do those, or that’s not my location. Or that’s not my sector. That’s not my kind of client, that’s not the size company I do my best work in. So that exercise of building that filter really helps us see 20, 20 into the marketplace so that we can recognize our best opportunities.
Will: Great. What would the output of your work be with a client? So would it be the answers to those five questions? Is it the 32nd elevator pitch? Is it their Linkedin rewritten? Talk to me about some of the deliverables that you help with.
Steve: So the outputs consist of those five clarity statements and those are succinct, human ready factual statements, descriptive. And then I also come up with what I call snippets, stories and symbols. So snippets are essentially keywords, hashtags, little phrases that summarize the message very nicely. Stories are the origin or evolution story of the company, how did you get here? Cause often that’s very important to tell people, because our brains are hardwired for stories. So you want to be able to tell people how you got to where you are and then you want to tell them success stories that reinforce your message and illustrate how you work. I was talking to a company just like this six months ago that was experiencing this cashflow problem and then they did this, or this, or they had this supply chain issue and we did this or that. Those stories cement our messaging.
Steve: But the most powerful thing will is symbols. And that is bringing our key message down to an analogy or a word picture or a simile. So if I say to you, listen, I help people get answer the question, what do you do for a living and get their point across quickly, I’m the king of clarity. I have taken a memory hook, broken through the filters in your brain and I’ve taken of word picture and planted it in your mind to remember and to refer. And so, if somebody is the Mercedes of this or the king of that or you know, we do this like this, those verbal shortcuts are the best way to get our point across quickly to people.
Will: Give me some more examples. So, and by the way, with King and clarity, I got the image. I’m thinking about someone sitting on a throne there and it’s like the county of clarity or something. So what other kind of short symbols have you, could you share with us that kind of help illustrate that point?
Steve: So, one reason when I was doing a podcast with a digital marketer recently, it’s well known in the field and you know, very smart guy.
Will: You can share the name.
Steve: Yes, it’s Nick Westergaard. Nick has a digital agency and I looked on his website for this digital agency, and it was full of the normal stuff, you know, a lot of digital agencies speak. But he had a professional website under his own name, Hunter Nick Westergaard and there he had three keywords right there in your face. You know, Iowan, educator, marketer, I think that they were. And then he said, “I am like the Indiana Jones of digital marketers. I have one foot in academia and one foot in the real world.” And I thought, “Oh my goodness, that’s brilliant.” He has stolen a piece of imagery in my mind, Indiana Jones. And by using that bridge of Indiana Jones, you know, a great figure, memorable, one foot in academia, one foot in real world, he became completely memorable to me. And if I’m going to make a referral, do I want to refer ABC digital marketing or do I want to send somebody to Indiana Jones? Of course, I want to send them to Indiana Jones.
Steve: And so, yeah, his websites says educator, author, Iowan, because the Midwestern thing is part of his identity. And those kind of little things really can stick and make you stand out, whether, or not you’re the most brilliant or competent person in the world. You’ve actually grabbed my mental real estate.
Will: Talk to me about the work that you do helping on clarity around personal and professional brand. You mentioned that you work on helping people separate those and clarify them?
Steve: Well, it turns out that the process of bringing clarity to a company, whether it’s a solo consultant or any kind of company. Coming up with the what, the for whom, the why, the how and the where is the same thing that you need for someone in career transition. So, I’ve done this for many people in career transition and in basically building their brand as somebody looking for a new job. But I’ve also done this for emerging leaders in a pharmaceutical company who have been through a merging leaders program, and now they have to learn how to project themselves in the organization through networking, through Linkedin. And the process is the same. Let’s find your strengths, let’s look at the opportunities. Let’s wrap the right words around it. Here’s how to become memorable.
Steve: I did an exercise like this with a sales training division of a company that had a, did not have a clear identity in the company. They were just sort of a throw it over the wall in sales training or get it done. So we built their brand around three key concepts and they built an entire culture over years in the way that they communicated internally, and this department grew and thrived because they had a brand. So the process of a personal brand, a professional brand, an internal brand, an external brand is really the same. It’s bringing the right key things to the surface and rapping, human ready, not jargon loaded, but understandable words and key images that can then be transmitted quickly.
Will: So, with a personal brand, you’re often talking about either what’s your brand within the company or if you’re looking for a role, give some advice to job seeker that may listening. What should a job seeker do to kind of assess his or her own personal brand and work to clarify it?
Steve: Well, let me give you an example of one because this is the one I really just love how this worked out. I met some years ago with someone that is in one of the pharmaceutical companies that I consult with and we had lunch and it became very evident to me, he was happily employed in his company there, but this guy, he could train, he could teach, he could do all that, but he had this organized mind. He thought in terms of taxonomies and curricula and structure and I said, “You know what you are? You’re an infrastructure builder. You’re the kind of person that designs from a lot of details and kind of architects something.” And I kept that in mind. Later on his company got bought and he was in career transition. We met again and talked about his, you know, his brand and now was looking for a new position, and we decided he was going to really go forward with this idea that he needed a position where he could build infrastructure and build a team.
Steve: And sure enough, we found a company that had a very, a bunch of companies that merged together that the training department had no real identity. He was the perfect person to come in and build the structure which he did. And so the processes, let’s come down to what you’re really great at and bring that forward, your personal brand and your job and try to go after something that you’re going to excel at as opposed to just grabbing anything that maybe you can do.
Will: So for someone who is maybe in that job search mode right now, what would be the kind of first step that someone should do, you know, as an individual thing? You know, maybe they already have a resume, they have their career history. How does someone kind of do a self assessment on the way they’re talking about themselves and the way their Linkedin profile looks, and the way their resume looks to do a self assessment, to give themselves kind of a clarity grade, if you will?
Steve: It’s exactly the same process that we talked about. It’s harvesting the stories, coming up with the seams and the superpowers, looking at the opportunities. But I recommend, I think we have a lot of limits in what we can do on our own. There’s some piece of artwork that hangs in my office says, “You can’t read the label of the jar you’re in.” And the moment I saw that artwork some years ago, I bought it because that summarizes what I believe, that we can’t be objective about ourselves. We are in the middle of our own forest, our own trees. We often don’t recognize our strengths, we don’t even know exactly how we’re coming across. So I think it’s important to have somebody, whether it’s informal or formal, help with this process of someone you can use as a sounding board and brainstorm with, and really think through what those strengths are.
Steve: Because my experience in serving as that consultant for so many people and companies, is most people actually don’t know what they’re good at. They’re too used to it, and they don’t recognize their strengths. And sometimes it takes an outside voice to say, “Do you realize how incredibly awesome this is?” “No, I just do it.” And that happens all the time. So we tend to undersell and under recognize what we’re really best at.
Will: Let’s talk about how to communicate the message and also how to kind of build up visibility once you’ve gotten that clarity. So you know, people can have the past experiences, you know, hadn’t figured out what they’re good at, what their superpower is. If you don’t have, you know, a lot of sort of published thought leadership or, you know, it can be difficult to make that case. So what’s your recommendation for people on the ways to kind of demonstrate and communicate their positioning? And you can talk about thought leadership if that makes sense or other means.
Steve: What I’ve evolved to, and I’ve been involved in social media from the get go and so I’ve been through all the different cycles with social media. And at least from a professional point of view, I think most people can benefit from, especially those in your audience, from Linkedin, because Linkedin is where a lot of the professional people are. Linkedin has its own publishing platform, Pulse, if you don’t have your own blog. Linkedin now allows you to do videos, which is by the way, a great way to get views. And what I’ve found is that most people do have some expertise and once you, you’ve got to get in touch with that, you’ve got to know what that expertise is. Once you can start mining the gold out of that expertise, it’s not that difficult to write up articles and to make comments on other people’s posts in Linkedin, and begin to show what your expertise is and begin to use those keywords in those key ideas.
Steve: And doing things like blogging or podcasts, appearing on other podcasts or whatever. Doing stuff in your Facebook community as well is fine. But I think the major thing is people often don’t know where to start, mainly because they haven’t identified what their sweet spot and what their point of view is. Once you’ve said, this is my point of view, this is my message, this is what I really know, then it starts to open up, “Oh, here’s what I could be thinking about, talking about, writing about.” And so, it comes down to identifying that key thing, that’s your thing.
Will: Very helpful, got it. Moving away a little bit from the day to day, I’d love to hear a little bit about any productivity tips that you’ve developed recently or maybe that you’ve been practicing for a long time that you found particularly helpful.
Steve: Oh boy. When I started out on my own as a consultant, which was almost 13 years ago, and I’d been in other companies for two, 10 year spans. One of the things that it really was difficult for me to do at first was to embrace the fact that I was the master of my own time and schedule. I could pay attention to my own bodies by rhythms. And so, it took me some years to give myself permission to do one of the most important things I’ve learned to do each day, which is take a nap at midday because I get up early, and I really expend a lot of brain energy early on. And by mid day I am typically burnt out, temporarily and to back away and to just kind of read the newspaper, close my eyes for 30, 45 minutes, take a walk with the dog. That recharge has really become a cherished part of my day.
Steve: And I used to just drive myself, drive, drive, drive, drive, drive, nonstop. Turns out that’s not a good idea. And one of the benefits of working on your own is you can think about, you know, when do you do your best work? Are you early morning? Are you late at night? Do you need a nap? Do you need to be out in the coffee shop? Can you work from home? And everybody has to make their own decision about that and you have the freedom to figure that out.
Will: Wow, great. The great book, I think, When by Daniel Pink talks about that and how different people vary and when they do their best work. So, I think naps are a thing. Right? I think they’re getting a lot more publicly approved, and even encouraged, so that’s awesome that you’ve been ahead of the curve on that. Any tools that you have found really useful in your work? Any kind of technology tools that you found really helpful?
Steve: I never want anybody to ever asked that question. Oh well, for somebody that’s been a bit leading edge on technology, and social media and digital stuff, I am woefully bad at any kind of stack of tools for my own work. I do experiment with different things and recently I’ve been using a tool just to try it out for the next couple of weeks called BombBomb, which enables you to send video emails to people. I’ve also been experimenting with doing audio, sending little audio clips on Linkedin, which you can do using the Linkedin app on the phone. You can’t do it on the computer, to just send little audio clips. And I always like to try new things and see what works.
Will: Yeah, what kind of audio clips do you send on Linkedin? That’s a cool new feature, I’ve tried it a few times and how-
Steve: Well for me it’s just, I’m trying to get somebody to respond, we’re busy people. And so, you know, they’ve seen my email a thousand times maybe or whatever and emails are very useful tool. It’s never seems to go away and it’s done me a lot of good over the years, but we’re inundated. So I just basically, “Hey, I would just want to catch up with you,” and you get to say their name. You get to, the key is to just make 1 point, one thing. And I have found that with email, with the video, with the voicemail, increasingly I am putting less and less in because I get more response if I just ask for one simple thing and no decisions have to be made. You just either say yes, no, reply or give input on one thing. So that’s something I’ve been into is trying to simplify my communications with people and also to ask people for their advice, as opposed to just tell him what I’m doing because I get much better response when I’m asking people for their input on stuff.
Will: That’s helpful. So like can you give an example of, you know, something that you might reach out to someone about?
Steve: Recently one of the things I do terribly, because I’m not a graphic designer, but I use PowerPoint to try to map out some of these … I’m a very big picture thinker. I like to pull lots of pieces together and find the big themes. I like to find what’s holding it all together. And so, what I do is when I get some of these big ideas, I’ll kind of sketch them out using circles and squares, and words and in PowerPoint, and I’ll come up with something I think is really brilliant. And then, I’ll forward it to, you know, five or 10 of the people that I keep close in my network. And this happened to be just this morning, in fact. I’ve sent something out yesterday and somebody sent me, you know, so I don’t think this is really getting where you want it to go. It’s okay, let’s hop on a call. And sure enough, I think I’m being clear.
Steve: By having other people as sounding boards, I realized, no, that’s too complicated or that’s really not getting the point across. So, I have found as a solo consultant that having a sounding board of sympathetic others is absolutely crucial to refining ideas.
Will: That makes sense. That makes sense. Last one is any books that you have particularly recommended to other people?
Steve: There’s two books that have been most important to me in my journey. Have been, Strengths Finder, which really shaped my whole approach to figuring out what your strong suit is. And then Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow, which is a marketing book about how to differentiate, how to make sure that you’re differentiated. And I would say that of all the books that I’ve read, those two have had the most enduring impact on the way that I think and the way that I go about my practice. These are not new books, these are older books, relatively older books, but they have stood the test of time. If somebody is interested in marketing in particular marketing communications, two recent books that are fabulous, are by Mark Schaefer who’s an educator and consultant called The Marketing Rebellion, talking about how the most human company is going to win and something I agree with.
Steve: And then Jay Baer and Daniel Lemon released a book last year called Talk Triggers, which is how word of mouth marketing is a very important way of differentiating and getting your message out. And that fits into what I wrote about in my book, Clarity Wins about referral marketing, cause I really do think that the person to person speech and advocacy is what’s going to help anybody consultant or any business really stand out.
Will: What are some of the tips that you share on how to increase the chances that you’ll get referral marketing, word of mouth?
Steve: A couple of important ones are, number one, be sure that you can get your message across in like 15 or 30 seconds. Get your memory back in shape so people can actually know what you do and who you are. But the others really the art of networking. You want to build advocacy, you want to create advocates. My goal when I network and have relationships is not just to crop dusting my business card around. It’s to get deeper one on one with people. And the way I do that, and I’m an introvert, I’m not chatty Cathy. So I ask people questions, and I call it the, see the storytelling is an important part of marketing and story asking is an important part. And one of our things, if somebody struggles with how do I be a good networker, let me give you one question that will never fail, that will open up any encounter and bring you into the affections of people.
Steve: And that is, you say, “Well, you’re now the director of consulting for X and X, X company. Tell me about your journey, how did you get there?” And then just shut up. And people are dying to tell you their stories. And every story is fascinating, because people take all these circuitous routes to get to where they are, including me and most of us. And as they tell that story, 15 other questions will come up. And to me that’s the most fun part in networking is just bringing out people’s stories and asking questions. And what you do is you build this bond. And if you’ve, the final question you ask is, tell me what your ideal customer looks like so that I can know who to refer you to. And if you do that, your gold. People really love you, if you show enough interest that you want to know how to refer to them. So those two things, you know, tell me about your story and who can I refer to you. If you could do those two things, you can be the best networker in your entire area.
Will: Steve, that is very practical, implementable advice. Hey, for people that want to find you and follow up, what’s the best place for them to go?
Steve: So my website is ClarityFuel, all one word, F-U-E-L.com. The book which came out in November, Clarity Wins is found on Amazon. I made a short link to it, just claritywins.org and that’ll lead you right to Amazon, which you can get an eCopy or paperback. And that book outlines everything and more that you and I have talked about. Getting clarity, the five elements, how to find your niche, how to define your offerings, how to network effectively. And, that has been a tremendous way to finally take all this information that’s been stuffed in my head for all these years and getting it out there in a way that people could digest it.
Will: Fantastic. Well, check out the website, and Steve, thank you very much for being on the show.
Steve: Will, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.