Talk about it

01/03/2014

I make a living supporting and delivering services around open-source software. I run paid support for a WordPress plugin that allows webmasters to optimize their site against web performance best practices (which matter for various reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Google announced page speed as a ranking factor in 2009). You could call me a web performance engineer or hosting engineer if you wanted to be technical.

Zooming out a bit, I’m a Partner at a SaaS company and we spend a lot of time thinking about how to add the maximum amount of value to a non-technical user base while empowering engineers and developers to solve problems for their clients.

When someone asks me what I do, I typically explain that I make websites faster (along with a couple supplementary sentences that I tweak based on my understanding of the listener’s technical background, if any). On several occasions, the reaction I get is about how I explain what I do rather than my actual job.

This is interesting to me because I’ve spent a lot of time refining how to explain what it is that I do for a living. And I have a lot of practice, since I’ve been the only “technical” person in my peer group for quite some time.

Let me explain.

My first job out of college was as a Consulting Analyst with Accenture. Most people think this means that I was a spreadsheet jockey (management/strategy consultant) so I explain that I was an IT-flavored Consultant. I further unpack that by saying that I customized and implemented content management systems for large companies. If I was talking to someone within the company, I’d let them know that I was aligned to the Systems Integration and Technology division in the Information Management group. Madness.

If I had to explain this job today, I’d just ask if someone had seen Up in the Air or if they watch House of Lies and be done with it.

When I wanted to secure more speaking engagements, I spent some time thinking about how to describe myself and the things that I spoke about. I emailed a dozen or so of my trusted advisors and got some great feedback on how to talk about the value that I provide and the nature of my work. Clay went so far as to share his template for a short, medium-length, and full-length bio which was super useful. [This is not surprising if you know Clay, he’s a mensch of the highest order.]

I iterated on this feedback and produced a bio that I was happy with. I actually locked in two speaking gigs on the same day following this work. [Insert joke about The Secret] This work also made it easy to do a content overhaul on the key pages of this site since there was a narrative and focus that I could build on top of.

What I’ve learned is that there’s value in spending time talking about the things you want people to understand. Ultimately we have little control over how we’re perceived in the mind of others, but we do have control over how clear the signal is that we’re sending out.

Authors serious about making an impact will share versions of their stories with others. Marketers focused on making online sales will A/B test ads and run small campaigns to gather data. Guys trying to pick up women in bars and clubs will gauge women’s reactions to the fanciful tales they tell and make adjustments accordingly.

If you want to be better understood and received, don’t live in a vacuum.

Let’s hear it.