Rule #1: Don't tell me what you do...

My Communicate Good homepage video lists ten all-important "rules to live by" for communications and PR success. In an effort to further explain these ideas , I've decided to write blog posts for each rule. In this, my first post, I dissect Rule #1: Don't tell me what you do. Tell me why you do it. This is a topic that could fill an entire book. Many books in fact. So I will do my best to keep the explanation as succinct and straightforward as possible. First a WARNING: Unlike math, there are no absolute answers when it comes to human language. In this respect, we are dealing more with an art than a science. 2 + 2 will always equal 4. But the way one person answers the questions "what do you do?" is never guaranteed to elicit interest on the part of the listener. There are just too many other variables that can impact the exchange. For example, a speaker's personality and tone of voice; the listener's mood and/or general disposition; or the situation in which the exchange is occurring. So for the purpose of this blog post, we need to forget that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to communications. Simply remember that, all things being equal, emphasizing the "WHY" over the "WHAT" is the better choice when communicating with an audience. Okay... if you're in a hurry, I will get to the punch line without delay (the details will then follow).

When you talk or write about WHAT you do, you are speaking about things that are very specific to you. Therefore, the WHAT provides your audience with the least amount of "fodder for connection." On the other hand, when you talk or write about WHY you do what you do, you typically draw from a broader set of conditions and circumstances, greatly increasing the chances that your audience will be able to connect with you. Okay, let's dissect this...


By way of example:  Imagine you're at an early A.M. networking event, sponsored by your local chamber of commerce. There is a wide variety of professionals gathered, most of whom you do not know. You stand at the coffee urn, slowly stirring your milk and sugar, delaying for just another few seconds that inevitable moment when you must introduce yourself to someone and commence with the small talk (I've always hated small talk). In the corner of your eye you notice an individual sidling over to you. You take a deep breath, ready to do the networking dance. Bill Johanson, with EnviroClean Technology, Inc. extends his hand, squints as he reads the name on your sticker, and says: "Hi [insert your name here], what do you do?"

I have to admit that for the first 10+ years of my career, I struggled in this situation. Why? Because I did what most people do when faced with this question. I would tell Bill Johanson what I, Rich Polt, did to earn my paycheck. For example, I might have said: "Nice to meet you Bill. I work for a large PR agency that specializes in high-tech and medical technology companies. We focus on media and analyst relations and also help our clients land speaking opportunities in front of the right audiences. Do you use a PR agency?" This would be a perfectly acceptable answer to the question "what do you do?" And for effect, I would trumpet my response with a wide smile and great confidence, as if this would increase my chances of winning Bill as a client.

Bill might nod his head with apparent interest. Perhaps he'd ask me a follow-up question to be courteous. And then he would tell me what he does to earn his paycheck. A few more follow-up questions in both directions. An exchange of business cards. And then we would break in opposite directions, seeking our next innocent victim target, standing alone, ready to do the networking dance again. Sound at all familiar?


As I stated earlier, in order to engage your audience (either an individual or a standing-room-only auditorium), you must provide them with maximum fodder for engagement. In the above example, I was telling Bill what I did on a daily basis. It was a highly specific account of my day-to-day experience, and Bill was simply not able to relate to it. As I spoke, Bill desperately cross-referenced my words with his own experiences, looking for anything that rang familiar and could better engage him in the conversation. If he found something, we would have had the kernel of a budding conversation. But since he didn't, he went into his own spiel.

Staying with this example, let's look at WHY I might do what I do. I may have worked at a high-tech PR agency because I was passionate about technology (twas not the case), or because tech was all the rage in the late 90s and paid extremely well (much more the case), or because there was a glut of technology vendors who didn't know the first thing about PR and they needed help. Here is another way that the conversation could have gone:

Bill Johanson: Hi, Bill Johanson with EnviroClean Technology, Inc [he extends his hand]. So what do you do?"

Me: Good to meet you Bill. I do PR and communications in the technology space. In my line of work, I see so many people who are really smart about technology, struggling to communicate effectively about their work. They're using lots of jargon and double speak, and as a result some really innovative ideas are being lost. I'm curious, especially since you're in technology, do you see that happening at all among your peers?

See the difference? I quickly acknowledged his question with a general statement about my profession, but then I opened up the response by addressing just some of the conditions in the market that make my job necessary. Instead of narrowing my response with the specific services that my agency offered (which actually moves into the realm of HOW), I gave Bill a softball opportunity for engagement. It's also worth noting that in both examples, I ended my response with a question (a basic conversational best practice), but in the first example, the question was salesy and potentially off-putting. In the second example, I invited Bill to speak about something based on his expertise.

Here are two examples that I found on YouTube, in which someone is essentially answering the question "What do you do?" The interviewer doesn't use those words exactly, but he could have been. Listen to each response for the first 60 seconds. Who focuses on the WHAT and who focuses on the WHY? Which response is more engaging? (In fairness ... the topic is mobile advertising. So we're already working at a disadvantage on the "engagement meter.") EXAMPLE 1or EXAMPLE 2?


In closing, I'll say that I first came up with the WHAT/WHY axiom back in 2006 when I was working on a client presentation. I thought to myself ... "this is pure gold!" It was only later, once I was convinced that I had invented some groundbreaking law of communication that I realized this was already out there. There are a number of respected communications gurus who talk about the WHAT and the WHY. Consider this piece from Guy Kawasaki or this piece from Simon Sinek.

Yet despite the increased awareness of this and other communications dynamics, the problem doesn't seem to be abating. It seems to be getting worse (or at least staying the same). So my challenge to you is not only to internalize this concept, but to put it into practice. Begin by articulating your own WHY. And then use it as the foundation for more rewarding and engaging interactions with your audience(s).