“Dr. Hoenikker used to say that any scientist who couldn’t explain to an 8-year-old what he was doing was a charlatan.”
—Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle
I have a couple of brilliant family members who have very impressive jobs, but frankly, no one in the family is quite sure exactly what their work involves. They are successes at their jobs but failures at communicating their work to outsiders.
I don’t think that being an editor is complicated, but my own mother never quite understood my work. When I saw a challenge last year for people to describe their work life in six words, I came up with this description: “I help people succeed at work.”
That doesn’t describe what I do as an editor and writer, but it is my ultimate goal with the blog posts, e-letters, newsletter, books, training tools and other products I work on. It’s an answer that I can elaborate on, based on the interest level and background of the person to whom I am speaking. Depending on the person’s interests, I might talk more about Communication Briefings, American Speaker or The Organized Executive.
Instead of having a standard “elevator speech,” offer a brief description of your work that will pique people’s interest. Then customize the remarks you make after that.
To be sure that new acquaintances outside your field will easily understand your work, imagine that you are talking to a family member, maybe your Nana, Uncle Lee or niece Kiki. I used that technique when I was a rookie reporter trying to figure out how to write about a complex news subject.
Recently the Center for Communicating Science issued a challenge to scientists to answer the question “What is a flame?” so that an 11-year-old could understand and be interested in the topic. The 822 entries it received included poems and cartoon videos. I’ll be fascinated to hear the winning entry in June.
How do you answer the question “What do you do?”