Do you know how to describe what you do in a concise and appealing way? If not, listen to this episode. You’ll learn to use story principles to organize a cohesive message that leads to better conversations, word-of-mouth buzz for your business, and more referrals.
Welcome to Rich & Thin™ Radio, the only podcast that helps you get more bank with less bulk. Today’s episode is for every listener who is seeking a concise and interesting way to describe what you do. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth and I’m happy you’re here because as our work in the world gets more and more specialized, we can find it very difficult to explain what we do, and that’s no way to build word-of- mouth buzz or get referrals.
So today we’re going to talk about how story structure can help solve this problem. We’ll talk about how to apply what you learn today to your own situation, and also how to use story structure to up your game and start making more money, and who doesn’t want that? I think we all do.
So let’s dive in. To start off I’d like you to think about the last time you met someone and you asked them, “What do you do?,” or you found yourself on the receiving end of that question. Very often, the way we answer these questions is too abrupt. Once in a rare while, abrupt is okay. When people ask my husband what he does, and he says, “I’m a pilot,” the conversation goes crazy because people want to know all kinds of things about being a pilot. Where does he get to fly to, how long is he gone at a time, does he get free airfare? Before I married a pilot, I had no idea that people thought it was such an interesting job, but evidently, they do.
And this isn’t the way it works for most of us. We say things like, “I’m a dentist. I’m a lawyer. I am a realtor. I sell insurance.” And this just falls flat. People might nod and say, “Oh, that’s nice.” But often that’s the end of the conversation.
And, often we’re confused about what to say, even if the answer is obvious. My hedge fund manager clients often they call me up and ask, “What do I do again? Because people are asking me what I do, and I don’t know what to tell them.”
They could just say, “I’m a hedge fund manager,” or if they want to get more specific, they could say, “I trade securities” or “I trade futures,” but outside of certain very specific and very small circles, people generally have no idea what any of this means. When I was managing my own fund, I once heard my grandmother tell someone that I worked in an office in New York across the street from a shoe store.
Difficulty explaining what we do isn’t just a problem for the hedge fund managers among us. It’s a problem for everyone. One of our neighbors started a new venture recently, and we asked him, “What’s this new thing you’re doing?” And he said, “Well, it’s kind of complicated.” And for the next ten minutes or fifteen minutes he explained in a roundabout way what he was doing. And it wasn’t that complicated. He just didn’t have a structure to use that would help him package the explanation into an easily digestible format.
This is what we all need–a concise but appealing and easily digestible way to describe what we do. This is key, because the way we describe what we do determines whether people will be interested and want to know more, and actually engage in discussion with us, or if they’ll walk away in search of another drink.
Fortunately, principles of story can help us a great deal here. Story is the right tool for this task, because our brains love stories. Why? One reason is that story is a way of editing, paring down, and organizing information that our brains understand and find infinitely appealing. In other words, if you want to engage your listener’s brain, story is the way to do it.
Story also matters because our brains remember stories. If you feed someone facts through a story delivery system, they’ll remember a lot of what you say. Our brains work this way with songs, too, by the way. If you just feed them facts, not attached to a narrative, there’s no story structure that the facts are hanging on, people find it really difficult to remember things. This is the way our teachers taught us things when we were back in school. Here’s a list of facts, remember them, and regurgitate them on the exam. Intellectual bulimia is something that all of us despise and we’re not forced to do it when we’re adults. So if you don’t feed the facts of your situation to your listener or your reader through a story mechanism, it’s very difficult for them to remember, and they’re not even going to try.
So whenever you can package something into a story, that’s exactly what you should do. To package the description of what you do into a story, the first thing to know is that every story has three basic parts: there’s a problem, a solution, and the happy ending. This is the after picture—what it looks like having gone through the solution and solved the problem. There also must be some tension. Is the problem going to get solved, or isn’t it?
This is just the basic structure, There are additional nuances, of course, but for purposes of this episode, all you need to know is that every great story—every beloved play, movie, and novel, and every great marketing message– follows this basic format of problem, solution, and happy ending, plus tension throughout, because the writers of great stories know that this is what our brains expect when we’re listening to something. Story is what our brains enjoy and it’s what our brains look for, even if they’re not consciously aware of the components of a properly crafted story. If the proper structure isn’t there, if it isn’t observed, we don’t like the communication. If Hollywood makes a movie, for example, that gets the structure wrong, or if something is missing from the structure, those films bomb at the box office. The same is true for plays and novels. You don’t even need to know the component parts of a story. You don’t need to know anything about story at all, for your brain to know when something about a story is off.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Once upon a time, three little bears lived in a cabin with their mother and father. They were well taken care of, and every night at six o’clock they ate their dinner and then they brushed their teeth and they went to bed.
Is this a story? It starts out like one, but it doesn’t feel like a story, does it? Why not? One reason is there’s no problem to solve. Everything’s fine with these bears, and if there’s not a problem, it’s not a story. A second reason is that there’s no tension. There’s never a question, there’s never even a whisper of a question, about things not turning out just fine for these three little bears and their mother and father.
Asking a tense question is the most important thing you can do to grab attention. Some people call it a hook. The most effective stories—the ones we pay to see and tell our friends about, and binge on in utter disregard of our schedule and responsibilities and all logic and common sense, are those that pose a question and we just have to know how the question is answered, in other words, we just have to know how the story ends, and so we’re not closing the book, we’re not turning off the TV, our eyes are staying glued to the story until we know how it comes out.
Think of your favorite movie. Mine, or at least one of mine, is Jerry Maguire. He quits his job because he believes he can make money and take good care of his clients rather than exploit them financially. Is this true? Can he really do it? Our brains want to know the answer to that question. Plus our brains like this guy. We want to see him succeed.
Another of my favorites is the Bourne Identity. Jason Bourne is floating unconscious in a cold sea, riddled with bullets. How did he get there? Who is this guy? He seems nice. Is he really a mercenary? We want to watch to the end of the movie because we want to know the answer. That’s how movies get our attention. They grab us with a tense question, and we can do the same thing with our businesses.
So step one in describing what you do in an engaging way is to pose a tense question. By tense, I mean that the question raises some anxiety in the listener. They care about the subject matter and the outcome is not obvious.
The way a hedge fund manager might do this, if you ask him, “What do you do?” Is to say, “Well, you know how everyone is terrified right now that all the money they’ve made in this 10-year bull market is going to disappear in the next downturn?”
This, of course, makes everyone within earshot tense, at least everyone who has money in the market, because they are in fact terrified that we’re going to have another plunge like we did in the financial crisis. Their ears are going to perk up. So now with that tense question, our hypothetical hedge fund manager he has their attention.
And then he can say, “Well, I run an investment fund that makes money when the market goes up, but it does especially well when the market goes down.”
Now, this is something that people are going to be curious about because it’s a solution. It’s a real solution. It’s not just hanging on for the ride, this is the way the world works, and you’re just going to have to listen to it. A lot of people don’t even know this is possible, so this is a solution people are going to listen to. We’re so indoctrinated to believe that you make money when the market goes up and you lose money when the market goes down, that the fact that you can make money in a downturn can leave some people absolutely floored. And then after he gives them this information, our hypothetical hedge fund manager can paint the picture of the happy ending. Our hypothetical hedge fund manager in this example says, “So my investors don’t worry about the stock market so much. They have some diversification, it’s not all going to plummet during a downturn and that helps them sleep at night.”
So notice how these three sentences follow the basic three-part structure of a story. There’s a problem: people are worried about the stock market going down and they don’t know where else to put their money. And there is a solution that solves the problem. It’s this hypothetical hedge fund manager’s fund, which should make money when the market goes in either direction. And then there’s the happy ending, which in this case is happy clients who don’t have all of their eggs in a single basket that’s going to get crushed when the stock market takes its next dive. There’s even a visual. They sleep at night. There’s also tension because at the outset, everyone is scared and no one knows if this problem can be solved.
Now, here I’d like to point out that this example is just to illustrate the basic structure of a three-sentence story. Hedge funds are regulated so anytime a hedge fund manager talks about his fund, or people investing in his fund, there has to be more than this three-part structure .there have to be disclaimers and the whole discussion must be peppered with risk disclosure. So please don’t get the idea that this is all a hedge fund manager has to say, or that I’m suggesting that they leave this part out. I’m definitely not. All I’m trying to do with this example is convey that this 3-part structure that’s grounded in story is a concise and engaging way for someone to describe what they do. It’s way better than just blurting out, “I’m a hedge fund manager,” or “I trade securities” or I trade futures.”
It helps, the hedge fund manager communicate because it engages the listener with the listener’s problems, what the listener cares about, and it gives the listener something for his brain to grab onto besides just facts.
Another thing about this structure is that it can also be tailored to the audience. Once you understand the structure you can easily swap in a different problem, and a different solution, you can phrase them in a different way, so that they are more appealing to a particular audience. Here’s an example. One of my clients has three children. When each of them was born, he put a small amount of cash into a trading account, and by the time each of these three kids were ready to go off to college, there was enough money in each kid’s account to cover college and grad school. And I’m not talking about state schools, either These kids went to the Ivy League.
So he could tell someone at a cocktail party, “I trade futures.” Or if this cocktail party is attended by a lot of parents, particularly parents with young children, or grandparents, he could say, “Well, you know how when you have a child, you’re terrified that they’ll get into a college that you can’t afford?”
And parents and the grandparents who are interested in their grandchildren’s college will generally nod yes. It’s the rare parent or grandparent who doesn’t have nightmares about Ivy League acceptance letters with their kids’ or grandkids’ names on them.
And then comes the solution. My client could say, “Well, I was terrified about this, too, so what I did is I put a small amount of cash into an account for each of my kids, and I developed a way of trading that money using the futures markets.” And the big finish is the happy ending. The third sentence is, he smiles and says, “It worked, so I was able to pay for their Ivy League tuition bills. Both undergrad and grad school. Now I offer the same service to other parents who are trying to turn a small amount of cash into a meaningful college fund.”
Again, this conversation also has to have risk disclosure added in here because it’s regulated, but do you see the structure? Problem, solution, and happy ending. T works in every kind of business.
Beyond that, there are a couple more things to notice here. This structure seems simple. And it is simple. That’s one reason that our brains can so readily grab onto it and remember the information. It’s one reason our brains are so attracted to this structure. But, it’s not so simple when we try to apply this structure to ourselves and our own businesses. The reason for that is, we all know so much about what we do, the nuances of it, the details the complexity, that we have a very difficult time trying to describe it in three sentences. We want to pack too much in there. So consider my neighbor with his new venture. He knows so much about what he does, all the ins and outs, that it took him a long time to explain it to us. But here’s what he does, in three sentences: “Many hospitals can’t quickly get what they need from their regular vendors, which is a disaster if they run out of drugs or other supplies. So we find pharmacies who are nimble and can ship to hospitals on an overnight basis. The result is that the hospitals we work with get what they need on short notice and they never have to worry about running out of critical supplies.”
It paints a picture, doesn’t it? If you’re a hospital administrator, don’t you want to deal with my neighbor? I certainly would, if I were running a hospital. I’d want to make sure I had supplies whenever I need them. Hospitals can’t run out of supplies or people could die, so this message for him is much more effective than, “I sell things to hospitals,” or, “I’m in sales,” or whatever abrupt thing he might say about his business.
This three-sentence structure is so effective when you get it right. It’s just like a movie. When you nail the structure and distill your message into a tense question and two-follow-on sentences that solve the problem and paint a picture of the solution, your listener’s brain experiences satisfaction, because all the story elements have been satisfied, or at least the basic story elements that we’re using in this basic three-sentence structure. When we nail a story structure, whether it’s a movie or a novel, everything clicks into place and our brains relax, and listen, and enjoy the ride. They absorb what’s being said. If we don’t nail the structure, if it’s wrong, you know it, everyone knows it, even if they don’t know why. Even if they don’t know a thing about the story.
So here’s what I suggest for every would-be business owner. Spend no money, create no website, post nothing on social media, until you can describe your new business and what it is going to do in this three-sentence structure. Problem, solution, happy ending. Make sure there’s tension, or this may not be a problem anyone is willing to pay you to solve for them.
For existing business owners, those who are already making money, I’d suggest nailing down this three- sentence structure and then raising the stakes. If the way you’re currently describing the problem makes it seem small, amplify the pain in the problem to increase the tension and the attention that your message receives.
This is how you promote yourself in the marketing sense. But another thing you can do is promote yourself in the business sense. When we’re entrepreneurs, when we own our own businesses, there’s no one who’s going to promote us and say, “it’s time for you to solve a bigger problem.” So we have to do that for ourselves, and this three-sentence structure can help you do that.
Here’s an example from my own life. I used to present myself in the hedge fund industry as a lawyer—I solve legal problems—as an accountant—I solve accounting problems, and as a marketer/salesperson—I solve customer-attraction problems. but each problem by itself seems smaller than what I do in aggregate.
So I don’t talk about what I do in those ways anymore. I don’t compartmentalize them, and I don’t think about them in those ways. I now present myself as an adviser who solves profitability problems. A turn-around expert with a deep background in all aspects of hedge fund operations that no lawyer, accountant, or sales/marketing person would have. In other words, I promoted myself to a bigger role by tweaking the three-sentence structure so that it reflected the bigger problem I was capable of solving for my clients.
Whoever you are, whatever you do, you can do the same thing, whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re a realtor or a dentist or an insurance agent, don’t just sell fillings or houses or insurance policies. Solve a specific problem, and make it a big one. The bigger the better. We pay more to solve big problems vs. small problems. This is why heart and brain surgeons make more money than general practitioners.
I can’t tell you how valuable this exercise is. Sitting down with this three-sentence structure and plugging your business into it. Writing is thinking, so if you’re able to write something clearly, that means you’re thinking about it clearly. So definitely give this a try, and let me know if you need some help.
If you have trouble developing your own three-sentence structure, I’d love to help you. I love story, and as I’ve said in other episodes, story for business is my wheelhouse. So if this is you, and you want some help, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org, and tell me what you have going on, and I’ll let you know my thoughts, what I see, and how to work with me if you want to.
The last thing I’d like to offer you is that if you have a friend who’s buckling under the weight of business and life and isn’t moving their entrepreneurial dream forward, please send them to this podcast immediately. This show is for these people. It helps entrepreneurs learn to manage their minds so they can get out from under that weight once and for all. And when they do this, they feel better and they enjoy lean businesses, lean bodies, and great lives.
So there you have it. That’s a three-sentence story for this show. I’d love it if you’d share it with a friend so we can welcome more listeners to the podcast. And I also love that you’re a listener. Thank you for supporting the show, and I look forward to talking with you next time.