For my speaking engagement on Friday, I’m carefully reading the information about the guests (looking for clues and cues about theming the talk, and how much risk to take with the visuals and script). One of the guests starts their profile with “dropped out of high school at 16 to set up his first business”. Is that really the right headline for a professional profile? You won’t be surprised to hear that this person has an entrepreneurial background, and having dropped out of school is almost a badge of honour for those who have started their own business. After all, dropping out of Harvard never did Bill Gates any harm!
But what if you don’t personally have an entrepreneurial background? Will you automatically make the link that dropping out of school made this person a better entrepreneur? That having to fight to grow a business (without the extra knowledge and elevated status a higher education would bring) taught him toughness, resilience and made him what he is today? Or are we less empathetic to entrepreneurs, and see him as a drop out who had to find something else to do, which is a brutal but possible way to look at his profile?
My father was an entrepreneur. He didn’t flunk school, but he left at sixteen and went to work. And worked hard; including buying a beaten-up car (and £50 of stock) and hitting the road to make a living. So I think I have some appreciation of the mindset of an entrepreneur, and I’m thinking positively about this guest. But if I didn’t have that life story, might I just think he was a dropout?
My message is this – be careful with how you project yourself and write your profile. If something helps to better tell your story, then make the point – but link it to the #value the experience (or fact or feature) brings to the reader. In this case, what’s implicit is that my guest can help other entrepreneurial businesses grow, because he’s been through the pain and excitement of that journey. And if you do make the link to #value, then wear that badge with pride. But be explicit – don’t keep the reader guessing how a perceived negative leads to a positive outcome.
We’re in the world of weasel words and wasted waffle. Yet behind the blarney and bluster, people often make interesting points, or have something important to say. But it’s often lost in a spurge and flurry of letters, syllables, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and essays. And yes, that was intentionally a load of waffle, and I’m sure you get the idea!
Sometimes I wonder whether it’s accidental or deliberate. Do people fail to hear how empty they sound, or have they really chosen these words in the hope of demonstrating what’s good about their business (or their perspective on life)?
I am fascinated by the notion of #value, and my perception that:
- some great people don’t realise their worth,
- many of the best ideas are spoiled by nervous babble, and
- most of the weak propositions are explained in far too many words.
As Malcolm S. Forbes, publisher of Forbes magazine, once said “too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are”.
My advice is to work hard on understanding your #value, and get clear in your own mind what makes you #distinctive and different. Then you need to practice how to explain that value, in a punchy and compelling way. Otherwise you end up in a situation where you have a good idea, a brilliant service or powerful solution but can’t explain it properly. Or worse still, you’re seen as someone who doesn’t get to the point.
Here’s an example – this week I spoke at length to someone with an impressive international background, a decent track record and a novel way of delivering learning. Unfortunately they (in my opinion very indulgently) spent 45 minutes taking me through a quirky framework of loosely-connected concepts. We never really recovered from a short exercise that wasn’t explained very well. Believe me, I tried to see the sense (what a waste of time otherwise) but the discussion went nowhere. In the end, I had to politely ask them to move on to something more concrete. And their reaction seemed to be a mixture of “surprised’ and “insulted`’, because I had interrupted their flow.
So the next time you witness someone struggling to articulate their value, please be patient, calming and encouraging. Sometimes it’s lack of experience that makes people hesitate and stutter, and often you’ll find brilliance there. But if an experienced and worldly person starts to waffle, just politely shut them up. Come on, I don’t have all day. Just get to the point.
Like everyone else, I feel like sometimes I do a brilliant job, mostly I’m pretty good, and occasionally I’m plain lousy. But it never ceases to amaze me how, when I’m in control/in the zone/in the moment, how easily I can improve my own performance. And how I can get the best out of other people. Here’s an example.
I run the member services and learning event division of Henley Business School. We are always looking for new speakers to lead our events. And this week I met a really interesting one but, if I’d judged him on the first few minutes of our conversation, we wouldn’t be working together. First impressions were OK, but I was struggling to see how he would fit with what I do. It took quite a while before we made a connection and found an event angle he’s gone away to turn into a programme. And it’s going to be #distinctive and different, and I’m excited already!
Here were my learnings from this example. They are all about “finding the fabulous”.
- Accept that it’s your job to get the best from people. You’ve failed if you don’t, and life is so much more rewarding when you do.
- Ignore your first impressions, at least sometimes. Test whether you are right, by giving people the time to show their #value.
- Suspend disbelief (meaning putting aside your doubt or skepticism) for long enough to hear out someone’s story. Because eventually you’ll find a connection. And connected people create great ideas.
Maybe I’m smugly saying I did a great job with this guy. Or maybe he worked on me, until we found that great idea. I don’t know. And I don’t care. Either way we’re on to something. And it’s so motivating when you end up finding the fabulous. You wake up smiling at 05.00, and have to blog about it. And, for me, that’s a wonderful start to the day.
Most of the companies I work with have obvious #value, and a firm strategy for delivering that to their customers. But when you probe, explore and investigate more, you realise that not everything they do adds #value. It’s often worse than that – for some companies, much of what they do is actually distracting customers from seeing or feeling their #value.
By way of explanation, here’s an example of a Christmas present. Last Christmas (there’s a song in there!), I bought my son a #gaming chair – one of those that looks like a racing driver’s seat. Imagine a teenager relaxing and playing on the Sony PS4, scoring footie goals and crashing sports cars, and you get the idea.
I’d read plenty of reviews – which is why I ordered this particular make and model. From the point of ordering, what would add #value to this item is great packaging, careful delivery and clear instructions (for setting up the wireless connectivity, to prevent tripping over cables between different gadgets we’ve hooked up in the den). And yet there were none of those things. The seat was poorly packaged (the lightweight wrapper had to be repaired by the courier); it was dumped outside our front door by the delivery driver; and it was completely devoid of decent set-up instructions. And that’s where the problems started.
We just couldn’t fathom how to get the seat to work, and couldn’t find out how to fix the issue. So we tried to call the manufacturer, to find they were closed right through Christmas and until the New Year. Now here’s the key point. I naturally visited their website, to find it had set-up instructions for pretty much every known device. But I couldn’t search for my device; I had to scroll through pages of irrelevant data to get to what I needed. And when I viewed the company’s YouTube channel, what I found was vanity – lots of showing off about how wonderful the sound and movement experience would be on this device. Both website and channel were bloated by extra content, hiding the most important aspect – getting the darned thing to work (that’s a milder version of the word I actually used on Christmas morning). It was like a fat belly hiding a washboard stomach or (in more polite terms) a tree that needs pruning.
And that explains this image – it shows all the things that hide #core value. I’m making the point that most companies need to do some pruning – cutting off some of the branches of (a tree or bush) so that it will grow better or look better (or be free of decay or disease). In terms of #value, it’s about reducing yet improving something, by removing parts that are neither necessary nor wanted.
So what should you prune back? First, you need to think about your core #value. Next, you have to decide what is preventing the customer from seeing and feeling that #value. In my experience, #value gets lost somehow; smothered over time by what the market dictates (or you think it wants), and what your people decide the customer needs. It’s the world of extras, add-ons and embellishments. Some add #value, but many just don’t. It’s natural and critical to adapt and improve. But here’s the problem – without starting with a clear definition of your #value, and only adding and doing things that grow that #value, you can end up with something rampant. And then it’s time to prune the tree.
Maybe a hard prune is needed – only you can decide. It’s probably a choice between clipping away with the secateurs, or hacking away with a saw. But whatever you do, don’t panic or regret how sparse and bare the tree will look. See what it’s become in the Spring…
Having visited the CIPD conference in London a few months ago, and many events and conferences since, something has been bothering me. At the CIPD, I was impressed by the variety of companies exhibiting (including my own Henley Business School). And it confirmed something interesting about the creation of a value proposition – a value proposition that makes a particular company #standout.
It was pretty obvious that the bigger the company, the less #distinctive the proposition. The smaller the company, the more #distinctive they appeared. And by #distinctive, I’m talking about the visuals, the artwork, the brochures, the words and even the people. So why would this be so? Why would bigger companies fail to differentiate themselves? OK, I admit there are lots of reasons, and I am going to focus on just one.
In many situations, big companies have the edge. It’s clear that when:
- service is about handling volume, or
- complex relationships require many interactions between people, or
- when there is a multi-site environment
many hands indeed make light work. You need many people involved, to deliver the process or service to your chosen markets. Effectively. Efficiently. Economically.
But when it comes to articulating value, many hands make heavy work. Smaller companies have fewer of their own people to convince, and usually someone senior that “birthed the baby” and has a strong view on how their business should be positioned. Bigger companies have structures, systems, stakeholders and sensibilities. These need to be respected. And that takes time, and means lots of people to involve in developing your value proposition.
Getting lots of people involved in defining the value your company offers (and creating your value proposition) makes it tough to produce something distinctive. Different people have different perceptions as to what makes your company valuable to its customers (and they want their view heard). Others lack the bravery to use the emotive language that describes your true points of difference, afraid that shareholders or the general public will react badly to that (think of the recent UK elections, if you want evidence of how fear can mute the debate and make the main parties seem spookily similar, at national and local level). And that’s before you wonder whether enough decision-makers have the superior language capability needed, to articulate company value in a #distinctive way that everyone understands. That’s a tough ask…
So if you involve lots of people in defining your value, it’ll be heavy and hard work. And the result is that you’ll probably take the safe route. Customers will be eating vanilla ice-cream. Now there are some wonderful varieties of vanilla ice-cream. The challenge is how you get people to taste yours, when all vanilla sounds and looks the same.
But you have to involve your people, right? You need to be seen to do that – to ask for opinions, and generate ideas. And you should be doing that – you want the people involved that see value like a child they nurture. I’m in complete agreement, but its all about when. When should you ask your people for their input? My recommendation is simple. Involve as many people you like in focus groups or meetings to debate your value. Do that early in the process. And listen for the language your people use. Make sure you note and record their precise words and expressions, as they explain how they deliver value to customers (or tell you what they want to do differently). Feel their emotion. Make sure you use lots of that language in your value proposition (but don’t make it wordy). And re-tell their stories. Share their anecdotes.
But never ask a committee to develop the value proposition itself. Otherwise you’ll end up with something pretty neutral. A compromise. A consensus. And collateral (like the exhibition stand) that looks “me too” and “samey”. Instead choose a deliberately diverse group of people and bring them together. People that “get” what you’re trying to do. And lock yourselves in a room. Hire a facilitator and illustrator. And don’t come out until you’re finished. You’ll be amazed by the great results.
That becomes your value proposition. The ice-cream flavour will be at least neapolitan. Or you may have created a whole new flavour. And check out the Dorset Ice Cream @dorseticecream shop in Weymouth. 17 flavours of ice cream, and 7 sorbets. But they #standout because the flavours are #distinctive. That’s what draws in the customer. And my favourite’s the Pimm’s flavour sorbet. You really have to try it…
Earlier in the week I met with John Peters @Johnpeters1531. John is famous for being a prisoner in the Gulf War. Remember him? He was the guy whose battered and bruised face appeared in photos across the quality and popular press. It turns out he was kept in captivity for seven weeks, and became a symbol of a war that divided opinion across the UK.
Yet he doesn’t rush to tell the story (despite having met royalty, chatted to Princess Diana, followed Nelson Mandela on stage, and being a major celebrity). Instead he’s a humble human being, who talks about “being bombed etc” as if that was just part of his job. He’s gone way past the bravado I might have expected from a military hero. And I loved him for it. It demonstrated a warm and likeable style that’s important for anyone speaking at The Henley Partnership @Henley_HP.
And this told me something new about value. His humility impressed me, intrigued me and interested me. It made me look for his real value; what he offers in terms of life and work experience to the business professionals we bring into our events. It made me believe that he’ll make sense, and be valuable, to the people listening. In the Gulf it was about survival, which taught John lots about leadership. And he’s turned his experiences into a relaxed yet robust framework to help leaders thrive in an environment of uncertainty. That’s not just valuable. It’s critical to the success of anyone in a leadership role.
So back to that humility. When it comes to value, showing humility “shines and amplifies” but arrogance “dulls and deadens”. I’ve seen arrogance too much lately – from junior players in cricket to senior figures in business. It makes me focus too much on the person’s style, and not enough on their substance. And if I don’t like the style, maybe I’ll ignore the substance.
So here’s my advice. Be brilliant. Be confident. Be assured. But show that humility. Even when you’re so talented that it’s hard to be humble. Your value will be obvious to everyone, and that will really make you #standout.
P.S. Meritology’s The MERIT Method℠ includes a clear focus on how value is affected by the emotional reaction of the person receiving. This blog is just one example. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more.