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Finding the right words to fit in between the commas

By Guest Columnist CHRIS SCHRODER, publisher of SaportaReport.com, president of Schroder Public Relations and a former newspaper reporter and publisher

A few years ago a woman called me in desperate need of communications help. She had just left a top law firm in the city, was hanging out her own shingle and was hoping to attract clients to her new business. She had one minor problem: She could not begin to explain to me or anyone else what it was she actually did in her job.

“I’m a very smart lawyer, went to the best schools and closed many cases successfully while working at my big law firm,” she said. “But now that I’m on my own, I don’t know how to sell my services.”

She’s not alone. One time I met an executive in line for coffee at Starbucks and we struck up a conversation about marketing. “My firm needs marketing help,” he said. “Check out our website and let me know what you think.”

I knew this firm was a multi-million dollar business and provided an important data product to some of the top brands in business. But after reading through its entire website, I could not begin to tell you what it actually did. The website was chock-full of words. I could tell they were in English, but they were strung together in such a way that they had no real meaning.

Chris Schroder

Another time, an international service firm asked me to help with placing some news stories about their work. After a full-page story appeared in the AJC, I was invited to a meeting in the office of their chief marketing officer. “You have a CMO?” I said. “Sure, I’ll take that meeting.” A few minutes into the meeting, the CMO pulled a large binder off the shelf behind his desk.

“This is our Branding Book,” he said, obviously proud of a lengthy process that had cost tens of thousands of dollars and resulted in a “branding statement” that was to govern all their communications going forward. “What do you think of it?” he asked me.

I knew I had a problem. Tell him the truth and I risked insulting his recent project and would no doubt not be invited back into that firm again. Tell a white lie, saying I thought it was a wonderful branding statement, and I would be saddled with using it in future public relations projects. I knew it wouldn’t be effective with the media.

“It’s a nice statement,” I said. “But you will never ever see that sentence ‘between the commas.’ ”

“What do you mean, ‘between the commas?’ ” he asked.

“That’s not a natural phrase that will end up being used in any story we place in newspapers or magazines. We’ll need to come up with something more accessible,” I said. And we did.

It’s a natural problem for many businesses, from an entrepreneur starting her own firm to a huge conglomerate: They are very good at what they do, but they are very bad at telling people what that is, exactly. While very skilled in their professional disciplines, these experts fumble a fundamental need for their businesses: communicating clearly what benefits a potential client will receive from hiring them.

Here’s what I do when I’m hired to help in such a case. I sit down with the businessperson for two or three hours and ask him or her to tell me stories about how they helped clients solve problems. I seek details … step by step. Then I ask them why their clients received better service from them than if they had hired a competitor. And then I shut up and listen and take lots of notes.

Somewhere in the next few hours an important narrative will emerge that distinguishes them from others with similar skills. They’re faster, cheaper, smarter, better, more creative or more ingenious or work harder than their competitors down the street.

My job is to catalog all those words and excavate three to five fresh, rarely used, jargon-free words that communicate clearly to a future prospect exactly what it is they do.

Many people say all you need is an “elevator statement.” (If you had to tell someone on an elevator what it is you do, what would you communicate quickly?) I think that is dangerous. Elevator doors open and people walk away and frankly, most of the elevator statements I have heard would make me jump off as soon as the elevator doors opened, even if it wasn’t my floor.

I tell clients they need a concept I developed — the “Client Pitch Pyramid.” This pyramid is built with all the materials that come out of a several-hour session of telling me stories of how they, in turn, helped their clients solve their most perplexing problems.

From that, we first build the foundation of the pyramid: a paragraph containing three to four sentences that distinctly conveys their most appealing success stories of how they solved their clients’ problems.

Atop that goes a layer that describes common obstacles their clients face in doing business — obstacles my clients are able to solve for them. The next layer up is a 12- to 15-word sentence that explains further what is in the top of the pyramid: five to eight words that concisely explain the reason someone would hire their firm, a phrase that is meant to result in the prospect raising an eyebrow, being intrigued and wanting to know more.

Once the Client Pitch Pyramid is built from the ground up, you deliver it to a prospect in reverse order. Starting with the apex of the pyramid with each layer, you draw your prospect further into your explanation of what you can do for them, using interesting words that make sense to nearly anyone you meet, whether it is at Starbucks, in an office – or even in an elevator.

I knew I had succeeded in helping the new lawyer start her own firm when at the end of our session she recited the Client Pitch Pyramid that we had written together and she said, ” I am so excited about tomorrow morning.”

“Why?” I asked.

“For the first time in a long time, I’ll be able to pick up the phone, call my friends and clients and tell them exactly what I do and, best of all, they will understand right away what that is.”

It’s always rewarding to me when I help clients who are otherwise excellent at their business be able to explain clearly what it is they really do. It is generally financially rewarding for the clients as well. They are able to sell their product or service with more confidence. Or even sell the entire company. After helping rebrand the firm of the man I met in line at Starbucks (which included a new website), he and his partners sold the company to a much larger entity for a huge sum.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

1 reply
  1. DougAlexander says:

    Reminds me of a client I helped a long while back. He was a chiropractor with an office in a local strip mall. Perhaps his biggest problem was the sign over the door. “BACK PAIN!” it said in huge letters. Why, I asked, would anyone come into a store for back pain? After all, you can get back pain for free from your spouse, your children, your job… pretty much anywhere!Report

    Reply

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