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o there you are, hovering over the cheese tray at your chapter’s monthly IFMA program. You adeptly juggle your beverage and a cocktail napkin loaded with cubes of Gouda as you stand looking snappy with your name badge clipped smartly on your lapel.  Then it happens.  Inevitably, the small talk and introductions leads to someone looking down at your name tag asking THE question.  “So, what do you do?”  There are, of course, many ways to answer this question.  Think about it now.  How would you respond?  For many of us, we rattle off a quick response about what widget we produce, or which service we provide, and sometimes, barely taking a breath between the sips of chardonnay, we blandly say something as milquetoast as, “I’m in lighting.”  Having observed this countless times over the years, I am convinced that the more we grow into subject matter experts (SME) in our fields, it often happens in direct proportion to our ability to succinctly communicate what we do, and its value, to the person making the inquiry.   

Abstraction is the luxury of the expert.

-Chip Heath

At IFMA’s 2008 World Workplace in Dallas, keynote speaker and co-author of “Made to Stick,” Chip Heath, took to the stage and immediately stated to the auditorium of facility managers, “I didn’t know what a ‘facility manager’ was when I was asked to keynote this event, but now I know who you are.  [Pause] You are the ‘Decathletes of the Business World.’”  Boom!  Just like that, this Stanford professor gave a definition of our profession with a power and clarity that one would have thought would have or should have come from within our own ranks.  This was a seminal moment for me.  As Heath proceeded through his keynote on “Why some ideas survive and others die,” he issued a clear warning to the SMEs filling the seats. Simply put, he explained that the SME is cursed – cursed with knowledge.  Heath explained this “Curse of Knowledge” as he said, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.  Our knowledge has cursed us.  The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.  It becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we [SMEs] slip so easily into abstraction.”  Quite simply, SMEs forget that other people don’t know what they know.

Abstraction demands some concrete foundations. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a
house by building a roof in the air.

-Chip Heath

Make no mistake, having a successful “elevator pitch” at-the-ready is something the SME must work very hard to craft.  We must become comfortable with the distillation and even hyper-characterization of our field of expertise to connect with the person receiving the information.  The problem is that, for most SMEs, their explanations of their area of expertise will arc miles over the understanding of many listeners.  Not only is this not good for you if you are trying to build a relationship, launch a project, sign a client, or secure funding, but it is simply poor manners to shoot your explanation over the head of the person listening to you.  Taking the extra time to craft understandable and powerful explanations about your company, role, and area of expertise will pay off in many ways.  If you neglect this, you could end up like an executive I once knew.  Let’s call him “Sam.”

Sam had been in his industry for almost three decades and was a founding owner of his company and CEO.  In many ways, his company was successful and he presided over a company with some noteworthy clients.  However, when asked “what does your company do,” Sam would launch into a haunted forest of buzzwords and over-engineered business speak that was painful to watch and hear.  

After working with Sam for many years, I began watching the listeners as they politely endured these massive waves of abstract speak in response to simple questions.  Most of the time, their body language was screaming, “Make it stop! Please God, MAKE IT STOP!”  Usually, they just glazed over, and as they did, I could see them relegating Sam to the “forget” pile in their minds.  I once asked one of the other executives about this candidly and he said that beneath Sam’s verbose gobbledygook, was insecurity and a desire to appear more academically accomplished than he was.   Having known Sam for many years, he explained that Sam would launch into complex winding explanations to avoid any questions of his intelligence and ability.  Sadly, I witnessed countless occasions where Sam’s insecurity and hubris led to missed opportunities and, to put it bluntly, a degree of repulsion in people.  One would think that someone with Sam’s expertise and years of experience should have known better.  The “Curse of Knowledge” says otherwise.  Case in point: When filming a marketing piece on his company, it took Sam over forty takes to answer the question, “What does your company do?” in under sixty seconds.  How does a gifted executive with Sam’s talent and experience get to a point where he can’t even articulate what his own company does in a simple explanation?

The Proverb: A short sentence drawn from
long experience

– Cervantes

The first and most critical step the SME must take is to identify what his/her value is to the variety of stakeholders, constituents, and clients.  The next step is to create and memorize easy to understand explanations for each group.  The key is to know who the listener is first, so that you know which explanation to use.  When asked about my company, “What does DFS do?” I am not going to respond to a CFO the same way I’d respond to a Facility Manager or a social acquaintance.

CFO:  “What does ‘DFS’ do?”

Me:  “We help organizations like yours save millions of dollars in avoided costs.”

Facility Manager:  “What does ‘DFS’ do?”

Me:  “We are like the Navy Seals of the janitorial industry.”

If you picked up on it, you will see that the two examples I used are designed to do something very particular.  Most SMEs, when asked what they do, have a tendency to “show up and throw up” as they launch into an abstract tirade, trying to paint the Sistine Chapel in one sitting.  My responses (crafted using some of Heath’s techniques in “Made to Stick”) however, do something special.  They elicit a follow up question from the listener.  And just like that. BAM! You are in a conversation.  

Far too many SMEs try to get it all out there at once in their explanations of what they do, or a project idea.  It’s as if they believe if they stop talking, they will never get a chance to speak again to the listener.  This of course, is usually the result of the SMEs previous failed attempts at communicating his/her ideas.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the SME says, “People usually   

don’t understand me, and so I will communicate MORE information to them.”  Illustrating this, I once witnessed Sam show up to a thirty minute meeting and attempt to go through a PowerPoint deck with 135 slides.  Heath puts it this way, “To be simple – finding our core message – is quite difficult.  It’s certainly worth the effort, but let’s not kid ourselves that it’s easy.  Crafting our ideas in an unexpected way takes a fair amount of effort and applied creativity.  But being concrete isn’t hard,and it doesn’t require a lot of effort.  The barrier is simply forgetfulness – we forget that we’re slipping into abstractspeak.”

The key here is to create a little mystery.  Hold yourself back a little bit.  Create some powerful one-liners for your role, ideas, concepts, and industry that will actually interest someone to the point where they ask you a follow up question. Note that in a world where most people are waiting for your lips to stop moving so they can talk about themselves, a follow up question to another person is becoming rarer each day.  By abandoning pretentious, verbose descriptions and giving the listener an interesting taste, you are creating the fertile ground for a real conversation instead of throwing words at one another.  If you think listening to an SME spewing abtractspeak is painful, try attending one of their presentations where they project their Jackson Pollack-esque expertise on a screen in a conference room or auditorium.  The SME will call their slides “content rich” but you will call this evil by its rightful name: “Death by PowerPoint.”

It does not have to be this way.  Chances are, you can truly contribute positively to this world and its inhabitants with your area of expertise.  However, if you are trapped inside your own head in a maze of abstract thinking, you will never be able to reach other people with your ideas and concepts.  If you are an SME in your field and part of your responsibility is to communicate your expertise and ideas to other sentient beings, you need to get a copy of “Made to Stick.”  Below are a few tips from the Heath brothers’ book that can help you craft your ideas and communication in a way that makes them resonate and “stick” with the listener.  

Principle 1:  Simplicity

It’s about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine

It’s about elegance and prioritization, not dumbing down

“Schemas” pack a lot of meaning into a little bit of messaging by using what is already there [in people’s brains]

Analogies derive their power from schemas – like Hollywood movie pitches.  “Speed” = “Die Hard” on a bus.

Generative metaphors and proverbs both derive their power from a clever substitution:  They substitute something easy to think about for something difficult

Principle 2: Unexpectedness

Generate interest and curiosity

Create a mystery to solve

The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern

Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages

We must shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”

There is value in sequencing information – not dumping a stack of information on someone at once but by dropping a clue, then another clue, then another – like flirting

Principle 3: Concreteness

A “prop” is a better communication tool that an expert description with nuance and abstraction.

Brains are wired to remember concrete data

Human memory does not work like a filing cabinet, it works like Velcro.  The more “hooks”, the more sticky the idea.

Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience

Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it.  It also makes it harder to coordinate our activities with others, who may interpret the abstraction in very different ways. Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.

Principle 4: Credibility

When we are trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers.  But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach.

The most important thing to remember about using statistics effectively is that statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves.  Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.

Example from shipping company:  “98.84% of our deliveries arrive on time” versus “We are the only company chosen by the publisher with the accuracy and security to store and ship the ‘Harry Potter’ books on the day of release to bookstores without a leak or missed delivery.”

Principle 5: Emotions

For people to take action they have to care. The goal of making messages “emotional” is to make people care.  Feelings can inspire people to act.

We don’t have to produce emotion from an absence of emotion.  Many ideas use a piggybacking strategy, associating themselves with emotions that already exist.

WIIFY (what’s in it for you) should be a central aspect to everything.

It is the tangibility, rather than the magnitude, of the benefits that makes people care.

Principle 6: Stories

A credible idea makes people believe.  An emotional idea makes people care.  The right stories make people act.

A story, after it is told can create fertile ground in the listener’s mind for our idea to take root.

The right kind of story is, effectively, a simulation.  Stories are like flight simulators for the brain.

If you make an argument, you are implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument – judge it, debate it, criticize it – and then argue back, at least in their minds.  But with a story, you engage the audience – you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.

Other Resources:

Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

Insanely Simple by Ken Segall

Anything by Edward Tufte

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About Wayne Whitzell

Wayne is the Executive Vice President of Corporate Services for DFS Green, a company which specializes in cleaning carpets, fabrics, tile & grout, and natural stone across the United States. He is also the Vice President for IFMA’s East Bay Chapter and the inaugural recipient of the Kit Tuveson CFM Scholarship.   



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By Wayne Whitzell, LEED®AP, BEP, GBO

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