Clay Hebert once attended a conference in San Diego. He sat next to a fellow who inquired about his work. “What do you do?” the fellow asked.
Describing the encounter, Hebert told me, “That question stumped me. I said I was from Wisconsin, and I’m a Packer fan. I ran through every city I’d lived in and my favorite flavors of ice cream.”
Hebert had fumbled his introduction to Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, which powers roughly 25% of the global internet.
Thus launched Hebert’s fascination with how we introduce ourselves and, in turn, how we position our companies to outsiders.
He and I discussed it in our recent conversation. Our entire audio is embedded below. The ensuing transcript is edited for length and clarity.
Eric Bandholz: What’s your story? Give us the elevator pitch.
Clay Hebert: One of the main things I do is destroy the elevator pitch. Nobody wants to be pitched in an elevator.
The goal, instead, is to have an interesting human conversation. I teach companies, brands, entrepreneurs, and employees how to answer the question you just asked me: “What’s your story? What do you do?” A lot of people do incredible, amazing work and then struggle with explaining it to others.
My focus started in 2013. I lived in New York City. A friend told me about a conference in San Diego. And I had lived in San Diego, and I was trying to get back there. He didn’t pressure me to attend. He only said, “The speakers will be amazing. The attendees will be amazing.”
So I bought a ticket. I went there, arriving a bit late. I sat in the back. The first speaker was indeed amazing. Afterward, he said, “Turn around, meet the person next to you.” So I turned, and the guy said, “What’s your name? What do you do?” That question — “What do you do?” — stumped me. I rambled on and on. I told him I was from Wisconsin, and I’m a Packer fan. I ran through every city I’d lived in and my favorite flavors of ice cream.
After rambling for a few minutes, I asked him, “What’s your name? What do you do?” He was the coolest guy. He said, “My name’s Matt. And I run a software company.”
I responded by saying I was into software, into startups. I then asked him the name of his company.
“It’s called Automattic,” he said. And that moment, I realized I was talking to Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress. I didn’t recognize him immediately. I realized I had blown my introduction to the guy who invented the software that powers one-quarter of the internet.
So I skipped the next speaker. I walked around the grounds, pounding my forehead like Chris Farley, “I’m so stupid. Why did I do that?” So that was the start of my fascination with how we introduce ourselves.
It usually starts with, “What do you do?” But how do we tell the story of our work? I’ve always been intrigued with positioning, marketing, messaging. Introducing ourselves, explaining what we do — it happens frequently. In some form or another, we interact with new people every day. Usually they ask some version of, “What do you do?” Just like you did.
We usually have a pretty terrible answer. So since 2013, I’ve been helping people improve how they answer that question by making it not about them but about the people they help. And not by listing bullet points, like a resume, but by describing their customer.
I call it a case story — versus a case study. Say I ask you, Eric, what you do. Your reply will hopefully prompt me to respond, “What do you mean?”
You would then walk me through the story of a Beardbrand client. Perhaps he didn’t think he could grow a beard. Maybe he wanted to upgrade his life, his fashion, and his style. His beard was part of it. And then you tell me about the customer. You tell me his name. You take me through his entire story. In the end, you state with calm confidence, “That’s what we do.”
Within two minutes, I understand Beardbrand better than if you had described your products.
Bandholz: I’ve been meeting people my entire career. Networking’s in my blood. But I don’t know how to respond to folks who have never heard of Beardbrand.
Hebert: It’s not about pounding your chest. The basic formula is, “We help people.” So, address what you help customers achieve or become. It’s not the beard products.
For example, I used to advise folks using crowdfunding, such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. I would say, “I help entrepreneurs fund their dreams.” I never said I’m a Kickstarter strategist or an Indiegogo expert. I help entrepreneurs fund their dreams. Flip that phrase around, and you have a pretty good website or campaign headline: “Fund your dream.”
Bandholz: Ours is, “We make men awesome.”
Hebert: That’s perfect. That’s your response when you’re on an airplane, and someone asks what you do. That person’s response could then be, “What do you mean? How do you do that?” Your answer is not to list your products. It’s, “Let me tell you a story.”
Bandholz: How can listeners connect with you?