Much to the surprise of nobody who’s ever heard me try and pronounce the word “drawer,” I grew up on Long Island. It was a nice place to be a kid and while I confess that I don’t have a very clear recollection of the details, I have good reason to believe that I had a happy childhood. Spring, in particular, brought with it a number of things worth smiling about. Bike riding, tree climbing, and stickball in the street, to name just a few. None of these things, however, compared in wonderfulness to the biggest springtime thrill of all: The annual return of the Ice Cream Man.
It never occurred to us to wonder where he went during the winter (thinking back now about the man himself, I’m guessing either prison or Congress), but it didn’t matter. All we knew was that come mid-May, daily afternoon ice cream was back on the menu. Back then, the Ice Cream Man sold nothing but ice cream. His truck was literally just a big freezer on wheels. Fast forward to the current century and you’ll be happy to learn that my neighborhood also has an ice cream man. With a few important differences:
- First, he’s not always a man.
- Second, he traded the jingly bells for a blaring, circus-afied version of the theme from The Sting (for his own peace of mind, I can only hope that Scott Joplin is still dead).
- And finally, he sells much more than just ice cream. There’s gum. And candy. And soda. And Slim Jims. It’s like a mobile 7-Eleven, minus the disgusting bathroom (I’m hoping).
And yet, we still refer to him (and sometimes her) as “The Ice Cream Man.” Is it an entirely accurate moniker? Clearly not. What it is, however, is a more or less, if you had to pick one thing, oversimplified, easy to say, effortless to remember, description of reality. Now let’s talk about you.
Are you The Ice Cream Man or Are You a 7-Eleven?
In other words, when somebody asks you about your work, do you launch into a rambling blah blah that differs from day to day and covers the entire scope of what you have done and can do? Or, do you provide a deliberately oversimplified few words that sacrifice accuracy for unforgettableness? Here're some things worth noting:
A Broad Scope is Hard to Remember
The contents of a 7-Eleven are so unremarkable and so random that the store has decided that its most distinguishing feature – and therefore the one for which it should be named – is its hours of operation.
The Ice Cream Man, on the other hand, owns “ice cream” in the mind of every 10-year-old on the block. Kids (and some adults) literally chase him down the street.
A Narrow Description Doesn’t Preclude Selling Other Things
The modern ice cream man sells all kinds of other products. But we still call him The Ice Cream Man.
Similarly, just because you narrowly describe your focus when asked, it doesn’t mean you can’t sell other things. I tell people, “I specialize in email newsletters,” even though what I actually do is much broader.
Nobody but You is Paying Attention to You
We’re all busy and we’re all preoccupied with our own stuff. With a few notable exceptions (hi mom), when it comes to being remembered (which leads to being referred which leads to being hired) you have but two options: simple or nothing.
The Bottom Line
I know you’ve done a lot in your professional life and I know that you’re capable of that and much more. But if your description of your work doesn’t fit easily on the side of a truck, the odds of my understanding it – much less remembering it – are exceedingly low.
Remember, if the way you describe the work you do doesn’t feel like a painful oversimplification, you’re not doing it right.