Business Development

People Don’t Understand What You Do Because…

By Anusia Gillespie, JD, MBA
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
~ George Bernard Shaw

People generally have poor awareness regarding what they know versus what other people know. It makes sense. It is impossible to know someone’s background and perspective upon introduction. Further, when we acquire new information we then adopt it into our own framework and perspective to such an extent that we forget the information isn’t general knowledge. However, this results in ineffective communication and a potential client or referral source walking away from a conversation without a clue about what it is you do.

In practice, this miscommunication emerges in a conversation that goes something like:

Scenario 1

Q: Great to meet you, what is it you do?
A: I’m an attorney and I advise microfinance institutions on developing standardized structures and documentation to increase efficiency in lending.

Q: Uh-huh. So you work with really small banks?
A: No, actually, I generally work with major investment banks to develop user-friendly, multijurisdictional legal templates for microfinance loans. And you, what do you do?

This scenario quickly evokes an image of the potential referral source’s eyes glazing over and his increasing restlessness in wanting to leave the conversation. It is readily apparent from this short conversation that the attorney hasn’t considered the professional background, knowledge base, or interests of his audience. The potential referral source makes his confusion clear in asking if the attorney works with really small banks, but the attorney proceeds with more jargon. Would you refer someone who can’t effectively communicate the work that they perform daily? Probably not.

Instead, a best practice is to find a way to communicate your work to someone with no background in your field. For example:

Scenario 2

Q: Great to meet you, what is it you do?
A: I work with large banks in microfinance lending, which is when an institution lends a small amount, as little as $20, to people and small businesses that struggle to access conventional financing, often in developing countries.

Q: That’s so interesting, what do people use a $20 loan for?
A: Well, a villager in Bangladesh might use $20 to buy a cow she can milk to start her own business. The work is rewarding because it enables those living in poverty to become more economically stable. What is it you do?

In comparing the two examples, consider:

  • Which version provides a clearer picture of the professional’s service?
  • Who would you rather work with, the jargonist or the altruist?

This best practice applies beyond your networking conversations. It represents a principle to use in creating content for your website, marketing material, and speaking engagements.