What do you do? If there is a single word that describes your profession, hobby, or life’s passion it makes the conversation easy. Doctor, lawyer, accountant, lifeguard. It gets much harder when your work doesn’t fit into one word that is immediately recognizable or completely descriptive. Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Surf Life Saving, swimming pool safety expert, researcher in child safety issues focusing on drowning prevention in low-income countries. Huh? Even harder when explaining what you do requires at least a paragraph, if not a small book, to totally capture the passion you feel for your work and the complexity inherent in drowning prevention. The danger is in assuming that everyone else cares enough to find out more, to listen to your whole spiel. Sorry, but they don’t. You care desperately about what you do, but how do you convince others that they should care, listen and change their behavior around water?
I’ve repeatedly heard, and rightfully so, that drowning is too complex to be contained in one solution, one elevator speech, one tweet, one program. True. Unfortunately that does not mean the general public, or even your significant other, is willing to listen to more than the 140 characters or the 3 minutes on YouTube that studies show is the current attention span. In fact, I’m willing to bet your family’s and close friends’ eyes start glazing over just as you begin to gather steam. You can have the best program in the world, be the expert in your field, KNOW what will make a difference and reduce drowning, but unless you are communicating effectively – within the parameters set by society – you can only hope for incremental change or engagement. And no, the public isn’t stupid or uncaring, they’ll listen and change if they understand why it’s important, but if you want to capture their attention you need to be able to summarize what you do quickly, succinctly, and enticingly. Think of dropping juicy morsels along the conversational path – enough to whet their appetite and leap on the next morsel, but not so much that they go into sensory overload and shut down.
The best money any individual or program can spend is for a few hours with a professional writer or an expert in marketing and have them use their expertise to translate what you do into a mission statement, elevator speech, or pitch to investors or donors. If you are an expert, you forget that others don’t speak the same language (who outside of the field knows what a PFD is? and what on earth is ‘appropriate supervision’?). 99.9% of the world doesn’t have the background, the knowledge, the expertise or the passion to know, or care, about drowning prevention. But what a professional CAN do is take your knowledge and distill it into something that will get people’s attention and allow you to engage them in conversation. Yes, I’ve done that, best money I’ve spent, and more importantly, explaining to the communication expert helped me to understand what people outside the field perceive about drowning, what questions they have, and what gets their attention the most. Think of it as dating. Sure, there may be a few of you who got the thunderbolt of ‘love at first sight’ and no other information is necessary, but for the most part it’s a process, a communication, a ‘getting to know you’ and make sure you understand what each other is saying and thinking. The whole point of an elevator speech or cocktail conversation isn’t to convey everything you know and to convince them in one go – it’s to get the other person interested enough to learn more. You are an expert at what you do. Hire an expert in communications, marketing, writing or branding to do what they do best so that other people appreciate your expertise. I knew I needed help translating my shy, bone-deep-geek, statistics-junkie spiel into a compelling ice-breaker, elevator speech, and ultimately convincing conversation. And hey, if I can do it, trust me, anyone can, because I am seriously geeky.
So, what do I do? Here’s a sample conversation….I save children from drowning across the globe? Drowning? Yes, one child drowns every minute. I had no idea! It’s a global epidemic that has only recently been identified by UNICEF. But how/where do children drown? or….Do you teach swimming? And at this point I have their attention, I’ve communicated that child drowning is a serious issue, and there is a good chance I can continue to both educate them, and as importantly, to learn why people don’t think drowning is an issue or to correct misconceptions.
You are brilliant at what you do – make sure you have an elevator speech and public persona that reflect that skill and help you communicate effectively.