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Want to play a game? Here’s how it works:

Without reading any further, make a list of the last five people you’ve had a conversation with. Not necessarily a long conversation, but more than just “Hello.”

Got it? Here are mine:

  • The mailman
  • A guy who we may hire to paint our house
  • A guy in Starbucks who asked me to watch his computer while he went to the men’s room
  • A woman from my neighborhood who I ran into at the supermarket
  • The man behind the counter at CVS when I went in to pick up a prescription for a persistent itch (it was for a friend)

So here’s the question: How many of the people on your list are potential clients?

In my case–and I bet yours, too–it’s maybe one (and more likely, zero).

No surprise there. Most of the people we meet, day in and day out, are not prospects–and never will be.

Sure, you may attend a networking meeting now and then that’s filled with these kinds of people. But most days, most conversations are had with random, never-gonna-buy people we barely know.

Which is why it seems to me that traditional “elevator pitches”–highly polished, benefit-laden, well-rehearsed sentences in which we seek to impress, generate interest and start down the road to a sales conversation–are a waste of time.

Not because we don’t want to impress, generate interest, and start down the road to a sales conversation. And not because they don’t help, given the right situation.

It’s just that the vast, vast majority of people you interact with every day will never be in a position to hire you. Not today, not tomorrow… not ever. (Feel free to review your list of five.)

So here’s an idea. What if, in addition to planning for those few-and-far-between prospect discussions, you spent some time figuring out what to say during the frequent, casual conversations you have every day?

The ones where somebody innocently asks, “What kind of work do you do?”

Make word of mouth work for you

Done well, answering the question isn’t about impressing or generating interest.

It’s about this, and nothing more: Getting them to remember what you do so they can tell other people.

Why is that so important? Because that’s how word of mouth works.

Two people are sitting at a football game. Or having lunch. Or standing barefoot together in a big barrel on the back deck stomping cranberries in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner (is that just my family?). One of them says the magic words:

“Do you know someone who can help with… ?”

When that happens, and assuming you’ve done the spade work of telling lots of people over lots of casual interactions what you do, your name pops into the head of somebody’s cranberry-stomping brother-in-law and he tells the other guy about you.

Your description has to be super-simple and specific

People don’t go looking for solutions to their problems “in general.” They have specific needs in specific situations.

Which is why until the day arrives that somebody leans over to a friend at the local bar and asks, “Hey, by the way, can you recommend a results-oriented, well-rounded professional with a proven track record of enhancing growth among a range of clients and industries?”, you’re wasting your time describing yourself that way.

Here, for example, are three answers to the “What do you do?” question developed by participants in my six-month marketing course:

  • “I help hospitals meet their real estate needs.”
  • “I help couples in divorce maintain mutual respect.”
  • “I help public agencies recover overcharges from their utility providers.”

Are they oversimplifications? You bet they are. But that’s your only option if you hope to be understood and remembered.

Note as well that none of these three sentences talks about credentials, experience, results, or methodology.

Why not?

  • Because the person you chat with during one of these casual encounters doesn’t care and will never remember that kind of detail anyway.
  • Because when the “Do you know someone… ?” question is asked, all people are looking for is to be pointed in the right direction.

Your one and only goal at this early stage is to be the person to whom others are pointed.

The bottom line

Are sales skills, experience, credentials, and data-filled client result examples important in getting somebody to hire us? Absolutely. Until a prospective client is convinced that we’re worth spending money on, it’s never going to happen.

But most conversations–the casual conversations with near-strangers that will ultimately lead to word of mouth on your behalf–take place way before any selling occurs.

If you want the word-of-mouth machine to grind for your benefit, simplify the description of what you do so that other humans can understand it, remember it, and pass it along when the opportunity arises.

Michael Katz is Founder and Chief Penguin of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes helping professional service providers position themselves as Likeable Experts. Sign up for his free newsletter, The Likeable Expert Gazette, here.