By: Daphne Taylor Street
Copyright (c) March 9, 2014
I’d cringe during introductions, especially under professional circumstances. I’m not shy, and I know I’m great at what I do, and I certainly needed to attract more prospects, but I dreaded that inevitable question much like other people dread public speaking or swimming in shark infested waters, “So, what do you do?”
Deep breath, and here we go: “I’m a writer,” I’d say.
Then they ask, of course “So, what do you write?”
“Uhhh. Just about anything. What do you need?” I’d answer.
Wrong answer. Eyes glaze over, everyone rapidly switches the subject. I didn’t even have the good fortune of a bad pitch – I had no pitch, but technically, I didn’t have a better answer. What do I write? The longer version is that I write multi-million dollar award-winning grants and proposals; create economic development and feasibility studies; press releases for celebrities, businesses and events; implement full-scale content management and social media management plans; co-author, ghost write, edit and publish books, eBooks, articles and blogs; draft business plans, marketing plans, communication plans and strategic plans; develop and co-author curricula; create project management and evaluation designs… Uh, so yeah. What do you need?
For the past couple of years these interactions always left me thinking: What the hell is it that I do, exactly? Believe me when I tell you that this isn’t good for business. For a while I survived on a few contracts. For one company I would do grant writing. Another hired me to write their press releases, for another I was securing government contracts, while another used me as a subcontractor to write investor prospectuses, proposals, governmental questionnaires, etc. The juggling act of these various jobs eventually fell apart. Between the seasonal work inherent with proposal writing and relying too heavily on the subcontracting work with a proprietor who failed to make his payment to me and has been ducking me ever since, I needed to change. Quickly! And I needed to be able to describe what it is that I do–explain it in a way that conveys value as an overall service not just a series of odd writing jobs.
Meanwhile, I had been walking to this little spot downtown nearly every Wednesday morning from my nearby apartment. A narrow building, squeezed between City Hall and a beautiful old Episcopal church, named the St. Petersburg Greenhouse. Each week I wandered in and sipped on complimentary coffee among 75 or so people–all interested in discovering new opportunities, new businesses, open to ideas and curious about one another. Of course, a native such as myself, I knew some of these folks already, but in this environment we came here for a different purpose–to support new ideas–so the conversations strayed from the usual. People talked about their projects, shared resources and introductions, and they chatted about why they are anticipating hearing the next speaker.
The next speaker–that’s what we are all truly here for! This is 1 Million Cups, a national movement that has created a supportive environment of entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. Each week, two speakers get six minutes to give an educational presentation about their business followed by twenty minutes of constructive feedback and questions from the audience. Every week I’ve gone, I came away inspired, I learned something and I felt connected to this group. I decided that I needed to speak, but if I couldn’t figure out how to explain what I do, no matter how great I might be at public speaking, this would be a disaster.
Perfect! I thought to myself, I’m great at mitigating disasters! So, I went home to fill out the application to present on-line. Here’s the funny part–it’s not just a simple application about your topic and such. It asks real questions about your business, the kinds of questions that could be a little challenging to someone like me who’s more than a little scattered about what it is that I do. Again, perfect! The act of answering these questions forced me to figure out some of the things that I needed to get clear about and fast. I was re-developing my business as I was filling out an application to give a presentation on it.
As it turns out, 1 Million Cups is not just about promoting and supporting entrepreneurs, but it also is an educational platform, helping participants build skills and tools needed for success. That certainly proved true for me. After filling out the on-line application, I also had to build a new website that would further explain my business, so that at least audience members to connect with something for more content, samples, testimonials, etc., and I had to design the 6-minute presentation.
Now, let that sink in for a second. How much stronger would a business pitch be if it had to go through all of that work for the sole purpose of bringing clarity to answering three simple questions: 1) What do you do?; 2) How can that help me?; and 3) Why are you the best person to do it?
So, there I was, the morning of the presentation. As is my custom, I walked there and I ended up arriving way too early. I stood in the darkened room for a bit, thinking cheerfully about what I had just created, all of the work and mistakes that I made to get to at least this slight bit of clarity where I can finally explain to an audience–What do I do? Slowly others started to arrive, and I couldn’t wait to show off my creation. I pitched, and I had fun! The feedback and questions from the audience were thoughtful, and I sensed that I had sparked some interest in at least a handful of people. I was right, following the presentations, I had people waiting behind just to speak with me about potential projects and collaborations. I received a handful of business cards from people wanting to meet with them, and others emailed me asking for project proposals. The end result was more than I could have hoped for, and the overall experience was absolutely critical as it helped this new phase of my career take shape.
Thank you, 1 Million Cups St. Petersburg! I’ll see you Wednesday.