Everything you’re about to read in this article can be summed up in a sentence: How you talk about your work determines whether people value it.
The people who pay for your work can almost never actually see its value, nor can they see the effort you’ve put into it. Even when they can, they usually don’t want to.
Why? Because they’re doing their own work. They’re putting effort into their own things, and just like you, they’re tired. And just like you, they want to be recognized for the value of their own work. They have very little room to care about anyone else’s need to be recognized.
This doesn’t mean you can’t get them to be excited about your work and excited to reward you for it. You just have to be strategic about how you pitch and present it to them.
Bosses, clients, customers — anyone paying you for your work — are all paying for one thing: to make their lives easier. Your work must either be supporting their own work or supporting them as a person. (If you can do both, you’re golden).
Think about the people you hire yourself. Say you hire a math tutor for your child. Before I became a salary increase coach, I was a tutor (among other things), so let’s call this tutor Dave. Do you care how hard Dave works as a tutor? Maybe, but not really. All you care about is whether he can help your child get better grades and test scores. If the grades and scores go up, you don’t really care how as long as Dave isn’t taking the tests for your child himself.
If Dave tells you anything about his work, you want him to keep it short and simple. You don’t care about his brilliant method of simplifying logarithms. In fact, the less you have to listen to anyone talk about logarithms in your adult life, the better.
What’s most important is that you believe you have a good tutor, and maybe that you can explain to other parents that you have an amazing tutor, in case they need a recommendation.
Back to people paying you for your work. They are constantly evaluating the cost/benefit of paying attention to you. Ideally, they’d never hear from you, yet all their problems would get solved.
In reality, you do have to talk about your work from time to time. You have to pitch people on your ideas, convince them to let you work on certain projects and sometimes convince them to give you more time or resources to finish those projects. Once you finish a project, you might have to convince people to use the products or methods you created, and you might even have to teach people how to use them. In job interviews, you have to convince people to invest in you as a member of their team and community.
The Wrong Way
Early on in our careers, before we’re confident in our abilities, we often show our work to other people in the exact wrong way. We walk them through our whole process from start to finish.
Let’s say I’m an intern, and you’re my boss. You ask me to find out why the sky is blue. I do a whole bunch of research and get an answer. I’m excited to tell you all about it, because you’ll be proud of me and reward me in various ways.
So the big moment comes. I say, “You wanted me to answer the question ‘why is the sky blue?’ Well, I’ve got the answer!”
I continue, “Here it is. First, I searched for ‘sky’ and ‘blue.’ But of course, sometimes the sky isn’t blue! It’s orange, and purple! We have sunsets, as you may already know. It’s actually all about physics, specifically electrons and wavelengths…blue is the highest frequency wavelength.”
Is this interesting to you? I hope so! But, sigh, you look bored.
Why would I present my work to you in this plodding way? Because first, I did all this work! For you! I want you to know how much I care, and how hard a worker I am! Also if I’m not fully confident in my abilities, I want reassurance that I’ve taken the right steps and haven’t missed anything. I did it right, right?
But that’s not what I tell myself. In my mind, I’m being fully transparent, which is for your sake. I’m taking you on a step-by-step journey, so you’ll fully understand the answer, the way I do.
Fair enough. Many people present their work this way because they think it’s valuable. But it’s boring to be walked through someone’s meander when all you care about is the view from their destination.
Instead of starting by telling you what I did first, I should’ve started by telling you something you would find intriguing. This might be the final answer, something else surprising, or something interesting to you because of your identity and past experience.
So maybe my presentation should’ve started with, “The sky is blue because blue is the ‘thickest’ color of light.”
Then I could pause and wait to see how you react. Do you look engaged? Are you going to ask me a question? Does it make sense to you? Do you think it’s interesting at all? Your reaction is the most important part of the whole presentation, so I should pay close attention to it.
Let’s say you don’t react at all. You’re waiting for me to continue. That’s good, you’re engaged. So I go on a bit more.
“Other colors pass through the atmosphere, but blue light is so dense that it slams right into the atmosphere. The light scatters across the sky like blue paint hitting a glass ball.”
I pause again and look at you. No reaction. Is that a little look of confusion? Instead of powering through, hoping to stumble upon your appreciation, I say, “I’m not sure if that all makes sense to you.” I’m inviting you to ask a question.
“No no,” you say, “it makes sense. I’m just wondering what you mean by ‘thick’ and ‘dense.’”
This is exactly what I want. Instead of bumbling through my whole presentation, not knowing what to say and when, I can address your specific question, knowing that you actually care about the answer. You care about what I’m saying, and now it’s an engaging conversation, not a monologue about how I’m such a good researcher.
This tale highlights the essence of how to communicate your full value. Assuming you have something of value to tell the other person, the order and rhythm in which you say it matters.
Before You Start
Here are the two steps to prepare for a presentation:
- Figure out what the most intriguing part is from the perspective of your audience. We call these “headlines.” Write down 2-3 of these.
- Prepare some question invitations. “I’m not sure if that makes sense to you,” for example. Or, “I’m not sure what you think about all that.” Or come up with your own.
Question invitations like the ones in step 2 are good because they encourage questions. Most people simply ask, “does that make sense?” or “any questions about that?”
What is everyone’s knee-jerk reaction to these? “Yes” and “No.” You don’t get any information about their level of engagement, and you’re losing the opportunity to increase it.
The most engaging presentation has a three-step rhythm.
- Say your first headline.
- Pause and check for engagement. Invite questions if you’re not sure what the other person is thinking.
- Answer their questions as briefly as possible, and end on another headline (or a paraphrase of the same headline).
This rhythm works equally well in an interview, 1-on-1 presentation, or pitch. (It’s a little more complicated presenting in groups because the audience is less willing to ask questions. You have to invite engagement in different ways, beyond the scope of this article.)
Again, the rhythm is: say headline, pause and check for engagement, invite questions, answer questions with a few more details, and repeat with another headline.
The most common question people get asked in job interviews is “Tell me about yourself.” The answer to this shouldn’t be, “Well, I grew up in Long Island and went to college at Yale,” or wherever you grew up and went to college.
The answer should be your professional headline. “Well, basically I love preventing logistical problems. When releasing new products to users, there are often lots of issues, and I’ve spent the last six years learning how to anticipate them.” Pause, and check for engagement. Invite questions: “Not sure if you’re interested in any specific part of that, or something else.”
Communicating your full value is more about the person you’re talking to than it is about your actual work.
It’s about whether you can give them an easy explanation for why your work is valuable. That explanation has to be easy for them to remember. But before they can even remember it, they have to pay attention to you.
You will almost never know beforehand what will stick most with your listener. You have to feel it out by testing out a headline and inviting questions.
It’s a rhythm. You already do it whenever you’re fully confident and not rushing to impress anyone. Now you know how to emulate that mental state at any time. Find your headlines, invite questions, and repeat.
Indeed Editorial Team. “21 Job Interview Tips: How to Make a Great Impression.” Indeed Career Guide, Indeed, https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/interviewing/job-interview-tips-how-to-make-a-great-impression.
Torre, José. “7 Tips to Present Your Work like a Boss.” Medium, Springboard, 28 Nov. 2017, https://medium.springboard.com/7-tips-to-present-your-work-like-a-boss-b0d308ca60e6.