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Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The curse of waffle - an Indian perspective

Has this ever happened to you?

It happens to me all the time - and did again today.

Somebody suggested I approach a possible client, so I went first to their website.

For the life of me I couldn't understand what they do. I could see vaguely who they were selling to, but how exactly they were going to help - what precisely they do - was utterly unclear.

There were just a lot of fancy words like "innovative solutions", "state of the art" and "cutting edge".

I know I'm not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I imagine many of their prospects are equally thick.

So how many times do you go onto a website and utterly fail to understand what the hell they are selling?

This comes to mind because of a message I got recently from an old friend. I first met him in 1987 when I went to India to help set up O & M Direct, which was about the first proper direct marketing agency there.

It was David Ogilvy's idea that I go, and it led to one of the best experiences I have ever had. I made some wonderful friends, including R. Sridhar, who was in charge of the new venture and whose rather earnest picture is above.

We've kept in touch, and he sent me this dialogue.

“Good morning!”

I heard the familiar voice and I knew it was Prasna Rao.

“Morning Prasna. Where were you all these days?”

“Remember, I am the one who asks questions.”

“Ok, please ask your question then.”

“Remember the Ogilvy party you attended last month?”

“Yes, it was nice.”

“Remember you met several old friends and a few who you did not know?”

“I do.”

“They asked you a simple question and you failed miserably in answering it.”


“Yes, the question was: ‘What do you do?’ I am going to ask you that question now. So, what do you do?”

“I am a consultant.”

“That is what you are, but it does not answer the question. So, what do you do?”

“I am an Innovation Coach.”

“That sounds very fancy, but what do you do?”

“I am in the Corporate Creativity and Innovation Domain.”

“Pompous but useless. What do you do Sridhar?”

“I run IDEAS-RS, a professional consulting firm.”

“Says nothing. What do you do?”

“Prasna, do you have to take yourself so seriously?”

“Yes, especially when you sound so bad. Let me explain. When people ask you the question ‘What do you do’, you can convert that into an excellent conversation starter or make it a dead end. All your answers so far are dead end answers. So let us try again. What do you do?”

“I am stuck. Give me some help Prasna. How do I tackle this?”

“Ok. Try filling the blanks in these three sentences:

‘I’m a ________(descriptor/designation/profession). I help _______ (people/clients) who want to ______ (benefit)’

‘I work with _______(people/clients) who want to ________ (benefit)

‘I’m like a ________ (descriptor/metaphor). I specialise in helping __________ (people/clients) __________ (benefits)’

“You think this will work?”

“Why don’t you try first?”

“I’m an Innovation Coach. I help my clients who want to get out of habitual thinking and open their minds to fresh new ideas.’

“Can you make it tighter. Say it aloud. Shorten the second half of your answer.”

‘I’m an Innovation Coach. I help clients who want to get rid of mental blocks.”

“Sounds better. Let us try the other two. What do you do?”

“I work with clients who want to get new ideas for business growth.”

“I work with clients who want to develop new product ideas.”

“I work with ambitious clients who want to achieve impossible goals.”

“You are getting it Sridhar. Let us try the last one now. What do you do?”

“I’m like a plumber. I specialise in helping clients remove their mental blocks and facilitate a continuous flow of fresh ideas.”

“I’m like a mental lubricant. I specialise in helping clients overcome their barriers to new ideas”

“I’m like a coach. I specialise in helping clients win in the innovation game.”

‘I’m like a mental broom. I specialise in helping managers remove the cobwebs in their thinking.”

“You are getting better. Do you know why I asked you to do this?”

“No. Why did you ask me to do this?”

“Because you were missing opportunities to share with people some of the interesting things you do.”

“But how will these answers help?”

“In 90% of the cases it will lead the other person to ask ‘How do you do that?’ and opens the door for a dialogue. Unless of course you make that answer pompous and boring. and create a new dead end.”

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