What would you say if I asked you this question?

“The first question that most consumers are going to ask about your company is what do you do? This is one of the most profound questions that the business world will ever answer. Yet, most do an abysmal job of answering it.”

This is a quote from Richard Saul Wurman, author of the book ‘Information Anxiety’ (1989), creator of TED and the man credited with inventing the term ‘information architecture’.

Essentially, it’s a book I can highly recommend about information overload and the widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. But my favourite chapter examines the ‘what do you do’ question, which will soon have a major impact on most of us, 31 years after it was written.

At the moment, during the global pandemic, the league table of ‘important’ businesses is topped by companies who make plastic gowns, masks, respirators and testing kits.

The general effect of this, on top of all we are reading and watching about the global re-boot, is that your business could soon be perceived as offering something fluffy or nice-to-have-but-not-now.

If, as a business owner, you violently disagree with this perception and feel that you deserve to stay on the shopping list, then you need to redefine what you do in the new world context. Because the context is currently in the driving seat.

For example, the quaint old British milkman was almost extinct until recently, when tens of thousands of UK consumers suddenly saw that ‘regular, contactless doorstep dairy product delivery’ was just what they needed.

Like most people, I understand what milk is. I know what a hairdresser does. Similarly, I could explain a day in the life of a funeral director. Where it gets difficult is when you’re trying to explain what you do in a less well-understood industry sector.

Most businesses fall at the first hurdle because they seem like they don’t understand the question, even though it’s a pretty straightforward one.

They think the question was ‘Why are you better than the competition?’ Or, ‘What value do you offer in your marketplace?’ Or, ‘Can you explain your product range in an impressive way?’

This explains why a famous window manufacturer suggests it makes ‘daylight solutions’. Or a guy with a truck says he’s in the ‘supply chain integration’ sector.

Here’s how it should work:

I ask you ‘what do you do?’ And you answer using plain English. Consequently, I get it.

It doesn’t matter if someone else does the same thing. Because, now I understand what you do, I can ask you why you do it better or differently. Whereas, if you bamboozle me, you won’t get the opportunity.

The purpose of your straight-talking answer is to tell the questioner whether they should be interested in continuing the discussion. Or not.

So, try to make your answer one sentence. Avoid so-called Elevator Speeches or Value Propositions. These have different purposes. One of which seems to create utter confusion.

Next, avoid jargon and industry-speak. Ask yourself how you would explain it to your mother? To her, a burning platform is a sixties fashion shoe that someone set on fire. A silo is what the farmer keeps his grain in. And the only thing she’s happy talking about at a granular level is sugar.

Finally, resist hyperbole. Remember, this is not a competitive statement.

COVID-19 is just the latest excuse to get this question sorted for your business. And my premise is based on my expectation that clients in the post-virus world will be less patient with fluffy propositions.

Whether I’m right or wrong, though, why wouldn’t you want to explain what you do clearly?




I turn fluff into concrete. I help businesses communicate the most complicated things clearly and simply.

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Philip Morley

Philip Morley

I turn fluff into concrete. I help businesses communicate the most complicated things clearly and simply.

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