forget elevator pitches

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I was driving down a long country road in central North Carolina, windows down in my pickup truck, paint-splattered smocks in the cab, purple wisteria blooming and yellow pollen clouding up in the pastures to both sides. I did not have the radio on. I was rehearsing. Small tweaks to the same six sentences over and over again.

I would soon be standing with a microphone in front of 250 children who don’t know me. They would be assembled in a gym or an auditoriums or most probably in a multi-purpose room, probably sitting on the floor, probably a wide range of grades, probably pretty wiggly. They’ll all be quietly looking at me or quietly picking at their shoes, having just been reminded of their individual responsibility to show their jaguar-eagle-panda-iguana pride by being excellent audience members.

These children will not be there to see me. They’ll be there to see other teaching artists I’ve brought to their schools, amazing teaching artists who will have even the most reluctant among them singing, clapping, or at the very least smiling within the next hour. It’s my job to introduce myself, the program and the sponsors who made it happen for them, and the artists they’re about to see. Quickly and happily.

The brevity of these little talks like these can trick a person. A tiny talk—an introduction or the like—in front of a crowd of people who don’t know you can seem like a throwaway, something you barely need to think about, something you could have a piece of paper in hand for, something that will be over before you blink so just say some stuff and get outta there.

But brevity is hard. And so is holding up the energy net with 250 second- through eighth-graders so you don’t lose them before the real show starts. And you can definitely, surely, absolutely lose them in two minutes.

You know what the hardest part is?

The part where I say my name and what I do for my work.

What is my job, and why should they care? Why am I even standing there, and is it worth listening to what I have to say for a minute or two instead of daydreaming about unfinished homework or friend drama or whatever’s going on at home?

Lemme tell ya: Forget elevator pitches. See if you can explain your work to children—or just one child—in one sentence, in a way they understand, in a way that makes them just a little bit curious.

If you can do that, you’ve now got a much better way to explain your job to grown-up, too. A quick opening to your tiny talks that doesn’t have them itching to pick up their cell phones.

And you’ve also got a much better way to explain your job to yourself. A reminder for the moments when you’re buried in minutiae or mired down on a decision. A straightforward direction check like your own leadership mission statement: This Is What I Do.

In the tiny talk I gave in Goldston, North Carolina this week, I tried a new version of my own This is What I Do, slightly different than the one I gave two weeks ago to the kids in Moncure, North Carolina. And that slight change—it changed how I think about that work. It opened up new possibilities, created space for a new scheme I’m hatching now in that arena.

I often ask clients to do this, and I’ll recommend it to you now: If you don’t have a tiny talk for 250 children coming up any time soon, ask your child or your niece or your nephew what your work is. Or try to explain it in your mind to your 7-year-old self.

I’d love to hear the kid-approved, one-sentence scoop on your work. Send it on.

PS: If you have lots of different jobs like I do, try to find an overarching What I Do, too.

PS again: This also works with non-paying work. Like parenting.