The single most important aspect a leader brings to important work is that she helps us understand how we should talk about it.

And it starts with answering the question, “what do you do?”

I call it our “10,000 feet” because it’s a glimpse at our work from way up, instead of the ground floor. I’m not sharing how we do things, I’m sharing why we do things, what kind of impact are we creating?

I believe that there is some real psychology behind why we must talk about how we do things, and why we can’t shorten the work we do into something less than a minute and a half. We live in a culture where we identify ourselves by the work we do, I’m no different. And when we’re wrapped up in it all, it’s very hard to leave anything out. “It’s all SO important!” we tell ourselves.

But the first lesson of storytelling is to tell the story your audience wants to hear, not the one you want to tell.

When someone asks you what you do, they’re looking for the ability to categorize you in their brain. To put you in the place of private company vs non profit, marketing vs advertising, finance vs law, etc.

We do this because we’re all living deeply in our own story.

And when the question, “so what do you do?” comes up, it’s simply the way we work to find ourselves in someone else’s story, and them in our own.

We don’t need all of the details and we don’t need a pitch. We simply need to understand, into which part of my story do you fit? (credit to Michael Margolis for this gem of an idea)

From there, the sharing of stories can begin. After I share Final 5’s 10,000 feet, I often get “Oh, it’s like marketing?” This is the point at which, depending on my audience, I get to share stories (or anecdotes) about our work that will bring them even deeper into it. And if their story is “I’m having that problem in my life” or “I’ve been thinking about that,” the opportunities will come.

A STORY ABOUT YOUR WORK. Not the details of the work.

Is your 10,000 foot story truly you?

5 years ago, I could answer the “so what do you do” question with “We help companies find and share their great stories.” But in the last 2 years, the word “story” has come to mean so many things that I have to get very narrow on what it is I’m saying. So now it’s “we help organizations build community, trust, and propel change through the stories they share.”

That statement that allows people 3 different opportunities to see us in their own story, but it also communicates where we are coming from as a communications organization.

It not only lets you “categorize” us in your story, it also gives you a glimpse into who we are by the words that we choose to use.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

If your answer is of the 3 minute variety, you need to find that 10,000 foot place, and you can only get there through practice.

Start out by writing out a few different examples.

And find one that feels most closely to what you feel it should be, and then begin trying it out on people. Ask your family and friends what they think about it. And then once you’ve got something, it might not even feel like “it” at this point, start using it on strangers and see how it feels.

There are 2 different types of questions people will ask: a question to help them understand, or a question to dig deeper. Both questions are good but the former lets us know we still have work to do. So pay attention to that question, what are we missing and how can we adjust?

Find a place in your phone to take notes and to try out new things.

I use the Notes app and I keep old versions so I can always reference. You’ll suddenly hear yourself say it in a different way that will surprise you, if you liked it, write that down and try it out again.

It’s a constant evolution and it takes time to get it right. But once it’s right it’s like magic.