Don’t act like a special snowflake

Posted: March 12, 2014 at 5:51 pm in people

Disclaimer: This post is not about you. Please do not take offense. It is an exaggerated amalgam of people for the sake of making a point.

Over the past several months, I have talked to a number of people looking for jobs or practicing company pitches. And what I see is people getting frustrated that their audience doesn’t see why they are special, and not being given the opportunity to show that they are special. They do not understand that it is their responsibility to put in the work of framing themselves to make their special-ness easily visible to their audience. I am repeating points from my advice on writing a resume, but the general principle is that your audience does not have much time. You have to make it instantly clear to them why they should care about you and not move on to the next candidate.

When I hear people complaining about how much work it is to hand craft each resume or interview or pitch, I feel like they are acting like they are a special snowflake and the world should marvel in their presence. They are putting the onus on their audience to dig deeply and spend their time to figure out why this person is a special snowflake. And sadly, the world does not work that way – the people you are trying to impress are busy, and so you have to make it easy for them to understand why they should work with you.

What I think they should do instead is to spend the time to really understand their audience and what problems they have. After that, they can craft a resume or pitch to explain quickly and concisely how they (or their product) solves that problem. And to be clear, I am not advocating lying or exaggerating – I am talking about being selective in what is presented to the audience so that their focus is only on the attributes relevant to this interaction.

Engineers hate this advice. They feel that the truth is the truth, and framing is lying, and this is all annoying MBA nonsense. And I get that – it took me a long time (and the work of George Lakoff) to convince myself that framing mattered and was a meaningful activity. But as I get older and crankier, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who waste my time. If I’m interviewing you, and you insist on giving me a laundry list of your accomplishments with no consideration of showing how you can help me, it’s not a good sign. I value those that demonstrate they have thought about what I’m looking for and how they can help.

I also think this is a completely transferable skill. No matter what your job is, you will have to go to other people and ask them for help or resources. And when you do that, if you can demonstrate that you understand their criteria for making decisions and frame your request in those terms, I guarantee that you will be more successful in your pitches.

One last piece of advice – people’s attention is given iteratively. With a good pitch, you have 30 seconds to get their attention that there is a problem worth solving. A good problem in the first 30 seconds earns you another 2 minutes to convince them that your product can solve the problem. Once you’re past that, then you can get into the details of the investment and the company. But start with the hook and get their attention immediately, or you will never keep their attention long enough to talk about the rest of your material. Get to the point quickly – if they ask for more clarifying details, you’ve caught their attention, which is the first step.

A similar process applies to a job search – a resume is not to get you a job. A resume is to catch the eye of the hiring manager and get you a phone interview. Your goal in a phone interview is to get an in-person interview. Once you’re at the in-person interview stage, then your goal is to get a job. But if you try to get the job with the resume, you’re skipping too many steps.

So the next time you’re doing a pitch, whether it is for a job or for investment, take the time to think about your audience and how your pitch is quickly demonstrating to them that you can help them out. Good luck!

P.S. I really enjoy critiquing pitches so if you want to brainstorm on your pitch with me, please contact me.

P.P.S. There is one exception to the “special snowflake” rule – if you have enough of a personal brand, the goal of your audience is to spend time with you, so you don’t have to figure out what they’re looking for. I once went to a Seth Godin seminar where he asked everybody to describe their superpower that made them special (I said mine was interdisciplinary storytelling). When we finished, somebody asked him what his superpower was, and he said “At this point, my superpower is that I’m Seth Godin.” In other words, he had a big enough audience that just being himself was enough (and it sure was, since dozens of us had paid for a three-day seminar with him). But he spent a long time building up his audience to get to that point, and he did that by filling a need – I think Seth’s superpower was writing clearly and thoughtfully about the consequences of the Internet on marketing.

One Response to “Don’t act like a special snowflake”

  1. Spackle Says:

    There’s another exception to the special snowflake rule: when people don’t have a choice. This is a reason people go bananas when there is challenging service at the DMV or they have to wait 3 weeks to bribe a Russian official with new tires so they can renew their passport–they can’t go anywhere else to get a license or renewed passport.

    That said, having been, in a manner of speaking, that DMV guy myself, it’s remarkable how engaged people can be when you yourself bring something to the party, and speak not to what they have to do, but to what they want and hope to do–or when you help them discover that what they have to do overlaps with other things they need or want to do. That there is a reason they have to pay attention other than they don’t have a choice.

    Perhaps another way for that stereotypical engineer to think of it is: why force everyone to see the story through your lens? Heck, if I’m going to be working with you for the (in my line of work) next 5 – 30 years, I’d like to know not only that you can think flexibly and do the job, but also that you’ll be a thoughtful and engaging colleague. That doesn’t necessarily mean conforming to certain class-based social practices (though it sure doesn’t hurt to show you know ‘em), but it does help to show a capacity for understanding different contexts, abstracting from the particular to the general, framing, and conversation. If someone is really amazing technically, maybe I’ll put up with some static from them–but the thing is, I have amazing technical people working with me already who are also pleasant to be around. Sometimes it’s a good idea to meet me halfway.

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