Jack Palance and Billy Crystal in the movie “City Slickers” spent no more than 30 seconds on-screen to provide the best advice you could ever receive about your personal or business life. Here is that exchange.
Jack Palance: “Do you know what the secret of life is?”
Billy Crystal: “No, what?”
Jack with one finger raised: “This!”
Billy: “Your finger?”
Jack: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”
Billy: “That’s great but what’s the one thing?”
Jack: “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
Absolutely brilliant! I would have altered the question slightly. “What’s your one thing?” It is the simplest, most difficult question in the world to answer…for yourself or your business. Why? Because it takes about a nano-second to start adding new things - all the while thinking we are adding value. The concept is far from new. Literature abounds with advice on sticking to one thing and the inherent benefit of focus. “Differentiate or Die”; “Blue Ocean Strategy”; “Made to Stick” and almost any book on branding and marketing extols its’ virtue. Personal branding and the concept of the “Elevator Pitch” also have roots in the question.
In my former position as VP marketing for one of the largest Consumer Packaged Goods companies, I had occasion to get advice and counsel from some of advertising’s best and brightest creatives (the people writing the ad copy). In advance of setting out to create an advertising campaign, the client and agency would detail a Creative strategy. The core of that document was to answer the “one thing” question. “What is the problem our product or service is solving for our target group?” Then, what are three “reasons” why or points of proof we can provide to the consumer/customer that will help convince them of that brand benefit.
It was in one of those meetings that I was first taught about the “one thing”. The head creative was seated beside me and was listening to both of our teams discuss the creative strategy. Finally he let a small groan of frustration out and leaned over. Under his breath he said, “Oh to have the freedom of a tightly written strategy.”
“What do you mean?” His answer helped me understand the power of one thing.
“It sounds easy when we all sit here in this room pontificating about the benefits of the product, the customers and the tremendous insight we’ve got about them. However, when we turn off the lights and my team and I are back at the office we just get confused if the brief isn’t focused. Think about it. WE have to figure out what’s important and what’s not? What takes priority? How much time and energy should we dedicate to communicating the messaging? What messaging? The list goes on. More means less.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the people I meet often (and unfortunately) going through what’s politely called “Transition”. A change in career that’s usually not of one’s choosing. Virtually all suffer from the fatal flaw of not communicating clearly their “one thing”. Truth be told, I’m just as guilty. Meet someone for the first time and I find myself spitting out a paragraph when asked what I do. Ideally, the answer should be mind-numbingly simple and arresting. It’s the lightning bolt.
One of the CEOs with whom I work, gave me one of the best examples of a “lightning bolt” the other day. Having survived the hallowed halls of corporate life, he was now the head of a smaller organization trying to grow. They definitely needed a plan so he sat down and did the natural thing. Being from a larger company, he outlined the Vision, Mission and Values of the company and proceeded to share those for input with his staff. After two hours it was clear he wasn’t hitting the ball out of the park. Thankfully, one of his hourly workers provided the lightning bolt.
“I don’t know about you” said he, “but all I want to do is get big enough to move out of this place!” To his credit, my CEO ran with this input and the focus of the “Vision” was “Big enough to move!” Now, everyone got it and they then spent the time talking about what needed to happen and where to focus to be “Big enough to move.” Simple. Motivating.
Finding your “one thing.
Most people feel that the discovery process starts with self-reflection. I disagree. It starts with an outside-in perspective from those who know you. Perception is reality.
For those trying to understand their personal “one thing” ask your closest friends and family. Get them to answer a couple of questions on your behalf.
“If you had to sum me up in one word, what would that word be and why?”
“What do you value most about me?”
“What’s my strongest quality?”
At minimum, you’re going to get some great and sometimes surprising feedback. On the other side, the feedback is going to help focus you on what your “market” believes you do best.
For those of you that are trying to answer the question for your business, the questions work virtually the same way.
A Jack Palance said it so eloquently, “One thing. Just one thing. Stick to that and everything else is just shit.” So what’s your “one thing”?