There’s a story of a visitor to a rock quarry in mediaeval Europe. The visitor asks one stonemason, “What are you doing?” and the mason replies, “I’m chipping flakes off this stone.” A second mason replies to the same question, “I’m cutting stone into square blocks.” But the third mason says, “I’m building a cathedral.”

It’s the “cathedral” type of answer that your clients want to hear from you. They want to know that you see the big picture and know the purpose for your work. So why do so many technical professionals think, and speak, in “chipping flakes” terms?

We see this often when we ask a technical professional what he or she does. The response will usually be a straightforward, factual answer. “I’m a chemical engineer.” “I’m a hydrogeologist.” “I’m a plaintiff injury litigation lawyer.” Those answers convey information, but they don’t give a potential client a reason to hire that particular professional.

The difficulty with this type of thinking is that potential clients don’t typically think in terms of hiring someone with a skill. They think in terms of solving a problem, resolving an issue, or accessing an opportunity.

They might hire a chemical engineer if their food-processing plant is having a problem with product spoilage, or a hydrogeologist if they want to drill a wastewater disposal well. They’d want a plaintiff-injury lawyer if they or someone they care about, has been injured in a slip-and-fall incident.

It’s and old idea – “We don’t sell drill bits, we sell holes.” But it needs to go further. In describing your work, you need to drill down through your “what I do” (chipping flakes) and past your “how” (squaring blocks) to explain your “why” – building a cathedral.

You need to articulate your “why” when talking with prospective clients. Many technical professionals may resist the idea that something as ephemeral as motivation matters more than hard skills and experience. But it matters to your clients, so it should matter to you.

Why your “why” matters

The reason your “why” matters, is that there are many competing professionals with the same hard skills and experience. In many cases, the steps to be followed in a given assignment are prescribed by regulation or best practice. So, how do you stand out?

By showing that you care. For instance, you would likely rather hire a plaintiff injury litigation lawyer who you feel actually cares about getting a good outcome for you, rather than just another file to be processed as efficiently as they can.

If that lawyer talks about growing up in a home where a parent was in constant pain because she or he didn’t have funding for a therapist after an injury, and this made the lawyer resolve to protect other people from that kind of situation … you’d be likely to trust that lawyer more. You know that for them, you’d be more than just another file.

Going back to the cathedral example, I’ve long been in awe of the designers and builders who built those seemingly delicate networks of stone. I’ve looked up at stone roofs that have stood, in precisely calculated balance, for close to a thousand years. Those stones had to be cut at extremely accurate angles, and with hammer and chisel. No 3-D printing involved.

This means that, the architect and builder would treasure any mason who took an “I’m building a cathedral” approach to their work, because a tiny error in an angle on a critical stone might well bring down the structure. Many of those workers saw their tasks as part of their worship of God. Regardless of your views on that, you must understand that this was a powerful motivation for people who lived as much in the next life as they lived in this one.

Articulating your “why”

In order to describe your “why” to a prospective client, you need to first understand it yourself. So think of what gives you a sense of accomplishment in your work. Is it helping a client understand a business process better, playing your part in protecting groundwater from industrial contaminants, or making sure that employees are protected from hearing loss that comes from machine noise?

It also helps to think of the reasons people hire you to do the work you do. It might be around meeting a regulatory requirement, so in a way you’re playing a part in helping a business dream come to reality. At another, you’re helping to prevent whatever problem the regulation is there for – maybe to protect employees, or the natural environment, or respect for the rule of law.

One way to find this out is to ask your client. Get an understanding of the problems they want to solve, or the opportunities they want to access (I went into these two motivations, “greed” and “fear,” in Post #24).

Then, think of an anecdote that encapsulates your reasons. Sometimes, in my work helping business professionals get published, I talk about a conversation I had with a member of the marketing team of an accounting firm. She was telling me about how I’d worked with one of the Partners in the firm, who had never published anything before – and was now going around the firm’s office, excitedly showing his colleagues an article he’d had published.

The marketing coordinator who told me this was cracking up with laughter, because she knew who had actually written the article and got it published – it was me. But since the article was entirely made up of ideas and information from that Partner (which is a key part of my work), he was completely justified in claiming it as “his” article. I’m purely a ghost-writer in that I convey the ideas I get from my clients.

But this man had achieved a professional milestone, in getting his ideas published, and I was pleased to play a part in that success.

So I’d urge you – think of your “why” and be able to articulate it. You’ll find that clients are attracted to you, will prefer you, and may even pay more if they believe that you’re motivated to do good work on their behalf.

A bit about my “why”

Just about my personal “why” – it’s a lot closer to the motivations of the mediaeval cathedral builders than you might think. In my own work as a marketing consultant (pretty far from a mallet and chisel), I do my best to live my Christian ideals through my work.

This includes treating the people I work with fairly – keeping commitments, charging a fair price, paying a fair price for the services and products I buy, and treating people with respect. I like to go the extra mile, and showing care and compassion to the people I work with, in what I hope is an appropriate and non-intrusive way.

I like helping people achieve their professional goals, which include getting published. And I find that in working with clients, I ask them questions that help them understand their work better, and this helps them deliver better value to their own clients.

And, one of my business purposes is to create economic opportunity for people who have difficulty getting those opportunities. This includes people who are just starting out in their careers, or who live in parts of the world where opportunities are hard to find.

I can’t say that I always live up to those ideals, but (and this is what you might find to be the weird part) I believe that there’s a God who’s helping me do better.