If you are from Boston, it is likely that, whatever your personal or political convictions, you were saddened this past week by the passing of the last Kennedy brother, Sen. Edward "Ted" Kennedy, at age 77. The Kennedys were as much a part of our landscape as the Red Sox and clam chowdah, and the mourning last week — as evidenced by the huge lines of people around the JFK Museum waiting to pay their final respects — was widespread and intense. A 33-year-old photo below has come to light, showing the late Senator chatting with a very slim young man with a full head of tousled hair.
Here’s a truth that many attorneys don’t understand. Your clients want you to listen thoroughly and completely to what they have to say, and then tell them what to do.
It’s something that I realized early on in my own practice. I would say to clients “What do you want? Brochures? We can do that. Corporate identity? We can do that. Seminars? We can do that. Website? We can do that.”
I would say to them, in effect, tell us what you want and we’ll execute it.
But I soon learned that this was not what my clients needed. They were paying, in part, for my guidance. They needed me to tell them what they should do — whether or not that is what they originally thought they wanted.
Your clients are looking for guidance. They want you to be an authority.
It can’t be false authority. And it can’t be cookie-cutter guidance. It needs to be insightful guidance, backed by authority.
What conveys authority? Lots of things. Speech, gesture, clothes, props, confidence, to name a few. (More on this in my next blog post.) None of which will hold up if you don’t know what you’re talking about. I think most people invoke a variation of the Potter Stewart rule: I don’t know much about air-conditioner repair, but I can recognize a guy who does know, when I hear him talk about it.
This point was driven home to me a couple of weeks ago. I decided that after ten years of service, my mattress was ready to give up the ghost. I went shopping for a new one at a mattress store. They had a big showroom with maybe 40-50 mattresses scattered around. As soon as I entered a salesman approached, asked a couple of questions, and soon had me trying out mattresses.
First, I felt like an idiot because I still dressed in my business clothes, and here I was walking around lying down on one bed after another. Second, I felt like an idiot because I didn’t know what I wanted, couldn’t much tell the salesman what I wanted (“I kind of like the mattresses in the fancy hotels I stay at”) and couldn’t feel much difference in the mattresses I was trying, other than one felt a little softer and one felt a bit firmer.
I eventually got frustrated and the salesman got frustrated with me. “Well,” he said, after the tenth mattress I tried, “how does that one feel? Is it better than the last one?” To which I replied, “I don’t know.”
There was another salesman there, sitting at his desk, watching this situation develop. Maybe he was the sales manager, I don’t know. He got up and approached us.
“You said you liked the beds in the hotels you stay at,” he said.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Where do you usually stay?” he asked.
“All of them,” I replied. “Lately, I’ve been staying in the Hyatt a lot.”
“They use the Hyatt Grand Bed,” he said. “Because they get so much wear, they tend to be on the firm side.” He led me over to one of the mattresses I had already tried. He pointed. “You’ll be happy with this one,” he told me. “This is what you want.”
“Okay,” I said, and bought the mattress.
End of story. I just needed someone — someone who was credible, who had authority — to tell me what to do. Don’t offer me a lot of options and choices. Ask me what I want, sure. But then tell me what I really want.
Some of my friends were at first amused, some even irritated, several years ago when I started using Internet acronyms like LOL, BTW, BRB and TTYL. Not to mention ROFLMAO, DIIK, and LMGTFY.
This sort of thing has seeped its way into popular culture in the form of TV ads ("Mom! I was texting with my BFF Judy!") and cartoons (my favorite is from the New Yorker, of course: "The IMs of Romeo and Juliet").
But, for those of you who decry this debasement of the language (which hardly needed further debasement), you should know that this not the first nor, one suspects, the last time technology has changed the popular idiom. In this article, the New York Times describes how the telegraph (that's a mechanical Twitter to you youngsters) required the same economy of characters as Twitter, and resulted in similar codes. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.