Does Your Business Pass the Head-Tilt Test?

question markIt’s a familiar gesture.

Head tipped to one side, ears up.

Made famous by the RCA dog, it’s how the canine mind deals with the perplexing.

But you’ve probably noticed humans sometimes do it too. It may accompany a “Huh…?” or the less polite “WTF…?” And if it happens when you describe your business, you may be in trouble.

“So, You’re Like, a Computer Guy…?”

Tech businesses typically involve complexity — particularly from the point of view of the general public. If you’ve ever tried to describe what you do to someone at a dinner party or your kid’s ice cream social, you’ve probably seen the head-tilt.

It’s followed by a glazed over look, and if you’re lucky, an “Hmmm… Interesting.”

Then comes the most common line you hear… “So you’re a computer guy? Well, I keep getting this …blah, blah, blah…Windows problem… blah, blah, blah.

Most of the tech entrepreneurs I know tend to blow it off. Since their customers are tech savvy, the fact that Barb from the PTA doesn’t get it isn’t important.

But — you see — it is.

No matter what type of business you have or how technical or complex it may be, there are many reasons why it needs to be explained simply.

Often the direct buyers aren’t tech or niche savvy. Middle managers, not the tech staff, may hold the purse strings.

Then there are referrals. If someone doesn’t have a clue what you do, they won’t be referring anyone to you. Who knows, their favorite uncle may hold a high position with Google, who just happens to be looking for what you have to offer.

Don’t discount simplicity, just because your end customer may know what you do. It’s often the ones in-between you and that customer that bring you business.

That head-tilt may end up costing you…


  1. I often get that look, but it is mostly my fault. I make large assumptions when explaining things, and leave huge gaps in the story.

    Having a young child is really helping me to work on that. Trying to explain something to a 2 year or a 5 year requires you to put yourself on their level, which is exactly what we should always be trying to do.

  2. It is very true. Being in the IT field and more specifically the software development side of it, anything short of a visual answer to the “So what do you do?” question, will indeed result in a severly blank stare or the more intuitive so you work with computers.

    I have tried the approach of “I work on business automation through the use of technology” or even the slightly shorter “Business Automation answer” but still nothing.

    When finally I say something to the effect of “You know the programs you use on your computer, I design those” or “The website that you go on to order , well I design and build those” All of a sudden they seem more interested and they come back with questions. Though they may not be the questions you expect, once in a while I get the “How do you do something like that” or “where do you start” and those are more often the people that will call back and ask me why their windows machine is running slow.

    Go figure.

  3. Happy Rock – Great point. One of my favorite lines is Denzel’s from Philadelpia — “Now, explain it to me like I’m a four-year-old.”

    Michel – I’ve been there. If you can explain your entire business model in 2 succinct sentences that a class of first graders would understand, you’ve nailed it 🙂

  4. Can I just say, THANK YOU for using real em dashes? So many bloggers use the common substitute of double-hyphens instead of real typographical em dashes, I guess not knowing that there’s a difference or a Unicode thingy for it. I’ve even seen this in design blogs. So thanks.

    Anyway, recent reader, first time commenter, and I can already tell I like this blog.

    Re: this post, while I agree with your statement, it is annoying to have people completely misunderstand you or what you do, despite your accurate description. I’m a designer who focuses on building websites. When I tell people that, they say, “Oh, you’re a computer guy, eh? I’m having blah blah problem with Windows blah.” Much like you said, actually. I must admit, that gets on my nerves. I’m not a computer tech, regardless of my knowledge of the inner workings of Windows and computer hardware. I’m a designer, dangit, I don’t want to fix your computer.

    Pardon my spoiled child rant here. Particularly for a first comment. But again, while I agree with you that it’s important for people to understand what you do if nothing else than for the sake of referrals, it’s quite aggravating when they seemingly deliberately misunderstand what I say I do. Makes me want to clam up and just forget the whole thing.

  5. It’s the dreaded “Curse of Knowledge” problem. You know so much about a subject it becomes hard to relate to others who don’t know as much. A great book on the subject is “Made to Stick,” by Chip & Dan Heath.

    As a tech who doesn’t do side-work, I always keep business cards from my friends that do. When confronted with a computer question, I just smile and hand them a friends card. This lets me continue on with my conversation and hopefully solve their problem at the same time.


    P.S. congrats on the LifeRemix membership!

  6. Good point. You never know when a social contact might lead to a referral. John’s idea of giving business cards of other people takes it one step further. People aren’t apt to mention you unless they like and trust you.

  7. Vincent – One of the many great things about WordPress is that it converts the double hyphen to an em dash. It’s nice not to have to enter the character entity reference. Especially since I can be an em dash junkie. 🙂

    John – The Curse of Knowledge point is spot on. Things that are simple to us often are not so simple to others. And great idea with the tech friends’ business card.

    Jean – That’s true. Being able to explain what you do is really just about developing a good story. It’s amazing how simple you can make things with a good story — and develop trust at the same time.

  8. You’re right on it Tony. It’s so important that business owners in any industry remember this. It’s not my target market’s responsibility to get what I do. Rather, it’s my responsibility to make it clear to them – and everyone else – what my business is about and how it can help them solve their problems. Do this well, and you’re 50% there. The other 50% comes from knocking their socks off with service. It’s more work up front. Yet, that work pays off in a long-term business.

  9. Hi Tony,

    Thanks for the link! As a growing blog, I really appreciate it.

    Also, Great article. The way you structure your writing makes it really easy to read. Ideas just flow from one point to the next.

    Your point about explaining complex subjects with simplicity is one I’ve been trying to make for a while now. I’ll just say you’ve done a really good job.

    – Mason

    P.S. I love your site’s branding/design.

  10. I had to laugh when I read your post. I used to get the head tilt from my daughter’s teachers all the time. Them: “You’re a writer, can I read something that you wrote?” Me: “Well, I write technical and marketing documents for businesses.” Them: “Surely you must have written a novel too?” Of course, with blogging I now have someplace to send them when they want to read my writing …

  11. Dawud – That’s absolutely right. Everything is marketing when you work for yourself.

    Mason – Thanks. Your article touches on some terrific points.

    Laura – People can sometimes have a very narrow view of a profession. Think of it as an opportunity to broaden their minds. 🙂

  12. The dreaded head-tilt. It’s dangerous, I agree.

    Instead of telling the family and friends that I am an online web strategist, I tell them that I find websites that my company would be interested in be-friending.

    The conversation is typically a lot of fun after that, not only do I avoid the head-tilt, but I also get a lot of people interested in what I do.

  13. My dad-in-law consistently calls me with his latest computer-related traumas. The latest was “my computer’s running slow, what’s wrong with it?”. As an April Fools Day prank I think I’ll send him a tech support bill @ £1 per minute.

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