The Five Words Or Less Challenge

(Hey everyone.  Since I’m in the process of moving, the gone fishin’ sign is still up on the door and for this week’s post I’m rolling out some more excerpts and miscellaneous observations from my Selling It Versus Selling Out ebook that you may enjoy.

The podcast will come back in the weeks ahead after I’m settled.  In the meantime, you can check out the latest one here.)

Five Words Or Less

Up until fairly recently, I had a habit that, in retrospect, is quite embarrassing.

I couldn’t describe what I did musically in five words or less to other people.

When asked what I did, I said I played guitar, and then went into a painfully earnest description that was supposed to be informational (but in reality probably sounded more like babbling).

No matter how sincere people are, most of them shut down with information overload and anything more than 5 words describing what you do initially (“initially” is an important qualifier here by the way) is information overload.

That might sound harsh but it’s not meant to be.  It’s simply that even musicians (i.e. people who do this every day of their lives) tend to lose focus after 10 words or so. I might talk about how hearing koto playing worked its way into my comping and they might be looking at me smiling and wondering about the discolored tooth in the front of my mouth (it’s discolored because I got into an accident the day of my grandmother’s funeral and ate a face full of gravel killing the nerve in my front tooth.  It’s also why I very rarely smile with a full open-faced smile.  But I digress….).

To non-musicians it’s even more alien.  They often really want to understand what you’re doing, but experience has shown me that the more descriptive you get, the more you’re going to lose them.  People are busy.  They have a lot on their mind and they’re often easily distracted, so don’t lose them if they’re interested in what you do!

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The restroom pitch

Now I’ve clarified this with the word initially.  For those of you familiar with the term, this is less of an elevator pitch and (in terms of length of time) more of a restroom pitch.  Imagine you walk up to a sink in a restroom and someone is already using the neighboring sink.  The person recognizes you and taps the soap dispenser and asks, “Hey don’t you play music – what kind of music do you play?”  you’ve got about 5 words to get it across before he or she runs the tap water and can’t hear what you’re saying.

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The goal of being able to do this isn’t to limit yourself in a bad way.  

The point of it is to come up with just enough of a description to get someone’s interest and have them ask more about what it is that you do.

Interestingly enough, while the 5-word rule applies to a band bio (keep it short and to the point), it doesn’t necessarily apply to other text-based media.  People who want to read about a band are often willing to read lengthy articles and will actually retain the information – but that’s after there interest is piqued, and the window for that is generally a short sentence or two.

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In person – in an initial meeting  – you’ve got about 5 words to bring them in.

If you’re interested in trying this for yourself here are some tips that may help.

  • Try to describe yourself musically in 5 words or less.
  • Make it descriptive enough that people get some sense of what you’re doing – but open enough to let their imagination fill in the other pieces.  “Improvised rock guitar” isn’t a bad start, but people who hear that are going to think “jam band”.  So if you play in a jam band it’s easier to just say “I play in a jam band”.  If you don’t play in a jam band, you might need a better description.
  • If you’re comparing yourself to other bands – don’t use any more than two (“Black Sabbath meets Elton John” gets someone’s attention.  “Take Yngwie Malmsten’s leads with Tony Levin’s pocket and hold it together with Zakir Hussain’s tabla” looses people.  Shred guitar with tabla gets it back again.  Will your bassist get pissed at that description?  Probably – but again the idea is to distill it down to its essence – because the essence is where all the potency is.

While this process will help you describe your music to other people (and thus make it more accessible to them automatically), it has a second (and ultimately more significant) advantage. It clarifies in your own head exactly what it is you’re trying to do.

If it takes 30 seconds for someone to initially describe what they’re doing it’s generally because they’re a little muddled on the goal as well.  Again, it’s something I was guilty of on my own and I now have short descriptions for everything I do.  They’re not all 5 words or less (and they all need revision and improvement)  but they’re distilled enough that people get the gist of what I’m doing.

For example, when people ask about performance I often tell them I play “ethnically influenced rock guitar”, “loop-based improvised guitar” or “improvised music for multi-media”.

When asked about my teaching style, I can explain that as a teacher my goal is to “help students hear the music within” or to “help students sound like themselves”.  Both sentences are a little clunky – but that’s the simplest essence.  That’s what I can boil it down to and if I understand it on the base level, I can always expand on it later. How I do these things is a much longer discussion.  Even though none of them fully define what I do, they help open a door for that discussion to occur and opening doors is what music should do in general.

Give it a try!  You may find out some interesting things about yourself!

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As always, thanks for reading!

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PS – If you dig this post, you may like my ebooks (both available for Amazon Kindle or for the FREE Kindle App).  Click on graphic for book link page.

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Indie Musician Wake Up Call

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