Understanding your audience is at the core of creating a successful business in today’s fast-paced world. It’s become easier and easier for audiences to move on if they feel that a brand doesn’t really try to understand what they need. Jeffrey Shaw, the author of LINGO: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible, joins John Livesay about this essential element of catering to your audience. Businesses can’t grow if they don’t find ways to keep up with their audience. Let Jeffrey take you through how you can best work towards creating a full-fledged understanding of what your audience wants from you.
Listen To The Episode Here:
Lingo – Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language With Jeffrey Shaw
Our guest is Jeffrey Shaw. One of the reasons I’m excited to have Jeffrey on the show is he’s going to help us figure out how to stop wasting time on customers that will never appreciate us. For more than three decades, Jeffrey’s been one of the most sought-after portrait photographers in the US. His portraits have appeared on The Oprah Show, People Magazine, and have been even seen at Harvard University. Jeffrey’s going to share with us about how to make your customers feel seen, heard and understood like a photographer sees their subject. When that happens, you’ll attract and retain your ideal customers by learning to speak their LINGO, which happens to be the name of his book. When he’s not hosting waffle Sundays at his home in Miami, then he is a Brand Consultant, the host of the Creative Warriors podcast and a TEDx speaker. His book is called LINGO: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible. Welcome, Jeffrey.
John, I’m thrilled to be here with you.
You are a keynote speaker, photographer and author. There are many great things about you that the readers are going to love knowing about. Let’s start with your own story of origin. I’d like to know the story of how you became interested in becoming a photographer.
My original interest was it seemed like the ideal thing to do as a young kid that I’m afraid of the world. I was a shy child until my twenties. In my teen years, that seemed like the ideal hobby because there’s a thing. There’s this box between you and the world. Of course, back in the day, a lot of the activity involved a darkroom, which I loved because you could isolate yourself in the dark. The darkroom was my survival technique through high school. I was fortunate that my father enjoyed photography as a hobby. We had a darkroom in the house, so that introduced me initially to the chemistry. Up to this day, I’d love to bake and I love to landscape. A common denominator with all these things that I am passionate about is chemical interaction between art and science. That’s the root of the passion. That’s something I picked up as a teen and have been doing ever since.
An interesting hook that I wasn’t anticipating as part of your answer is the chemistry, this whole combination of a catalyst that triggers the reaction. I vividly remember that in school and being fascinated by something being a catalyst. Of course, in the business world, whether you have chemistry or not with your team or with your customers, it’s that vibe of, “Does something click or not?” In the dating world, I remember reading that when you kiss somebody, you’re smelling them. The chemistry between two people in a romantic situation has to do with pheromones and there is actual science to it. Let’s talk about chemistry as far as what you’ve learned being a portrait photographer and how important it is to have chemistry with the people you’re photographing.
It’s such an intimate experience photographing. On my job, I did all portraits on location. I was going to their homes, beach or second homes. Most of my clients have multiple homes. It’s such an intimate experience, not just being photographed, but also gaining the trust of our customers in a way of having them open up their lives and their homes to prepare for a portrait session. It’s almost more intimate than the actual act of being photographed because people are going to ask you, “What do you think I look best in? How do you think I should dress?” People are opening themselves up in a vulnerable way asking for your input into what’s going to bring out the best in them. I always appreciated that. I loved being a photographer.
There were things that I loved about it, but at the end of the day, the camera was my vehicle to have amazing relationships with people. I have found that to be a common denominator for one amongst successful photographers, we used to call it the dirty little secret in the industry, which is those of us that were the most successful in the industry tended to see what we did as a vehicle for something bigger. It wasn’t that we were photography nuts. We weren’t the people that were going to conferences with cameras on our neck. We were the ones that were there to allow the people we are interacting with to help us grow and be bigger at what we were doing. At the end of the day, the camera was just a vehicle. I find that to be true of some of our most purpose-driven entrepreneurs.You need to speak the same lingo as your customers in order to be successful. Click To Tweet
How did you go from having a special place in your home to develop photography, to becoming known for getting relatively successful, even sometimes famous people to agree to hire you? There are some lessons here in a landscape full of photographers and especially now, everyone thinks they’re a photographer because of the iPhones. What did you do to get yourself to stand out as a place where people can trust your taste level and take the best picture of them?
I grew up in a small country town. It’s a couple of hours in North of New York City in New York State. I grew up lower to the middle class. That’s the reality of it. I had no expectations. I would ultimately be a family photographer for the most affluent families in my country. What changed everything for me was going back to my hometown after I went to a photography school. Quite honestly, I went to photography school because I had no guidance from my parents. Some people have helicopter parents. I had parents that forgot that I lived at home from the age of fourteen and on. I was the youngest, which is okay. I was the youngest of three boys and I was easy. I was the kid that nobody ever had to worry about. I never got in trouble. I was quiet.
I was left on my own and I didn’t have any guidance. University College wasn’t something I thought about. I went off to photography school. It was during that one year, I gained the confidence that this is potentially a career, although I couldn’t imagine what it could be. I returned to my hometown and that was the pivotal moment. I went back to this hometown with big aspirations, not that I was going to be super successful, but big aspirations that I felt being a photographer was important. Therefore, I commanded what I felt was a high price, certainly for that area.
The problem was three years in, it was a complete failure. I go through all the things like, “Am I not good enough?” My biggest fear was this is all I knew. I’ve been into this business for years and the only education I have is being a photographer. The real reason it wasn’t working is why I wrote my book LINGO. The turning point moment when I realized that the reason my business wasn’t working is I was not speaking the same lingo of the people that I was trying to serve. It was such a big division. The reason photography is valuable and important is because it’s something we hand down from generation to generation.
Being the youngest of three boys to this day, I have found one photograph of my childhood. I know that it emotionally drove me to feel it was important to have the moments of our lives preserved. These are the ideas I was promoting to these potential clients in my hometown that they should invest in photographs to hand down from generation to generation. They should invest in preserving their children’s memories. The problem was this is a community that’s struggling to get by a month every month, so investing isn’t part of their lingo. Responsibility for their children’s future is not part of their lingo. That was when I realized why I was failing.
It sounds like you were a little too high up on the Maslow hierarchy about self-actualization and legacy for someone who was still at the bottom rung of getting basic needs met.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but sometimes I wonder, “How does that happen?” This is where I was born into the world in that place to this family. To your point, I came into the world at a higher level of that pyramid. I had a completely different value system than my family because they said it was a lower-middle-class economic scale. Why did I have such value? I don’t know and I find that compelling and interesting, but I find that to be true because I work with creatives. I’ve taken surveys and I’ve asked people, “How many amongst us feel like we were the black sheep of our family?” Every hand goes up.
Surely, these cannot be my parents. It must have been some mistake at the hospital.
We prayed to find out that we were adopted, but to me that is a universal truth. The world needs that because we need people born into those situations to take everyone to the next level.
In LINGO, you talked about that your understanding of the affluent market came from watching Bing Crosby’s Christmas specials, so you weren’t in-sync. Did you change your language to the people in your town? Did you move to a town that cared about legacy and investing?
At the moment that my business was failing, I realized that it was the big question. Do I change everything about who I am, what I value and believe in to adapt to the market or do I fundamentally believe? I almost had no reason to believe this except in my absolute soul of soul and my gut. There’s an audience of people out there that will value what I do. They’re already out there and it’s my job to find them. The most tweeted moment on any of my keynotes is when I put up a slide that says, “It is not your job to prove your value to anyone. It is your job to find the people who already value what you do.” That shifts everything from a world of selling and convincing to taking on the higher-level responsibility of marketing and branding so that we put ourselves out in the world.
Also, the way that the people that we’re meant to serve to see us. That’s what I chose to do. I chose to say, “Instead of changing who I was, there must be people whose values were aligned with mine.” Ultimately, I realized that in order for their values to be aligned with mine, they had to have discretionary income. That’s how I led my way into the affluent market. Believe me, I had no experience or knowledge of what it meant to be affluent at that point in my life, but their value system was more closely related to mine. If you have the money, you can plan for the future. You invest. It’s part of your lingo.
Let’s talk about one of the stories that you shared with me about one of your clients, Stephanie Seymour, and why she wanted to have you photograph her family.
She’s definitely one of my most treasured clients and experience. Stephanie Seymour was one of the original supermodels with Christie Brinkley and Cindy Crawford. There’s even a portrait of them altogether. They were the models that even coined the term supermodel when models became a household name. She was Victoria’s Secret’s first breakout model. Everybody back in the ‘80s knew who she was. She was a recognizable and absolutely beautiful woman and inside as well. What most people don’t realize, she went on to have four kids in her life. She would hire me annually for many years to photograph her family.
She’s been photographed by the world’s most famous photographers in the world. To have someone like you instead of Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon or whoever she’d been photographed by, is a huge deal. It completely ties into, “You spoke her lingo.”
I would walk into her bedroom helping her choose what to wear and there’s a nude portrait of herself by Richard Avedon in the bedroom and she’s hiring me. I asked her once, “Why me?” She said, “You have a way of seeing my family.” I had a way of seeing herself as a mom that these other photographers didn’t. Think about your experience as a well-known model. You must’ve come to wonder if anybody sees you for who you are because everybody’s just seeing the exterior. That was the difference. She was used to having been a model from her teen years. She was used to being seen for what the world saw on the outside. I saw something more. I saw a mom of four kids. I saw the relationship between her and her kids. I saw the relationship between the siblings and her husband. I saw all the relationships and I captured them. That’s why she felt that I saw her in a way that no other photographer had. That’s what she wanted to be portrayed in her family, photographs that she would share with her family and friends.You need to stand out to the right people. Click To Tweet
What makes you special? What makes you picked to be the portrait photographer when people at her level have a lot of other relationships and choices? The takeaway here is that you have a way of seeing her that others don’t. As an entrepreneur, people hire you to come in to help them be better at attracting their ideal customers or clients. How are those lessons from a portrait photographer of helping people feel seen transferable to the entrepreneurial world? How does that lead to people hiring you as a speaker?
I love this part of the conversation because honestly, I’ve been spending years trying to unpack that. Sometimes, we don’t see the through-line where we come from and how it serves us today. For me, there are many layers to it. One is as a photographer, I’m used to not only seeing people and making them feel seen, but I’m also helping them see something in themselves. When you see someone gained confidence, it’s usually that they’re finding something in themselves that they didn’t see before. If I could be the facilitator of that, that’s an amazing thing. That applies as a photographer, brand consultant and speaker. As a speaker, there’s hardly anything more satisfying than seeing attendees of an audience in front of you get something you’re saying. You can see the visceral change in their expression and it’s more than just a nod of the head. You know when you’ve helped them see something in themselves that they didn’t see before.
Tell us about one of your ideal audience where they had that a-ha moment that you’re referring to.
My ideal audience is a combination. My heart will always be with entrepreneurs because I love the entrepreneurial journey and how much heart entrepreneurs put into their businesses. At this stage of my career in business development and branding, I’m excited about working with companies and leaders because I like to see them have that same reaction. I’m beginning to see these walls being broken down between the whole B2B and the B2C world. I don’t even get it anymore. I’m embedded as an entrepreneur and has been a B2C type of business. What I’m seeing is the B2B world opening up to learning the entrepreneurial spirit and mind. Somehow, B2B has thought they are different. With the leaders that I speak in front of and I do workshops with, I’m seeing their eyes opening up to realizing that they’re B2B customers are just like B2C because, at the end of the day, we’re all humans.
Instead of thinking it’s all artificial intelligence talking to artificial intelligence. Jeffery, you have this wonderful coffee creamer story as part of your keynotes. It ties into making someone feel seen. Can you share a little bit about that story with us?
I love that you relate so much of your work to dating because I’ve always found that to be a useful tool as well. I was on a date and I observed that he took cream in his coffee and I drink my coffee black. At a later date, we had a casual diner. The waitress brought over the metal creamer and set it down in the middle, but almost a little bit more towards me. I immediately slid the creamer across the table and it was much an expression of, “This is for you,” because I had already observed that he took the cream and I did not. It was such an interesting reaction as his eyes were watching the motion of the creamer, but then he looked up with this look in his eyes like, “You get me.” It was the smallest gesture, but those are the ones that are always the most meaningful.
That’s what happens. We take that behavior into the business world where if you are having trouble standing out against a sea of competitors, the one that people are going to use and more importantly, stay loyal to are people who feel like, “You get us. That brand gets me. Therefore, I’m staying loyal to that brand,” whether it’s a hotel, a particular department store or whatever product or service you might be using. You have so many choices of stories to go to, whether it’s the Venice water taxi or Bergdorf Goodman. Tell us one of those, if you would.
Making your customers feel like you get them is the differentiator today. It’s only going to become more so because, with today’s technology-driven way of doing business, we’re often going to feel more distant. With my own concerns about businesses and how they use technology, which can be an incredibly useful tool, but the question I like to pose businesses is, “Using technology, will you make your customers feel like one in a million or one of a million?” The choice is yours and it’s going to make a difference as to whether you succeed or not.
Hopefully, it’ll only be the businesses that make their customers feel like one in a million that succeed. To understand the lingo of your ideal customers is to understand not just their values, behavior, and lifestyle, but these intimate ways in which they function. At the end of the day, if I looked at all my affluent clients, my photography clients, there are certain traits. We don’t want to judge people, stereotype people or put people in big buckets. However, there are certain behaviors that one can attribute to certain places of how they see themselves in the world.
Most affluent people are particular and detailed. They’re surrounded by a lot of staff and supportive people that can help them live their lives in a certain way. What I realized is that at the end of the day, the thing that was most important to them was being responsible because if you have money, money’s not an excuse. They can’t put two of their kids to Ivy League schools and the third one to community college. They can’t answer that. They can’t address that. I realized that their main lingo was the lingo of responsibility. Everything I did in my business spoke to the lingo of responsibility.
For example, one thing we did is we would produce these beautiful high-end holiday greeting cards. We’re talking about cards that were $10 apiece, and these are clients that are sending out 600, 700 or 1,000 of these cards. Big investment in holiday cards and my photographs would be on the front. Back in the old days, there were photographs mounted on the front and then when digital printing came along, the photographs were printed on the outside and maybe multiple photographs on the inside, all custom done. The smallest detail like the creamer of coffee would include in the box of cards and a pen that was a soft calligraphy nib, which the ink of the pen was as close as we could get to the recolor of the return address ink on the back of the envelope.
What I know of their lingo is that perfection is a big part of it and there’s no way they’re going to address or have someone else address the envelopes in black ink if the return addresses red, blue or green, which doesn’t match. We would give them that pen, it was a $2.50 pen and their faces, especially the first time they experienced it, would light up because of the amount of attention to detail. What I knew I was doing is helpful. I was saving them time from having to run around town to find that pen that I know that would be important to them. More than anything, it was the saving of time that I gave them. It was way more valuable than the pen. It saved them time and that meant the world to them.
Let’s share the story about the Venice water taxi because when you speak to someone’s lingo, that causes you to stand out.
At the time, it was funny how it stood out to me as an event in my life, but I wasn’t doing what I do in branding. It didn’t have the correlation, but it was one of those life moments that stood out. I was in Venice with my three kids and my kids were young at the time. It was our first European trip as a single dad and it was a big undertaking. I’m alone with three kids going to Europe and I don’t speak Italian, but this was the country you wanted to go to. We’re in Venice and we’re cruising down the Grand Canal in a crowded water taxi. If you’ve ever been in that experience, they’re packed and not all Europeans believe in deodorant.It's your job to find the people who already value what you do. Click To Tweet
It’s an intense environment and everyone around us is speaking Italian, which to my American ears sounds like white noise, a buzz. All of a sudden, someone on the taxi spoke English and my head whipped around. We made eye contact with that person with a smile. John, to this day, I would swear that the person’s voice was louder than everyone else. It was crystal clear to my English-speaking ears and I realized this is often how I even demonstrate what it means to speak someone’s lingo in the world. Because that person spoke my lingo, my native language, they stood out crystal clear. In today’s business world, standing out is not enough. We’ve been hearing that as an objective because we can stand out as being louder.
We can stand out by being dramatically different, but what’s the point of standing out if you haven’t taken the time to make sure it’s standing out to the right people and your ideal customers? That person could have stood out by speaking Italian louder, but they spoke out to me because they spoke my lingo. That is what makes lingo the most important strategy today because it’s a big world full of a lot of noise and a lot of messaging. Businesses will experience exponential growth in their businesses if they know who their ideal customers are. Who they’re meant to serve, who will love what they have to offer and learn to speak their lingo. That’s what cuts through the noise and raises a louder volume.
You have a lot of different keynote topics and I want to touch on a little bit on two. One is Life is an Everything Bagel: How to stop choosing between things and choose to have everything. What does this concept of having it all versus failure mean? Give us a little snapshot of who would want to hear that and one of the takeaways.
It’s a fun keynote for me. I was originally hired to give that keynote by an organization that wanted me to do to be the closing keynote. What they were looking for was how to inspire an audience to take action on what they had learned. I’d love it as both an opening and closing keynote because it’s one of the humorous because life is an everything bagel. The reason I use everything bagel as the metaphor is I envisioned what it must have been like when someone was in a kitchen and decided they didn’t want to choose between poppy seed, sesame seeds, raisins, garlic, and onion instead of saying, “I’m going to put everything in me in the batter.”
The creation of this talk came from when I was moving from New York to Miami because I was going through such trauma about not being a New Yorker and I realized, “Why do I feel like I’m being forced to choose? Why can’t I have everything? Why can’t I still be in New York or living in Miami? Why can’t I consider New York home and visit it often?” I don’t love how I tested this theory. I went to a burger joint once, a casual burger place like a lot of burger places, they had an endless number of different kinds of fries.
The waitress came over and I ordered my cheeseburger and she said, “What fries would you like with that?” I said, “What kinds do you have?” She said, “We have waffle fries, steak fries, curly fries, spicy fries, regular fries and sweet potato fries.” I said to her, “I’d like a little bit of all of them.” She goes, “You can’t do that.” I said, “I’m not asking for more fries. I just want a sampling of each of them.” She nervously responds like, “No, you can’t do that.” I was like, “Ask the chef. Maybe it’s possible. I bet you can do it.”
I wanted to pump her up a little bit. I wanted her to get this philosophy in life like, “Why am I being forced to choose? Why can’t I have everything?” Sure enough, a little while later, she came back and she was grinning from ear to ear giving me this burger with a little bit of a sample of all the fries. Let’s face it. They’re all premade. That is what this talk is about. It’s about learning to realize that in this black and white world, constantly forcing us to make a choice between things, when we stopped choosing between things is when we choose everything.
That’s important in business because many entrepreneurs have this experience as a roller coaster that we’re on. Often, the root of that roller coaster is because they’re unknowingly deciding, “Right now, I’m choosing to put all my attention and money towards my business. I’m neglecting my personal life and then I’m going to put all my attention towards my personal life, but my business is taking a slide. I’m putting all my attention towards the volume and not the price of services. I’m going to put all my attention to the price of services.” This is the route of why we experience this roller coaster and my philosophy is, “Why not choose to have everything instead of limiting your own thoughts?”
We understand now that speaking the right lingo is going to attract the right people and to help us stand out, but you have another keynote about how to attract and retain dream employees, not just customers and clients. That’s such a challenge for a lot of companies, especially the Millennials and younger. What is it that someone can do to speak the lingo of a Millennial versus someone else?
One of the key lessons in businesses today is about pivoting, but there’s a deeper level to pivoting. It’s paying attention to what needs you. When I wrote LINGO as a branding strategy, I joke about it in my HR keynotes that I have never had a job and I’ve never received a paycheck. Here I am speaking to HR, but I’m bringing this branding perspective into HR, which they desperately need. Every generation has had its differences and has misunderstood the generation following them. Honestly, I don’t know that there’s ever been such a dissonance between the generation that is typically doing the hiring and the generation of today’s workforce, which are the Millennials.
There are such huge misperceptions of Millennials and I have to have three of them as well. I’m a little more sensitive to this. It’s a key problem in HR because they’re not speaking of lingo. I’ll give you one example and it’s the recruiting process. Many companies recruit in such an old-fashioned way. It’s a lack of communication and this formal interview process. Even if a candidate gets in front of HR, there’s a lack of communication. There’s this old style of doing it. I go into companies and I refer to it as creating a frictionless recruiting process because the generation you’re speaking to, their lingo is frictionless.
We turn to Uber and Lyft, and the whole business model of technology is to create a frictionless experience. HR is like the fax machines of business practices and it’s a big problem in HR. If they want to get their dream employees, they need to develop the process itself to be more frictionless or more technology-driven. If they want the dream employees of today’s workforce, they need to think like them. They need to speak their lingo.
The takeaway I have is if you’re trying to target a tech Millennial and your application process, your whole interaction with them is a pleasant user experience as they call it in the tech world. It’s seamless and there’s not a lot of bumps. It’s easy to use and it’s intuitive. They think, “They’re speaking my language. They want me to do this, but they already arrived. I’m going to come here. These people already understand the importance of what is important and therefore, I’m intrigued to possibly pick them versus another company trying to woo me.”
You will stand out competitively. If you were that candidate or potential employee, wouldn’t that also mean to you what the experience of working for that company was likely to be like?
I was speaking at a Coca-Cola Summit for CMOs who carry Coke instead of the other brand. One of them was the CMO of Domino’s Pizza and I said to him, “What’s your biggest marketing challenge?” He said, “Attracting tech people.” I said, “Really?” He said, “Yes. We’re competing against a lot of other tech companies because we’re promoting this app that tracks your pizza from the time you ordered it online, how fast it’s getting there and who’s doing it. We used to say we’re a pizza company that uses tech to try to attract this top tech talent. Now we say we’re an eCommerce company that happens to sell pizza.” I thought, “You’re speaking their language because eCommerce company happens to sell insert books. It sounds a lot like Amazon, but you’re just inserting pizza.” That’s another example of what you’re talking about speaking the right lingo to recruit the right people.
I’m working with a company that layout offices. They get the furniture and they design it. It’s an integrated system that they offer and they’re big on what they refer to as resimercial design, which is this blend between residential and commercial design. In redoing their branding where you’re leveraging that as one of the key distinguishable properties that they want to promote to potential customers as to how they can attract their ideal employees. Many companies are having a problem attracting a good workforce. Designing their offices in resimercial styles are attractive to today’s workforce because it’s a cooler atmosphere. I even dig deeper and I was like, “There’s also an added psychological benefit here. In all our lives, the lines are blurred between work and in our personal lives. There are almost no lines.” Therefore, in the workplace when you soften those lines, it’ll feel like that. You increased productivity because it’s not like you’re going to take the hour and go down to the cafeteria. You’re going to sit in a café and keep working while you’re having your sandwich.
At least have a casual conversation with people you work with and collaborate on brainstorming ideas in a new space. I’m a big believer in that as well. Any last thoughts or a quote you want to leave us with?
Philosophically, I believe that businesses, whether they’re businesses seeking their ideal customers or their dream employees, those that take the time to get the audience, get them. They get the audience they want to reach and achieve their goals. Companies that are willing to get their customers will get better customers and companies that are willing to get today’s workforce will get their dream employees. It starts with having a willingness to understand the lingo of the people that you want to attract. I look at lingo as the evolution beyond buyer personas and avatars, which at best scratches the surface. It’s an attempt. Buyer personas and avatars is an attempt to understand that you have to go further than that today because all the companies that are producing buyer personas and avatars are all going to compete with one another. If you want to stand out, go beyond the buyer persona and avatar and find out what emotionally moves the audience that you’re trying to attract.
People can find you if they want to hire you and have a conversation about having you as a speaker at JeffreyShaw.com. Jeffrey, thanks for being such a great guest and sharing your secrets on lingo.
John, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
- LINGO: Discover Your Ideal Customer’s Secret Language and Make Your Business Irresistible
- Creative Warriors
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