Island A: The Painful Symptom

Words of introduction in which I explain of the incredible length of this post which should probably be an ebook

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”

– Plato

I want to talk about empathy in marketing.

It might just be the most important part of it.

This is one of the longest posts I’ve ever put together. It likely took me about ten hours.

I spent so much time on this because I really want you to ‘get it’. I don’t just want to show you something new to look at – I want you to have new eyes.

Give me thirty minutes of your time to read this. It could change your business.


So many people in life struggle.


They never feel like anyone ‘gets’ them. And, truthfully, most people don’t. They saunter in with their big words and importance advice. But, of course, the solutions rarely work. Because it was a cookie cutter, generic piece of advice. Like a suit that was too big it just didn’t ‘fit’.

When people see that we don’t ‘get’ them, they will never trust our solutions.

Translated: if your potential clients don’t feel like you ‘get’ them – they will never hire you; they’ll never buy from you. And, until you understand the real nature of the struggles your clients go through you will never be able to write good sales copy. But, vastly more importantly, you’ll never be able to craft a product or service that is genuinely perfect for them. Your products and services will always be generic.

But let me start by telling you a few stories.


I’m in a car driving from Santa Cruz, California with a friend of a friend to a music festival in Santa Rosa.

And she is venting.

Relationship stuff.

The drive is two hours.

And, during the entire drive, I barely say two words. I’m listening. Not that I don’t want to say things. Or feel like I have brilliant things to say. I do. I keep having pithy aphorisms, quotes and inspiring things to say that I’m convinced will help her. But something is telling me to keep my mouth shut and keep listening. So I do. Five minutes of silence pass as we drive. And then she takes a deep breath and says, ‘And another thing! . . .’

It goes like this for the whole drive. Me not saying much. Making sympathetic noises. Her sharing more and more deeply about what’s going on. At several points, I have the thought, ‘Wow. I’m glad I didn’t share that thing I was so excited to share thirty minutes ago.’ I keep seeing how off base my insights were. How useless they would have been. I thought the problem was X but it turns out to be Y. And then Z.

I keep listening.

Finally, a deep exhale from her. She seems done.

I say, ‘Wow. It seems like you’re really struggling with how to meet your needs for sexual expression . . . but also your needs for self respect.’

She grips the steering wheel a little tighter as her eyes widen. She takes a deep breath and looks over at me, ‘YES!’

What she was saying was, ‘YES! You got it! You articulated that better than I could have myself! Thank you.’

It feels wonderful to be ‘gotten’.



Measure twice. Cut once.


I’m in Toronto. It’s mid October. I’m leading a brand new workshop called ‘The Hot Box’.

It’s an invite only workshop for more seasoned entrepreneurs focused at digging deep into their situations. Only eight people were there (but I realize I should limit it to six by the end of the day).

It’s a simple format.

We sit in a circle. People share where they’re struggling. We help them. Each person gets 45 minutes of the groups focus and time.

But the details are important. They have five minutes to share what’s up for them. Then the group has thirty minutes to make sure they really ‘get it’. We diagnose before we subscribe. For that thirty minutes no advice is allowed. Only clarifying question and reflections. Clarity first, resolution second.

And it’s amazing how different the advice is that I would give at the end of that thirty minutes than at the beginning.


I’m leading a workshop on Non Violent Communication for a housing coop in Edmonton.

We sit in a circle. I invite someone to share something they’re struggling with. A fellow named Jim volunteers. “I’m going home to visit soon. And my family and I always fight about politics. I don’t know how to deal with it.’

I feel everyone in the circle lean is as if to pounce on him with their advice, ideas and commiseration. They want to solve this shit.

I invite everyone to lean back. I invite them to question how clear they are about the real nature of the problem after so little information. Invite three people to reflect back what they heard. I ask Jim if they ‘got it’. He nods, but adds some more details. We end up going around the circle. I invite each person to share what they just heard him say and then I ask him, ‘did they get it?’

By the end of the circle Jim says, ‘I mean . . . do I even need to talk with my parents about this? I’m not even that political anymore.’

And it becomes clear: all of our advice from that first minute would have been useless.

Measure twice, cut once.


I’m talking with a friend about foreign aid. He’s bemoaning an organization that went in to built wells so people could have clean water – but didn’t teach the village how maintain it. “Tens of thousands of wasted dollars . . .” He shakes his head. “These aid organizations . . . They just don’t get it.”



It’s easy to get lost in our brilliant point of view in marketing. To want to share our diagnosis of what’s really going on under the surface with people before they feel like we really get what it’s like to be them. To give all sorts of advice.

So, let me break it down.

People are overwhelmed with information these days. Thousands of marketing messages everyday. People unconsciously filter out 99% of the stimulus coming at them. What they do give their attention to are things they believe are relevant to them.

Relevance is the word.

And what is the only thing that is relevant to people? Their experience. Period. That’s it.

The more present, visceral and intense the experience – the more relevant it is.

When you’re in immense physical or emotional pain nothing else matters. If I were to have you hold your breath as long as you could – the only thing you’d want by the last few seconds is air.

If people can see how our product or service is relevant to them they will pay attention. If they can’t they won’t. It’s really as simple as that.

If you’ve followed my work at all you know all about my metaphor of the journey from Island A to Island B. You can watch a video about it here.

I wrote about it in a recent blog post about figuring out your platform.

Imagine a young man on an island (which we’ll call Island A). It’s not that great a place to be. But, it’s all he knows, so he goes about his days. Then he starts hearing that his is not the only island in the world. That there are other islands. At first he doesn’t believe it, but the more he visits the docks and meets these visitors the clearer it becomes. It’s true. And then, one day, he hears about a particular island (which we’ll call Island B). And his heart leaps. He wants to go there.

Of course, he needs to get a boat to go there.

But there are so many boats to hire! Which one to choose?

Your business is a boat. It helps people like this young man get from Island A where they’re struggling with some problem (i.e. set of symptoms they don’t like) to Island B where they have the result they want (i.e. something they’re craving).

People don’t get on your boat because they love it. They get on your boat to get off Island A.

And that’s the question: what is Island A?

Island A is the painful set of symptoms they experience in their lives. It’s the problem they face. It’s why they’re looking for a boat in the first place. It’s what makes your boat relevant to them. If they have no problem, they have, in their mind, no need for a solution.

I will often ask holistic or permaculture providers what problems they solve for their clients. They’ll laugh and say, ‘That’s the thing! This modality/approach can work on any problem. What can’t it do?

They’re so in love with their boat (what they do and how they do it) and so they talk about their boat all the time. But people only care about your boat if it can help them with their problem.

This seems like it would be a liberating approach or perspective. You’re not limiting your options. But it’s actually the most limiting thing you can do. Because now there’s no relevance for the boat. Why bother getting on a boat if you don’t want to leave the Island?


Their Symptoms vs. Your Diagnosis

The famous golfer Jack Nicklaus was suffering from intense pain in his right knee and considering getting surgery.

But his friend begged of him to go see Pete Egoscue, a structural anatomist. Begrudgingly, as a favour to his friend, he went. When Jack walked into the office, Pete looked up and saw him limping.

“I see you’re having trouble with your hip.”

“Actually,” said Jack ‘why-did-i-agree-to-see-this-quack?’ Nicklaus. “I’m in crippling pain in my right knee.” and was about to leave.

“I can see you’re in pain in your knee. But that’s the source of your pain – it’s not the cause. The cause is that your right hip is rotated forward and that’s putting pressure on your knee. Get down on the ground and try this . . .”

After thirty minutes of stretching and exercises, Jack stood up. With no pain in his knee.

Pete looked him in the eye, “If you want this pain to stay away, you’ll do exactly what I say.”

Client for life.

The point I want you to get from this story is the sharp distinction between symptoms and signs.

The symptom is what the patient feels. The sign is what the doctor or trained practitioner notices. The person may come in with crippling knee pain (symptom). But the practitioner sees that this pain is caused by the hip rotating forward and putting pressure on the knee (sign). Here’s the point – in marketing you must speak to the symptoms not to the signs.

“What is my client’s absolute biggest problem? What is their perception of that problem? Their perception is more important than yours. Build your company around your customers biggest perceived problem. Give them your solution, or somebody else will.” Jay Abraham

Imagine a full page ad in a golf magazine: which headline do you thinking would be more effective?

A) “Are you suffering from excruciating knee pain every time you walk?”

B) “Is your left hip rotated forward due to a lack of core muscle strength?”


This distinction is critical. In the beginning, you must speak to people’s experiences – not about your brilliant diagnosis of what caused their experience.


Empathy before education.

The truth: Most people don’t see themselves clearly. They could be the biggest asshole in the world – and never notice it. If you try to write an add saying, “Are you an asshole?” You probably won’t have much luck. Most people think of themselves as good people who are victimized by the world.

Is that sad? Maybe – but I’d suggest you get over that and just accept that that’s how it is.

People may not have any sense that they’re jerks – but I will guarantee you that they are noticing some of the consequences of their behaviour (even if they blame everyone else) – and that is what you need to speak to. Maybe they notice that they have no friends who they’ve known more than a year. Maybe they notice that they get lied to a lot. Maybe they notice that people break commitments with them a lot. They’re getting stood up for dates a lot. You’d get further in your marketing if you spoke to that.

Another example: most people think that they’re great communicators. They really do. So, if you come at someone from the angle of “we work with managers who don’t have the communication skills to motivate their employees” you won’t get very far. It may be true – but it’s a sign, not a symptom.

And all of your marketing must speak 100% to the symptoms that they are experiencing.

If you changed your approach to be, “We work with managers who aren’t getting the kind of buy in they’d like from their employees.” You’ve got to speak to what’s real for them. And what’s real for them is rarely that they are to blame. They probably are feeling hard done by. That doesn’t mean that you can’t help them identify where they are responsible for what’s happening to them – all it means is that you can’t start there.


A million more examples follow . . .

For the past fifteen years, I’ve worked with a non-profit in California. One of the ideas that’s evolved is to offer some mentorship and consulting to folks running non-profits working for progressive and radical change.

They walk into the office every day trying to keep their organization running and achieving its big vision. That’s what got them into it. Wanting to make a big difference.

And what we’ve seen is that, despite great missions and programs, many organizations are (secretly) suffering from breakdown due to internal conflicts, burnout and lack of alignment. Lots of money and energy are spent in building up an image to the outside world, while inside, things are falling apart for individuals and their relationships.

But if I were to try to get an Executive Director’s attention I wouldn’t say, ‘Is your organization out of alignment?’ Instead, I might speak to some of the following . . .

  • people aren’t really talking to each other in the organization
  • your organization is full of cliques
  • your organization is trying to work with a diverse coalition but you’re all of one gender, race or class – you’re a monoculture organization seeking to work on diverse things
  • lots of following but not initiative and leadership for people
  • you have to generate all the ideas and no one else is contributing
  • people are constantly criticizing ideas and putting them down – not very generative
  • your group is criticized about diversity/anti-oppression stuff
  • want to form alliances with other kinds of groups but not sure how
  • frustrated by divisiveness in activist community in your area
  • you’ve done an anti-oppression training but don’t know how to integrate it (and secretly have questions or doubts about the whole frame)
  • had a blow up around race, class, gender, power issues in your organization
  • people are calling you out on your attachment to power – you’ve become ‘the man’ to your staff
  • the roles and responsibilities are not the right fit. Some people are doing the wrong job and you’re not sure how to let them go or find them another position.
  • you keep trying to do the right thing to make your organization an embodiment of the culture you want to see in the world – only to have it blow up in your face
  • you’re feeling alone and isolated with no one to talk to

If I was leading a Non Violent Communication NVC) workshop, I wouldn’t try to educate people about all the intricacies, elements and premises of NVC in the ad. I’d want to speak to the symptom. Here’s an example of some potential content for a generic NVC workshop ad.

do you collapse and crumble inside when you’re verbally attacked?

(or do you just lose your shit and say things you later regret?)

There’s a third option that allows you to retain your spine without closing your heart down.

If you can honestly answer yes to the following 21 questions, you might find this workshop useful . . .

1.     have you ever had someone listen to you so deeply and non-defensively when you were in pain and angry with them that the pain went away and you were left feeling wonderful?

2.     does the idea of conflict secretly scare you?

3.     do you have a lot of trouble saying ‘no’ without feeling guilty?

4.     do you often feel like your needs are a burden on others?

5.     is it really important for you to be seen as ‘reasonable’ and ‘nice’?

6.     do you often not share the truth of what you’re feeling and needing with loved ones because you don’t want to hurt their feelings?

7.     do you often feel confused about exactly what it is you are feeling and needing?

8.     do you believe that your needs are something you should transcend or ignore (vs. just getting them met)?

9.     do you have strong belief in right and wrong? (and that people who do ‘bad’ should be punished while those who do ‘good’ should be rewarded?)

10.   do you find yourself staying put and staying quiet (smiling sweetly and unable to speak up) in intolerable situations?

11.   do you think that if you’re nice enough people will love and respect you?

12.   do you often feel deep resentment and bitterness towards people for not listening to you?

13.   do you sometimes feel scared that your feelings will overwhelm you or others?

14.   do you sometimes lie about how hurt or uncomfortable you feel because you don’t want to be ‘rude’

15.   do you feel guilty about asking directly for what you want and need?

16.   do you secretly fear that humanity is rotten at its core?

17.   when someone is in a great deal of emotional pain, do you find yourself initially trying to help them understand how they manifested this into their life (and to take responsibility for it)? or do you try to help them understand the spiritual lessons that they’re gaining from it . . . instead of just listening and giving them empathy?

18.   do you think it’s important to ‘call people on their shit?’

19.   do you think it’s important to be blunt and tell people what’s wrong with them when you can see it?

20.   do you intellectually believe in the idea of finding a win/win solution but emotionally shut down and react in ways you wish you didn’t when conflict arises?

21.   do you wish you could maintain your full presence when people are communicating with you in ways that you don’t like?

I hope this is making sense.

Speak to the symptoms, not about your diagnosis.

Nicole Moen speaks brilliantly to a common human experience, “Have you ever felt the urge to walk out your door and just go? You know, like, simply start walking . . . who knows where?”

Alex Baisley offers these words in his ‘Creating a Sustainable Lifestyle’ workshop:

Maybe you have a job or business you really don’t care for anymore. You feel there is more to life, that you’d like to work at something meaningful, maybe work for yourself, help others, have a better lifestyle, but you just can’t figure out what you should be doing.

You know you are creative, independent, and would prefer to make your living doing your ‘own thing’ if you could just figure out what…

Have you questioned leaving your job, going back to school, going to a life coach…? All good ideas by the way, but before going through another day frustrated and questioning… maybe come hear me out.

Maybe you are a parent, and you love the idea of having your work fit better with your family – allowing you to spend more time with your kids for instance, maybe even have them be involved in your work somehow a better life / work balance…

Do you ever get that ‘PANIC’ of feeling time is ticking along, and you still haven’t figured out what the heck you’re supposed to be doing with your life? This can be a very unpleasant experience – I know first hand what it felt like, and I’m sure glad I don’t feel it any more!

Kristi Beatty, a sexual enrichment counselor in Calgary articulates the experience of many women:

  • Not knowing their bodies and what truly pleases them.
  • Difficulties communicating with their partner about their needs, desires and wants.
  • Feeling obligated to have sex and not enjoying it.
  • Having difficulties having an orgasm or don’t orgasm at all with themselves and/or with a partner.
  • Feeling guilty when they self pleasure and/or don’t self pleasure at all.
  • Craving a deep intimate relationship with their partner but lacking a deep intimate relationship with themselves.
  • Avoiding having sex or certain sexual positions because they are self conscious about how their body looks naked.
  • Enjoying making love with their partner and giving them pleasure but have a hard time receiving pleasure.
  • Thinking they are “dirty” or “bad” because they actually do enjoy sex and want it more than their partners.
  • Feeling guilty or shameful about their fantasies and are afraid to express them.

The Therapy Vault was created out of empathy for the pain of therapists having to carry so many esecrets in their hearts and having no one they can talk to about it.

Carrie Klassen has written a wonderful ebook called ‘How to Write a Lovable Homepage’ and she articulates the experience

How to Write a Lovable Homepage is for entrepreneurs who:

  • are doing what they love but aren’t quite making a living yet (you’re not alone!)
  • don’t have enough clients, or enough “right” clients
  • want to surround themselves with only supportive, enthusiastic and loyal customers
  • feel stuck or stressed when it comes to figuring out what to write
  • aren’t always proud to share their websites

Mark Silver’s homepage does a wonderful job of articulating Island A:

Are you losing your heart trying to make your business work?

You can make a healthy profit and a real difference.

You want to make a difference in the world. And there’s no job description that lets you do exactly what you most want. Or the freedom that being self-employed gives you. Or the income potential.

So, accidentally or intentionally, you find yourself in business.

But it’s hard. Running a business turns out to involve more than you thought. Your vision can easily get lost in the overwhelming whirl of details and the pressure of bringing in cash. It’s no surprise you can end up dispirited and burnt-out, losing your confidence, passion and direction.

What’s more, the things you think you have to do to make the business work… you just won’t betray your heart and ethics like that. You won’t do it, no matter how “effective.”

Speak to the symptoms, not about your diagnosis.

Another story: A classic example of getting clear about the problem is FedEx.

For years, they thought they were targeting the CEO’s of the businesses. They thought the problem was helping to facilitate their communication. But then someone stopped and noticed what was going on. They realized that it wasn’t the CEO’s who were using FedEx. It was the harried secretary. They realized that these secretaries wanted to be heroes to their bosses. They changed their marketing to address that and their sales exploded.

The movie The Matrix did this. It powerfully captured a feeling that many people live with. This vague sense that things aren’t right; that there’s more to the world than what we see. It captured the frustration of feeling like we’re just food for the larger machine.

When running for the Presidency in the USA for the 2004 Elections, Senator John Edwards used  his “Two Americas” stump speech as the core of his messaging. The message was this: “There’s not just one America. There are two Americas. There’s an America where you get health care and there’s an America where you don’t. There’s an America where you have opportunity and there’s an America where you don’t.” People resonated with this powerfully. “Yes,” they thought. “It’s just like that.”

The title of John Gray’s best-selling book ‘Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus‘ struck a chord all over the world. People heard that and said, “Wow. That’s true. It’s just like that.” (NOTE: Friends of mine also staged a comedy production called ‘Men Are Stupid, Women Are Crazy.’ which also seemed to resonate strongly with both genders . . .)

Ari Galper realized that most sale people hated cold calling. Hated it. They had a fear of phone. But their jobs depended on it. Here’s what it says on his webpage:


Is Selling Painful For You?

It’s not your fault — and there is a better way

Old “tried and true” sales techniques that were once successful have completely lost their effectiveness over the years. That’s why I developed a sales approach that will quickly and automatically put you ahead of the game and instantly in a league above your competition.


Imagine that you hate your job and you see this ad. Do you think it might speak to you?


 “Is your boss a psychopath?”

Want to quit your job, but you’re afraid to?

Tired of your increasing workload without added pay?

80% of employees dislike their work.


Call us today – we can help.


Speak to the symptoms, not about your diagnosis.

A core question to ask yourself is, “Under what circumstances do your prospects start to think about buying what you offer?” (thank to the book Monopolize Your Marketplace for this gem).

This isn’t what events make people think about buying from you. It’s what make them think about buying the product or service you sell in general.

Also – this is just what starts them thinking about it. We’re not asking for the things that make them say “YES! I’ll buy!” We’re looking for the core problems or triggers that start the process of thinking, researching, talking to friends etc. Only 5% of people are ready to buy right now. Most people are earlier on in the spectrum.

Example #1: What would happen to let you know you were needing a new car?

o    It’s breaking down constantly.
o    I’ve spent more money on repairs than the car is worth. I feel frustrated.
o    I hate the look of my car. I feel embarrassed.
o    I just saw a new car I like.
o    I want to get a more fuel efficient car.
o    My family has grown and I need a larger vehicle.

Example #2: What would happen to let you know you were needing a new fence?

o    Your fence is sagging
o    My fence is eight year’s old and it’s starting to look run down
o    My family pet is escaping through gaps in the fence.
o    Animals are getting into your garden
o    The fence is sagging
o    The posts are rotting
o    A strong wind is causing one section to lean.
o    I’m building a new swimming pool and the fence is required by law.
o    You have children and you can’t leave them alone in the yard because they might run into the street.
o    I’m selling my house and I want to get top dollar.

Example #3: What might happen to let you know you were needing a life coach?

o    I am feeling lost in my life
o    I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.
o    I just got laid off and have no idea what to do. I feel overwhelmed.
o    I’ve just gone through a painful divorce and am wanting to start fresh but know I need support.
o    I keep meaning to handle important areas of my life but never seem to get around to it. I feel ashamed and embarrased.
o    I have a very hard time saying ‘no’ and drawing boundaries without feeling guilty
o    I am not getting my needs met in a relationship but have no idea how to ask for it. I feel helpless and confused.
o    I feel dissatisfied with my life but can’t put my finger on why that is.
o    I’ve read all the damn new age and personal development books and I still feel stuck in the same old patterns. I realize that it’s not about more information.
o    I am feeling stuck right now in some unhealthy patterns and I’m just needing someone to hold my hand and walk me through this.

Example #4: Under what circumstances might you start thinking about hiring a web designer?

o    I’m embarrassed about the appearance of my website.
o    I notice that I’m not passing out my website address because I feel so ashamed of its appearance.
o    My materials and website no longer represent me. They don’t capture my vibe and personality.
o    I just saw a website or flyer that made you say, “Wow! I wish mine looked that good.”

In my workshops, I often have clients practice introducing themselves by saying, “Do you know how (kinds of people) struggle with (kind of problem)?” (e.g. “Do you know how a lot of holistic practitioners struggle with getting enough clients?”

That phrasing of “Do you know . . .?”is important. It’s important that they do know. It’s important that I’m speaking to the symptoms they’re experiencing not the underlying cause (we can and should speak to that later, but not until there’s relevance established).

Which of the following headlines do you think is most likely to get people’s attention?

1)    ‘Do you know how people struggle with always dating the same type of person?’

2)    ‘Do you know how some people’s heart chakra’s are closed down due to past unresolved karma?’

It’s obvious isn’t it?

Shouldn’t our businesses exist to help people with their real problems instead of just being a vanity piece where we show off our boat?

I want to suggest that the heart of your marketing can (and, if I might be so bold, perhaps ought to be) empathy.

Life can be hard sometimes.

We all struggle with things. And we all need help sometimes.

Our business exists to help people with their problems.

Simple enough idea – but the implications are profound and applications often totally overlooked.

Again, the word of the day is: relevance.

Do you remember Aesop’s fable about the lion with the thorn in his paw?

A mouse comes along and sees how much pain the thorn is causing the lion. Even though the lion is roaring loudly, the mouse bravely steps forward and takes it out and wins the lion’s lifelong loyalty. They become the best of friends.

Here’s the point: do you think the lion cared who took it out? Or what particular set of tools the mouse used? What technique? Where he learned it? No. Maybe afterwards. But the first and foremost thing on his mind was ‘get me out of pain.’


“It’s much harder to sell clients on a nice idea than it is to speak to the urgent problems they’re facing now.”
Phila Hoopes

But isn’t this being negative?

The key is to speak to people’s actual experience, not to just talk about our boat.

Sometimes what’s most real for people is Island A (what they don’t want) and sometimes what’s most real is Island B (what they do want).

But, often, people are more focused on what they don’t want than what they do want.

Is that a disempowering focus? Probably.

Is that a sad statement about where most folks are at? Perhaps.

But you can spend your time railing against reality or you can have empathy for it.

I know some marketers – especially in the new age scene – who never ever want to dwell on the negative or speak to people’s problems. They think that this makes those problems more real and that it’s manipulative.

While I really respect the integrity of this stance – I also think it’s entirely misguided. These people often are failing profoundly in their marketing. What’s often happening is that they’re in love with talking about how profoundly amazing their boat and point of view is.

When people are in pain – they need empathy – not advice.

As the old saying goes, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Sometimes people are just craving for someone to acknowledge their struggles; to know they’re not alone or crazy for feeling how they feel.

For most people, their vision of what they want is far off in the distance but their problems are right in front of their face. And if you want to get their attention you must speak to what’s real to them right now.

You can be arrogant and holier or granolier than thou if you want. You can insist on speaking to what you think they should be focused on. You can ignore how much they’re hurting and simply refuse to acknowledge it and then blame them for not responding to it. You can choose to live in some mythical land where everyone is fully empowered and focused solely on what they want – or you can be a human being and admit that sometimes life is hard for folks. Sometimes people feel frustrated and confused and angry.

If you are willing to get off your high horse and really ‘be with the people’ – if you’re willing to take the time to hear and really understand the pain they experience and willing to articulate that in your marketing – an amazing thing happens: first of all, you get their attention. Second of all, people don’t feel manipulated – they feel seen. If you can artfully articulate their problems well – they feel heard, understood and acknowledged.

And that creates something else – profound trust and connection. If you can give them the empathy they’re seeking by speaking to their experience – they will turn to you like a plant does to sunlight. They will assume that, if you understand their problems that well – your solutions must be equally well thought out.

And, once a relationships developed – you may even be able to help them move their focus away from what they don’t want to what they do want and perhaps even lift their vision to a new horizon they never knew was possible – and wouldn’t that be a wonderful gift to give them?

Ask yourself: What’s going on with them that makes what you’re offering relevant?


If there’s no problem, there’s no relevance.

People don’t get on your boat because they love it. They get on your boat to get off Island A.


Three Compelling Reasons to Clarify Island A:


It will give you a compelling opening for your homepage, sales letter, presentation or cold call.

How do most sales conversations start? It’s all about the salesperson, isn’t it. “Hi my name is John and I’m calling from Acme Supplies.” Though it may not be immediately obvious how to do it you can start the conversation with their need, their problems – not your company’s pitch. By starting with their problem, with their lived experience, you instantly get their attention and interest.

If your marketing speaks to a significant problem of theirs, you’d be shocked how much they’d be willing to read. A thirty page sales letter? Impossible you say. Not so.

Imagine you were getting divorced and you didn’t want it to happen. And then, one day in the mail you get a huge direct mail piece with the headline “Exactly What You Need to Say to Stop Your Painful Divorce – Even If It Feels Hopeless.” You’d very likely sit down and read that. If a friend gave to you, even more likely.

When relevance has been established people pay attention. Until it’s been established, they ignore you. It’s rarely a matter of too much information or too many words. It’s almost always an issue of too little relevance.


If you are speaking to someone and they are not dealing with the problem you solve – that’s it. It’s over. No need to chase them. No need to try to ask them probing questions. The entire goal of our marketing should be about helping them to sort out if we’re a fit for them or not.

There are so many elements of whether things are a fit or not – but the fastest, clearest and most important one is this: ‘can you help me with a problem I’m experiencing?’. If the problem we solve is fuzzy, so will their minds be when trying to figure out if it’s a fit. Always remember this: the confused mind says ‘no’.


If you can articulate their lived experience and problems even better than they can they will experience a profound amount of trust with you.

They feel profoundly safe with you because they know that you understand them. Don’t underestimate the power of this. In their mind, the logic goes like this: ‘if they understand my problems so well, they most understand how to design a solution well too.’

People don’t get on your boat because they love it. They get on your boat to get off Island A.

Until they perceives some relevance in what you do to their life – nothing happens. And why should it?

On a personal level they may love you dearly, they might give you polite interest at that cocktail party, but on a business level they could care less about your problems, travails and how hard it is for you. They want to know, ‘What can you do for me? Can you get me relief from this pain?’

No, they’re coming to you to get something. Your business is just a tool. Your boat is just a boat to them. An ends to a means. It might sound harsh but I think you’ll find it’s true.

The point is that it isn’t about you and your boat.


Three levels of progress in this area. You know you’re making progress here when:

1)    You realize that they’re on Island A and want to go to Island B. You realize that it’s not about your boat – it’s about their journey.

2)    You realize that many people are in learned helplessness about their problems. They think the pain is unavoidable – they’ve tried so. many. different. times. They don’t believe those deeper needs will ever be fulfilled. They fear that the problem is permanent. They’ve learned that they can never get off Island A.

3)    You can articulate their problems better than they can. You can articulate the needs and inklings that they barely even knew they had themselves – you can put words to those vague discomforts, niggling doubts and unclear concerns.

This is a huge sign of progress.

Rich Scheffrenn says in his Maven Matrix report: “Come up with at least three ways to articulate these problems better than your prospects have.  (It’s not as hard as it might sound…nobody sits around trying to come up with better ways to describe a problem, so thinking time will give you a huge advantage here.)” This means that you don’t only understand Island A, you know how they feel about being Island A.

Your goal is to be able to speak to your ideal clients about their problem, about their daily experience, in such a way that they say, “Wow! That’s me! That’s it. She gets it! She understands what I’m dealing with. I’ve never felt that understood.”

Most people don’t even really know what’s wrong. They just know that something feels off.

If you can get that kind of “that’s me!” response you instantly gain massive trust. If they trust your diagnosis, they’ll trust your prescription.

Nothing builds your credibility faster than this. Nothing.

Ari Galper shares these words . . .

“The Prospect’s World — How Do We Understand It?”

QUESTION: Ari, your e-mail really resonated with me. I have my doubts about one sentence, and I’m not sure if it’s because of how it was stated. You say: “…having intimate knowledge of your prospects’ problems BEFORE you approach them.” How can you have intimate knowledge of the prospects problem before approaching them? Through lots of research? I strongly believe we can never to understand our prospect’s world because we don’t live in their world, no matter how much we try.

ARI: Understanding more about your prospects’ problems BEFORE you approach them comes from your ability to listen. And when I say listen, I mean, “Listen WITHOUT your mind thinking about how to move the conversation closer to a sale.”

Also, the term “research” is a bit too impersonal. It’s more accurate to say that you’ll have deep knowledge about your prospects’ problems when you can have open, agenda-free conversations with people who are comfortable sharing what’s happening from their perspective.

But you can’t get these insights if you’re always thinking about moving the sale forward. If a voice in your mind is always saying, “How do I move this conversation closer to a sale?,” then you’re really not “listening.” That’s why you think you can’t “live in their world.” Let go of trying to make the sale, and you’ll learn more about your prospects than you ever imagined.

Four qualities of a well articulated problem:

  • it’s urgent: if it’s the kind of problem they can handle whenever, they will likely put off handling it. If there’s no urgency they’ll likely regard what you do with fascination and respect, but they won’t buy. If it’s a mild, dull ache . . . well some people can live with those forever. It’s the old story of the city slicker who gets lost in the country and he walks to a farm house. While he’s getting directions from the farmer sitting on his porch, the dog next to the farmer on the porch floor is whining something awful. When he asks what’s wrong with the dog, the farmer tells him, ‘Oh him. He’s sittin’ on a nail.’ But, the city slicker persists, ‘why doesn’t he move then?’ The farmer looks down on the dog, ‘well, it doesn’t hurt that much . . .’
  • it’s particular: yes, ‘stress’ is a symptom. True. But the stress of a housewife and the stress of a CEO are different. The stress of living your life hiding the fact that you’re gay is different than the stress of trying to scrape enough money to pay your bills. The question of niche becomes tremendously important here. Nothing helps us qualify and refine the nature of the symptoms faster than knowing exactly who we’re talking about.
  • it’s sensory: the most effective of these appeal to your five senses. You can easily describe them. You can imagine them clearly. You can visualize them.  Taken together, the symptoms paint a picture of someone’s life. They tell a story. Your ideal client should read the list you come up with and say, “that’s me!”
  • it has feelings: ideally you not only put in the specific symptoms but also how people feel about those symptoms.


Seven ways to identify and clarify the symptoms you help your clients with

  • look to your own wounds: in so many cases, we end up being able to best serve people who are just like us. We can help people who are going through what we went through. Our deepest wounds are often our truest niche.
  • interviews and conversations: sit down with people in your niche and ask them what it’s like to be them. Listen carefully. Take notes. You likely can’t do this enough.
  • listen for their metaphors: when they describe what they live with what images do they use? what is it like for them? what does it seem like to be on Island A? Is it like a prison? Do they feel like they’re at the ‘end of their rope’ or ‘up against a wall’ or more like they’re drowning? Sometimes, this kind of evocative imagery can be used very powerfully in our marketing.
  • look for industry frustrations: where are they currently frustrated or aggravated with your industry? Knowing this can give you some keen insights into how to design your boat and frame it best.
  • get interviewed: have a friend interview you and record what you say. The catch: you must answer the question as if you were your own ideal client. So you will answer all questions with “I” not “they”. Pretend you’re the kind of client you want – step into their shoes. Have them ask you this question again and again, “Under what circumstances do you start to think about buying __________________?”
  • research online: find out where your niche hangs out online. Are there certain forums, blogs, facebook pages etc. Go and research. Read their comments. Participate. Ask questions.
  • consider which of the four tracks it’s a part of: most of the problems people face in their life will fit into one of the following four ‘tracks’. Which one is primary for you (remember: their symptoms, not your diagnosis).
  1. health: physical health, more energy, being more strong, more flexible, better digestion, better sleep etc.
  2. money: this could mean more cash, better money management, ways to save money etc. Can you help them make it or save it? Can you improve their career prospects?
  3. peace of mind: a deeper sense of spirituality and meaning etc. Can you help people feel more relaxed, safe and comfortable in their own skin and at home in the world? Can you help them partake in more meaningful work in their life?
  4. relationships: dating, marriage, better sex etc.


Thoughts on how to use these symptoms in your marketing:

  • with great respect and sensitivity: these things are often incredibly painful for people. We don’t want to speak tritely of people’s pain. If they are feeling shame – that is incredibly crippling. It’s very sensitive ground. Tread carefully. You need to acknowledge how hard it is for them.
  • share your own story: sometimes we don’t have to say the infomercially words like, ‘do you suffer from bad breath?’. Sometimes we can just share our story and they can find themselves in it. And sometimes that’s more powerful.
  • tell the client’s story: another option is that you can articulate the story of your typical client. You can do a little one or a big one.
  • be curious about the problems you already solve (that you might not even know you’re solving):  Thomas Leonard was one of the founders of the Life Coaching movement. But before he did this, he was a financial advisor. One day he asked a couple who he’d worked with for years, “Why do you work with me? I mean, beyond the technical side.” The husband said, “Thomas, how could we give you up? You’re our marriage counselor!” Thomas was confused and asked them to explain. The wife spoke up and said, “Thomas, you need to understand, before we came to you our marriage was on the rocks. And it was mostly due to fights about money. But then when we saw you, you had this incredibly gentle way of working things out with us. We left that first meeting feeling so at peace. Now we have a rule in our marriage. We don’t talk about money unless Thomas is there. You’ve saved our marriage.”


Want Help? If you’d like some more direct guidance and hand holding on figuring out your niche then go and check out my Niching for Hippies coaching program

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