What do Madonna, a leading expert on growing your business, and a Roman Catholic theologian all have in common? To use Madonna’s words, they all believe in the mantra “Express yourself.”
Self-expression isn’t just about letting your “true colors” show in a gushy, Cyndi Lauperish kind of way. Both pragmatists and philosophers consider it a practical, essential element of human success and happiness. And if your business isn’t allowing you to achieve it, then why are you in business?
That’s a tough question to ask yourself, but it’s one I haven’t been able to put out of my mind since reading Michael Port’s best-selling guide to growing a service-based business, Book Yourself Solid. These words from his first chapter leapt off the page when I first saw them because they reminded me so much of clients I work with: “[Y]ou are your clients. They are an expression and an extension of you…. Let this be the imperative of your business: Choose your clients as carefully as you choose your friends.”
It can be so tempting to try to reach an audience of “everyone,” but that scattershot approach doesn’t really serve anyone, least of all the business owner. When you lose track of your passion and mission, business becomes transactional and mundane. The financial returns may be high, but the emotional and spiritual rewards diminish.
On the flip side, when you treat your business as a vehicle for self-expression, the results become transformative, for both you and your customers or clients. You attract customers and collaborators who share your values and vision. “Business” becomes synonymous with “purpose,” and even routine tasks take on rich meaning because they play a part in the Greater Plan for both your livelihood and your life.
Port defines self-expression as the ability to focus in on a select group of ideal clients, the people you can serve best because they energize and inspire you. You’ll know you’re “fully self-expressed,” he says, when you’re living your personal values so plainly that your ideal client is drawn to you as one kindred spirit to another.
In my business, I’m blessed to work with folks I call “innovators and change-makers.” Because they’re using their business to express a strong sense of mission, they inspire me to think more creatively and live more intentionally.
They also allow me to see how self-expression, and the benefits it brings, happen not just through strategy but also through language. Port’s definition of self-expression makes an important statement, but we can get more literal.
If your business as a whole is expressing your passion and purpose, but the language you use to tell others about it isn’t doing the same thing, then you have a problem. That problem could show up as a feeling of vague unease when you think about your tagline or the latest sell sheet you created. Or it could manifest as a sense of being tongue-tied when you’re asked to introduce yourself. Having a strong sense of mission with weak messaging to convey it is like trying to get comfortable in a shirt that doesn’t quite fit.
We humans feel most alive when we’re able to create meaning, to make sense of the world around us, for ourselves and others. Words help us do that. That’s why getting your messaging right can have a galvanizing impact on your business. The message doesn’t just serve your audience—it serves you as a means of representing what your business really means to you, your customers, and the world at large.
Getting to that message often plays out like the Biblical scene of Jacob wrestling with the angel. If you recall the ancient folktale, the story begins with Jacob starting on a personal mission to return to the country of his birth and reconcile with his twin brother, whom he’d cheated out of a birthright years earlier. One night along the journey, Jacob has a mysterious visitor, a nameless man who wrestles with him till dawn. As the sun starts to rise, the man (or angel) begs to be released, but Jacob won’t let the man go until he agrees to give Jacob a blessing.
The language of blessing comes only after struggle. But once he’s wrestled his way to it, Jacob has everything he needs to face his estranged brother and restore his relationship with him. In the same way, finding the right words to express your business message comes only through a lot of introspection, critical thinking, and creative work. But when you find those words, you’re truly “fully self-expressed,” and you can align your business more directly with the values and vision you hold dear.
Linguistic clarity about your business’s purpose and future feels good. Some people would describe the feeling as “being better aligned.” Others experience a sense of relief—they can relax because the misshapen shirt finally fits. Inevitably, finding the right words to express the business mission brings fresh energy and insights, glimpses into new possibilities.
Theologians and businesspeople don’t always share a lot of common ground, but Catholic priest Ronald Rolheiser defines self-expression in a way that complement’s Port’s conception of it and takes it further. In Forgotten Among the Lilies: Living Beyond Our Fears, Rolheiser writes: “Self-expression, being known and being experienced in our depth, is vital to living and loving.” It’s also, I’d add, the life-blood of a successful business—at least any business that wants to make meaningful change in the world.
If self-expression for the individual equates with “being known and being experienced in our depth,” then self-expression for a business means the same thing. Self-expression enables your customers and partners to know who you are and to experience what it’s like to interact with you (human to human) and benefit from what you have to offer. While language isn’t the perfect tool for achieving self-expression, until humans master telepathy, it’s just about the best option we have to work with right now.
As Rolheiser points out, none of us will achieve perfect self-expression during our lifetime. “Here in this life all symphonies remain unfinished,” he aptly says. But shaping language so that it communicates the essence of your business is one of the most vital, invigorating tasks you’ll ever take on. Wrestling with your messaging may not get you a blessing from an angel, but it will infuse your business with new pride, power, and purpose.