Thursday, March 12, 2009

Just Words?

Photographer or Photography?

The Profession of Photographer, or The Photography Industry?

Over a decade ago, I had a big decision to make. It honestly didn't seem like a big decision at the time. In fact, I didn't think it was such an important one. However, it was. The question at hand was:

Do I call what I am doing: John Harrington - Photographer, or instead John Harrington Photography. Fortunately for me, I had Elyse Weisberg asking me this question, and instead of letting me make the wrong decision, Elyse was among the top photography consultants in the country, and without going into her CV, let's just say she worked with Eddie Adams, and wrote Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers.

What Elyse did was guide me to John Harrington Photography. She said "you're a business, and you want your clients to see you that way. When you're 'John Harrington, Photographer', you're seen as just an individual, and businesses want to hire other businesses." She needed say no more. This was one of the earliest stages of branding I participated in, and one that set me on the right path for the long term.

The question of The Profession of Photographer, or The Photography Industry is, at first blush, semantics, but is very important to distinguish.
(Continued after the Jump)

During the Presidential campaign, the power of words was dismissed by some. The power of possible plagarism on this very subject, came to the fore, as highlighted in this minute-long video. Words, and the choice of them, is critical. I mean, vitally critical.

We spend a great deal of time here in my office thinking and re-thinking our messaging. for example "I'll need to get you my contract for you to review and sign before I can get started" is an off-putting message. Instead, we use "we'll send along some paperwork for this assignment, and if you'd sign it, we'll be all set." Notice the use of "we" over "I". "some paperwork" over "my contract", "we'll be all set" over "before I can get started". Which one sounds more appealing to you? I've been attentive to this level of detail almost since the beginning - since discerning the difference Elyse put before me.

One of the most respected consultants in the political arena is Frank Luntz. Luntz is usually hired by Republicans, but even Democrats like John Kerry begrudgingly respect his genius. Luntz dissects, in his book Words That Work, how the words we use have impact. I have just finished his book, and it's full of post-it notes and dog-eared pages for me to return to, and it's also now out in paperback. The books' tagline is "It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear ". This is a time-tested concept, in part made famous as a thread running through the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus book, where the message was that when a man says something to a woman, she hears things he didn't say, and vice-versa with women speaking to men.

One of the points in the book was that using the word "industry" in the context of "Pharmaceutical Industry" suggested big business, uncaring bureaucrats, piles of money, and so on. What about, as Luntz points out, the Pharmaceutical Profession? That's your local pharmacist, or even possibly your own doctor who gives you a prescription? So too, when you say "Photography Industry", what comes to mind is not we photographers, it's things like Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Nikon, HP, and so on. In other words - big business. When we say "the photography industry is being devastated right now by X, Y, and Z", people don't think of the wedding photographer in Duluth, or the studio owner in New Orleans who is closing up his studio. If you, instead say "the profession of photographer is being devastated..." there is a more core sentiment felt for the individual small business owner that is a photographer. In fact, even changing the words to "the photography profession" dials back the individualistic components of what we do, if even just a little.

I want to strongly encourage you to think, re-think, and then, yes, think some more about the words you use. Luntz' book is certainly a great guidebook for that. However, not just the words you use to brand yourself, and in your correspondence to clients, but also in your phone conversations - how you answer the phone, negotiate, and so on. After every call or conversation, think about how you could have been more effective in that dialog, more succinct, or been more clear.

Words are not just words - they are the foundation of our communication, and are often short-changed.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Sean Austin said...

Great post, John - very thoughtful insights on the subtleties in this profession. I chose "_____ Studios" as a business name years ago because I wanted the flexibility to expand into film, web, multimedia, etc., and it's been very helpful for clients in that they aren't forced to re-associate with a new business name when I offer new services.

Anonymous said...

What I say and what I mean are two completely different things, just ask my wife :)

I'm not sure how it works in the US but in Australia you are allowed to trade under your own name without registering it as a business but only if you use just your name. e.g. Joe Bloggs Photography would require registration as the business name encompasses more than just the persons name. Joe Bloggs, Photographer though is valid as it is the name and the type of profession (could easily be Joe Bloggs, Plumber or Jow Bloggs, Painter)

The result is you see (here at least) a lot of Joe Bloggs, Photographer type businesses as it gets the person out of paying for a business registration (minimum 2 years) for something that they might only want to dip their toe into. After about 6-7- months the business either disappears or changes to Joe Bloggs Photography or some other business sounding name. The distinction between 'photography' and 'photographer' has been known for a long time but here in Australia there is a legal reason why you might chose one over the least in the beginning.

Charles King said...

Very wise words John. What's more, when you're "John Harrington Photography" it means you're not just selling any old photography, you're selling John Harrington photography. Any old GWaC can be a photographer.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Quote: "We spend a great deal of time here in my office thinking and re-thinking our messaging. for example "I'll need to get you my contract for you to review and sign before I can get started" is an off-putting message. Instead, we use "we'll send along some paperwork for this assignment, and if you'd sign it, we'll be all set.'

Can the "we vs I" really matter in your final arrangement when it sounds more like an ultimatum with the use of IF? "Before" seems more like a check list and "If" is either it happens or it doesn't. That's not off- putting? Just my 2 cents.

Here is a link for this exact kind of thing.
Thanks for the exercise John.

Unknown said...

Hey John,

Thanks again for another well thought out post. It's very true about it's not what you say but how you say it. I always try to choose my words wisely. Sometimes it's best to communicate through writing because you can kind of take back what you say by editing before you hit send. But face time and phone conversations are also important and since you don't have the ability to take back what you say through these means of communication, it is of the utmost importance to watch what you say!

Carrie Russell said...

oh bummer, I think I'm going to have to take your advice, but I don't really want to. I just like the word photographER better than the word PhotographY, just sounds nicer coming off my lips..oh well. :)

Newer Post Older Post