Call it cavalier, but my first question to Fortune 500 CEOs and startup entrepreneurs alike is, “What's your story?”

What strikes me is not how different, or how similar, the answers are… but how hard it is for nearly everyone to answer that question in the first place. Before reading any further, and before casting any stones, pause for a moment and ask yourself the same question.

It's not so easy, is it?

Well into the age of the soundbite, we're still hard-pressed to summon the elusive 60-second description of what it is we do, what our brand provides to those we serve and why it matters.

And this, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. Our fixation with the “elevator speech” (or martini monologue) derives from the need to “sum it all up” for audiences with notoriously short attention spans.

But before we can sum it all up, we need to have thought it all through. Like the concert pianist who makes Chopin seem easy, there's a whole lot of unseen effort that goes into the public performance.

So, when I ask people “what's your story?” and see their eyes glaze over and their fingers start to fidget and their throats sprout frogs, I know that someone has not been practicing. Someone has not learned to read the music, hit the right notes, make the instrument of communication sing.

I know, too, that no matter what it is I've been called in to do (write a brochure, craft Web content, create a name) there's a deeper need, a more significant bit of work to be done.

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Mark Thomson is a principal at Thomson\\Wright Branding Specialties ( He can be reached at