#14: Be–Do–Say

How to put purpose before promotion

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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

– Steve Martin

In a world consumed by commercial advertising, social media, and 24-hour news cycles, the pressure to engage in self-promotion is constant. In both our work and our personal lives, we’re told to curate ourselves, put our stuff out there, get noticed, find an audience, and grow quickly.

Which is why, when Civilla began–with a lot of big ideas and little reputation–I felt pressure to start talking widely about the work we imagined. The question became: how do we do that?

Should we show up at conferences? Should we try to get media coverage? Should we find ways to market ourselves? Should spend time giving talks and speeches?

Mike’s guidance in that moment was clear: “No…not right now. We have to follow the simple rule of Be-Do-Say.”

I hadn’t heard of this framework before, so I asked him to explain. This is what he shared:

  • Be: First, let’s focus on understanding who we want to be. What are our values? What principles will guide our work? What do we stand for?

  • Do: Second, we need do the hard work it takes to put something meaningful into the world. What work matters most? What do we have we say “no” to in order to deliver on our promises? How can we focus our time, energy, and attention on deepening our craft?

  • Say: Then, once we’ve earned our stripes, we can begin to talk about it and share our work more widely.

Over the last four years, I’ve found that honoring this simple truism is not always easy. But we’re beginning to see why it’s such an important framework to live by. Here’s why:

The temptation is often to approach these steps in reverse. It’s not uncommon to see organizations go too wide too fast. They spend a lot of time packaging themselves, spinning up ideas, and capturing attention. Once they have an audience, they get busy doing the work they’ve promised. Eventually, but not always, they pause to ask the deeper questions about who they are, what they care about, and how their daily actions align.

Mike’s advice resonated with words I’d read in Austin Kleon’s book, Show your Work, which proposes a new way of operating for people who hate the idea of self-promotion:

Ditch networking and schmoozing in favor of getting really good at what you do. But don’t do it all in absolute secrecy.

While working away in the studio, stay open to sharing bits and pieces of your work and what you’re learning. By generously offering your ideas, you allow for the possibility that your work might attract a group of people who share your interests. In turn, you’ll find that people will be there when you need them–whether its for partnership, feedback, or patronage.

All you have to do is show your work.

At Civilla, we’ve begun to see the cumulative impact of taking the more patient approach while sharing parts of our process along the way. After many years of keeping our head down–focused on delivering work that improves services for millions of people across the state of Michigan–we’re feeling momentum start to build.

We’re clear on our organization’s mission, are seeing the next chapter of work emerge on the horizon, and are thrilled that the studio’s efforts have been recognized within the wider design community.

Most recently, we learned Civilla was the recipient of two prestigious Design Awards from Core77, a showcase of groundbreaking design from around the world.

Not only did this recognition place our work in a global context, but it solidified Mike’s feedback from our early days: get focused on the work that matters most, hone your craft, and trust that good things will follow.

–Lena + the team



Adam Selzer