It’s Not About You

This is a slightly expanded version of a talk I gave in Rails Girls Helsinki in February 2015.

Photo by Sean MacEntee, used under a Creative Commons license.

I used to suffer from terrible stage fright. I was super nervous every time I presented. I forgot stuff I was supposed to say on stage. I never vomited before a talk, though, I’ll give you that.

It got better over time through lots of practice, but I still get all sweaty and shaky before getting on stage.

Then I recently stumbled upon an article by Kathy Sierra called Presentation Skills Considered Harmful. In it she tells about having had similar problems, and how all the tutorials told her what and how you should do to give a good presentation. You, you, you.

Then she realized that a presentation is really a UX. A presentation is just a user experience. You present ideas – hopefully good ones – to your audience. What does this make you, the presenter? A UI. You are just a UI, a user interface. You yourself don’t matter that much. All that matters is that your ideas touch your audience.

Is that bad? No, it’s great. It’s a huge relief. What matters is not you but what you have to say, the meat of your talk.

And that brings us nicely to the topic of this article.

It’s not about you.

This is maybe the most important thing I’ve learned during the past decade1. It’s also not only profound, but spans your entire life.


These days, everyone and their cat has a blog.

Most blogs tell about the author, which is totally fine — if the author writes it for themselves or their relatives. But when you think about the most helpful blogs – the ones you go back to all the time – they really aren’t. They are about helping the reader, either by informing them or teaching them new things.

But Jarkko, I hear you say. You just started this article with a story about yourself.

That is correct. Storytelling gets kind of an exception.

Except not really. Because storytelling isn’t really about the storyteller, either. You know, we didn’t always know how to write. Telling stories was the only way to pass information to younger generations. Thus, our brains are quite literally wired to react to storytelling. We’re evolutionarily built to learn better from stories.

Thus, stories are not so much about you, the teller, either. Stories are about the listener/reader, and how they relate to the protagonist of the narrative.

And in the end, unless you’re writing fiction, stories are just a tool as well. A powerful one, yes, but just a tool to bring home a lesson to the reader.

Because writing is not about you.

Cincinnati Enquirer learned this the hard way recently. After they laid off their whole copy desk, they were shocked to find out that readers were outraged about the deteriorating quality of the paper’s articles. John E. McIntyre describes the issue vividly:

The reader doesn’t care how hard you worked, what pressures you are under, or how good your intentions are. The reader sees the product, online or in print; if the product looks sloppy and substandard, the reader will form, and likely express, a low opinion of it. And the reader is under no obligation whatsoever to be kind.

What the Enquirer forgot was that their writing is really not about them.

But you don’t wanna hear me babble about writing, let’s get to business.

Business ideas

Are you still looking for that killer business idea?


Ideas are all about you. How to get into business you should – apparently through divine intervention or something – come up with a dazzling idea.

Ideas are also dangerous because once you get one, it makes you a victim of confirmation bias. You’re going to start retrofitting the world to your idea, which is totally backwards.

Instead, find an audience you can relate to and sell to. Then, find about their pains, problems, and ways to help them make more money. Then solve that pain and you’ll do well.

Because – to quote Peter Drucker – the purpose of business is to create and keep a customer. It’s that customer, not you, who is going to decide the fate of your business.

Because successful business isn’t about you.


You know what’s special about Apple ads? They almost never list features or specs. Instead, they show what their users can do with them. Shoot video. Facetime with their relatives on the other side of globe. Throw a DJ gig with just an iPad or two.

My friend Amy Hoy has this formula for great sales copy called PDF, for Pain–Dream–Fix:

  1. Start with describing the pain your users are having, with crisp, clear words, so that they will go all ahhh, they understand me.
  2. Then flip it around. “Imagine a world where you wouldn’t have to manually scan your taxi receipts. Instead, they would magically appear in your accounting system.”
  3. And fix. “We got you covered. Uberreceipt 9000 will hook up Uber with your accounting and you will never again touch another taxi receipt!”

Now that is how you make people pay attention.

Because great marketing and sales copy is not about you, either.

Finally: Product

Last, and indeed least, we get to the actual product, software in our case.

It – as and of itself – is not all that important. Because having a great product is not about you, or the product itself. It’s about solving a customer pain or a job they need to tackle.

Because people don’t buy a quarter-inch drill, they buy a quarter-inch hole in the wall.

By now, you already know the pains of your audience2. Now it’s time to solve them. From previous points, you should already have a nice roadmap to a product people like.

Extra credit: Make your users kick ass

For an extra credit, let’s see how we could transform people from liking your product to loving and raving about it.

We started this talk with Kathy Sierra, and we’re going to end it with her as well.

Kathy’s big idea is that the main purpose of software is to make its users kick ass. What she means by this is that software – or any product really – should help their users to get better at what they do, not just using the product3.

Screw gamification.

Final Cut Pro should not make its users better at using Final Cut Pro. It should make them better film editors.

WODConnect should not make its users better at using the app. It should make them stronger and faster.

This should happen through everything related to your product. The product itself, its marketing, its manuals, its customer support, everything.

Because your success is not about you or your product.

It’s about the users.

It’s about empathy.

Discuss on Hacker News.

  1. Well, let’s just say it’s a tie with learning about the growth mindset.

  2. If not, go back to the Business Ideas part above. Do not – and I can’t stress this enough – start building a product before you are sure it solves a problem people have, know they have, and are willing to pay for.

  3. All this is also the subject of Kathy’s upcoming book, Badass: Making Users Awesome

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