A louse.

It's not exactly up there on Page 1 of a Google search for "inspiration".

But for Robert Burns, the alchemist with words who could make poetic gold out of nothing, it was a gift.

Crawling across a vain but oblivious young lady's head, it provided irresistible subject matter for one of his sharpest social commentaries, with a few subtle digs at the hapless gal's expense along the way. Rabbie never was one for letting folk get above themselves.

Fast-forward 230 years, and a modern-day Burns might have been tempted to go for quick laughs – a sneaky phone pic tweeted out to his followers, perhaps. But this was life before hashtags, and instead he left us with "To a Louse", timeless writing which still resonates centuries later – even in far-flung places where folk might be excused for thinking haggis is bred on highland mountainsides (it isn't). 

Like his other works, it's well worth a read, if only to remind yourself that funny, ironic and moving weren’t invented in the 21st century - possibly a light bulb moment for some, like realising that events in your parents’ childhood happened in colour.

Funny as it is, scratch the surface and - not unusually for Burns - there's a more serious note which breaks through in the last verse: 


“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as others see us!

It wad frae monie a blunder free us

An’ foolish notion: What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us, And ev’n Devotion!”


For those of you who won't be graduating in old Scots any time soon, here's the (much duller) English version:

“Oh, that God would give us the very smallest of gifts - to be able to see ourselves as others see us. It would save us from many mistakes and foolish thoughts. We would change the way we look and gesture and how and to what we apply our time and attention”

Stripped of its poetry and the magic of the old Scots language, it sounds as lifeless as a fringe speech at an actuaries’ convention - but you get the idea.


And the business lesson is....?

OK, let’s put it another way (forgive me, Rabbie, it just gets worse):


“If only we could see our business as others see it. It would save us from making an awful lot of mistakes and wasting our efforts on the wrong stuff. We would change the way we show it to the world, and how we spend our precious time, effort and money”.


Yet how many businesses out there just can’t – or don’t bother to - see themselves as others see them?  

How it's seen by others - particularly potential customers - is just as important to the success of your business as the products or services it provides, customer service, after sales care or anything else.

That rings true from the moment they first lay eyes on it - whether online, in print, at your premises, or in person - right through to the point where they hopefully walk out the door with a purchase, pop an item in their cart, book a room, or sign on the dotted line. 

In fact, if you want to keep them as a customer for life, and if they're to sing your praises to others, it holds true long after that.

Don't panic, but it's been said that people form their first impressions of a person they meet within 7 seconds. Other studies suggest it could be more like milliseconds.

Whatever it is, it's a miniscule scrap of time, and brutally unforgiving.

There's no reason to believe that the same doesn't apply when it comes to your business.  Take your website for example - research shows that users form an impression within a twentieth of a second.

If they don't connect with what you're showing them in that blink of an eye, you may have lost them for good. Worse, blow it, and you'll struggle to reverse the damage - if you ever can.

And of course your competitors will be be smiling as they usher them through their doors - or more to the point, laughing as they head to the bank with money that could have been yours.

Is your business making an effort to see what your customer sees?


But we’ve got 2000 Likes!

Great, but I’m not talking about quantity, whether it’s followers, likes, comments, or the number of times a day you post on social media. It’s important, but it’s just one part of the story. And there are plenty of businesses out there with a shedload of likes that could be doing things a whole lot better.  Ask yourself, how many of those likes have made a genuine connection with the business, and moved from smoke to fire by making a purchase? Books and covers, remember. 

I’m talking about the quality – and in particular the visual, tangible, creative quality - of your public face.

Shoddy marketing materials, littered with typos; cheesy self-designed graphics; shabby decor; unwelcoming reception areas with nasty lighting and no soul; lacklustre photography or tired stock images; dog-eared, out of date pricelists with stickered updates; duff signage that shouts "cheap"; business cards printed in a booth....the list goes on. And on. This is the ugly tip of a very, very big iceberg.

Sound familiar?

Any one of these is just as big a turn-off as unfriendly, unhelpful service or poor quality products.

There are a million ways you can blow that precious first impression.

Every single way your business touches the outside world has massive potential to impact on its success - both positively and negatively.


Build it and they will come…or will they?

Don't just assume that you can “Build it and they will come”.  And even if they do come, “build it and they will come, then cross your fingers they’ll stay loyal forever”, is a disastrous way of doing business. Great for ostriches, mind you - just not for anyone who needs customers.

They will only come – and stay – if they like what they see. And if you’ve made it hard for them to see your business as you want it to be seen, then you’re off to a very bad start.

There’s a health and safety mantra that goes “All harm is preventable”.  Well, all harm to the image of your business is also preventable, and the first step is taking a good look at it through others’ eyes.

But it’s not just about the damage that can be done by presenting your business badly.

It’s about the opportunities you’re missing if you don’t position yourself as a highly desirable outfit to do business with - which only happens if what people see oozes quality and has clearly had time, effort, thought, and (often but not always) money invested in it.

It’s about the difference between “good enough” (also known as “mediocre”, by the way) and “remarkable”.

Remember this: "people don't cross the road for "average"".

Stop. Look. Listen.

I don’t pretend to be a business guru, and I don’t presume to tell anyone how to run their business. Nor am I here to dispense marketing advice.

But I do have a bee in my bonnet when it comes to businesses presenting themselves badly.  In fact, it makes me cringe (even more than misplaced apostrophes, but that’s another story).

And that, bar the odd detour, is what "Picture This" will be about.

While it may be seasoned with a sprinkling of feelgood stories, cautionary tales and fragments of philosophy, my aim in putting it together is to help you and your business take a step back, look at the bigger picture, give some serious thought to how you present yourself to the world, and then take action.

I’ll be bringing you my own thoughts, and occasionally inviting others to share their own experience and advice.  It’ll be a broad mix: thought-provoking, unpredictable, sometimes flippant, but never boring. And it's quite possible that it will evolve over time, athough it's unlikely to end up mutating into the kind of blog that helps you with repairs to your 1998 Mondeo.

Most of all, please, please, please post comments. I don’t want to be a lone voice in the wilderness, so I'd be delighted to hear other voices - whether you agree with what I'm saying, vehemently disagree or just want to ask a question.

Maybe you’re happy with “good enough”. Perhaps you’ve got enough business and enough of the right customers already. If so, I don’t think this blog will be for you, and that’s fine. Thanks for staying with me this far.

But I really do hope you can stick around, sign up to receive new articles as they're posted, and see how upping your game and improving how you present yourself to the world could benefit your business.

I think you’ll be glad you did, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you.

See you next week.

Till then - try to see yourself as others see you!