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The Difference Between THE and A

I am one of those people who can latch on to subtle differences in word meanings. You will often find me in the midst of an argument that includes someone saying, "Isn't this just a matter of semantics?" And, they're usually correct.

MOST semantic disagreements are minor and not worth the effort - but I want to focus on one such distinction that might make for some valuable dialog around your organization.

One of the hottest books in America these days was written by a 50-something Australian divorcee who has attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey and million of others. Rhonda Byrne titled her book The Secret - a decision that could have a lot to do with its success.

It's a self-help book with some rather unusual suggestions. Want to lose weight? Don't heed your doctor's advice by changing your eating and exercise habits, rather follow Byrne's suggestion and "avoid looking at people who are overweight." [I'm not kidding.]

In a world saturated with advice and how-to books, why has The Secret drawn so much attention?

Donavin Bennes, who buys books for Borders says, "It was an incredibly savvy move to call it 'The Secret.' We all want to be in on a secret. But to present it as THE secret, that was brilliant." [Newsweek - March 5, 2007]

Do you catch the subtle and critical difference?

Byrne's book doesn't promise to be ONE of a number of secrets? It doesn't promise to share a dozen secrets - she claims to have the THE secret.


  • Do I want to be A consultant who helps people brainstorm, or THE consultant who helps companies do things differently?
  • Do you want to have A shoe store? Or, would you rather be THE shoe store that caters to busy working moms?
  • Which airline would you prefer to fly? One of many who travel to New York, or THE airline with the most on-time departures.
There is tremendous value in consideration of the difference between THE and A.

To borrow from Seth Godin - do you want to be a purple cow or just one of the herd?

Navigating the stream

  • Sometimes you are defined by the products you offer - We are THE computer that runs the Mac operating system.
  • Sometimes your definition comes from the market you serve - We are THE exercise club that caters to busy moms by providing free child care while they work out.
Bottom line - if you can't come up with a credible THE for your organization, you should probably close up shop before someone else does it for you.

It isn't necessary to have a singular focus - the workout club with a child care area for busy moms, can attract other clients but they are THE place a busy mom can go. Having a multi-focused perspective is a necessary paradox in the 21st century. What you can't afford to go without is something that sets you apart from all the others who do what you do.

At your next staff meeting -

  1. Read this article to the group and ask them about the places they shop and products they use.
  2. Can they define the THE factor for their favorites?
  3. Then, turn it around and challenge them to define that which provides your organization with its own THE.

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