From the first resume I created fresh out of college, I have promoted my ability to communicate. "Strong written and verbal communication skills," it read, bulleted to stand out. And it's true that, whenever I take an inventory of my strengths and weaknesses (ahem... areas where I could improve), I consider my ability to communicate, persuade, entertain, and amuse a strong check mark in the positive column. This has always been the case.
Still, I know without a doubt that I am a more effective communicator now than I was in my twenties. So I found myself wondering recently what has changed. Certainly, over a couple of decades, my self-confidence has grown and that helps. I also have more life experience, so I have more to communicate. And I have more wisdom, so I'm better able to understand what my goals are when communicating and less likely to give in to the egotistical need to be "heard" or "right."
However, these have more to do with peripheral issues that are connected to communication and less to do with the nuts and bolts. So what's truly different? What has changed?
To address this question, let me outline a process and see if it sounds familiar. You have an assignment to create an ad, press release, blog post, video, etc. It is your job to communicate something, but you don't know what. So, you set up a meeting with your client to discuss the details. The client tells you what he or she wants and you head back to your office to execute on that direction.
"This product is going to be huge," the client might have said. "We're all really excited about it and our CMO is totally committed. Nobody is doing anything like this, so we'll gain market share quickly, which means we need a campaign that really communicates all that and hits it hard!"
This process is universal. It's also misguided... at least a little.
We've all been in a meeting like this. And the client is being absolutely truthful about his motives, which are to sell a lot of product, make a lot of money, and get credit for doing a great job. This is his passion. It's what he thinks about before he falls asleep at night. He's got a lot riding on it and is probably completely incapable of being objective. Unfortunately for you, the communicator, this person's motives are not relevant to your job.
Herein lies the difference, the "what" that has changed. When I have a task like this in front of me now, I strive to understand the motives of the audience, not the client. Know your audience. This advice is as old as communicating itself. The audience's only motive is to get the best consumer experience they can for the least amount of money. As the communicator, it's your job to understand all the complex factors that go into the audience's consumer experience (which often has nothing to do with logic, especially when it involves a strong consumer brand) and whether they perceive it as outstanding, subpar or something in between. And that can be difficult because you can't call a meeting with the audience. You have to work harder, and put more thought into it. The client's thoughts are low-hanging fruit; the audience's thoughts are near the top of the tree and you have to work harder to get to it. But the fruit at the top is bigger, juicier and tastier, so it's worth the effort!
So how do you do this? I'll address that in my next post. For now, though, ask your client to talk about their customer, once they're done talking about their product. Take some time to get lost in thought, pretending that you're one of your client's customers and ask yourself, what would make you respond. And do some research on the Web.
Only then can you craft a message that addresses the motives of the consumer actually doing the consuming. This will yield a message that is far more relevant to the audience, and your client will be rewarded with more sales and stronger responses.
Recently, I have been working with a client as they update their style guide, a document that tells you whether you should put the double zero after a time (i.e. is it 2 p.m. or 2:00 p.m.?), along with ten full pages of stuff like that. If you've ever taken on the task of writing anything for your employer or company, you know that there are dozens of tiny decisions on details like that, and it's difficult to stay consistent with what you've written in the past, much less what other people are writing. So this document serves as a guide on all those detail-related decisions.
For most large companies, this is a standard practice. There is a subtle message implied when your written communication is all over the map that the company isn't well run. It implies a lack of attention to detail. A website that reads "2 p.m." at the top of the screen, "2:00 p.m." in the middle, and "2 in the afternoon" at the bottom looks as though it's been thrown together in your basement. A brochure that includes phone numbers with the area codes in parentheses in one section, and without them in another, makes your customer wonder if they should do business with you, especially if they're also holding a competitor's brochure without all these inconsistencies.
By the way, this isn't limited to just writing. Most large companies also have an established color palette to guide graphic designers on which shade of green or purple to use. You've probably noticed the way well-run service organizations strive for consistency in things like the uniforms their customer-facing employees wear, or how their trucks are painted. It all goes toward the goal of projecting a professional image to the public, to your customers!
Inconsistencies within a single brochure or website is clearly amateurish, which is a shame because it can be easily and inexpensively corrected before you print. What the larger companies are looking for, though, is consistency throughout all their external communications, which conveys to the world that they are a highly professional, well-run organization. Thus, the need for a style guide that everyone can adhere to.
So what do you do if you're a smaller company and you want to project a more professional image of your company? I am often amazed at how loosely some companies are with this. So you can start by deciding how you want your company's name to be written and stick to it 100 percent of the time. If you are the owner of Frank's Seafood Cafe, one can assume you created that name because it communicates something. Each of those three words should have some value in what they communicate. However, if your marketing materials, menus, websites and so forth refer to the business as "Frank's", "Frank's Seafood", "Frank's Cafe" or "FSC", depending on who is doing the writing, you're missing out on an easy opportunity to enhance your customer's perception of you. All you need to do is clean this stuff up!
Everyone knows someone who's a decent writer. Ask them to look it over before you print or post to the web. And if you don't, hire a writer to look your materials over. It's kind of like straightening up your living room before you have company. Make sure your marketing materials reflect the professionalism and dedication you put into your company every day.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog