During a less-than-successful stint selling life insurance, we were trained to "assume the close." That meant we were supposed to say, "Now, while you two decide which of these three plans is best to you, I'll get started on the application. Fred, which state were you born in?"
At that point, my job was to be completely quiet, because, as they told us in training, "whoever speaks first loses."
Now, in my case, those long pauses were usually followed by "We're not interested," but I understand for the more successful agents, it was followed by a date of birth. I stopped selling life insurance a long, long time ago.
But this did open my eyes to a new concept. I had never considered what silence communicates. I mean, how can you communicate anything with the absence of content?
There are two important benefits of silence. First, it communicates your belief in your message. By incorporating segments of silence into your message (and by the way, this includes white space for you designers out there), you let the audience know that your message is compelling enough to be effective without having to communicate every possible message point in your arsenal. (Here's an example: go find a brochure or website for a middle-of-the-road hotel and there's a good chance you'll find a long list of amenities, usually in bullet format, and it will likely include a Color TV, something you find in every hotel room. This is the advertising equivalent of using every bullet you have. Now go see if you can find a Color TV listed as an amenity at a really nice hotel. You probably won't find it because they have confidence in their message. You are more likely to see that white space, though.)
A second benefit is that, in today's hectic, cluttered environment, silence actually helps your message stand out from the crowd. Recently NPR's The Kitchen Sisters were speaking before an audience, many of whom were typing away at their mobile devices. Then, The Kitchen Sisters simply stopped talking for about 30 seconds. Everyone in the audience stopped being distracted and started paying attention. Instead of getting everyone's attention by screaming, they simply shut up and let the silence speak loudly.
Next time you're crafting a communicative message, put some thought into how you can use moments of silence. Be strategic in what you don't say, not just in what you do say. You'll find what you communicate has more impact and is better understood by your audience.
With many social media marketers striving to acquire vast numbers of followers and likers, it seems the objective is to focus solely on scale. The more eyeballs they can get in front of with their message, the more conversions they can get, even if the conversion rate is infinitesimally small.
Doesn't this sound like direct mail? Where exactly is direct mail on the scale between dying and dead? Furthermore, isn't that what we're trying to get away from?
In a recent blog post, Julien Smith points out (and I'm paraphrasing here) that a person who has a thousand friends on Facebook, really has a thousand acquaintances because he or she is not truly investing anything in the relationship. To assist in the upkeep of friends on this scale, Facebook reminds you when your friends' birthdays are and there's even an app to automate the sending of a birthday greeting. In the end, however, "that's why sending a birthday note on Facebook is not a measure of closeness." It actually becomes kind of a sterile courtesy, when compared to a personal message or email.
An inflation of followers and likers also creates an environment whereby the communication is one-way. And if you are locked into an organizational structure wherein all communication must funnel through a single communications department, it's unmanageable. Again, this reduces many social media efforts to the old, tired mass communications platform that is top-down, one-way, and supposed to be on its way to obsolete.
What you do about all this is still evolving. One solution is to break the funnel and open the communication function up to more people within the organization. Heaven forbid! How will we control and manage our message? You can't. I have no words of comfort on that. I think tightly controlled messages are about to become the exclusive domain of very large corporations and organizations that don't rely on large numbers of consumers. And even that's debatable.
But I'm also wondering about the wisdom of the more-is-better strategy of acquiring followers and likers. Perhaps the more effective long view is to allow this number to grow more organically as a result of doing good work and communicating about that. It may sound old-fashioned, but it also may be the way of the future.
Have you asked yourself this question? What would your supervisor or client say about you to other people? As professionals, we often direct our focus on our competence. We think about how to be better at what we do. We read books and articles on improving our craft or our skills because we are ambitious and this would seem to be the best way to achieve our ambitions. Competence, however, is only one part of the experience for people who work with you.
Here's an example. I work with a client who, especially when I started with them, existed in a highly pressurized environment. There were simply too few people doing too much work, which is why I was brought in. As part of the work I did, there were many instances where I needed files from my client's servers, and was not permitted to have remote access. I have always believed that I would rather spend two hours driving in and getting the files myself, than to ask anyone who worked there to spend ten minutes tracking down the file and emailing it to me.
Why would I do this? After all, ten minutes is not a lot of time, especially compared to my two hours. I did it because I wanted to make the experience of working with me as positive as I possibly could. And for a group of people who were feeling stretched so thinly, the last thing they needed was an interruption, even if it was only for ten minutes. I absolutely did not want their experience with me to be a source of frustration or stress when that was the norm for them. When they thought of my name, I wanted them to think, "I don't have to worry about Andy. He's got it covered." I did everything I could to be an oasis of calm in their hectic work lives.
Notice that the issue of competence has been completely absent from this discussion? So where, then, does the professional competence fit into all this?
Competence is important, but only in how it fits into the overall experience of working with you. I think I'm very good at the things I do: creative project management and writing, primarily. I think it's absolutely essential to meet a fairly high level of competence. In other words, you have to be able to do the job you've been hired to do. But I know that there are a lot of people who are "very good" at managing creative projects, and "very good" at writing. And from your client's or supervisor's perspective, whether you're "very good" or "very, very good" isn't critically important. That's when it matters how easy you are to work with, or how much they simply like you and enjoy your company.
It all comes down to this: How well do you contribute to your client's basic human need to be happy?
For a lot of people, this represents a shift in thinking. Start by training yourself to constantly monitor how your clients/supervisors/colleagues perceive you. If you sense that they are happy with your work and enjoying your company, you're on the right track. If you sense that this isn't the case, resist the urge to be defensive and ask yourself honestly what you can do to turn it around. In the long run, if you can master this, you'll never run out of work.
Before you slam the door on that question, let's consider what possible upside there could be to sharing information we've long kept private. In an interesting article on MercuryNews.com (The Case for Oversharing), Chris O'Brien does a great service, I believe, by questioning that which we believe to be an unquestionable truth: Are there benefits to sharing more information online. I think it's good to question these beliefs because firmly held beliefs have the unfortunate tendency of excluding everything, good or bad, that doesn't ascribe to the belief firmly held. Which means that, if there are positives outside that belief system, they will never be found.
O'Brien offers a couple of examples of online services in development that will ask you to share information that you might consider very personal, like financial data. The benefit of this openness is that, by sharing this information, and having access to information provided by a community of others, you can see how, for example, your spending compares to others. If you discovered that you were paying $120 for your residential phone service, but that lots of people were paying less than $30 for the same service, wouldn't you investigate and find out why. (This basically describes the circumstances that led me to switch from a large phone company to a VoIP service a few years ago.)
Here's a question to ponder: Why is it culturally forbidden to talk about your salary with co-workers? If you knew how your salary compared to those of the dozen or so people who do the same job you do, wouldn't that have value? (Many corporations actually have policies forbidding you to disclose your salary, which is a clear indication of who benefits most from this particular taboo.)
[By the way, interesting discussion here on this specific topic.]
So perhaps it's possible that we should consider the benefits of less privacy. Maybe we can come up with a way to protect ourselves from those who mean us harm and still enjoy the benefits of being more informed.
As promised in the last post, I want to talk about how to understand the customer's motives. Some things are universal. I said in the previous post that customers want the best possible consumer experience for the least amount of money. I should have added, though, that a positive experience will win against low cost almost every time. (Care to delve into the psychology of that statement? Okay, here goes. If you think about it, money is only a piece of paper in your pocket or a number on a bank statement. The only positive experience to be gained simply by "having" money is a feeling of security. All other positive experiences occur when you "spend" your money. Whether you're satisfying a short-term craving or a life-long dream, it's a positive experience at the end of spending money. That's why people will happily spend money on a really good experience.)
So how does your product create a positive experience? You must know the answer to that question, and I cannot stress that enough, if you are going to persuade anyone to spend money on it. (And by the way, if your product simply doesn't provide a positive experience, no matter how you slice it, address that issue before you do anything else!) So, when crafting your message, resist the urge to go with the first thing that comes to you. The first thing will always be what you know, and what's important to you. And you may be very close to the product and how it was developed, how it is executed.
Here's an example. As recently as ten years ago, I worked for a resort company that pumped out a LOT of brochures and ads. In almost every single one of the pieces, one of the bullet points - in a message that was intended to communicate that our resort accommodations were "luxurious" - was "Color cable TV." And as many times as I tried to convince the marketers that this was unnecessary and only took up space. And that, further, there were $40 hotel rooms with "Color cable TV" up and down the highway, they insisted on keeping it. From their perspective, it made the list of amenities longer, and I couldn't convince them to look at it from the audience's perspective, to whom "Color cable TV" was practically on the same level of luxury as a working toilet.
Use your imagination. If you're writing web copy, pretend to be someone who knows nothing about your product and they've ended up on the website you're writing. Would you respond the way you want them to respond? As I write this, I'm pretending to be you, and you, and you, and you. You could be someone who's very accomplished as a communicator and simply likes to read other professionals' thoughts on the topic. Have I added anything new to your thinking? You may be a college student, or early in your career, trying to absorb everything you can? Can you communicate from a place other than your own perspective? You may be a business owner who is trying to understand marketing better. Are you at all persuaded?
These are the kinds of questions that will give meaning to your message. Dig deep, and when you get to what you were looking for, dig a little deeper just to make sure. Your customer wants to hear your message, but only if your message means something to them, not to you.
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.
Years ago, I worked for a boss who simply was not a good writer. Spelling, grammar, and vocabulary were not this guy's strengths, even though he was very smart in his business. That's why he made a very smart decision: he had me write all his important emails, and proof many of the less important ones.
It's not fair, actually, that bad spelling and below average writing can make the writer of an email seem less intelligent or sloppy with details. In fact, in business communications, writing is a skill, like needlepoint or juggling. Indeed, a writer may also have an intuitive understanding of language and some creative flair, but for a business email, the skill of writing is what's most important. Unfairly, though, it's probably the only such skill that can have this kind of a negative impact on your personal brand.
So why is it that someone who is not good with numbers, someone who doesn't do simple calculations in his or her head, isn't perceived as less intelligent? It's because, outside of a university math department or an engineering firm, perceptions of people aren't based on their abilities with numbers and calculations. In the business world, perceptions are based on how one communicates. So when that email goes out with typos and misspellings, it becomes part of the perception, the personal brand, the writer projects to the world.
I want to emphasize the word "part" above. Clearly, to people who work with you frequently, with whom you've built personal and professional relationships, the email you send is a very small part of their perception of you, possibly even insignificant. By nature, people will look first to their personal experiences with someone when making judgments about them. However, for those who only know you through an occasional email, it becomes a much larger part. If it's important to you to have a positive personal brand with these people, the quality of writing is something you should pay attention to.
That said, it's not reasonable to expect someone who is not a good speller to simply make the decision to be better, so here are a few possible solutions to consider when an email is really important.
If you have access to a strong writer, use them.
Especially if you have one who works for you. Call them over and have them compose your email. At least have them proof it and make necessary corrections.
Don't hit SEND too quickly.
Take a few seconds and read your email. Many typos happen simply because you hit two keys at the same time by accident, and these are typos you would be able to recognize and fix. It's better to have one or two small errors than five or six, .
Use your spellcheck.
If your email program has a spellcheck, run it. Many programs will underline misspellings in red as you type, which makes it even easier. All you have to do is take five to ten seconds and scan for the underlines.
Keep it short.
Get to the point quickly and wrap it up. First, the fewer words you write, the less of a chance there is for an error. Second, it's simply a courteous use of the reader's time.
Stick to words you know.
Don't try to use impressive sounding words when simple ones communicate the same thing. Also, avoid corporate jargon, which tends to use more words than necessary. In addition to helping you avoid errors, this is just good writing advice.
For most people, following this advice will eliminate a large majority of typos and misspellings. Most readers will overlook that because even the best writers miss one on occasion.
Now if you'll excuse me, I am going to proof the daylights out of this post before I publish it!
"Hey, hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove."
If you're a Led Zeppelin fan, you can't help but to hear the heavy guitar riff that follows that line in "Black Dog." Indeed, much of Zeppelin's appeal is the driving percussion and inventive guitar, as well as Robert Plant's vocals singing lyrics that are at times drenched in sensuality. (Again from "Black Dog": "Hey, hey baby, when you walk that way, watch honey drip, can't look away.")
I think that, even though this may not be high-brow art, I consider it a masterful use of language. Consider the image of honey dripping. Take a second and see that image in your mind. Consider the color of honey, the light that it reflects and refracts, and especially how slowly honey drips and how sticky it is to the touch. All of this emotional content is contained in three words: Watch. Honey. Drip.
Another lyric I've always admired, from "Tangerine," speaks to the precision good writers are able to achieve:
Thinking how it used to be,
Does she still remember times like these?
When Plant sings these lines, he pauses slightly in the middle of the word "remember," which gives you time to complete the line in your mind before you hear it. And most people, I believe, complete that with "me," as in "Does she still remember me?"
Why is this significant? Because when you complete it yourself one way, and Plant delivers it another way, both meanings are communicated. In this case, you automatically connect the concept of "me" with the concept of "times like these" and the end result is a more powerful, more emotive effect.
This is no accident. This is the craft an excellent writer.
The White Stripes offer another example. In the song "Take Take Take," Jack White sings:
Then I saw what she wrote.
My heart is in my ___________
Care to guess what the last word is? Most people will complete that line in their minds with "throat" because it's a common phrase and it rhymes with "wrote." But White actually sings, "My heart is in my mouth." By combining the two concepts, mouth and throat (what you expect with what you hear), the impact is more powerful.
These are minor details that tend to go unnoticed by the listener or reader, but significantly impact their experience as they absorb your written words. As writers, we can always make our work stronger by paying attention to the connotations our words carry at this "micro" level of detail.
There's an arc of experience that I see in almost all creatives who work in a business environment, whether they are writers, like me, or graphic designers, videographers, etc. This was definitely my experience, and I think it's fairly common. We start out after college, in our early 20s at a time when we're excited about making our way in the world of business, among experienced adults. In that environment, it's human nature to want to prove that you belong. So, as a result, we do what we are taught to do: we are creative. I recall a friend of mine who had a meteoric start to his copywriting career right after colleges saying to me, "I see every single assignment they give me as an opportunity to write something kick-ass, no matter how small or unimportant the assignment might be."
While it worked quite well for my friend, the result of this can sometimes be highly creative work that doesn't really address the client's or employer's business interests. Haven't you been impacted by an ad because it's very creative or funny or touching, but you can't quite recall what product it was advertising?
At this point, sales and marketing people enter the equation and hit us with this dose of reality. Sometimes they are direct, as in, "This is crap. Do we need to find something else for you to do around here?" Sometimes they are more polite: "I like what you've done here and it's very creative, but I think we need to be more specific about the product's benefits." Over time, this feedback starts to accumulate and coalesce into an overriding message that your creativity is not as magic as you thought it was. Eventually, the creative professional needs to make a change and it's either get out of the business or adapt.
How do we adapt? At some point, I had to change my thinking. Early in my career, I worked as a copywriter in an advertising department for a travel and tourism school, and one of my responsibilities was writing articles for the school's newsletter. My very first article was about their Career Night, where students would meet potential hospitality employers. Before the event, students were lined up outside the door, professionally dressed and holding a stack of resumes.
I decided to lead the article with the line outside the door, comparing it to the long lines at the theme parks in Orlando, just a few miles away. I wrote the article. In fact, I wrote the living hell out of my theme-park-line lead, pouring everything I had learned about creative prose writing into it. Descriptions of the scene, the heightening anticipation, the giddiness of the students. Hemingway couldn't have written a better lead about a Career Night line than I had written!
Then I showed it to the executive who had to approve it and I remember his response as if it were this morning: "Well, I don't know if I like the idea of comparing our Career Night to an amusement park." And the way he said it, he sounded as though he was insulted because I had belittled this very important event. I was completely deflated and, in a huff, went back to my desk and wrote a standard who-what-when-where-why style lead. It was dry and boring, which is how it was published.
Shame on me. What I didn't realize at the time was that this executive was communicating to me what his business needs and expectations were. I hadn't put any thought into the purpose of this newsletter, its audience, and the desired result of the article. I just wrote something I thought would be good writing.
From this experience, I started to understand the relationship between creativity and business. I started to learn that, even though I had a skill, my skill had no value if I didn't use it in a way that accomplished the business objectives of my employers or clients. And to this day, this is one of my core business ethics: As creatives, we must first understand the business purpose of every creative assignment or project and use our skills to achieve them.
I think it's good advice for fellow creatives, especially those who are fairly early in their careers. And after you've earned your paycheck, if you still need to satisfy your creative urges, write a novel (I have; still unpublished), or get a canvas and start painting and truly enjoy the creative process on your own terms.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog