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.
Marta Kagan's "Bonafide Marketing Genius" Blog
Andre Sanders' "Running Without Condition" Blog
Jessica Sneeringer's "Mal-Diction" Blog