Posted tagged ‘language’

Complexity to Clarity: Translating geek and other business languages

March 27, 2008

This morning, I facilitated a discussion among technology marketers on the growing problem of language dichotomy. Specifically it was the problem of an overwhelming culture of geek speak and how it bleeds in to the marketing side of things.

Now, the problem of the genius manager who can’t seem to speak in anything under 10 paragraphs, isn’t new. But what does seem to be new is that it’s spreading beyond just tech speak. Jargon, or verbal shorthand for those in the know, is growing everywhere, and in many non-technology sectors.

I’m convinced it’s because of the growth in complexity of modern business: As business management becomes increasingly more process oriented, it becomes increasingly more complex. But at the same time the demand for simple communication — among customers, employees and other stakeholders — has never been higher.

There’s so much information washing around out there now, that people can’t process it all. And this amplifies when the information is difficult and time consuming to process. We’re in the age where information moves at light speed so as to convert to knowledge, and if you can’t convey something simply and quickly, no one listens further. There are just too many alternatives that can be added to their knowledge base.

So, we’re talking about an information flow problem, which seems to be most egregious in the technology space. This is probably because too much emphasis in IT is put on the T (technology) and not enough on the I (information) part.

What came out of our discussion was a recognized need to return to the basics of communication. This can be summed up in a few points.

  • It’s not about the technology, it’s about the business. This can be expanded to mean it’s not about the product or service but about what the product or service does for the buyer. That’s all he or she cares about, and so that’s the information that should be delivered.
  • Know thy customer. Or, in other terms, separate the information receiver into needs segments. Sounds pretty basic, but many business processes don’t think in these terms. They think in terms of what they do, not what they can do for someone.
  • Be extremely clear about the benefit or threat (if ignored). This is an old sales technique, and is also the basis of the oldest information delivery system around — the news industry. It means you have to put your product or service into terms that are understandable emotionally — it helps because of this (i.e. saves time, saves money, or something else), or avoids a threat that might hurt you (i.e. less revenue, higher costs).
  • Know yourself. There’s usually miscommunication in business because the information deliverer doesn’t really understand what its own business is, and so can’t convey that to the receiver. Use the W6 process I posted on previously to determine who you are, what you do, and who you do it for.
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. As a marketer, you have to act as the bridge between the geniuses in the labs who created the product or service, and the not-so-genius people who are going use it. The only way to do this is to put it into simple, understandable terms. Strip away all the add-ons and subtleties and say it in a few short words. Then put them back in when the prospect asks questions.
  • Consider the differing intelligences. Intelligence is how you process information, and most information deliverers, i.e. the CEO or CTO, often have linear intelligences…. they think logically. But there are 7 different intelligence types and it’s a good bet that most receivers are of the six that are not linear. So it’s like someone sending out a signal on one radio channel while the radios are tuned to other channels. It’s just not going to register.
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Thicker Than A Hundred Head O’ Sheep

December 6, 2007

It’s a colloquial metaphor to describe someone who’s not too bright. Pretty evocative image isn’t it?

Makes for a great headline and stops you in your tracks. Tells the story instantly in a very visual way and puts a smile on your face at the same time.

I’ve used it here because of that power. I’m convinced that in a modern technological world, we’re in danger of losing the power of language. Instead we throw out opinions or bury people in facts and information.

Even marketers and communicators, who are supposed to know language well, are often more concerned with facts than language these days. Creative use of language rarely goes beyond the standard “describe the benefits, not the features” admonition.

We work so hard to follow the rules of copywriting, webwriting, and other forms of marketing writing, that we often end up spouting cliches in the mistaken belief that buzzwords will somehow connect people in a common understanding.

Like most people, I can be guilty of it. I recently wrote a technology paper that, because of its intended audience, I believed had to be very straight. Boy, was it boring. As the first person I showed it to said, where’s the magic.

And so, I’ll say the same thing. Where’s the magic?

Saying that the great prairies of North America are flat is accurate, but it’s pretty dull and won’t arrest anyone for a second. So how about one I heard from a prairie farmer: “This land is flatter than piss on a plate”.

Or the wonderful UK expression, Thick as a Brick, or the American one, Thick as a Post (interesting how many expressions describe stupid people).

Or “Dumb as a bag of hammers” to describe a plan or action that went horribly wrong. Or “face like a plate of worms” to describe someone mean and ugly. Or even “brutal” to describe something bad or intense.

Every region has its colloquialisms, and they can often lend some magic to marketing copy. The poets know it. Metaphors create images that stop you and make you take a second look.

And in an over-marketed world, isn’t that what we’re all looking for?

I’m not saying every piece of marketing material should overreach by trying to be folksy.

But come on, loosen up a little. Try to put a little magic back into words.

MarCom 2.O: The Story Remains The Same

October 28, 2007

Let’s wade into the great debate going on about traditional marketing and communications vs new techniques, which we’ll call MarCom 2.0.

Traditionalists dismiss all that new stuff as just a fad, particularly if their clients or corporate chiefs operate in more traditional areas of business. Advocates of social networking techniques are evangelists: they’ve discovered something new and believe it’s the only thing worthwhile.

Both are right. And both are wrong.

This is arguing over tactics and methodology, not over what you’re really doing — communicating, delivering a message and especially telling a story.

From the time when people first developed language beyond a series of grunts and descriptive words, storytelling has been the basis of all communication. Certainly the style of storytelling has changed — sometimes, such as in Elizabethan times, it was flowery and imagistic, other times, such as the age of scientific discovery in the late 1800s, it was functional and direct — but the underlying purpose has always remained. You tell a story to convince someone else, or influence their thinking.

All stories have basic dramatic elements: There’s an introduction to the “characters”, the presentation of a challenge, the ways in which that challenge is met, and the triumph or tragedy that results from these endeavors. It doesn’t matter whether the story is Tristan and Isolde, caveman Kruk relating how he killed a mastodon to feed the tribe, or about how your product or service was tweaked to meet a buyer’s need.

To paraphrase Led Zeppelin, the story remains the same.

But the greatest problem today with most marketing and communications is that we’ve abandoned the storytelling format. Too often we think basic information is all that’s needed — look at many software sites — or that the more technobabble we throw at people the smarter they’ll think we are. Or sometimes we go the other way, thinking that we have to somehow “trick” targets with fancy graphics, video, or breathless, multiple-exclamation-mark descriptions..

Forget all that. The hard work comes before you even begin the tactical stuff. You have to determine your client’s particular story for this product or service. This means clearly understanding such things as purpose, problems, and positioning.

After that, it’s a matter of putting things together in the right format to best tell the story. This could be a plan or project charter, a presentation, a press release, an advertisement, an article or white paper, or any of the other marketing and lead generation techniques out there.

I’m not downgrading the technical aspects of marketing and communications. Some people are brilliant at putting things together; others not so much. But I do know that without an underlying story, technical virtuosity is meaningless.

Marketers: There are seven separate intelligences

October 9, 2007

The Education Coalition, a non-profit agency that delivers web-based learning, contains a treatise on cognitive research from Howard Gardner of Harvard that postulates there are seven distinct intelligences.

People, he says, know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or make things, an understanding of other individuals and an understanding of ourselves.

But individuals differ in the strength of these intelligences and in the ways in which they are used for learning.

This isn’t just some cognitive theory of interests to academics or educators. Anyone attempting to deliver information to influence opinion, behaviour, or thinking in general — that means marketers and communicators — should take note as well.

It means that your messages have to be framed in many ways if they are to hit their mark.

Most of us are used to linguistic learning — the effective use of words, whether spoken or in print. It’s the basis of most advertising and public relations. But not everyone is comfortable with that system.

Others, like architects and sailors, think in terms of physical space; dancers and surgeons think in terms of bodily-kinesthetic; many today are sensitive to rhythm and sound; several today understand by interacting with others; some initiate understanding by relating to their own interests and goals; many, such as scientists, lawyers, and engineers, think conceptually or abstractly.

This means that every marketer and communicator today has to intimately understand the targets for their messages. If your target market is technology people, you may want to consider using visual-spatial, or logical-mathematical styles; if it’s athletes or other people who are in tune with their bodies, you’ll want to use the kinesthetic approach.

Those of us who don’t have such extreme targets might want to mix several kinds of styles in order to capture the majority of people. For example, combine words with visuals with sound with interpersonal interaction (i.e. social networking).