Would you like tea or coffee?

A simple decision, isn’t it? Well, you have no idea.

Let’s have some fun with it and pretend we would have to decide in a meeting. Obviously, we’ll need a PowerPoint to discuss the matter, right? Quickly, we arrive at 10 slides highlighting all of the important aspects, like so:

Slide 1: Title slide with presentation title (“Advantages and disadvantages of proceeding with tea vs. coffee”), name of presenter, their department, date, location, at least five logos
Slide 2: Agenda
Slide 3: Sales distribution of tea and coffee during the last 6 quarters, broken down by region. Underneath: comparison with other drinks such as hot chocolate and various juices
Slide 4: Mission statement for the coffee choice, market analysis including target group breakdown
Slide 5: Composition of ingredients (unfortunately, though, the font is so tiny that you can’t read anything) plus certificates from food testing institutes
Slide 6 & 7: The same for tea
Slide 8: Customer satisfaction rating and award for the most creative brand campaign 2021
Slide 9: Classification in the brand range with different flavor additives, variants, sizes and special promotions
Slide 10: Summary
Bonus slide 11: “Thank you for your attention”

All of this followed by an intense discussion to repeat the arguments a couple of times.

All of this without ever asking the question plainly: “Would you prefer tea or coffee?”

I’m positive that quite a number of meeting room presentations fit that description rather well.

The furious entrepreneur

Recently, I met an entrepreneur who was furious at his audience. They just didn’t get him. Although he explained his idea in thorough detail and told them everything there was to say, they just didn’t approve the budget he needed to implement his idea.

He was really mad at them. Some weren’t even paying proper attention, one was typing on their phone.

But of course, the audience is always right. If you didn’t grab their attention, it’s not their fault. If they didn’t get it, they didn’t get it.

It just doesn’t matter how good we think our pitch is. It’s always the audience’s call. No one in your audience is obliged to understand, let alone like your idea. It’s your job to explain your idea in a way that gets their attention and resonates.

I asked the furious entrepreneur what he learnt from the experience and whether there’s anything he would do differently the next time.

To which he replied: “No, no! The pitch was brilliant.” He wanted to quickly move on and try it unchanged somewhere else – any change would just lose him time.

That’s a lot

But really is it? Or when you say “That’s not much!” how few are we talking about?

The thing is that what’s a lot to you might be just peanuts to someone else. What’s peanuts to you might be a fortune to others. So how much is it really?

It’s the Curse of Knowledge at play. What’s clear to us might be totally unclear to our audience. They don’t know what we know. They have a different frame of reference than we have.

The tricky part is that numbers can be equally misleading. When you speak about “5 million”, is that a lot or just peanuts? And for whom? If you’re telling me that failure rates have dropped by 2% is that a lot or not?

If we’re trying to get our audience to see what we see, we need to look from their perspective and enable them to make sense of how much it is.

Will it break?

Quite early in our lives we learn that porcelain breaks when it drops onto the floor.

A fact, that one of my clients used to great effect in one of his presentations. He was speaking about their new sensors which were made of porcelain – as opposed to metal.

You might wonder how durable porcelain as a material is.

Well, quite durable.

His presentation was right after the coffee break. So, he brought his (empty) cup of coffee with him. He spoke a bit about the drawbacks of metal surfaces.

Then he took the cup. Told the audience that the new sensors were made out of porcelain. Walked a few steps towards a table.
And. Smaaaashed. The cup. Against. The. Table.

BAM!

The whole audience held their breath. Did he really just smash that cup?

Well, no, he didn’t! Because the cup endured. Porcelain is, in fact, quite a bit more durable than we intuitively think – if you know how to handle it.

You can imagine that afterwards, the audience was quite eager to listen to the facts about the new material and how to make it work for them.

What are unexpected properties of your product? How could you demonstrate them?

We don’t have that problem. Our flies aren’t that big.

During the shooting of his film “The Flying Doctors of East Africa” Werner Herzog made an interesting discovery about how humans perceive images (emphasis mine):

One of the doctors in the film talks of showing a poster of a fly to the villagers, who had never seen photographs or images of any sort. “We don’t have that problem,” they said. “Our flies aren’t that big.” It was a response that fascinated me, so we took the posters – one of a man, one of a human eye that filled an entire piece of paper, another of a hat – and conducted an experiment. I asked if they could identify the human eye, and most of the villagers couldn’t; the images were just abstract compositions to them. One man thought the window of the hut was an eye, and another pointed to the eye and said, “This is the rising sun.” It was clear that certain elements of visual perception are in some way culturally conditioned, that these people were processing images differently to how Westerners might.

Obviously, “cultural conditioning”, as Herzog calls it, plays a major role in how we perceive, decode, and understand images. We should not assume that these differences are relevant in the African steppe, only.

The media we consume, the conversations we have, the experiences we make, these all contribute to our cultural conditioning. How we see an image is influenced by this conditioning – apparently up to the degree that it’s not even given that we see the same things in an image. Let alone, decode their meaning in the same way.

So, if people don’t get the joke of our clever marketing campaign, it might be that they didn’t even have a chance to get it. They were conditioned differently and so they see the image differently.

(Of course, on the flip side, this can be turned into a powerful tool to address a specific group of people who you know will get the joke.)

The laziness of confusion

I’ve seen so many ideas being buried because the communication was confusing. Lack of clarity stole the impact and influence that many of these ideas would have deserved.

The bitter truth is that often it’s a form of laziness that’s to blame.

Because let’s face it: If we don’t focus on a clear message, we’re basically delegating that task to our audience. We’re asking our audience: please figure out for yourself what’s so great about my idea.

The thing is: We might not be too happy with their choice.

I deeply believe that the ability to focus and find clarity is among the most important skills of any communicator. When we do work that matters, one of our most important tasks is to do the hard work of focussing ourselves. It’s our very own job to make our audience see why it matters, what’s so brilliant about it, and how they can make use of it.

Why does your idea matter?

What to do when people don’t get our message

When people don’t get our message, we’re used to adding more detail. Give more examples. Explain it a little longer. (And louder.)

And in doing this we dismiss the possibility that that’s exactly the problem.

It’s been too complex from the start. Too much detail. Too much information.

Too much.

We made it harder than it should be to get what we mean.

Instead of cutting to the core, tuning in to our audience’s language, and focussing on what matters to them, we bombarded them with more and more stuff.

But that’s the lazy thing to do. Adding stuff is easy. What’s much more work is to listen carefully to our audience so that we get them rather than forcing them to get us.

And when we do get them, we can find that perfect story that just nails it and gets their attention right from the start.

Of course, finding this one story often is a lot more work than finding those thirty halfway decent ones. But it’s so much more worthwhile.

Speaking our customer’s language

A few years back, I stumbled upon the above image of a car.

I’m pretty sure that no other sales copy would have sold that car more successfully than this short shoutout: “Runs great!”

Whoever is going to buy this car is looking for a car that brings them from here to there. A car that just runs, preferably great. No professional photo-shooting with a star photographer would have resonated any better. Neither would an elaborate diagram with all the statistics about the car’s technical details, such as energy efficiency etc.

The story “runs great” just resonates with the people who this offer is for. It attaches to what the buyer already believes in. It doesn’t try to sell them something that they don’t want. It sells them precisely the thing that they do want and frames the offer in these terms, using their language.

A lot of frustration in marketing stems from trying to sound more professional when our customers are just looking for someone who speaks their language.

Don’t get killed!

When my daughter had to learn the traffic rules for her biking exam, she felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer number of rules.

I asked her what she thought the rules were for. A quick discussion expanded which led her to realise that basically, there’s only one rule for biking: Don’t get killed.

When we dug deeper, we decided to append a bonus rule: Be kind.

From that moment on, learning the rules was easy. Suddenly, it made sense to have a look over the shoulder. It wasn’t just a rule. It protected her from getting killed.

Using her arm to signal a turn wasn’t just a rule. It was there to inform a car that she’s about to change direction so the car won’t kill her.

Staying right wasn’t just a rule. It exists so that vehicles on opposing lanes don’t collide and kill each other.

Learning is a lot easier when we understand the why.

Similarly, making our audiences see why we do the things we do is a lot easier than having them sit through hours of details.

If I’d be you

“If you understood everything I said, you’d be me.” – Miles Davis

I can’t look inside your head. I can’t know what you think of when you say “blue”. Or what images pop up in your mind when you say “butter”. What feelings you have when you talk about the “2nd quarter of 2020”.

You can help me see what you see and feel what you feel by being specific and describing in great detail, using analogies, examples, stories, comparisons, definitions.

Yet, this is only the first hurdle. Once your thoughts are in my mind, they still look different than in yours. I associate different things with the same images than you do. My memories and experiences are different than yours. When your images meet my context, when your thoughts meet mine, I might understand them differently than you do or come to different conclusions than you do – even if they are the same images and thoughts.

Keep that in mind when telling your story. You shouldn’t assume that others will understand every thought you pass along. If they would, they’d be you.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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