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Think you're a mind reader? Your readers, clients and prospects might not agree.

Chicken risotto and the elusive art of empathy

[Image courtesy of Dierk Schaefer at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, I went out for dinner with a friend. It being an Italian restaurant, and this being England, none of the waiters or waitresses were actually Italian.

Most of the accents I heard sounded Eastern European – including that of our waitress, a slip of a girl with pale skin and blond hair. She took our order swiftly and efficiently, explaining portion sizes and making recommendations.

But she didn’t smile, which made me feel just a little uncomfortable.

Now I don’t expect staff in restaurants to grin like the Cheshire Cat, and I do realise that they’re doing a hard job with long hours, but it does help if they look like they’re enjoying interacting with you. If nothing else, it encourages you to be more generous when it comes to tip time. 

“I reckon she’s Polish,” I said to my dinner companion. “I wonder if that’s what service is like there – efficient but impersonal. Maybe it’s the legacy of 40 years of communism, even for those people born after the fall of the wall.”

And then I stopped myself.

Not because the fritto misto had arrived, but because I realised I was doing something we all do, but should probably try to do a bit less: speculating and generalising.

And really, I should have known better. Especially in light of the book I’m currently reading.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? 

It’s called Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley. It caught my attention precisely because I often wonder if I’m misreading people, or if they’re misreading me.

The answer is yes to both.

But then, that’s what we humans do. We see the world through the prism of our own experience, and project our thoughts, feelings and preconceptions onto others people. We even do it with inanimate objects, when we see natural disasters as retribution for our misdeeds, or cajole our car into starting on a frosty morning.

The book is packed full of interesting insights into just how unreliable we are when it comes to reading and understanding other people.

Epley is Professor of Behavioural Science at the Booth Business School at the University of Chicago, so at times, he does get a little too focused on experiments and studies he and his colleagues carried out. I suspect most people (oops – there I go again) will pick up or download this book in the hope of finding more about the solution and less about the problem. 

He does get there, in the end. And my criticism is a minor one – because even when discussing his experiments, he deploys humour, and doesn’t get to dry or theoretical. This is a mass-market paperback after all, not a psychology textbook.

And though it’s not a laugh-out-loud read, there was one line that made me do just that.

To highlight the personal perspective we bring to all our observations, he quotes stand-up comedian George Carlin: “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

From the woman who claimed she was disfigured by a knife-wielding attacker but forgot how mirrors distort reality, to the child who wondered why only dads go grey, the book full of fascinating findings and amusing anecdotes.

But one really caught my attention. 

For better or for worse

Epley and his colleagues got people to predict the answers their spouses would give to certain questions, splitting his participants into three groups.

The first group just went ahead and answered the questions without any analysis or reflection. The second group was asked to put themselves into their spouse’s shoes before they predicted, so they could see things from their perspective. The third group was allowed to ask their spouses each question, but not to write anything down.

Two things stood out for me: first, the last group did perform best overall, but didn’t get every question right, even though they already had the answers. Their personal perspective still coloured their perception, and affected their memories. 

The second thing is that the second group (the shoe-wearers, you remember) fared worst of all – underperforming the first group, who just answered without much thought.

And the reason?

The second group actually magnified their preconceptions about their spouse rather than empathising – much like Democrats do when they imagine Republicans, and vice versa. Or (to get topical for a moment) Leave and Remain campaigners in the upcoming UK referendum.

Because these people are ‘other’ than themselves, they magnify the otherness – and in doing so, widen the gap between them.

You, me and them

Think for a moment about your prospects, clients, readers and audience members. What assumptions are you making about them?

Are you going with your gut, or trying to put yourself in their shoes? Or are you engaging with them on social media and in person to see what they really want?

And if they are telling you what they want, are you taking it at face value, or reinterpreting it so it fits in with your message, marketing plan or timeline? 

Our personal point of view influences virtually every interaction we have, and we very often lazily reach for stereotypes and generalise. But it’s not until we step outside of ourselves that we can really see things from somebody else’s point of view.

That’s when we can really start connecting. 

Which brings us back to the dinner table. One fritto misto and a chicken risotto later, the waitress was back with the bill. 

“Are you Polish?” I asked her, as she punched the total into her handheld credit-card terminal.

“No, I’m Latvian,” she said, her mouth almost forming a smile. Ever the language geek, I asked how you say ‘thank you’ in Latvian, and she told me. 

Paldies!” I repeated, mimicking her accent and intonation. 

Now the smile broadened, and she actually laughed. And I realised once again just how important it is to shift your perspective and start speaking somebody else’s language. 

Even if that language is your own. 

Why storytelling is the perfect way to fly under the radar

It’s the oldest trick in the book – so use it

[Image courtesy of Alan Levine at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you heard the one about the man with a surgical glove trapped in the most embarrassing place you can think? Neither had I until this week.

It’s not a joke in dubious taste, by the way. It’s the story of a guy who found blood in his stools and went to the doctor. The examination didn’t go exactly according to plan – hence the latex crisis.

And the most remarkable thing is that he chose to share this experience standing on stage in front of an audience.

It’s all part of a storytelling craze that’s sweeping the world and encouraging ordinary people to share extraordinary stories. They’re sometimes funny, frequently embarrassing and always interesting. And it seems that anything goes in this world of confessional storytelling.

There are stories like the teenager who told her boyfriend she wanted to become a nun, a woman who falls in love with a man 10 years younger than her, and the chap who set out to cross the English Channel in a bathtub.

If you’re thinking TED, think again. There isn’t always that feel-good factor, the sense that anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it. Instead, there’s a sense of unburdening and finally revealing deepest, darkest secrets and connecting with the audience.

And all through the power of storytelling.

Permanently on transmit

Many years ago, I went to a nightmare networking event. It was like having a room full of people all doing elevator pitches to each other, all at the same time.

Nobody seemed to be listening, yet everybody was talking. And every so often, they’d abruptly end the conversations and move to somebody else. Clearly, they’d all read the same tip about ‘working the room’.

I was reflecting on this over a glass of cheap white wine with a fellow networker, and noticed that she was different from the rest. And then I saw why that was.

She was listening to me really intently, focusing on what I was saying, and weaving her comments in and out. She was also putting a lot of herself into what she said, with not an elevator pitch in sight. Instead, she drew on personal experience and shared her thoughts without any hesitation or embarrassment.

Then she moved on, and so did I. But of everybody I met that evening, she’s only one I remember after all these years.

Because she created a connection, shared her emotions – and told a story.

Tell me a story

Corporate storytelling is no different, and yet time and again, corporate storytellers fall back on the elevator-pitch approach.

They sanitise the story so it’s devoid of emotion. They throw out facts without organising them in a logical order. They get the message across, but it’s not memorable.

And that’s a big mistake. Because stories, especially stories with emotion, are hugely powerful. Why?

  • They tell the listener something about you and how you see life.
  • They pull the audience in, and keep them interested. Who doesn’t want to know how a story ends?
  • You can use them to get across messages in a subtle way.
  • Stories often bypass the rational brain – and most buying decisions (despite what we might say or think) are actually based on emotion.
  • They allow you to directly involve the reader or listener, by letting them identify with you or your story. If you know who they are and the sort of thing that will appeal to them (and you really should) you have an immediate way in.

If you’re thinking this is all a bit to touchy-feely, triumph-over-tragedy for marketing, think again. Stories are everywhere, from case studies to testimonials, from blog posts even to product and solution pages.

Everything is a story, and every story is an opportunity to connect with a reader.

And it doesn’t need to include latex gloves – unless you really want it to.

What's your biggest fault? And what are you doing about it?

Why a little-self analysis is always a good thing

[Image courtesy of Simon Cunningham at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to give advice than to take it? The thing about dispensing words of wisdom is that (a) they don’t cost you anything and (b) you’re often stating what’s obvious to you but not to the other person, and (c) it’s not personal. 

And (c) is what it’s really about.

Because when it’s not your life, our your loves, or your business, you can see more clearly and be more objective. But when the spotlight is turned on you, the view is very different. 

I recently saw a SWOT analysis carried out by an agency I work with on a client of theirs. It was brutally honest, laying bare the weaknesses of the company, its service and its competitive position. At times, it made for uncomfortable reading. 

On the plus side, it was unashamedly upbeat about strengths, and concluded that on balance, the organisation was in a strong position.

We’re all happy to blow our own trumpets, but highlighting our faults is a bit more of a challenge. But if we don’t identify and acknowledge them, it’s difficult to address them.

And when I say ‘we’ here, I’m thinking more professional than personal. That said, if you’re a small-to-medium business, it often still feels personal. 

So how do you go about finding your faults and fixing them? Here are some ideas to get you started: 

  • Dare to compare. If critiquing yourself in isolation is too much to contemplate, then take one of your competitors and do a side-by-side comparison. Take your website and theirs, and create a grid with form, content, approach, tone, structure and so on. Some things you do will be better, others will fall short. The same is true of your competitor. And if they tick all the boxes and you don’t, then at least you have a standard to aim for. 
  • Press the button. You know that elevator pitch you’ve always meant to write? Do it. Sit down and write something that you could deliver in 60 seconds or less. You’ll end up with very few words, but it’ll probably take you a considerable time to arrive at them. That’s because you’ll be forced to focus on the absolutely top-line things, which can often get lost in the detail of everyday busyness.
  • Outsource – but accept the outcome. A friend of mine is a management consultant. She the nicest, friendliest, chattiest person you could hope to meet. In a social setting. But when it comes to business, she morphs into another being entirely: someone who’s dispassionate, objective and unemotional. She’s able to bring her steely gaze and unforgiving approach to bear on the knottiest of problems. But here’s the thing: she always prefaces the process by telling clients that they’re going to find out things that will not be easy to accept. But accept they must. In business as in life, without acceptance there’s no moving on. 
  • Start small. This works for everything, whether it’s overhauling your marketing or changing your diet. If you look at the problem as a whole, it seems big and unwieldy. If you break it down into chunks, it suddenly becomes manageable. Fix the tagline. Rewrite that email. Update your segmentation regularly. Improve your response time to customer emails. Rethink your newsletter, so the content isn’t just me-too recycled factoids. But what about an overarching plan, I hear you say? Yes, that’s fine. But not the point where the hunt for perfection actually prevents you from taking the first step.
  • Focus on the journey, not the destination. Finding and fixing faults isn’t a one-time exercise. It’s an ongoing one, because the competitive landscape is constantly changing. Just last month, I was talking to somebody who said he’d let his lead in the market slip because he’d got complacent. “When you’re number 1,” he said ruefully, “there’s only one way to go.”

And do I practise what I preach? Sometimes.

Because I’m as guilty of the next person of dispensing advice that I don’t take myself. But it’s right at the top of my list of things to address.

Just before the one that says I should stop making lists, and actually start doing what’s on them.

Want to make sure people read your case study? Try this.

Telling a good story in the age of attention-challenged readers

[Image courtesy of Sebastien Wiertz at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Yeah, yeah,” said my friend recently. “Problem, solution, benefits – I’ve heard it all before. Case studies are so yesterday. Nobody still read them any more, do they?”

Maybe not. And maybe there’s a good reason for that.

The problem-solution-benefits structure you can’t do anything about – because that’s what a case study is. But the formulaic way of relating the story hasn’t changed much, so perhaps it’s time to give it a makeover.

Here are some ideas for case study 2.0: 

  • Loosen up. So many case studies read like dry academic papers. Now there is a serious point to them, but that doesn’t mean they have to be serious themselves. The best stories are the ones that you tell with a light touch – so don’t go all stiff and stilted. Use everyday language and an informal approach. Tell the story as if you’re talking to a prospect over a cup of coffee.  (But don’t get too informal and slouch on the table.)
  • Take a back seat. Often, the best way of telling a story is not to tell a story. Not by yourself, that is. If you can get your client to recount a tale with a happy ending, it’s much more powerful. So include quotes throughout, and don’t be scared to make them long. In the past, I’ve written case studies just by transcribing interviews with clients’ clients. (But don’t tell anyone.)
  • Run the numbers. Let’s face it: when you read a case study, the bottom line is all you care about. How much did a similar client save/make/achieve? Were sales up? Costs down? Efficiency levels improved? If so, by how much? Your readers are exactly the same, so make sure you highlight the headline figures and make them easy to see right from word go. 
  • Chunk it. This applies to all copy. It’s one of the reasons these bullet points are bullet points. As well as having problem-solution-benefits sections, put quotes in boxes, set figures apart from body copy, and make it easy for the reader to thread their way through your text. 
  • Involve your audience. Again, something that applies across the board. But how do you do it with case studies, which are essentially about you and the client you helped? Simple. Just pull the reader in by talking to them direct (If you’ve ever wondered how to protect your margin in a competitive market, you’re not alone. Acme Inc faced just such a challenge…). Nothing hooks a reader and keeps them reading more than that one simple word: you.
  • Dare to be different. Who said a case study has to be copy-heavy? If you want to shake things up, try changing the format. Make it an infographic that gets the story across in pictures as well as words. And remember, less copy doesn’t mean less work: if anything, it means that more than ever, as each word has to pull its weight. 
  • Put a smile on your face. A case study is always – repeat, always – about solving a problem. And yes, we can dress it up as an issue, or a challenge, but when the tide goes out and it’s standing naked on the beach, it’s a good old-fashioned common-or-garden problem. Which means it’s innately negative. But you can’t be, so when you’re sketching out the problem, do it fast, and focus on the upside. Spin positive, said a client recently. Quite. 
  • Upsize and downsize. OK, so you’ve made all the right moves and have the perfect case study, but there’s no guarantee that people will read it. So why not increase your chances and get more than one bite of the cherry? Create several versions – infographic, PowerPoint slide, regular version, long version. Turn it into a blog post. Include it in your newsletter, and record a 30-second version for your on-hold message. Slice, dice, recycle and reuse.

As you can see, when it comes to case studies, there’s life in the old dog yet. And to answer my sceptical friend’s question – yes, people do read them.

As long as you make them worth reading.

Give something away that's free - but not worthless

Getting the balance right between value and cost isn’t always easy

[Image courtesy of Ryan at Flickr Creative Commons]

Have you discovered Udemy yet? If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that back in January, I decided to splash out on lots of online courses to skill myself up.

My super-memory isn’t quite there yet, partly because I’ve forgotten to put the techniques into practice as often as I should have done. But my coding skills are coming along nicely.

Yes, that’s right. Like just about everybody nowadays, I’ve been bitten by the coding bug.

Well if truth be told, I was bitten by it long ago, but haven’t seriously pursued it. I know my way around HTML and CSS, and have picked up enough survival PHP to hack WordPress. But serious coding has always been at the back of my mind as a project I should pursue one day. 

Now that day has come, and Udemy was my first port of call.

There are all sorts of courses on every imaginable subject, and I snapped up a whole host of them at the bargain-basement price of $10. One was a heavy-duty Bootstrap and WordPress course, which assumed a certain knowledge of PHP. So before tackling that, I thought I’d make sure my PHP skills were up to snuff.

And as chance would have it, there was a free PHP course by the same instructor.

Now in this day and age, free anything usually comes with an asterisk: either a real one (endless terms and conditions apply) or an implied one (free means worthless). So I was a little circumspect about the quality of the course. But since it was free, what was there to lose? 

Well apart from my time, nothing much. So I took the plunge.

I’m happy to say, the course was excellent. Paced fast enough to be interesting, but not so fast it lost you at every turn. It was practical, focused and easy to follow.

The instructor, a genial Canadian called Brad, kept it lively and entertaining. And at the end, I felt I had a thorough grounding in PHP – enough to tackle his Bootstrap and WordPress course.

For once, free didn’t mean cheap – or worthless. He’d obviously spent a huge amount of time and effort developing, writing and filming the course (in case you didn’t know, Udemy courses have hours and hours of video).

So it was a major undertaking on his part, and the end result was something of undeniable value. 

Brad is my new best friend. And I’ve been singing his praises to all and sundry. People only have to mention the word coding to me, and I’m unstoppable. And I’m sure the army of students he has around the world have been spreading the word far and wide too.

And all because we got something of value at no cost to us. 

Give and you shall receive

The key word here is value. Nothing irritates a reader, a student or a prospect faster than having the promise of a freebie turn into a bait-and-switch operation.

You give all your contact details, and find that the free e-book is just a collection of recycled factoids. You sign up for a free trial, only to discover that you don’t have access to all the features. Or you take a free course, and realise too late that you’ve wasted your time on low-level knowledge combined with a sales pitch for its expensive counterparts.

If you are going to give away something for free, try applying these simple guidelines and it’ll be a better experience for you and your prospect: 

  • Do it without any ulterior motive. Impart knowledge because you enjoy doing it.
  • Don’t worry about them not signing up, or buying the paid version, or becoming a high-grossing client.  Focus on what you hope will happen, not the downside of nothing happening. 
  • Put as much effort into it as you would into something you’d charge good money for. And if that’s too much of a leap, then take something you sell and give it away for free for a limited period. 
  • Don’t forget the knock-on cost of a freebie that doesn’t live up to the promise: you’ve disappointed a prospect (or worse, an existing client) and caused reputational damage. 

So what’s free and worth it?  

You could offer a how-to guide that’s practical and achievable (How to simplify your document management in just 2 hours).  Or a thought piece that talks about the issues your prospects face (Why technology is transforming small businesses, and how you can ride the wave).  Or a quick-reference guide that they can print out and consult (10 copy tips for busy people). 

Or a targeted course that’s waffle-free (Business writing bootcamp for marketing professionals) and skills people up for their job.

Name your own priceless

The common denominator for all of these ideas is value. But it’s more than just what people would have paid for the course. It’s showing them that you’ve put thought, effort and time into the freebie. And that their time and effort won’t be wasted if they download the book or take the course. 

So it should be valuable, real and useful. And one last thing: shareable.

Because if it’s one thing people like more than finding a freebie, it’s telling somebody else about it. Why? Because they get the gain (here’s something for free) without the pain (somebody else did it). 

Much as I’ve done with my Canadian chum. 

So what are you waiting for? Get creating, give it away, and wait for karma to do its thing.