Take the time to find out who ‘they’ are – it’s well worth it

Bullet-pointed list

My book club recently discussed Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.

She’s an ex-political correspondent on The Guardian newspaper, whose foray into novel-writing has proved hugely successful. This was ‘the Sunday Times Bestseller everybody’s talking about’, it said on Amazon.

So naturally, I had to read it. And now I see why everybody (whoever they are) is talking about it. 

It’s the story of a political scandal that starts with an affair, turns into a high-profile rape case, and contains some twists that spice up the plot – even if you see them coming, as I did. 

During our book-club lunch, there were lots of strong opinions, with preconceptions challenged and sweeping statements (‘all men are rapists’) debated. What really stood out for me, though, was the tendency we all have to view certain groups of people as a block. 

At one point, one of the more vocal members said, “You know, talking about ‘posh white privileged Tory boys’ is just another form of discrimination”.

Later, she said, “sisterhood is a myth – there’s no such thing”. This was in connection with an observation in the book by the prosecuting barrister that juries made of up of women are less likely to convict a man of rape. 

All for one, one for all

It’s so easy to forget how tempting it is to see people as a block: women, men, Tories, the working glass, gay/straight people. They’re all the same, aren’t they? 

If you don’t think you fall into that trap, see what immediately comes to mind when you hear Leave voterTrump supporterSyrian refugee or feminist. It’s almost impossible to stop the clichéd view that comes from the seeing the group as a whole, without noticing the individual members. 

As it happens, I had a lunch with a Syrian refugee a couple of weeks ago. What an eye-opener. 

He was funny, charming and clever, with endless curiosity about the world. His story was chilling, but his courage inspiring. He’s learned English in record time, and has turned his life around thanks to his grit, determination and unstoppable optimism. 

And there it was – the lightbulb moment. Suddenly, I stopped seeing the group as a whole, as he became my reference point.

Who are ‘they’?

Let’s take it a step further: if I say the word client, what comes to your mind? Or prospect

Are you seeing an undifferentiated mass of people, or homing in on one? When you create a marketing campaign and plan out the written components (emails, adverts, landing pages and so on) do you think about how one person will react to them, or focus on the group? 

I’ve mentioned personas before, and think they’re a great way to move from blob mode (they’re all the same) to a real understanding of what motivates people on a personal level. 

The idea is not that you cater for all individual needs, tastes and motivators – because that’s a practical impossibility. But trying to describe a typical client/prospect does sharpen your focus and get you really thinking at a granular level.

And yes, of course all personas are generalisations, and to some extent artificial. But the point is that they get you actively thinking about what an individual might look like. And in doing so, you move beyond the broad brushstrokes to the fine detail.

Asking the right questions

Now if creating personas are not your thing (and if I’m honest, I don’t go the whole hog – Peter is 51, married with three kids, Arsenal supporter, weekend gardener etc.) then you can always simply ask yourself a series of questions as if you’re your own client/prospect:

  • What’s top of my wish list? 
  • What problem do I want solved? (Everybody has a problem they want solved, even if they don’t know it.)
  • Am I picking up the right signals? (These people are efficient, friendly, organised, professional, competent, reasonably priced, better than the competitors I’ve checked out.)
  • Do they understand me?
  • Are they using my language?
  • Will I regret using them? (It’s happened in the past, so I need reassurance.)
  • Do they inspire confidence? More or less than other companies I’m considering? 

The list of questions doesn’t have to be exhaustive, and you don’t need super-detailed answers. The mere act of stepping outside of your world and into theirs radically changes your perspective, and lets you write more convincingly.

It won’t turn you into Sarah Vaughan, but it might just nudge them closer to taking action.

Which is enough to be getting on with.