Why (mostly) everything you think you know may be wrong

Upside down

By the time you read this, I’ll be basking in summer sunshine.

Summer? In January? 

Yes, that’s right. I’ve flown south of the equator, where the temperatures are nudging the low 30s and kids have just started the new school year. Flowers are in full bloom, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky. 

I’m in South Africa, after an absence of over 15 years.

Having spent a decade living here, I got used to the idea that Christmas and New Year were spent not cooped up indoors with the heating on full blast watching the Doctor Who Christmas special, but out in the garden by the pool.

Roast turkey? Maybe – but only if it’s cooked on the braai (barbecue). And really, isn’t a salad more the thing when it’s this hot?

If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, all of this is perfectly normal. What’s abnormal is subzero temperatures and ‘travel chaos’ (that stock phrase the media inevitably trot out) when a few inches of snow falls. 

And yet, and yet. I’ve been away so long, I’m having difficulty adjusting to the topsy-turvy seasons. It’s wonderful, and totally expected, but at the same time… unexpected. 

Because my idea of normal has changed since I left. And my assumptions about what I should be feeling and doing at this time of year have been turned on their head.

Assume nothing, evaluate everything

We make lots of assumptions every day, without even realising we’re doing it. 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because if we didn’t make assumptions, our days would be an obstacle course from start to finish.

So we assume that our alarm will go off, that trains will be on time. That people will turn up to meetings and that sooner or later, we’ll go home. That we’ll be paid at the end of the month, and that hard work will be rewarded by promotion and status.

And most of these mundane assumptions are met. But we make other assumptions that merit a closer look to see if they stand up to reason. 

Because often, they come from a mistaken perception of the world, based on those sneaky little cognitive traps that we’re all caught in from time to time.

Take another look

These easy assumptions keep us from seeing the bigger picture – which is crucial when it comes to deciding on marketing direction, strategy and tactics.

The thing is, we don’t even realise what we’re doing, as these assumptions are as ‘obvious’ as the alarm going off or the trains running on time. So what are typical ones? 

  • Everything always has to be perfect from Day 1. But it doesn’t. All marketing (and all copywriting) is a work in progress, and can always be improved. And if you never launch, you’ll never know what ‘perfect’ looks like anyway, as it’s a combination of your best efforts and customer feedback. So launch anyway, and make minor adjustments as you go.
  • If something isn’t a complete success, it’s a failure. Not it’s not. It may sound hackneyed, but all mistakes are an opportunity to learn. Knowing what customers don’t like, didn’t respond to or have no interest in buying is invaluable information, as it helps you narrow your focus for the next pass. We’ve all been tempted to throw a tantrum when our marketing campaigns go awry, but where does that get us? Precisely nowhere. It’s far more instructive to pick apart what went wrong, and fix it. And to recognise that nothing is ever 100% wrong, and it’s OK to focus on whatever went right, however small.
  • People will judge us harshly when we make a mistake. This may be true, especially when the’ve had substandard customer service, or been disappointed by your support. But they’ll judge you even more harshly if you don’t make the effort in the first place, paralysed by the fear of getting it wrong. And if it does go wrong, you always have a secret weapon – honesty. Nothing, but nothing, is as disarming as telling the truth and promising to do better. Conversely, covering up your SNAFUs is a sure way to alienate people.
  • We need to know the end point before we start. Maybe you do, or maybe the end point will emerge when you start and make some progress. I’ve seen endless projects stalled because people aren’t absolutely, 100% certain of where they’re going. But think about it: when did things ever end up exactly as you expected? Never, right? So start, and the end point will become clear. 
  • We need to get it all out there. Every last detail has to go onto the web page or into the case study. If we have 10 key selling points, we need to hit people with all of them. If we have five great quotes, they all need to be used. You know what? No they don’t. Shorter is better every time, and nobody’s going to plod through your prose, however polished it is, if it takes liberties with their time. So do the heavy lifting for your readers, customers, prospects and partners, and sort out what’s important – and what’s not – ahead of time. 
  • Everybody is a potential customer, so we can’t afford to alienate anybody. No they’re not, and yes you can. In fact, you must, otherwise you’ll go crazy trying to make allowances for everybody: diluting your message, taking care not to let anyone rule themselves out, and writing one-size-fits-all copy. One safe assumption to make it that there are more non-customers out there than customers. And ruling out the former may well help you identify the latter much, much faster.

So whatever you think you know, and whatever you take for granted, step back and have another look. You might well be surprised that the world is a little different to the assumptions you made.

That’s certainly the case for me, as I try to keep cool in the middle of January.

Life really is a beach.