The Merits of Messiness

In the Pasture by Julien Dupre (1882)

In the Pasture by Julien Dupré (1882)

To control your cow, give it a bigger pasture. — Suzuki Roshi

How often do you go searching for information about a company or its services, only to have to wade through the same old boring, know-it-all corporate-speak? We treasure unique voices in the fiction we buy, from the muscular prose of Clive Cussler to the lyricism of the late Maya Angelou, but somehow when it comes to talking about our own products and services, we try to sound just like everybody else. What if your website, newsletters, white papers, and other content reflected who you are and what makes you special? What if people actually wanted to read them?

If we sat down and started talking about your business, I bet you wouldn’t start telling me stories about the elegant and clean world you live in, where you have all the answers. As Robert K. Greenleaf wrote, “The able leaders I know are all sharply awake and reasonably disturbed.” We’d probably talk about rude, messy, real-world problems, where you were confronting a range of issues and pressures. And that’s just the parts you’d be willing to reveal. Deep inside, you’d probably be thinking about how difficult it is to maintain your organizational effectiveness these days. You might be wondering how to meet the (ridiculously) high standards of your customers and prospects. In real life, that elegant and clean “website world” would look a lot more complex — at times, even baffling.

In his book The Art of the Start, the great business writer Guy Kawasaki writes about how it is better to have a smaller group of fiercely loyal and committed customers than try to please everyone by hitting that lowest-common denominator. This doesn’t mean being controversial just for the sake of creating “buzz.” Instead, it means being willing to present questions to your customers and prospects for which you might not have all the answers. It means acknowledging that in a constantly changing world, people will not all hold the same beliefs. This is a good thing!

When you engage with a bit of vulnerability, you open the door to an open-ended conversation with your customers, one that allows for genuine dialogue. For example, you might write case studies or articles that acknowledge that your product or service addresses issues with ambiguous causes and unpredictable outcomes. Worst-case scenario? You open the door to dialogue and discussion, which is the prerequisite for innovation and creativity–which are prerequisites of action!

David Bohm, one of the most unorthodox and ground-breaking physicists of the 20th century, said, “Human beings have an innate capacity for collective intelligence, based on dialogue.” You can leverage this capacity in your marketing collateral and corporate outreach by shifting the focus from yourself to the larger community of your customers, prospects, and your industry as a whole. Here are a few ways to get the creative juices flowing for new pieces:

  •  Avoid arguing to prove a point–instead, allow yourself to speculate and think out loud
  • Get the input of those in direct daily contact with your customers
  •  Be skeptical, curious, and innovative all the time, not just when you’re in a tight spot
  • Admit that you may not have all the answers

Once you have an idea for a new white paper, article, or presentation, decide on its purpose and direction. Remember to be inclusive of all of the points of view you have discovered, even those you disagree with. Chances are if one customer is saying something that seems negative, others are thinking it. Answer their questions even if you are moving in a direction that some of your audience hasn’t considered and is reluctant to take. Your appeal will be powerful with the courage of your convictions behind it. Remember, no one likes being strong-armed or forgotten–but most people respond to content that has a strong sense of need, appeals to their need for control or achievement, or stresses the ideals that attracted them into their business or profession in the first place.

Bland, bloviating marketing communications can actually deplete the trust and caring you are trying to build with your community of customers and prospects. There is no substitute for sharing your knowledge and learning from that of others. With time, energy, and sustained attention, you can build a community of shared purpose with your customers while communicating a clear sense of identity and who you really are.

So what’s the story behind the painting? According to Dean M. Anderson, the resident “cow whisperer” at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, modern-day cattle are descended from a species of wild oxen called aurochs. These fiercely independent beasts coexisted with ancient wild bison and woolly mammoths. Anderson is working on new technology that controls cattle on “animal time,” respecting them as individuals with their own thoughts and desires. Anderson says, ” It’s like doing a job the way you know it should be done, but letting your bosses feel like it was all their idea.” Learn more at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

P.S. A warm welcome to my newest customer, Slide UX!

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