Can Your Customers Handle The Truth? Can You?

Galileo explaining the moon to skeptics, by Jean Léon Huens

Galileo explaining the moon to skeptics, by Jean Léon Huens

“If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed.” — Benjamin Franklin

Every movie buff remembers the scene in “A Few Good Men” where Jack Nicholson’s character, a tough martinet officer, breaks under questioning and roars, “You can’t handle the truth!” But what about communication with our customers? Your customers need complex, detailed information to decide to do business with you — ideally, entering into a mutually beneficial relationship that is built on trust. So why do we often begin with self-censorship as we craft our messages to our prospects?

When you take information pieces such as newsletters or thought leadership articles from several decades ago, and compare them to many of those being produced today, it is easy to see how vague and jargon-riddled a lot of business communication has become. In my experience, this style arose in the 90s. As the no-nonsense “Greatest Generation” retired from the business scene, a new age of ballyhoo began, culminating in the first tech boom (and bust). It was as if a great cloud of words would makes us seem that much smarter. Many of us entered the business world during this era and are now in positions of leadership. When in doubt about how to talk about our products and solutions, we resurrect what we know best — and go to market with a wordy, flamboyant style that stands as a barrier between us and our customers.

Just the other day, I spoke with a senior-level colleague who had attended an all-day training session at a major technology company. She said about 10 minutes of the training consisted of practical information she could use, and the rest of was vaporous cheerleading about “synergy,” “value propositions,” and other buzzwords that try the patience of today’s savvy, demanding customers.

Retooling your message with plain talk comes with its own set of challenges. Strong and often conflicting tides in the way our society communicates often make hiding behind a wall of words seem like the best choice. The Internet is a Wild West of free expression, well seasoned with sex, irony, and subjective opinions, often offered anonymously. Schools have moved in the opposite direction, forcing teachers to discard hard topics and their own quirky individualism for a standardized curriculum. In a third trend, our public discourse is highly politicized — even the choice of a sandwich may be taken as a controversial statement!

In this environment, how do we begin to guess what our customers are expecting? Avoid the temptation to censor yourself by going vague. Instead, take a thoughtful look at your specific audience. These customers and prospects are educated, intelligent adults looking to solve a problem, and you’re on their side.What is their “safe zone”? For example, can you explain the roots of their hot-button issues? Do you understand their values? Can you explain how your product or solution lets them fulfill their mission better than ever before?

Next, what topics might be “iffy” to your customers? If you can address areas of doubt and risk with solid, valuable information, you will make your company an authority and your publications a must-read. For example, can you debunk some myths? Perhaps there was a customer service issue — can you address its aftermath in a way that makes you look honest and forthright? Is there a place for humor in your industry, a way to make your point while putting a smile on a prospect’s face? Is there a place for a two-way conversation, where your customers can ask questions or discuss issues that may throw you “off message”?

Finally, we all have our “no way” topics. No company is going to publish an article admitting they don’t know how to solve their customers’ problems! But if there are large, well-known issues surrounding your company or industry, finding creative ways to address those concerns will build trust and loyalty far more than pretending they don’t exist.

What are your hang-ups in creating new content? What’s in your comfort zone? Are there areas of your technical capabilities, product features, or customer service that are “iffy” or “no way” topics, and do they have to be? By taking a look at your real situation, you can deliver information to your customers that makes you stand out as  thoughtful, valuable, and even courageous.

Speaking of courage, don’t miss the story behind the picture of Galileo from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here’s a teaser:

Soon, however, Galileo–flamboyant by nature–decided that Copernicus was worth a fight. He decided to address his arguments to the enlightened public at large, rather than the hidebound academics.  He saw more hope for gaining support among businessmen, gentlemen, princes, and Jesuit astronomers than among the vested apologists of universities.  He seemed compelled to act as a consultant in natural philosophy to all who would listen.  He wrote  in tracts, pamphlets, letters, and dialogues–not in the turgid, polysyllabic manner of a university pedant, but simply and directly.

The Curious Case of the Smart Customer

Cabinet of curiosities: Ferrante Imperato, Naples,  1599

Cabinet of curiosities: Ferrante Imperato, Naples, 1599

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” ― Plutarch

Welcome to my new blog! Here on a semi-regular basis, I’ll be sharing my thoughts about creating credible, compelling content for demanding audiences.

You already know that your customers and prospects are highly educated professional workers. They’re probably at least moderately affluent, socially active, and well-traveled. They’re certainly experts in their own fields. Abigail Housen of Harvard has developed some interesting research about how adults with active minds learn about unfamiliar topics (such as modern art). The ideas she uncovered can also help in deciding on what information these people need to make a decision — say, to purchase a complex, expensive software solution or new business system.

The key finding is that these users like to discover and analyze information themselves. They do not want to be told what to think or what to do next. A pile of information, however clearly written and painstakingly presented, is less important to them than a means by which they can acquire actual knowledge and keep it in their heads, adding to their personal skill sets and protecting their organizations as well.

What does this mean for those of us crafting a detailed information piece like a white paper or case study? It means your prospects are likely to have a lot of questions. These days, any business decision is a big deal, and they may already know enough to have doubts about the wisdom of proceeding at all. The challenge is to present them with writing that fires the emotions as well as the intellect. You have to tap into their genuine, natural curiosity to learn more — and thereby engage with you on the next step.

In other words — your prospects will appreciate any explanations you can provide, but ultimately they want to arrive at an informed judgement on their own. You’ll succeed best if you can take your prospects on a journey, where they first explore the basics of what you have to offer, then move on to ways of analyzing and comprehending at a deeper level.

Want to know more? You can check out Housen’s theories of aesthetic development at the Visual Thinking Strategies website. And for even more fun, don’t miss the history of Ferrante Imperato’s cabinet of curiosities at Strange Science! Here’s a teaser:

Imperato didn’t just put his best specimens on display or publish books about them. He also performed demonstrations for visitors. While some naturalists could decide who merited a demonstration and who did not, Imperato probably couldn’t afford to be so uppity. He was, after all, just a lowly apothecary, and his visitors often enjoyed a higher social status than he did. … Not only notable for what it included, Imperato’s collection was perhaps just as important for what it did not include: speaking tubes, fun-house-style mirrors, or magic lanterns.