Preparing Your Case: Winning the “Hidden Debate” with Your Customers

The Last Fly by Boris Artzybasheff (1922)

The Last Fly by Boris Artzybasheff (1922)

“Will you walk into my parlor,” said the Spider to the Fly? — Mary Howitt

Whether you’re gloating or on the ledge about the most recent election, it’s a safe bet all Americans are united in one feeling—relief that it’s over! But one holdover from the election is worth examining as you turn your attention to the business year to come. How persuasive are your outreach materials? Do your white papers, blog articles, and web copy answer the real questions that your customers and prospects have? Or, like the political advertisements and phone calls we’ve all grown to loathe, do they simply bombard the reader with factoids, assertions, and “hooray for our side” ballyhoo?

When it comes to marketing a complex product or system, bombast, generalizations, and dubiously sourced facts don’t work very well. Your audience isn’t sitting around with their checkbooks open, waiting for someone to stoke their preconceived notions. They’re intelligent, astute, and full of questions. They demand (and deserve) a well-constructed and convincing argument, supported by strongly referenced evidence, logic, and organization.

But as research scientist and leadership expert Jay Conger explains, most business owners and managers have a problem when it comes to the art of persuasion—an infatuation with our own arguments. “First, you strongly state your position,” Conger says. “Second, you outline the supporting arguments, followed by a highly assertive, data-based exposition. Finally, you enter the deal-making stage and work toward a ‘close.’ In other words, you use logic, persistence, and personal enthusiasm to get others to buy a good idea. The reality is that following this process is one surefire way to fail at persuasion.”

So if your prospects remain skeptical no matter how much logic and passion you bring to the table, what’s next? Here’s a great exercise I call “Hidden Debate” that you can use to build more persuasive marketing materials. Start by preparing your case in the negative—think of every possible reason why the prospect should not sign on for your product. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty! By doing this exercise with an open mind, you will gain a thorough understanding of the arguments arrayed against you and the principles behind them. Frustratingly enough,  you’ll probably also learn that your services aren’t central to your prospect’s thinking or uppermost on their minds.

But don’t make the novice mistake of assuming that your next task is to construct counterpoints to all your findings. That approach will make your reader feel they’ve entered one of those overstuffed “Junque” shops you find on every small town square. Sure, they’re fun, but how can you find the treasure you’re really seeking amidst the hodgepodge of clutter? Remember, your customers care about answers to their gritty, immediate questions. What are the short-term problems that they face every day? What are their perceptions of risk? What benefit does your product or service actually provide, and for whom? These are the areas on which you should focus.

If you do it right, the “Hidden Debate” exercise just might fill you with empathy. By giving yourself the space to think outside yourself and your own needs, you will gain a deeper understanding of where your customers are coming from. This expansion of your world view will open you up to some creative approaches on how to best construct your next round of outreach materials. Each piece needs a clear organizing principle behind it, with a specific audience in mind. Depending on the audience you are trying to reach, you can create separate pieces grounded in fully nuanced, practical, real-world arguments that not only answer their concerns, but connect honestly with the emotion that underlies them.

Your prospects will thank you for providing them with collateral infused these vital characteristics: structure, research, and reliance on hard and persuasive evidence based on a true understanding of their needs. Investing in well-constructed, content-heavy white papers, newsletters, and other marketing pieces for your intelligent customers is challenging—but the rewards are more than worth it!

So what’s the deal about the spider and the fly? Mary Howitt’s 1829 poem is a classic story of how a cunning silver-tongued spider ensnares a naïve fly with empty words. Check out the complete poem. And if you want to see some fantastic illustrations, visit Shrine of Dreams for much more from Boris Artzybasheff, the Ukrainian-born illustrator who became an award-winning illustrator in the United States.

P.S. Warmest of welcomes to my latest customers: Carrtegra, Monkee-Boy Web Design, and the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum!

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!

This is the Year You Write Your Book

They say this cat Shaft is a bad mother (shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ ‘bout Shaft (then we can dig it)

Remember Shaft, the cool private eye who told it like it was?

What made Shaft so cool (besides his theme song and his black leather trench coat)? It was his credibility. Out on the mean streets of 1970s New York, Shaft was the one man who would never “cop out when there’s danger all about.” Shaft had a way of communicating his hard-earned experience and knowledge so that no one who saw him would never forget it (if they survived the encounter, that is).

Like Shaft, you’ve built up your business with credibility and trust. People come to you not only because they know and like you, but because they respect you. In other words, you’re an expert—a status that has taken years to earn.

Now you can leverage your knowledge in a way that will land you recognition as a thought leader, with everything that goes along with it (like better speaking gigs, more professional recognition, and getting your ideas in front of your ideal clients).

Because this is the year that you write your book.

Now how am I going to find time to write a book?

Some folks call it a lead magnet, an expert piece, or a credibility booster. No matter what you call it, it’s a polished, professional real book that customers and colleagues can hold in their hands (or download from Amazon or your website).

The good news is, you’ve prepared more than you think. You probably already have presentations you’ve given, notes and ideas from meetings with customers and prospects, perhaps articles and blogs you’ve written. Maybe you’ve even started on a book before and then realized it’s a full-time job in itself. That’s where I come in.

I may not be able to write and perform your theme song like Isaac Hayes, but I’m an award-winning author of books and other long-form materials both for myself and for a wide variety of businesses and audiences. I can work with you to develop your concept into a real book. Depending on your circumstances, you could have your book completed and published in as little as a couple of months!

Working as a partner with you, I’ll lead you through the following process:

  • Background. I’ll assess what you already have and determine what you still need.
  • Charting a course. I’ll create a complete outline/table of contents for your approval.
  • Research and interviews. I’ll conduct any necessary research to flesh out the book’s content, and we’ll conduct one or more interviews so the book is in your voice.
  • Write the book. I’ll tell your story with precision and flair.
  • Revisions. Two rounds of revisions are included. With solid groundwork, many people find this step goes much faster than they ever expected.
  • Editing and proofing is all included—no embarrassing mistakes.
  • Titling and cover design. I’ll help you choose a title, write the back cover copy and supplemental materials such as the copyright page and dedication, and oversee professional cover art and design.
  • Production. I’ll set up everything for you so that your book can be printed and sold on Amazon, you can order your own copies at a low cost, and your book is in an attractive e-book format.

Then I’ll turn the keys over to you! Congratulations—you’re an author!

Now here’s your fun fact: There were seven Shaft novels, authored by Ernest Tidyman, who was also an Oscar-winning screenwriter with credits such as High Plains Drifter and The French Connection. The books, movies, and song created a sensation, with Isaac Hayes becoming the first African-American to win a non-acting Oscar for his efforts. As for Tidyman, he received an NAACP Image Award—one of the only white people ever to be so honored.

Your Customers Want to Love You. Make It Happen.

Town crier in Holland, 1938. Across the U.S. and Europe, towns employed town criers to spread important information about news, government, and markets.

Town crier in Holland, 1938. Beloved figures of bygone days across the U.S. and Europe, town criers were trusted figures who spread important information about news, government, and markets.

“It isn’t an easy thing to give your loyalty to someone you don’t know, especially when that person chooses to reveal nothing of himself.”  — Megan Whalen Turner, The King of Attolia

Everyone talks about “understand your audience,” but what does that really mean? After all, your customers are all individuals with their own quirks and personalities — especially those who are well-educated, experienced professionals with a lot of expertise in their fields. How can you craft newsletters, blogs, white papers, and other complex reports that will persuade this independent-minded audience to look to you as a trusted source of information?

It may help to break your audience into segments. Let’s make it more fun and call them:

– Lovers
– Buddies
– Seekers
– Outsiders

For the purposes of writing your marketing collateral,the Outsiders are your least important group. These are the people who work in your field but don’t normally have any overlapping interest with your product or service. Don’t confuse them with the Seekers. They are not the direct users of your product or service — but often are the decision-makers who cut loose with the purse-strings. They will learn about your product at major events such as trade shows, and need to see messages they can grasp quickly that position you as dynamic, positive, and relevant — even if they will forget the messages quickly as they move on to other concerns.

The two most important targets of your reports and updates are the direct users of your product or service. The Buddies love what they do, especially when shared with other people. They will be interested in reading success stories, getting updates about the community of users, and participating in webinars and help sessions with other people. And the Lovers are the people who are passionate, intellectually and emotionally, about the nuts and bolts of their profession. They are happy to learn about your product in great detail if it might help them do their jobs better.

It can be liberating to realize that you are directing your message not to the whole world, but primarily to your Lovers and your Buddies — people who love their jobs and their field — which happens to be your field! These are people who want you to succeed because it will help them succeed. The Lovers want to get outside the box. With interesting and entertaining content, these customers may engage with you on an emotional level, viewing a new report from you or a visit to your blog to be a welcome escape or a source of inspiration in their day. If you can add high-quality events and interaction for the Buddies, you will have gone a long way towards creating loyal customers who not only understand your message, but bond with it.

On the flip side, what are some of the sources of frustration or disappointment that Lovers and Buddies find with a lot of marketing outreach? Like everyone else, these users have limited time. When they run across a good piece, they want to be able to share it with colleagues. Making your content public and easily shareable is one of the most significant opportunities you have for increasing your audience. But that means your content has to be worth sharing.

What makes a good, shareable web page, thought leadership article, or newsletter? It takes writing that is absorbing and engaging. Let’s take it a step further. What exactly does it mean for a reader to be engaged? Engagement means that your customer or prospect has dedicated their attention to your piece. They are engrossed in it — they set aside their e-mail and their phones to read it. It prompts them to think and use their imaginations. This in turn creates an emotional response and a personal connection. Your reader is excited about what they read and is inspired to take action — and isn’t that the whole point of creating the piece in the first place?

Very few companies and organizations have the marketing budgets they really need to reach every possible Seeker, let alone worry about Outsiders. But by offering fewer, richer pieces for your Lovers and Buddies, you may see a great return on investment with more efficient and effective marketing campaigns. Such opportunities are linked to finding a writer who can help you develop a compelling and unique narrative that will engage your most passionate customers and prospects.

Now here are some fun facts about town criers, courtesy of the fascinating Historical Fiction Research blog. It was no small responsibility to be a town crier — as a responsible public official, the crier had to be literate, possessed of a “light clear voice,” and own his own trumpet and horse.  Once he was chosen, he had to make his announcements at all the places required by law, while still remaining on the good side of politicians and other important citizens who employed him to spread the word.

P.S. Welcome to my newest customer, Audimation Services!

Branding Yourself to Customers Who Hate Branding

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750s

The Ridotto in Venice, Pietro Longhi, 1750s

She had blue skin,
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by-
And never knew.
― Shel Silverstein, Every Thing on It

There are more ways than ever to convey your marketing and branding, but also more customers who have grown weary of always being “sold.” In his book Why We Hate Us: American Discontent in the New Millennium, Dick Meyer describes how smart, information-savvy customers find most branding to be an obnoxious call for conformity, and at times even a threat to the individuality they treasure. As Meyer writes, “Living fast-paced lives, immersed in media and separated from community, has made us squirrely, to put it bluntly.”

If your customers have become alienated from traditional  marketing and branding, it may be time to try a different approach when creating your content. When it comes to complex, expensive purchases, the era of the hard sell is over. What’s in? Delivering information that speaks directly to the views, needs, and expectations of your customers.

Many companies and government agencies are good at collecting numbers about their customers and patrons, but little knowledge about what motivates them. To help break down this barrier, you might try a beautiful exercise developed by economist Edward de Bono called the Six Thinking Hats.

It may sound like”Harry Potter,” but to summarize a unique and potentially complex process, de Bono suggests serious thought go into six hats:

  • White – Analyze your data, using history to try to predict the future from the past.
  • Red – Consider your customers as emotional beings who react based on intuition and gut instinct.
  • Black – What’s bad here? What are the risks and the weak points that may cause a customer to choose someone else or not make a choice at all?
  • Yellow – What’s great here? What are all the benefits and values you can offer your customer?
  • Green – Get creative! Now is not the time to censor your thinking. Break out of “the way we’ve always done it” and consider some different ways you could present the same old (or brand new) information.
  • Blue – Control the process and synthesize all the ideas, making sure all get due consideration.

For your curious and discerning customers, a decision will come only when they have weighed all the considerations — tangible features, service elements, and emotional yet critical factors such as good will and credibility. In this Internet age when you are not ever fully in control of your own message, it is more important than ever to create written materials that address your customers’ human element in a fully considered format that respects their intelligence.

When creating your newsletters, blogs, case studies, and other written pieces, you want to infuse them with your own rich history, image, and legacy. But by creating content that is more about your customers than it is about you, you can stand out from your competition with pieces that are emotionally persuasive as well as factual.

So — what do your customers value? How does your product or service fit in to the organizational cultures they inhabit, the problems they must solve, and the economic challenges they face? When you can answer these questions for your customers, you will gain credibility as a creative and dynamic partner — not just another vendor — and everyone wins.

Want to know the story behind the painting? If you think your customers are a mystery, imagine living in old Venice! There the festival of Carnival could last up to six months of the year, and people would wear disguises that included beaked masks that enabled them to eat, drink, and breathe comfortably while still concealing their identities. Because of the masks, nobles and commoners could rub elbows at all the festivities, including this gambling house, or ridotto — which means “to reduce one’s wealth by gambling.” What deep desires lie concealed beneath these mysterious masks? Learn more at the Getty Museum’s A Portrait of Venice Unmasked.

P.S. A warm welcome to my newest customer, Baker & Taylor!

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.