Your business has an enemy. It’s fierce, and if it’s not combated, it will make a mess of your company.
That enemy is noise.
What we often call “communication” or “marketing” in our companies is really just noisy clutter and confusion sprayed all over our websites, emails, and commercials.
And what do customers do when we blast a bunch of noise at them? They tune us out.
To combat noise, we need to be pros at how we communicate. We need to organize our information in a way that compels people to listen and pay attention.
But what does great communication really look like?
Fortunately, great minds have been noodling on this question for centuries. So I’ve compiled some of the best wisdom out there. These quotations can help you pinpoint where you’re creating noise so you can make stronger connections with your customers.
1. Relationships are at the heart of great communication.
The key to high-quality communication is trust, and it’s hard to trust somebody that you don’t know. –Ben Horowitz
Marketing communication, like all interpersonal communication, starts with a heart check. Who’s the person you want to establish or deepen your connection with? Why is it important? What’s at stake? Why does what you want to say matter to them?
It’s so easy to just dash off your next email or your website copy in isolation. But when you do that, you lose sight of who’s actually reading it. And as a result, your copy ends up being overly focused on you and oblivious to your audience’s struggles. If your customers don’t know why your words matter to them, they won’t trust you, and they will tune you out.
But when our words come from a place of empathy and understanding, they break through and capture our customer’s attention. More than that, our words create trust, giving us a foundation on which we can build a relationship with our customer.
2. Check your assumptions.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
–George Bernard Shaw
At StoryBrand, we teach our workshop attendees to avoid what Lee LeFever termed “the curse of knowledge.” This happens when a business leader knows so much about their products and services, that they project that knowledge onto their potential customer. They use expert terminology and make logical leaps because the material is second nature to them. But it all goes right over the head of the prospective customer.
The end result? You’re under the illusion that customers understand what you’re saying, but they don’t. For example, you may think you just explained to customers how your payroll software works — but in reality they got confused by your detailed technical descriptions and charts. Instead, they bought from your competitor whose website simply said: “Our software takes all the mystery out of paying your employees.”
Before you say anything, be aware of the assumptions you’re making about your audience’s level of understanding. Remember the kinds of questions and confusion you had when you first got into your industry. And if you’re ever in doubt, err on the side of simplicity.
3. Start by listening.
To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well.
We’ve all had “that friend” who asks you for coffee and proceeds to dominate the entire hour of conversation talking about himself.
He doesn’t ask about your week. There’s no give and take to the conversation. You feel less like a friend and more like a volunteer therapist.
That’s no way to forge a good relationship, of course. But it’s often what we do with our customers. We go on and on about our products and specials, but we never stop to ask our customers what they’re dealing with.
If your marketing and communication feels one-sided to your customers, you won’t be able to build a relationship.
How can you “listen well” as a marketer? Try these ideas to create a culture of listening to your customers:
• Send surveys, and then actually read and act on the feedback. Post a question on your Facebook page — “What are you struggling with this week?” — and engage with the replies.
• Don’t guess about what features your product needs. Watch your customers use your product and see where they run into problems or limitations.
4. Be clear, not clever.
If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.
Whenever we’re communicating — whether in a speech or writing — we’re putting ourselves out there. And whenever you do that, your insecurities can easily pop up. Am I coming across as smart and competent? Do people like me? Do I look silly?
To compensate for those insecurities, we try to impress our audience by being cute, clever, or poetic. Or worse, we use five-dollar words and crazy sentence structures so people see how “smart” we are.
Unfortunately, all this backfires because, like Churchill points out, all that ends up only confusing people. Clarity rules. When you can clearly articulate your big point, your audience will actually understand what you’re saying and connect with you. And yes, they’ll end up thinking you’re smart and qualified.
Churchill’s quote points out the importance of repetition when you’re trying to make that point, but before that, make sure you can articulate your big idea. Doing so will take ruthless editing and deep thinking to clear away the fog, but I promise, the clarity and beauty will come. Keep refining it.
5. Embrace the difficulty.
I hate writing, I love having written.
Communicating well isn’t easy. While trying to figure out his company’s message, one client told me that it was like being inside the bottle trying to read the label.
It’s normal to stare at a blank screen. It’s normal if your speech’s first draft is a muddy mess. It’s not only normal, it’s okay.
Fortunately, there are ways to make the process of communication easier. That’s why writers of all shapes and sizes draw on filters, formulas, and tropes. It can give you a way to cut through the fog and find your footing as you try to express a big idea.
That’s why Dorothy Parker’s quotation resonates with practically every writer. The writing itself is hard. But once you’re through it, and you’ve come out the other side with your clear website, your engaging keynote, or your killer email campaign, there’s no feeling quite like it.
6. Tell a story.
The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.
A good story always works. It captivates the brain like nothing else — the studies prove this. That’s why people around the world spent 39 billion dollars last year going to the movies.
But stories do more than entertain. If you want people to understand and identify with a complicated concept, tell a story about it. This creates a “clicking experience” in a person’s brain, allowing them to suddenly understand what someone else is trying to communicate. As such, if you can tell a good story, you’ll create stronger, faster connection with your audience.
Obviously we’re big fans of story here at StoryBrand, which is why we’ve translated the basic plot framework of a story into a marketing template you can use to craft story-driven messaging that grows your business.
7. Guard your character.
In the last analysis, what we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.
Words are powerful. And when you’re good at using them, you become powerful. What you do with that power depends on your character.
Our character comes through in our words, for better or for worse, and our words can do a lot of damage. Communication is a tool, and like any tool, if it falls into the wrong hands it can be devastating. It can manipulate people, spread falsehood, and devastate cultures.
As the character Dumbledore tells Harry Potter, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
So if communication of any kind is a part of your job, guard your heart as much as you hone your craft. Make sure your words are doing good work.
No matter what your role at work, you’ll face challenges in communication. It might be at a board meeting, in a big speech, writing website copy, or in a difficult one-on-one. I hope these quotations have deepened your understanding of what it means to communicate well. If you have a favorite quote about communication, leave a comment and share it with me!