The art of communicating complex things
Marketing expertise with insights for the mechanical contractor: this article was originally written by Doug MacMillan, president of The Letter M, and published in Mechanical Business magazine; it is posted with permission.
The Letter M is a Guelph-based marketing and branding agency focused on strengthening communities and businesses through high-quality strategy, brand, storytelling, design and communications.
We’ve all been there – a keen sales rep launches into a detailed, confusing narrative about how their product was invented and built, what makes it work, why it’s better than others without the patented recalibrating such-and-such, and how it can be set up “just so” with a few easy (read: too many, not easy at all) quick steps so you can “revolutionize” your business, “revitalize” your operations, etc.
Before you can say “buzzword overkill,” your eyes glaze over, and your mind drifts away. They’ve lost you, and you still can’t put your finger on what specific value their product will bring to your business.
It’s the age of information overload – a time when almost everything is available after just a few strokes on the keyboard. You’re likely bumping into customers who are keen to learn all about the inner workings of a geothermal system, how rainwater harvesting works or the difference between a two or three-pass boiler. That’s fine – be prepared to answer their questions without assuming every customer is like that.
Ready access to information means that subject matter experts in construction, plumbing, contracting, development and manufacturing need to be able to provide information effectively in plain language that “regular” customers can understand. The company that can best provide this knowledge in an understandable, concise way has a leg up over those who take customers on a deep and technical journey they can’t begin to comprehend.
So how can you give your customers the technical details they need to know without over-exerting anyone’s brain?
Here are a few ideas we’ve found effective:
Don’t overshare. People who know a lot about something are often quick to dive into the uncondensed version. Step away from that ledge. Don’t assume everyone needs the full back story. Read the room and tell customers only what they need to know or are asking about, rather than everything you do know. The curious ones will ask more questions if they need more answers.
Focus as much on benefits as features. The features of a product tend to bog us down in the nitty-gritty details when customers primarily need to understand the overall benefits – why it will make their lives easier. If an advanced control or a new automation function will help customers save money over the long term, lead with that information rather than what it does to achieve that benefit.
Use simple analogies. People understand complex things more easily if you relate it to something that they already understand: “If you’ve ever emptied your drier lint, then you can change your furnace filter” sets a comforting tone that will make the action more easily understood.
Simplify your sentence structure. Whether you’re communicating verbally or in writing, the more complex the subject matter, the more breaks you need in the narrative to process the information. Talk or write in short, singular sentences. Take pauses and breaks. Lists help. And practice using straightforward words rather than venture into superfluous verbosity.
Use images whenever possible. Never is it more true that a picture is worth a thousand words. A short video is the most rapidly-growing information format on the internet, and image-only posts fill social media channels. We’re training our brains to respond more effectively to pictures than words. Great “how-to” videos or quick GIF files (oops – jargon – sorry: those are those 5-10 second animated graphics that tell a brief story) can work hard, so you don’t have to.
Have regular folks vet your work. If you’ve written a blog, eNews article or media release that’s a bit complicated, be sure to have it read by someone who wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Your spouse, your partner, your neighbour… Similarly, if you’re regularly speaking with people about your products or services, practice how you explain technical things with someone from the general population. Watch how they react and ask where you hit the “too much information” mark and how you can improve.
Finally, a word of caution to keep an eye on the fine line between sharing information in simple terms and being patronizing. Assume your audience is intelligent – simply uninformed.