Archive for February 2009
If you’ve ever considered escaping your corporate job, read this.
Part of my work life is invested in helping college students believe writing can be a legitimate career. Not long ago the technical writing class I taught took a break to hear Scott Cairns discuss his poetry, his writing process and his motivations. Cairns commented that he rarely thinks about audience when he writes. He writes as a way of finding what he does not know. Questions are his starting point. He writes to resolve those questions.
But wait: not think about audience?
When our class met again, we discussed at length how it is the poet could write without thinking about audience. For the classes I teach, audience is a key element that shapes the writing. What the audience already knows, what the audiences wants to know, and what the audience needs to know are all questions we entertain as we shape words and concepts to accomplish stuff out in the world. We hope our words (at least) engage our audience in meaningful dialogue or (at best) persuade them to take some action based on received/processed messages (the enduring dream of any copywriter).
Though audience looms large in shaping the working writer’s discipline, I do not disagree with Cairns. Many of my best connections with audiences have occurred when words have formed over some deeply personal question. Those same words have then gone on to connect to my audience in ways I had never anticipated and could not have planned. I’m not talking about creative writing exercises, but working editorials, print ads, direct mail and marketing copy. Perhaps that is why writing remains mysterious: it comes from several layers of consciousness seemingly at the same time. And somewhere in that bubbling stew our human connections speak with each other. Knowing God created us to communicate (with Him and each other) makes me more and more curious about the secret life of words.
Working writers must balance audience infatuation with ignorance of audience. The best communication emerges from somewhere between transcendence and imminence.
Two recent conversations with marketing friends illustrate a common issue I face when writing copy for a communication tool. The financial marketer needed to reach through the independent financial counselor to the individual investor. The medical device marketer needed to reach through the rep organization to a new-ish target audience—an audience the reps were not so eager to talk with. Both marketers understood that the communication tool we were preparing must help establish a relationship between the counselor/rep and the final audience.
In both cases we worked through a set of messages, set priorities and discussed the tone. The copy and entire piece must engage the first audience (I’ll call them the “gate” audience), but in a slightly different way than it must engage the final audience. The gate audience must quickly understand the primary benefit to the final audience and then be prepared to verbally go over the communication piece with the final audience, pointing out benefits and finally leaving the piece with them. The gate audience must also quickly feel very comfortable with the messages, tone and presentation—so much so that they can speak intelligently and with passion. After all, that is what these folks do for a living.
The final audience may (or may not) take the piece and read it. More likely they will engage in a conversation with the communication tool as something of a prop, and then take their cues from the relationship they already have with the presenter. That is, after all, how we understand and take action on lots of things in this life. Most everything is about relationships.
Effective copy must make the gate audience comfortable, then impassioned, then empowered. That same copy must duplicate the passion for the final audience and go on to provide detail as necessary. And that means communication tools like your common brochure are really instruments for relationship-building.
My medical marketing friend asked about a project where we are stimulating dialogue between a group of research/practicing cardiologists and a growing referral base of primary care physicians. The dialogue is designed to help the cardiology group retain mind-share with busy primary care physicians. This dialogue is helped by the fact that many in the cardiology group are recognized as national thought-leaders and regularly publish their findings in top-tier medical journals. It also helps that the dialogue is based around their expert reviews of current cardiology research and practices. These two facts help the dialogue take place and will make it believable.
But say you are marketing a product instead of a group of experts. Say your point for stimulating a dialogue is to learn what you can about practice patterns, referral patterns, purchasing patterns and the like. What steps can you take to ensure dialogue really happens, versus more of the usual one-way selling messages deposited largely unread in the target audience’s laptop?
1. Don’t think of dialogue marketing as a drive-by tactic. No shooting from the low rider as you reach for the next marketing tactic. Dialogue marketing will truly be about, well, dialogue, which is honest give and take. Commit to continuing the conversation, which is the same as committing to relationship building with your dialogue partners. The bigger rewards are longer-term, just as they are in any relationship.
2. Be honest. Physicians know you are selling something. In fact, every reader of any words today knows the writer is selling something, if only some subjective way of looking at the world. And we’re largely OK with that—until the writer claims objectivity. That’s when the hackles rise and the mouse clicks on the X. Be persuasive (Melcrum has good comments on persuasive language here), but not over the top—especially with the selling message.
3. Offer something useful. You may not be a set of top experts in cardiology, but you know your product well. And you know the context of your product. You don’t advise on interventional cardiology or cardiac surgery, but you do advise on how the product is used. Dialogue has to have a reason to exist—a reason that both parties continue to engage. Selling messages won’t provide that glue, so don’t organize a dialogue around them. You must uncover the benefit/reason that speaks into the lives of your target audience.
Marjorie Teresa R. Perez writes in the BusinessMirror about ad agency Leo Burnett increasingly finding their “purpose” in marketing as the evolve into a “HumandKind of company.” Starting with a purpose is essential for dialogue—just as it is essential for life on this planet.
Yes. And it’s a crime if they don’t. It used to be that the folks scrawling away on technical manuals worked hard to capture what engineering said while being aware of the different needs of their audiences. They necessarily broke engineering concepts down for the folks who operated the device or machine or product. They had to separate themselves from the love affair most engineers have with their product: parsing out just the needed information, thank you. It required that writers have a clear understanding of the device/machine/product and an even clearer picture of the audience and their real needs.
But in this coming age when dialogue is one engine driving brand loyalty, no communication opportunity can be wasted—including the documentation that goes to the users. While it is often true that the users of a product are not the ones who make the purchase decision (thinking of big-ticket capital expenses here), it does not follow that their opinions and experience with the product do not matter. In fact, when it comes to ongoing customer dialogue, their experience with the product will provide the background noise that builds—or dismantles—loyalty. You can see that all sorts of companies are scraping at ways to engage audiences.
How can technical documentation build the brand? Glad you asked.
1. For starters, collapse the silos and let (force?) the marketing folk to hang with the technical gurus. Break down the compartments they live in so marketers get a sense of the detail involved, and so technical folks get a sense of what the brand stands for. Conversation has a great way of opening eyes and freeing fingers on keyboards.
2. Establish expertise. Technical documentation goes a long way toward setting up a company—and the people who make up the company—as experts. Naturally, it goes without saying that documentation must be clear, brief, to the point, appropriate and well-organized—all the excellent stuff that sets the expert from someone who just rambles endlessly.
3. Write to the brand. Logos properly used, of course. Observe graphic standards and color palettes? Check. But even more important is the tone of the brand. Send your marketing copywriters and technical writers to lunch some day and make them talk about the tone their respective communication tools take. These two groups should find shared enthusiasm for their target audiences.
4. Create even more points of contact with your loyal customer base. Good technical documentation explains operation, theory (a little, anyway), safety, service, troubleshooting and along the way creates multiple opportunities for dialogue. Does this sound like a staffing issue? Perhaps it is, but maintaining brand loyalty is a full-time job and is a vertical movement that runs through an entire organization.
If there is one word that sums up the life of a consultant, it might be “talk.” But not for the reason you think. Consultants always seem to be selling—true—but it is even more true that fresh new solutions pop up in the middle of the most mundane conversations. Good consultants realize this and always have their radar up.
Yesterday I talked with a high-powered, well-connected friend who had just left the corporate world and was thinking about consulting. We waxed on about what fun it is to reconnect with old friends and colleagues in the course of networking, and finding new friends and hearing their stories. We both mentioned this crazy thing that can sometimes happen when someone innocently says “So, what is it you do, again?”
Suddenly you find yourself casting about for an appropriate way to summarize your work for this precise conversation, this context, and this person. You may even have an elevator speech ready to go, but even that needs to be tweaked right now. This instant.
And so you talk. And sometimes you are surprised by what comes out of your mouth. New stuff you’ve never thought of before. Stuff you can follow-up on right away.
My work as a communications consultant allows me to probe for ways to serve people and organizations with strategic writing skills. This conversation miracle happens routinely. We trade problems. We share insights. We consider what is and what could be. Along the way we often say true things about ourselves. And if we are listening, small confirmations pop up in the conversations. Small confirmations about who we are and what we do in life and how our role fits. When these small confirmation pop, and when I am listening, small acts of creation spring forth. Solid bits of ground beneath my feet, ready for walking forward, ready in a way I could not walk before. All because of conversations.
As a Trinitarian God-fearer (that is, your standard-issue Christian), I’m reminded that creation sprang forth in much the same way: the Triune God talking together and—behold—this blue ball, and everything on it.
So…have a conversation today.
P.S. Speaking of conversations, read Jeff Cornwall’s take on how his undergrad students view corporate career paths versus entrepreneurship. It will cheer you. Or not.
It was embarrassing to watch Rod Blagojevich on Letterman last night. Several times I almost turned it off, but the same thrill of gawking at a car wreck kept me riveted. The AP story quotes him as misunderstood, that he will be vindicated and—what’s this?—offers of work are coming in? Book deals? His own television show? So the AP writer speculates.
Letterman is engaging because he sometimes nails my thoughts with his words. When telling that Blagojevich would be on the show, he admitted he had no idea why the former governor was there—which was exactly what I was thinking. He had been in the monologue crosshairs for some time. The AP story reports:
At the Letterman show, Blagojevich laughed with the audience when the host mentioned watching him on several television talk shows, including “The View” on ABC, “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC and the “Today” show on NBC.
“The more you talked,” Letterman joked, “and the more you repeated your innocence, the more I said to myself, ‘Oh, this guy is guilty.’”
Blagojevich refused details or to answer direct questions because of the impending criminal case. All he can do is claim innocence, which furthers Letterman’s observation every time Blagojevich talks.
The dishonored governor and his personal media campaign remind me that in this country, any fame is good fame. Even notoriety (“widely and unfavorably known”) is favorable, because getting in the public eye opens the possibility of getting in the public pocketbook. Reputation, honor, effective service, all these pale in comparison to the possibility of making money.