Five signs your messaging isn’t connecting with non-experts
- Your document or presentation generates no questions.
Someone who has genuinely understood the messaging about your innovative product or service should be bursting with questions.
They should react to your words the way an audience reacts to a David Copperfield show, with amazement and curiosity. You should hear questions like these:
Wow! How did you do this?
Can it really do everything you say it will? How?
Will it truly solve my problem?
If the only reaction is silence, then your messaging probably hasn’t cut through the audience’s confusion or boredom to engage them at a deep level. Or it has overwhelmed them with technical detail to the point that they feel too intimated to say anything, for fear of looking stupid.
The remedy: Take time to investigate your audience, to get to know them not just as targets but as whole people. The more you know about what makes your audience tick, the better you’ll be able to speak or write to the issues they care about. Cultivating genuine concern for your audience is the surest route to connecting with them.
Point to ponder:
How can you anticipate basic questions non-experts might have about your innovative solution? How can your communication style make them feel it’s safe to ask naïve questions?
- Your audience appears to have taken in only one aspect of your messaging.
You’ve presented them with an end-to-end solution that will solve all aspects of their current problem, but they seem interested in just a minor part of that or fixated on a tangential issue.
If you’ve watched a small child open a large toy, then you’ve seen this phenomenon before. After unwrapping a giant (expensive) dump truck, what does a little boy want to play with? Not the truck but the box.
In this situation, you may not have structured your communication to give non-experts the big picture they need. Maybe you skipped over important background information that you, as an expert, take for granted. Perhaps you plunged too quickly into details without first describing the whole.
The remedy: Discipline yourself to work from the general to the specific, from overview to details. Chances are this will feel counterintuitive at first, but providing relevant background information will spare the audience the frustration of trying to make sense of content without context.
Point to ponder:
What history does a nonexpert need to understand your innovation? What foundational technology or science do they need to grasp to make sense of your offering?
- Your audience responds using inaccurate language.
As an innovator, you’re aware that you need to educate your audience about the science or technology behind your product. You’ve carefully defined terms and labeled diagrams. Yet your audience persists in using words like “thingy” and “whatchamacallit.”
This apparent stubbornness could indicate that you’ve been doing more informing than educating. An educator meets students where they are, making sure there’s a solid knowledge base in place before teaching new concepts.
The remedy: Take a brick-by-brick approach to building understanding. First describe a novel solution using language familiar to the audience and then introduce new terms afterwards.
For example, imagine you’ve invented an ecologically friendly filtration system that will enable developers to conserve water drained from construction sites. In this context, it’s important for your audience to learn the technical term “dewatering.”
Your first instinct might be to state the term upfront (because it’s important) and then define it: “Dewatering is the process of removing groundwater or surface water from a construction site, using various kinds of pumping technology.”
For non-experts, however, this approach could be disorienting. A more effective method would be to first use ordinary language to describe the process and then provide the more precise term: “Draining water from a construction site is called dewatering, a process carried out through some kind of pumping.”
Point to ponder:
What’s your normal approach to “teaching” your audience? Are you dumping new information on them or guiding them from what they know to what you want to teach them?
- Your audience confuses your innovation with an existing product.
Ouch! This response really hurts. After your detailed explanation, your audience compares your breakthrough solution to a common, outdated product that can’t deliver half the value you have to offer.
In this instance, you may have failed to leverage the power of metaphor. As a result, your audience has turned to this meaning-making strategy on their own—and they’ve gone astray.
Blame it on brain structure. Our brains are wired in such a way that we can learn new information only by connecting it to something we already know. We can’t form a new neural pathway from scratch; we can only extend or branch off from an existing pathway.
The remedy: When you’re describing something brand-new, your best bet may be to start by comparing it to something your audience already knows. With that basic analogy in place, you can then show the differences.
For example, imagine you’ve created a vacuum with a biologically active filter that “eats” dust particles. The quickest way to explain your innovative product would be to first acknowledge that, like a conventional vacuum, it sucks up dust and collects it in a filter, so it doesn’t re-enter the room.
Then, you can introduce your Big But. But your product doesn’t just contain dust particles, it devours them so that there’s a near-zero chance of their escaping back into the environment.
Point to ponder:
What well-known product, service, or process could serve as a useful analogy to your innovation? What’s your Big But?
- Your audience fails to grasp the value of your innovation.
You’re confident that you’ve clearly communicated how your innovative solution works, and you’ve plainly stated the many reasons it’s better than the existing alternatives.
You’ve also followed the problem-to-solution method. You’ve identified the issues with the conventional solutions, spelled out the trouble they cause, and mustered data to show the seriousness and scope of those “pain points.”
So why isn’t your messaging landing?
You’ve likely defined your offering’s value in terms of what matters to you rather than what matters to your audience.
For you, “better” might mean faster, bigger, brighter, tougher, cheaper, more sustainable, more compatible, more accessible, more flexible, more attractive, more effective, more equitable, more powerful, or more fun. But do your points of comparison truly align with the measures your audience uses to gauge improvement?
Value, like beauty, is always in the eye of the beholder. And the only way to make sure that you and your audience are seeing eye-to-eye is to validate your assumptions.
The remedy: Ask your target customers what they really care about it—and you might be surprised about what they say. You may be taking a race-car approach, selling your product based on its speed and efficiency, when what your audience really wants is comfort and ease of use, like they’d get in a family sedan.
Rather than highlighting the features you consider important, try focusing on just those that hold true value for your audience. This probably means axing some of the so-called “selling points” you’re so proud of.
This is hard to do, but remember that you’re not selling to yourself. Listen to your audience, to the words and phrases they use to describe their frustrations and aspirations, and echo that language back to them.
Point to ponder:
When’s the last time you practiced deep listening with your target audience? (A survey doesn’t count as “deep listening.”)
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