We Have a Failure to Communicate

Fred Mael

Baltimore SmartCEO  and Washington SmartCEO,  April, 2010

 While reading an interesting book, you find an astounding assertion and want to know the source or the evidence for the statement. A superscript number indicates that endnote 22 will provide that information. You then turn to the back of the book to find the reference for the endnote – and get lost.  Chapter 6 has a note 22, but so do Chapter 4 and 5 and all the other chapters, but the chapter names are not listed in the back.  You then flip back to the page that you were reading and find that the name of the chapter is in the header – but not the chapter number. So now, with one hand on the endnotes section, and one hand on the page you were reading, you try to flip back to the table of contents to find the elusive chapter number, and try to hold it open, presumably with your elbow or your chin. Or, you just give up in disgust.

(I have asked a number of professional librarians why this counterproductive tradition is perpetuated by so many authors or publishers, but have received no good answers yet.)

Ever wonder why intelligent people whose whole purpose is to communicate with you manage to miss the mark? And more importantly, are you doing the same with your products and services?

An Uncommon Language 

Many times, we get so immersed in what we do that we forget that our universe of potential customers are laypeople with regard to our area of expertise.  “They” don’t talk IT language, or accounting language, or under-the-hood language.  Moreover, “they” resent it when we tell them how easy our communications are to comprehend, despite never bothering to find out if they really get it. Consider these common examples:

  •  You have a website that you have pronounced easy to navigate. It’s actually a non-intuitive maze. Or, you are so intent on appearing like a national conglomerate that you purposely leave out crucial  information such as who runs your company, where it is based – and, for those who don’t want to start by filling out a dossier and joining an unknown mailing list –  how to reach a human by phone.  And when they finally pierce the shield and find that like the Wizard of Oz, it’s just you and a sometimes secretary – they are not impressed.
  •  You produce an object, be it a crib, a table or a hockey net, that requires assembly. You  put the instructions on the tiniest, flimsiest paper, with a minimum of explanation, giving the impression that there was a tariff on every word. Your customers spend an afternoon bonding with neighbors and family members trying to guess what you meant and why it is taking so long – and regretting that they bought your product.
  •  Your latest version of a cell phone, ipod, or other device comes with a user’s manual, organized primarily to sell more product, such as many pages on cellular video, music player, and the like.  Somewhere in the back, buried in text so limited that even customer support cannot find it, are the basics like retrieving messages and adding addresses.
  •  Most commonly, you give briefings or sales presentations so filled with jargon that your audience assume that they are the only ones who could not follow every third word – that is, until they talk to each other. They then rationalize that rather than just being unable to talk at their level, you actually are talking down at them, trying to intimidate them, or that you don’t really understand your product or service that well yourself.

There are simple solutions to these problems. You need someone who is not immersed in your  world to try the product or review your materials.  Multiple someones would be desirable, and if you are selling to a different demographic than yourself, be it age, race, sex or techi-ness, they should be included prominently in your sample. They should be asked to navigate through whatever you are selling at their own pace.  Their false starts, their frustrations, even when they give up in impatience and despair – should all be noted. What would have prevented them from being derailed should also be noted.  You have access to any number of applied psychologists and human factors specialists who are experienced in conducting this type of review and pinpointing what should be changed.

Keep in mind that this is not an evaluation of your product; it is an evaluation of how you are communicating how to operate your product. The point is not to lose your customer before the sale, or lose their good will for the future . As much as you think it should, the fact that you and your staff found the book, the website, the instructions, or the manual easy to use doesn’t really matter. You may still have a failure to communicate.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. This article appeared originally in the April, 2010 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO  and  Washington SmartCEO magazine (www.smartceo.com).