Speak Your Audience’s Language…or Shut Up

Hai! This Japanese word for “Yes” may be the most famous international communication error in U.S. business folklore.

The tale, of course, is Americans say “Yes” when they agree. But Japanese say “Hai” when they understand the speaker…even if they disagree. Many the proverbial American thought they had agreement with Japanese partners only to realize they were still at square one.

Pepsi hit a less-famous speed bump in India in 2004. They ran an ad storyline they, Coke, and others have run 1,000 times in the U.S.: Sports team on field. Sports team thirsty. Child brings drinks. Cue music. What could be cuter, right? Except in India, just having the kid bring the drink seemed to promote child labor. Result? Litigation and the comically non-controversial court assertion “no advertisement depicting child labour should be aired until further orders.” (Did I just see your eyes roll?)

This post is about knowing your audience enough to communicate in their language.

A story I lived: an IT client with a brilliant team wanted to sell to pharmaceutical firms. This wasn’t an pie-in-the-sky dream. They had heard scientists in pharma used technology in their daily work that this vendor knew they could speed up. But selling the normal way wasn’t working. Not being the market leader (yet), Central IT had no interest in “yet another vendor.” The vendor’s only hope: Get the attention of senior scientists, who had the power to specify purchase—overruling central IT.

For years, the vendor explained to the scientists their superior specs—specs any IT person just knew would help the scientists. And the scientists? They told the vendor to talk to IT…because IT cared about “those sorts of things.”

Then the vendor and our firm met (yes, this part is self-serving, but it doesn’t affect the main point. So if you prefer, just assume I heard this story somewhere). We did what seemed the obvious thing: we asked scientists what they care about. You know what they care about? Accelerating drug discovery. They care about a few other things, but pretty much everything comes back to accelerating drug discovery. So we taught the fantastic reps at this vendor a bit about scientists…and drugs…and drug discovery (including the actual phrase: “drug discovery”). And we encouraged reps to walk in the door and explain that their product accelerates drug discovery. And later, much later, they could absolutely back up that claim with specs…if the scientist cared.

Sales took off.

To be clear, every rep already knew pharmaceutical firms create drugs and that their product’s superior specs improved time to market. But they had been speaking their own language — speeds and feeds — not that of their customer — drugs and time to market. So it didn’t work. They needed to learn a new language. The good news? It only took a day. They just needed a guide who knew how to motivate and make it easy.

How about Social Media ROI? ROI seems to come up in every third Social Media discussion. A Google search for “social media ROI” gets 30,300,000 hits. I haven’t read every one, but the debate goes something like this:

Fran, the financial analyst: “What’s the ROI on our social media effort?”
Sidney, the social media maven: “Hits are up. Influence is up. We’re getting traction. It’s all good!”
Fran: “Good, but what’s the R-O-I?” (emphasis on the “R-O-I”)
Sidney: “Huh? I just told you.” (thinking suddenly what a corporate tool Fran is)
Fran: “I mean the number. After allocations, we spend $183,460 on social media initiatives this year. What was the return?” (thinking, “Now I know why they stuck Sidney in Marketing”)
Sidney: “You can’t measure social media that way!” (uh oh, a little frustration leaked into that comment)
Fran: “Well maybe YOU can’t, but you know we’re just coming out of this little recession thing? Nothing gets budgeted without ROI.” (not caring how much frustration leaks in…)
And so the circle goes….

What the ROI answer? I’m sorry to sound glib, but if you talk to the Finance department (and probably the CEO for that matter), you need something resembling a number — a numerical ROI for your social media efforts. It can be long-term, it can have caveats, it can have proxy data, heck it can even have hand waving. But if you don’t, send someone else to the meeting.

Of course, if you are talking to the social media team, your language will likely move to influence, engagement, relationships, brand loyalty, etc. These are things you can only sometimes measure…and they are part of the path to ROI. But they are not what the Finance team calls ROI. And that’s just fine. It’s a different audience.

Would you like to discuss this in the context of your business? Click here to drop us a line. We look forward to meeting you!

Speaking Your Audiences’ Language is Not Hard, but Takes Discipline

  • START with what your audience cares about. How do you learn this? ASK. If you stop selling and start asking, customers will tell you their desires, fears, and hopes. They actually want you to understand them.
  • LEARN your audience’s language. How? Usually this is automagic if you do the step above.
  • TRANSLATE your value into your audience’s language and structure it around what they care about. I promise you, this is not that difficult if you’ve done the two steps above.

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