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"The Curse of Knowledge" Muddies Corporate Communications

Business communicators sometimes become the victim of their own success and insularity.

It’s called “the curse of knowledge.”

Once a people have known something for a long time, they can’t imagine what it’s like not to know this, so use jargon automatically without thinking.

When members of the target audience don’t know what a term means, they feel stupid.  Then they feel angry at the company for making them feel stupid and are less likely to take the action the company would like.

For Lylnne Franklin, a nationally-known expert on corporate communications, it is a trap she has seen many business leaders fall into with often disastrous results.

She has identified five major problems facing communicators and offers solutions.

Problem 1: Not understanding the target audience -- Companies often issue news releases or communications because they want people to know something good about their organization – not because the item is newsworthy or people would want to know it.  And then companies can compound this error by sending it to the wrong media outlet. 

Two bad things happen:

  1. The company gives the impression it is more important than its target audience, and,
  2. It doesn’t want to bother taking the time to research media outlets (which then become alienated and won’t print news from that company in the future).

Solution: Take the “frankly, honey, who care cares?” test when it comes to issuing news.  If the “news” isn’t important to the audience, then do one of two things: 

  1. Present the news in a way that will make the audience care about it, or,
  2. Don’t send anything – instead investing time in something that will matter to that audience. 

You can make an analogy that the evolution in communication is similar to what has happened in manufacturing.  The old “push” model was to make as many products as the equipment had capacity for), and not pay attention to how many the customers want to buy.  Now manufacturers use a “pull” model.  They create demand for their products and then make the right number of them.  Effective communication focuses on the other party, creating an interest in receiving information (“pull” model) rather than just shoving what you want in their direction (“push” model).

Problem 2: Sending information in the wrong format -- A corollary to the first problem is not considering how the target audience likes to receive a communication.  Companies distribute information in the way that’s most convenient for them, once again giving the perception that they are more important than the receiver.

Solution: Spend that extra few minutes thinking about how this group wants to hear from the company.  Would they rather get a phone call than an email?  An email than a news release?  Would a link to a customized Web page make them feel more important – and likely to respond favorably?  Would hosting a webinar with a PowerPoint presentation and an opportunity for Q&A be attractive to them? 

The biggest mistake any organization can make is not to consider what each target audience wants to know, the best ways to reach them with messages that are clear and error-free, and do these things while meeting its goal for that communication.  If any one of these steps is missing, the company has automatically decreased the effectiveness of what it is sending – which can hit it right in the bottom line.

The most carefully and powerfully crafted message will do no good if it isn’t sent in a way that your audience likes to get it.  Whether it’s the “delete” key or the circular file, people are looking for ways to screen out information because they’re already on overload.  Don’t hand them an excuse to do this.

Problem 3: Using poor grammar, misspellings and typos -- When people receive something that’s grammatically incorrect, has misspelled words or typographical errors, they often think a company suffers from one of the three “S”s:

  1. It is sloppy (“If they can’t pay attention to details in this communication, where else are they making mistakes?”), 
  2. It is stupid (“Didn’t anyone in the whole company know that this was incorrect?”) or, 
  3. It is self-involved (“Do they think whatever they send is so important that we have to read it no matter how badly it’s done?”). 

Once again, people are looking for screening devices so they don’t have to read something – and these small mistakes give them that reason.
Solution: Don’t be in such a rush to get something out the door that you shoot yourself in the foot – and do more damage than good. 

(My personal favorite horror story is a company description on the inside front cover of an annual report to shareholders, where the company forgot the “l” in “public” and described itself as a “pubic oil and gas drilling firm.”) 

Have someone not involved in the communication (who hasn’t already seen it 50 times) take a look.  Identify the people who are good editors and proofers – internally or externally – and have them review it thoroughly.

Problem 4: Using jargon (without a definition)

Solution: Unless you know for certain everyone you’re trying to reach understands a term, either find a simpler way to say it or include a definition the first time you use it.  While this is an easy thing, the curse of knowledge can prevent people from seeing it.  So once again, having a third party not involved in creating the communication as part of the writing or review process can help.

Problem 5: Not having a goal for every communication -- “We have a Web site because you have to in our industry.”  While that may be true, why do you have one?  What is it supposed to accomplish for your company?  Too few people ask this simple question before creating a communication: “What do we want the target audience to do once they’re seen this?”  And then they are surprised when this group doesn’t take the action the company wants.

Solution: Consider your goal before you create the communication – begin with the end in sight.  That allows you to automatically include language or ideas that will move your audience along in the direction you want them to take.

Do your customers search the Web for the products and services you offer because they’re ready to buy?  Then your site’s goal is to make what you offer easy to find and order.  Do customers want to vet your company before agreeing to a meeting with you? 

Then your site’s goal is to present the information they need to lower the risk of speaking with you – and shorten the amount of time it takes to call you (or return your call).  Both types of sites would be organized very differently. 

It would be a recipe for failure to use the design for the first site when your goal is to move customers along in the sales cycle – they would likely feel you’re using “the hard sell” and go somewhere else.  And if you spent a lot of time describing your firm for people who just want to buy, they’ll lose patience and move on.

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