Source: Barbara, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr
Authenticity cuts through spin
Authentic communications is essential for business success today. It removes the facade of unimpeachable and fake perfection, and allows us to see each other as humans once more. Authenticity is the solid foundation for building trust and growing relationships. And it works wonders for interpersonal interactions too!
People want and value authenticity. Say what you mean. Be considerate. Be kind. Be real - apologise when you have made a mistake! People generally want to engage with real people.
More importantly, we can all tell when someone is being inauthentic. We have all experienced that "too good to be true" feeling from product hype, the NLP-buzz from earnestly repetitive "buy now" telemarketing, or the dirty somewhat-violated feeling when we read a non-apology apology from a politician or sports star caught doing something bad.
It doesn't have to be like this.
Illusory perception is hard to maintain
Marketing and PR folks like to say "perception is everything". And so to create and manage perceptions demand that you tell people what to think, how to think and what to do with your services.
The thing is, people do form their own varied opinions. They have different perspectives and expectations. They have good days and horrid days. The cultivated illusory "perceptions" can quickly fall apart as soon as a customer starts interacting with the business. It is often easier to just be real!
Having difficulty giving up the perceived sense of control conventional marketing gives you? Is your ego in the way? What aspects of your business do you fear customers will finding out? And what would they do if they did?
Intend to be helpful
The intention to be helpful must underlie authentic communications. To be self serving is to be inauthentic.
Check your intentions - is you intention to be helpful?
- How can my message help my audience?
- Is it constructive or destructive to their wellbeing?
- Have I said enough?
- Have I said too much?
- How can I show them I understand their situation?
- Or that I am open to them telling me about their situation?
- How can I help them understand me better?
- How can I improve something for them even if they don't buy immediately?
This doesn't mean you create passive, cloying, self-effacing, and subservient messages. As real people, we get that communications is a two way street. It is inauthentic to leave yourself out of your communications!
Start by listening
Most of us are not trained to listen. Conventional marketing communications emphasise telling over listening. Because the active activity of marketing gives businesses a false sense of control.
In a market where everyone is shouting their messages, the one who stops to listen will suddenly stand out.
How to listen?
- Ask open questions
- Mirror their language use
- Reflect their thoughts and concerns
- Identify feelings and pain points
- Provide avenues for feedback
- Acknowledge and respond to all feedback, positive or negative ones; especially on social media
- Be appropriately tentative - don't tell your audience how to think or feel
- Don't be defensive
- Don't shout or intimidate
- Don't say things that sound good but cannot possibly be true
- Don't make promises you cannot possibly keep
Listening is NOT about identifying opportunities to push your message!
We have one mouth, and two ears. This is a good ratio of the number of "about you" vs "about them" messages across all your communications. More "about them" is always good. More "about you" needs careful consideration.
Listening is a skill that can be learnt. I learnt from friends with social work training, by doing courses in counselling skills, and volunteering in crisis support services like Lifeline Australia.
Listening is the only way to understand your audience's situation. And you can only help if you understand.
Understand how people work
Consider these three truths about humans:
- Everyone wants to be heard.
- Everyone wants to be acknowledged.
- Everyone wants to feel valued.
How will your communication appear from your audience's side of the table? If you were in their situation, if you had their pain and their concerns, how could you receive your message?
Identify the commonalities between you and them. You want to be on their side to get their side. Empathy is an extremely worthwhile skill to learn. If you struggle to identify and understand your audience, you may not be in the right business!
If you make a mistake, acknowledge it, validate their pain, and take steps to make amends. It continues to surprise me how bad conflicts can get when all that was probably required was an authentic apology to begin with.
When providing acknowledgement and validation, it is critical that you do so from a genuinely heartfelt position. If you don't feel it, don't fake it.
Three golden rules:
- You can understand someone's point of view or situation without having to agree with it.
- We all have our own versions of the "truth" - to understand and acknowledge another's truth is a massive demonstration of respect.
- You don't have to be right!
Get the context
The context around when your message will be received, or when communications with our will occur is important because it affects your audience.
Consider the physical context:
- Where are they? Are they sitting in a quiet office? Or running along a river bank?
- How are they communicating with you or receiving your message? A billboard is different from a small mobile phone screen.
- What distractions are around them?
- Are there physical challenges - like colour blindness - that you need to account for?
- How can you echo their physical context, or provide a contrast to it?
- What can you take advantage of?
- How can your communication be legible, audible or visible?
- What is the optimal amount of stuff to communicate?
- What calls to action are reasonable or relevant?
Common physical context pitfalls include: too much or too little information, illegible design choices, and missing or poorly implemented application functionality.
Consider the psychological context:
- What emotional state are they in? Agitated? Contented?
- Are they in a safe place or are there potential threats? An open plan office may not be a safe place!
- How can you echo their psychological state, or provide a contrast to it?
- Are there psychological challenges - like anxiety - that you need to be sensitive to?
- How can your communication be optimally accessible given their psychological state?
- What calls of action are they more likely to follow up on?
Common physical context pitfalls include: insensitive use of words, imagery or sounds, privacy breaches and missing cultural/social cues.
Being real beats being "professional"
There are many different approaches to writing business communications for different situations and media. And they all have useful points to add to this conversation.
What I have noticed is that corporate-speak is going out of fashion. Increasingly, we want to read stuff that sounds real. We don't want lines of text that sounds cool but is essentially meaningless gibberish. Many years ago, corporate-speak may well have been the way to appear "professional". Now, it just seem to convey a sense of insecurity.
The most important lesson I have learnt about writing is this: Picture the person (a typical representative of your target audience) you are speaking to sitting there in front of you. You care about doing right by this person, and want to help them. Now write as if you were speaking to this person.
Simple, powerful and mighty effective.