Small Business

For the Customer's Sake, Keep it Simple


Simplify your message, cut out jargon, and get to the point. Your clients will hear the difference and reward you for it

As we see our lives get more complex, many of us are starting to look for simplicity. Everything seems to be more complicated these days—insurance, health benefits, technology—you name it. I started thinking about this the other day after reading an article by Variety columnist Scott Kirsner. He was describing how advanced features in everyday gadgets like your TV's remote control have actually made those devices harder to use.

"In a race to add features and buttons, get the most from every microchip, and make the wired wireless, they've forgotten (or are ignoring) the great dictum from 20th-century industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who designed cars, trains, the Coke bottle, logos, and refrigerators: The main goal is not to complicate the already difficult life of the consumer.''

Great business communicators simplify the message behind their products. Instead of bombarding consumers with a mountain of data, facts, and figures, they make all of the material easy to understand, from Web site content to presentations.

Say What You Mean

Recently, I have come across several reviews of a tool that backs up the files on your PC to a remote location. The product is called Carbonite. I have no affiliation with the company nor do I use its product, but I must applaud them for making the technology behind the product incredibly easy to understand. Visit the Carbonite Web site and select the link: How It Works.

Here Carbonite gives you the option of viewing an animated tutorial where a funny-looking professorial cartoon character explains the technology. The tutorial is free of jargon and remarkably simple. For example, "Carbonite puts little colored dots on files and folders that are being backed up. A blue dot on a folder means this folder is backed up. A gray dot means this folder is not backed up…" The technology behind this service must be far more complicated than this explanation, but you wouldn't know it by watching the tutorial.

Now you might say, "That's a great idea for a tutorial, Carmine, but when I'm pitching my incredibly complex offering to new customers, they need more information." In my experience with clients, their biggest failure is making an assumption that listeners know more about their product, service, or industry than they really do.

Where's the Jargon?

In The Art of the Start, former Apple (AAPL) evangelist turned venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki says "Keep it simple. If you can't describe your business model in 10 words or less, you don't have a business model. Avoid whatever business language is currently hip (strategic, mission-critical, world-class, synergistic, first-mover, scalable, enterprise-class, etc.). Business language does not make a business model."

Going back to the Carbonite Web site example, we see that their business model can be described in five words: Carbonite is backup for everyone. Read the FAQ on the site and you will be hard-pressed to find the convoluted business jargon that Kawasaki suggests avoiding.

Every industry has jargon or buzzwords that are largely meaningless to laymen. Edit yourself, your marketing materials, and your presentation notes to reduce or eliminate these terms entirely—unless, of course, your listeners expect them. But this is seldom the case (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/1/05, "Lose the Jargon or Lose the Audience").

Sell the Benefit

The simplest way to make your copy easy to understand is to sell the benefit of your product or service, not the features. In this way, you put the focus on the listener, where it should be. For example, the other day I read about a new Intel (INTC) technology for mobile computers. Here's the technical explanation: "It's a flash memory-based platform accelerator that enables mobile systems to resume productivity in half the time." Fortunately, the Intel spokesperson I heard didn't speak like this. Instead, he focused on the benefits to the listener and not the features. He said, "This new technology significantly reduces the time it takes for your computer to power up!"

As soon as you begin talking, your listeners have one question on their minds: Why should I care? Give your listeners a reason to care about your message by focusing on how your product or service will improve their lives. Make the answer consistent throughout all of your communications. The other day I worked with a representative from a commodity board in California. This individual had to give a big presentation in Japan to bring produce retailers in that country up to date on farm regulations in the U.S.

It could have turned into a boring data dump of facts and figures. But before we even began to review his presentation, I asked the speaker, "Let's say I'm in the audience during your talk. What do you want me to know? What is the one thing that I will learn from your presentation? The speaker answered, "I'm here to give you the confidence that our fruit is the safest in the world and you should feel comfortable selling it to your consumers and feeding it to your family." In one sentence, he succeeded in grabbing the attention of his listener, reinforcing the theme of his talk, and selling the "benefits" of doing business with him.

On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, researchers at Stanford University released some of King's early, previously unpublished, letters and sermons. In one, King wrote, "Educated ministers leave the people lost in the fog of theological abstractions, rather than pressing the theology in the light of people's experiences. I must forever make the complex, the simple." Take every opportunity to reduce the complexity from your communications. Your listeners crave simplicity!

New Book Announcement

I'm pleased to announce that I'm working on a new book to be published later this year. Please send me an e-mail if you would like to be kept up to date or if you have any suggestions of individuals who should be featured in the book—men and women who inspire through their communications. Send me an e-mail directly at carmine@gallocommunications.com


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