ach month I host mentor office hours at Station Houston, and most of my sessions begin with startup founders coming to me with the same concern: is my messaging right? While some hope they can flash a quick tagline and get a “Yes” or “No”, the true essence of strong messaging goes much deeper than what meets the eye.
Brand messaging starts off the screen, with human-to-human contact.
It starts with people.
Not the ones on your team. But the customers. Who are the people you are trying to change? What do they believe? How do they talk? What do they fear, care about, and desire?
Communication is a two-way street, and when we are so focused on building our vision, we sometimes forget to look both ways — in our hearts and minds AND into the hearts and minds of our customers.
As Alan Alda, actor and founder of the Stony Brook Center for Communicating Science, says:
If you are thinking only about communication as having the perfect message regardless of how it lands on your audience, then you’re likely just to be spraying information at them and not really saying something to them that sticks.
In his book, If I Understood You, Would I have this Look on My Face? Alda dives deep into the art and science of communicating. He applies the improvisational techniques he learned in acting to help scientists communicate their research.
As it turns out, basic communication exercises can help even the most technically minded researchers learn how to share their work in an intuitive way that resonates with people outside their field.
The Key to Communication is Contact
No matter what kind of startup you have, there will be times when you need to stand up, talk about your company and get people on board with your mission.
You need to be comfortable looking people in the eyes and seeing them as fellow humans. The more you notice about them and their body language, the more easily you can see if they are following along or very, very lost.
If you want to avoid spraying information and find what sticks, shift your focus to your audience.
Make Contact and Find the Sparkle
When you are talking to someone about something novel, note their facial expression. Once they understand what you are saying, you will notice. They may say, “Ohhh!” and you will see a sparkle. A glimmer of comprehension. Take note of exactly what you said right before the sparkle.
The key to strong communication is finding the words, examples, and analogies that lead to sparkles. Identify these moments and lead with them. Eliminate everything else. Seriously.
But! I need to give people some context and this information is important…Anything that comes before a sparkle moment is typically confusing and goes in one ear and out the other. That’s why people say, “start with a story” or “start with a hook,” because everything before that moment of connection will be lost on people.
Action Item: Carry a notebook with you always. When you are talking about your startup to someone, take note of a sparkle moment. Write down everything about it— the exact wording you used, how they reacted, what they said next.
(^I learned this technique in The Comedy Bible — to connect with people on stage, you must notice how you connect with people offstage. If you can isolate sparkle moments and then string them together, you will be a star!)
Choose Hats Over Stats, Guys
The other thing that my tech friends love are statistics. Statistics can be powerful, hard hitters when you want to quantify your value. But sometimes, they can fall short and leave people wondering what that value even means for them. Let’s take a look two copy examples I pulled from sites on the Internet:
Option A: On average, custom software projects built using our software are at least 50% less expensive and are done in 50% less time.
Option B: Build enterprise-grade apps fast. How about a native mobile app in 4 weeks?
Which one do you think has stronger messaging? While they both talk about time frames, the first one leaves me wondering what “50% less time” even means. Four weeks on the other hand, I get that. I know I need an app ready next month, and the second company is going to help me meet my deadline.
When talking about your company’s value, you can use a statistic, or you can put on your customer’s hat, see the world through their eyes, and talk like they talk. If you want your messaging to resonate, always choose hats over stats.
Practice the Art of Empathy
Putting on someone’s hat and seeing the world through their eyes is a task that requires an open heart and mind. Take a gander at this video for a breathtaking reel of empathy IRL.
The only way to get better at empathizing with others is through practice. Think about your team, your customers, your partners, and the humans that matter most in your world and business.
The more you can focus on psychographics over demographics — what people are like on the inside versus what they look like on the outside — the more effective your messaging will be.
Analyze Your Customers As Humans
Who are the people your company is setting out to help? Think beyond job titles — what do they believe, who do they trust, what do they fear? What’s their sense of humor like? How do they react when they’re starving and stumble upon free breakfast burritos?
The more in tune you are with your customers, the more in sync your marketing will be. And the best way to get to know these people doesn’t start online.
It starts offline, with casual conversations and human-to-human contact.
How You Can Apply These Strategies Today