Last night, I dreamed that one of my firm's original clients, a marketing research firm, contacted me about doing a new project.

So I drove down to Princeton, N.J., for a meeting with the company's leaders. Since this was a dream, no one had changed, despite the fact that nearly 30 years had passed since we last met.

My main client contact, Hugh, was delighted to show me the company's latest breakthrough: a new qualitative methodology that could accurately predict what a certain type of consumer would buy. Let's say a shoe company's target customer is fashion-conscious Millennial men. By using this new method, researchers could predict that these customers would be much more likely to purchase blue suede loafers than black oxfords with red laces.

"That's really cool," I said to the math geek who had developed the research advancement. "But how does it work?"

"The technology is proprietary," the geek replied.

"Of course," I said. "But I've signed a non-disclosure agreement and, besides, I've been retained by your firm to promote this great new thing by explaining it to your colleagues, including the sales team."

The geek was not convinced. "Oh, it's way too complicated. They'll never understand it."

I gritted my teeth and thought, Why can't I have the dream I had the night before, where Peyton Manning kept calling to see if I would change my mind and go out to dinner with him?

But this was another of my might-as-well-wake-me-because-this-is-exactly-what-I-encounter-every-day-at-work dreams.

So I woke up. And thought about how hard it is to convince subject matter experts and people who lead projects to communicate so that their audiences can understand how things work and why they matter. To do so, you need to:

  • Tell the story of how you got to where you are today. "First, we realized we needed to change this process. Then we studied different options. We chose the one that best meets our needs, and since then, we've been making adaptations, so it fits the way we do business."
  • Explain in plain language. I'm in the habit of asking experts to explain the thing the way they would to their mom, or their old school friend (the one who didn't get his Ph.D.) or his seventh grader. These people are all smart, but they're not steeped in the technology or the processes or the lingo.
  • Share the "why." Okay, you're doing this great thing. Why is it important? How does it fit within the context of what's happening in the marketplace? Or society? Or relate to the company's priorities?
  • Relate your thing to something else we're all familiar with. That's called a "metaphor" and I know it doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. But it's a skill you can develop by focusing on the elements of your thing and thinking about how it's similar to ordinary experiences. How is process improvement like cleaning a closet, for instance? Or innovation like cooking?
  • Emphasize the benefits. You and the team worked hard on this project, so naturally you're proud of it. But why should anyone else care? What's in it for them? How will it help them address those challenges that keep them up at night?

Oh, is it nighttime already? Because now that I've helped you improve how you explain your new cool thing, I think I'll go back to sleep. Peyton, are you there?

Published on: Oct 27, 2016
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