How can you make sure you’re talking your customers’ language?
Growth

How can you make sure you’re talking your customers’ language?

James Laurence Wood

These days people expect free, valuable things online before they even consider buying from a company. Usually this means blog posts on interesting topics (or more helpfully, topics that solve their problems).

This ‘I’ve got a problem > here’s an expert helping me solve it > I might consider buying from them’ route is well established and gives both parties a good deal. Customers get free advice, businesses get free marketing.

But when you’re a freelancer, expert in your trade, there’s a pitfall here. You might not be talking in a language your customer understands.

And I'm not talking about jargon here. I mean, don’t use jargon without explaining it, obviously, but this problem runs deeper. It’s the curse of knowledge: people find it impossible to imagine what it’s like not knowing the things they know.

I have a tendency to jump ahead in the conversation, rather than explain why these things are important


I get this in web design all the time. I’ve been building sites for more than a decade, and I’m very familiar with the value of well-thought-out UX (See? Jargon. Can’t help it. That’s User Experience), user journeys, personas, marketing automation, analytics and continual improvement. I’m so familiar with these things that I tend to assume my customers have already thought about them all and know their value. This means that I have a tendency to jump ahead in the conversation, rather than explain why these things are important and take the customer along with me.

Designers face this a lot, especially because everyone who sees a design thinks they understand what makes good design. The two classic pieces of feedback: ‘there’s too much white space’ and ‘our logo needs to be bigger’ are perennial favourites. And it causes frustration because humans aren’t good at imagining the level of knowledge the other party has,

You’re cursed

This is the problem: when you know something about your field of expertise, it’s very hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know as much. This leads you to write or talk in a way that’s beyond the comfortable level of understanding of the audience, which in turn leads them to think that the content is not for them. They disconnect and drift off to find a competitor who talks to them in a way they understand.

That’s the curse of knowledge.

We all do it. We underestimate the uniqueness of our knowledge base and overestimate the level of knowledge of our audience.

In 1990, a psychology grad student in Stanford, Elizabeth Newton, conducted an experiment into this: participants were asked to tap out a tune and guess the likelihood of someone guessing what song it was. The results showed that the tappers always overestimated the chances of the song being recognised: they predicted that their song would be guess 50% of the time, when in fact it was only guessed 2.5% of the time. They were so familiar with the tune they were tapping that they had trouble accurately estimating how difficult it was to recognise.

And while we’re at it, this is why your family Christmas game of charades is always so frustrating.

If you're interested in the specifics, the experiment is explained in more detail in this excerpt from "Made to Stick" (Chip Heath & Dan Heath): read the excerpt >

How can you break the curse?

Fortunately, once you’ve understood the problem, the solution isn’t too difficult.

You need a test audience.

When you write a blog or a proposal, it helps to have someone who’s got the same level of knowledge as your intended customers to give it a read and give you feedback. What bits made them feel lost? What bits didn’t feel relevant to their problems?

remember that every communication is a journey and you’re the guide


If you write regularly for the same audience and keep testing with real humans, you’ll develop a voice that communicates your expertise without leaving anyone behind. Just remember that every communication is a journey and you’re the guide. Don’t leave your customers to get lost in the woods.