Talking to your customers (and others)

Companies are communicating more than ever before. So why does so much of it fail?

Amid entreaties to engage customers, an important first step languishes in a mire of jargon and self-aggrandisement. Think “About Us” pages, profiles, bios, product and service descriptions, vision and values statements, and media announcements. It seems nothing is immune to the rampant mediocrity befalling communications of all kinds. And let’s not forget internal company communications, which are generally so bad they deserve an article all their own.

I’m not sure what’s to blame, but the advent of social media, millions of blogs and the so-called democritisation of content creation sure hasn’t helped. Paraphrasing Rob Lowe in an episode of the television show The West Wing, being a writer is about more than “being able to spell”. When done well it can make you laugh or cry (for the right reasons), share, respond, remember and act. Good communication is an indispensable part of building a brand that people will care about.

First in the sins of many is talking “at” someone. You know what this looks and feels like. A push of information, usually laden with insider jargon and liberally sprinkled with “we”. Buried under what authors Dan and Chip Heath call the “curse of knowledge” is likely a potentially useful message, but you’d never know.

“The curse of knowledge” is the enemy. We simply know too much and have too much that we want to say. Instead of finding the core things we must say, we try to say it all. We also have a way of talking about things with each other that we understand and so we assume others will too – they won’t and don’t.

From their altogether indispensable book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Health talk about an experiment where people were asked to tap a song by knocking on a table, with a listener asked to guess what song was being tapped. When tappers were asked how many songs they thought the listeners would guess they said 50%. In reality, listeners only correctly guessed 2.5% or 3 of 120 songs:

“It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.”

I often advise you to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. This anecdote demonstrates just how hard that can be. But please still try!

At the opposite end of the spectrum to talking “at” someone is talking “with” them; the Holy Grail where company and customer have a conversation, with the company sharing and listening and customer sharing and listening. It’s quite rare but a few do accomplish it.

Embedded in decades of corporate speak are numerous barriers to attaining the openness and humanity that talking with requires. Small businesses have a definite advantage on that front with significantly fewer layers between the message and the receiver.

And while that’s usually a good thing it can also tip into over familiarity that gets slightly creepy – such as the “thanks for signing up for our newsletter” email that feels more like a letter from a stalker. Building the kind of deep engagement with your customers where familiarity feels ok is no easy task. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer is a great primer on what it takes. Here’s a hint – saying “I love you” on the first date is unlikely to lead to a second date.

Sitting between talking “at” and talking “with”, is the communication sweet spot of talking “to”. Attainable, human, simple and direct. A jargon free, over-sharing free zone where your communications are received and remembered. A place where the message and the intent come together.

That spot is going to be different for every business. You need to find the style and tone that works for you and your customers and then be consistent. The things I’ve discussed above might help. Hiring a professional writer to get you started can help too.

And if you’re serious about lifting your communications so you’re talking “to”, here are four books that will help:

  • Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath – for the essential elements every message needs to be remembered and shared;
  • Sense of Style by Steven Pinker – for a guide to writing in the 21st century;
  • Consolations by David Whyte – for inspiration that will help you see everyday words in a new way; and
  • Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer – for a primer on what customer engagement actually looks like in action.

See you next week when I’ll be talking about the relationship between experience and perception.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan


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6 years ago

Hi Michel, great article! I have felt for a while that we (marketers) were too focussed on segmentation and agree with your comments; particularly talking “at” people.

I focus on developing buyer personas as part of correcting this behaviour. There is blog I wrote a few months back on this – I’d love to get your thoughts on it.


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