A friend Sue (not her real name) lives in a rental house that’s up for sale — in our overheated real estate market, it’s a common story. The landlord warned her about it late last year, so she wasn’t surprised when the real estate agent Dan (not his real name) got in touch to discuss the process.
Things started off okay, with a good conversation about how stressful and intrusive it is to have the home you’re living in sold. The agent said they understood and promised to make things as ‘easy as possible’ for her. So far so good.
Then in no time, a few fuzzy communications and the wheels were off the relationship and rolling down the road. Because there’s a big difference between sweeping platitudes and clear, concrete communications.
When Dan told Sue about the ‘campaign to promote the property kicking off next week’, he assumed she understood the campaign included a billboard on-site as well as online listings and ads in newspapers. So he was surprised when Sue contacted him to express her disquiet that no one had bothered to give her a quick courtesy call about the billboard going up the day before while she was out.
That one concern became the tipping point and now Sue is unhappy, and Dan thinks she’s trying to be difficult. Dan felt his message about ‘next week’ was information enough. Sue felt given the billboard involved someone physically coming onto the property where she lives (as opposed to online and newspaper ads), a courtesy heads up wasn’t unreasonable.
Cue communications quagmire. In their seminal book Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath talk about it as the “curse of knowledge”.
They write: “It’s easy to lose awareness that we’re talking like an expert. We start to suffer from the Curse of Knowledge, like the tappers in the ‘tappers and listeners game’. It can feel unnatural to speak concretely about subject matter we’ve known for years. But if we’re willing to make the effort we’ll see the rewards: Our audience will understand what we’re saying and remember it.”
You know what you know, but it is doubtful other people do, can or will. Especially when it relates to how you do things: your processes and policies. Consider the different outcome for everyone involved, if only Dan had included more specific information about what the campaign kick-off entailed and when things would happen.
There is a world of difference in detail between ‘the campaign to promote the property will kick-off next week’ and ‘we’ll be putting up a billboard on your front lawn on Wednesday’. As information-design guru Edward Tufte notes, sometimes to clarify you’ve got to add detail.
How you communicate is a big part of people’s experience, and experience is where promises are kept or broken. So if you want to achieve a brand result people will care about take a spin through how you communicate.
Can you avoid future hassles by taking the time to figure out what you intend? Are there places where your promises can be made more obvious?
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.
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