I have a problem reigning in my enthusiasm for marketing. Loving what you do is a fine problem to have, but sometimes it gets me in trouble. Whether I’m on the phone with a perspective client, walking through monthly web reports for our regular customers or presenting a seminar, I have a tendency to tell stories using the words I’m most familiar with.

Sometimes I forget not everyone in a given audience is prepared to understand or discuss SEO, inbound marketing, SERPs and paid retargeting. As I see the blank stares and quizzical looks, there’s a brief moment of disconnect- the gears come grinding to a halt and I have to stop and pull it back a notch. The trick is to explain the ideas and concepts in a way that someone who has never been exposed to internet marketing will understand.

The inability to break away from our shorthand and jargon to effectively talk with people is called the Curse of Knowledge. It happens when you know the topic so well, you’ve forgotten what your words sound like to a beginner. It’s a hard habit to break because we want to sound knowledgeable. There is a fine line between being knowledgeable and intimidating.

When I find the balance and simply talk to clients using their language, it smooths out the sales and project process because there are fewer misunderstandings. The other person is more likely to ask questions and provide information which will ultimately improve the outcome.

The Engineer-to-Consumer Conundrum

Engineers are one type of professional who struggles with this balance. Engineers are well educated, detail-oriented people. They have their own systems, formulas and equations to make processes more efficient or develop useful new products. They follow a set of rules that comes with a full-service language all its own to quickly explain what they do. Unfortunately, for those of us who are less inclined to math, this language is really hard to understand.

We regularly work with technical and well-educated professionals who need help translating their products and services into plain English. Their first reaction is to resist our suggestions to simplify their content because they are afraid it won’t sound authoritative and knowledgeable. We help them understand that simplifying isn’t necessarily “dumbing” it down. It takes a true understanding of a subject to explain it to others.

Even if  much of your audience has the skill set to understand and even appreciate highly-technical language, there are always newcomers. They don’t understand your jargon and sometimes won’t know the questions to ask. Using common phrases in conversation or written communication makes it easier for them to connect with your messages.

Even the most technically competent among your audience will appreciate the simple language because it is easier for them to consume, comprehend and use the information you are presenting.

This inability to communicate is not limited to engineers. We see it across any field where a level of expertise is required to perform the job well. How do you break the curse of knowledge? Start by answering a few simple questions:

  • How would a person outside of your industry describe the product in two or three words?
  • How would you explain to a child what you do?
  • What purpose does the product serve? Is this comparable to anything people experience in their daily lives?
  • Do the chemical or mechanical names of your products have other generic, easily recognized names? Are they similar to other recognizable products or brands?
  • How long does your product last or how long does your service take to complete? Is it easy to describe the lifespan and durability of your product?

Open the door to conversation

It takes work to prepare a conversation or meeting which will be informative, but not intimidating or confusing. Early in the conversation, you need to gauge how familiar an audience is with the topics you are discussing and invite them to stop and ask questions along the way.

Try using a few of these “conversation-builders” the next time you meet with a customer:

  • “We work with a wide variety of clients- some who understand what we do, some who don’t and most fall somewhere in between. I’m happy to build this meeting around your comfort level, so don’t hesitate to ask any questions.”
  • “If I say anything that doesn’t make sense or needs to be explained differently, please let me know and we’ll talk through it.”
  • “Are there any parts of our conversation or my services that you’d like to learn more about specifically? Let’s figure out together how these topics can improve our project.”
  • “I’d really like to learn more about the most technical sides of your product. Can you help me understand what it is you do and how you talk about it?”

Building comfortable, friendly discussions is the key to success. Next time you’re having a conversation with someone who doesn’t work in your industry, take a step back and figure out if you’re making any sense to them.

Interested in learning how to have effective communication across your website and in your digital messaging? Check out our email marketing seminar and join us May 15th!