Are You Cursed By Knowledge?

It’s a tough question. Mostly because you probably don’t even know you’re cursed.

That is, you don’t know what it’s like NOT to know what you know. This has HUGE implications in our communications. We end up communicating to clients, internal team members, and even our kids in a language they can’t comprehend and then wonder why our product doesn’t sell, that project doesn’t move forward and why our kids just won’t patiently wait when we ask them to.

Anytime we’re presenting – whether at a meeting, conference, kick-off or coffee shop – we want to be on the same page as our audience. We need to be sure we are inclusive, which can mean speaking to the lowest-common denominator. This is true even in a room where everyone understands cloud computing (or righty/lefty splits in baseball, or whatever the cursed subject matter may be).

This is generally the part of the blog post where people assume we’re going to suggest dumbing down the message. In truth, it is never about dumbing down the message.

Wait, really? Why not? Well for starters, “dumb it down” sounds like you’re explaining something in the same slow, pause-heavy pace you would use to explain to your four-year-old niece why her goldfish died. It’s usually best to assume intelligence on the part of your audience.

But more importantly, dumbing down your message doesn’t make it stick. As such, the better recommendation is to speak in concrete terms rather than abstract ones.

When you speak in concrete details everyone in your audience benefits, regardless of their degree of cursed-ness.

Say you’re speaking to a room full of tech-savvy folks. You could say “our network is secure.” Everyone in the audience – regardless of how cursed by tech they are – would have some understanding of what you mean. However, saying that also leaves up to the audience to interpret exactly what “secure” means. Let’s try something more concrete instead: “We dared the three biggest hackers in the Bay Area to break into our network. None of them could.”

Boom. Everyone in the audience – from the most cursed person to the least – can pass along that concrete message.

Where can you add concreteness? When has concreteness made a difference in your life? Tell us in the comments!

blog post
Cut the Jargon

Eliminate Business Jargon

Back when I was working in the Sales Consulting world, I started saying, “There exists a contradiction in,” instead of, “There is” – because I heard someone else say it.

A classic foible of those fresh out of business school.

Perhaps that’s why we got a laugh out of this article about jargon in business – and in our everyday lives.

Swim lanes, anyone?

Sure, especially when you look at the cute cartoons that accompany these phrases, jargon can make you feel like you’re using a great analogy and heck, when your whole team is using jargon all the time, it’s tempting to do it, too.

There are times when you need to use industry jargon and acronyms to be credible. But you’ll be more effective if you cut the jargon and abstractions use concrete language, instead. We won’t take you through our entire jargon-elimination process in a lone blog post, but I won’t leave you hanging.

Start here:

Don’t dumb it down, just give a concrete example. Even (or especially) when you are using an acronym, you need to pair it with a concrete example. Or two.

What is an example of leveraging your assets?

What is an example of a key performance indicator?

What does it look like to have your customer trust you?

We are often tasked with communicating something that is new to our audience. Make it easy for them to understand, and it will be easier to get the outcome you want. Bonus points if you can describe that example using a conversational tone like you would at a backyard BBQ.

Now, what’s your go-to catch phrase? Your best jargon – or the craziest business jargon you’ve ever heard? Tell us in the comments, below!

blog post
Video Blog: What is customer loyalty?

What does the commonly used buzzword customer loyalty mean to you?

Think about a company or organization to which you are a frequent and loyal customer. What makes you return? What makes you talk about it to other people? Please answer in the comments!

In this week's video blog, I bring some clarity to the idea of customer loyalty, and challenge you to come up with your own examples. So often, it's the experience a business creates for us that make us come back. So start creating an image in your own mind of what makes you a repeat customer to some of your favorites, and make a plan to emulate that in your own business.

blog post
What Joni Mitchell might say about cloud computing

A cute white puffy cloud – like the kind you used to draw next to the smiling sun in Kindergarten. But rather than find it on your child’s artwork, these days you’re more likely to see it right smack dab in the middle of an insanely complex technical diagram (the one below is nothing compared to what I saw recently in a client slide deck!). And it’s widely accepted as the universal symbol for all things cloud computing.

Yes, it’s simple. I get it. It’s a cloud. There’s just one little problem. Clouds stink because you can’t see through them. Their mere presence makes the morning commute a little bit longer, and they’re notorious for delaying flights in and out of SFO.

For those in high tech, you’re cursed big time with your own knowledge about cloud computing. You know what happens in that cloud – you can talk all day about leveraging shared capabilities that are self-healing to maximize efficiency and minimize risk, right? Unfortunately for you, the rest of us don’t know that tune. In fact, we’re probably a whole lot more like Dorothy trying to figure out what's going on behind the curtain.

So, how can you differentiate your message about the cloud (or any technical jargon for that matter)?

First, think about your customers – what’s the number one thing they’re concerned with? What would make them resistant to your idea? Maybe it’s security. For example, why would I (as a CTO) hand over all my precious data to you, and not know exactly what’s happening in that cloud and how it’s being used?

Next, try a dose of Unexpectedness to get your message to be heard – here’s how a recent participant from our Decker Made to Stick program framed her message around the cloud:

When we think of clouds, we typically think of big, white puffy things. The cloud I'm talking about is completely different because you can see through it. It offers the transparency you need to clearly see all the data flowing in and out of the network…

All of a sudden the big benefit of visibility is brought to life because she juxtaposed it right next to our schema of what a cloud is: nebulous, nontransparent and even confusing.

I leave you with a little inspiration and perspective from the great Joni Mitchell and her lyrics to Both Sides Now (my Women in Music professor would be so proud - watch a fabulous performance here). Imagine that your customers view your cloud offering this way…

Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere, I've looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun, they rain and snow on everyone.

So many things I would have done but clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,

From up and down, and still somehow

It's cloud illusions I recall.

I really don't know clouds at all.

It’s on you to make sure your customers and even non-technical team members know those clouds inside and out. How else are you going to get them to buy off on that cute white fluffy thing?

We’d love to hear some of your great message successes (technical or not) – send them our way!

*UPDATE: Here's an awesome plain-spoken explanation on cloud computing from Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal (thanks to our buddies at ServiceSource for the tip!).

blog post
The Visual Dominates – Mehrabian Revisited

There's been a lot of unfortunate controversy among communication professionals about Professor Albert Mehrabian's oft quoted research (below). It's good to have discussion though, for his research has altered the communicating landscape and has helped to get people out of the 'curse of knowledge.' Here are my thoughts and personal experience on the issue:

Mehrabian wrote the classic "Silent Messages" in 1981 (2nd Ed). From this book came the research that shows vocal and visual outweigh the verbal when you have a conflicted message. The weight is at the feeling level ('likability'), not at the informational level. His exact numbers were:

  • Verbal 7% (the word, or words, or message)
  • Vocal 38% (the sound of the voice)
  • Visual 55% (what people see)

For extensive background on the research detail and methodology see the links here. Olivia Mitchell did her usual thorough job of research also, although I disagree with her conclusions. And to not make this post too long, let me hit on what I think are the critical points.

1. Mehrabian's research was only on the inconsistent message! When your message and your tone and your look are one, are congruent - Mehrabian is irrelevant. He was measuring what the listener judged more important in 'liking' (and thus trusting, believing, being open to) when there was inconsistency and incongruence between the message and the behavior. This is the critical issue.

2. Many say that Mehrabian's findings mean content is worth 7% of the message and 'body language' is worth 93%. Totally wrong. The research was not at the information level. It was at the feeling level. And it just measured what channel the listener liked (trusted, believed) more than the other. Many bloggers have pointed this out by now - so hopefully at least that misinterpretation should be put to rest.

3. The visual dominates! The most important takeaway is that when there is an inconsistent message, the listener will overwhelmingly judge the visual cues more as to whether they like (trust and believe) the speaker. And realize all this happens at the unconscious level.

Let me amplify:

Dr. Mehrabian Interview

When I interviewed Dr. Mehrabian

at his UCLA offices in Los Angeles in May of 1981 on his findings, I

learned a lot.

Here is one of his quotes from my June, 1981 newsletter (no blogs in those days):

"It's true we say that non-verbal

is more important than the verbal when it comes to conveying emotions

and attitudes. Now I cannot say to you non-verbally that my check book

is in my desk drawer at home on the left hand side. That's information.

"So we have to be very careful to make that distinction. But when we

are talking on the emotional level, attempting to be persuasive,

getting across information in an important way, here the non-verbal

elements of our speech become more important in the impact that we


Which leads into one of my favorite findings:

People buy on emotion and justify with fact

In my book "You've Got To Be Believed To Be Heard" I write about the importance of the emotions - the feeling level - in all our communications. It is very powerful, and works at the First Brain (emotional brain, limbic system) level. And as I point out in my book, the eye sensory input is by far the most important nerve pathway to the emotional First Brain (25 times larger than auditory). Not only does the visual dominate, visual cues have a direct pathway to the unconscious brain.

In his book "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell talks about the adaptive unconscious (First Brain), and how important the enormous visual input is in making immediate and unconscious decisions. (In the first 2 seconds a police officer may have to decide to shoot or not - Gladwell calls it Thin Slicing.) We make those same decisions in communicating - in whether to believe someone or not.

So when you meet someone for the first time, the visual will dominate, and likability will be important to your openness to the person. If you don't like someone, you will tend to neither trust nor believe what they say. Likability has been proven to be the most significant factor in electing Presidents, or in any voting for that matter. (See also Tim Sanders book, "The Likeability Factor.") We tend to discount emotionally and unconsciously those we don't like. Doesn't matter how important or true the message is, it will tend to not be heard. Thus Mehrabian's findings are important to point the way to being better communicators.

Overcoming the 'curse of knowledge.'

In Chip Heath's great book "Made To Stick" he talks about how we - our society and all of us as communicators - are caught up in the 'curse of knowledge.' Starting in our academic system we are taught information reigns supreme - if we say the words people will get them. But it just isn't so. It takes more than words.

Mehrabian points the way for overcoming the 'curse of knowledge.' But there are so many other examples and proof points (I could write a book... well actually, I did.) Suffice to say, when we speak we create a communications experience where people WILL get our message if we are trusted and believed. And enthusiastic and confident. And we connect and engage. If we are congruent with our message. And unfortunately most people communicating in business aren't congruent - when they are nervous, lack confidence, or otherwise sabotage their message with inappropriate vocal and visual cues. Those cues are what will be believed at the feeling, liking and unconscious level. That is what Mehrabian's research shows. And if you want a visual and vocal example, look at these clips from people who are at first nervous and then gain confidence.

The ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Much of the criticism of Mehrabian in recent blogs comes from his methodology - he was using still pictures, he combined two different experiments, etc. These interpretations miss the point. I think most statistical research can be faulted in some way - and as Mark Twain said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." But what is the essence of the findings? It is that the visual dominates at the feeling (liking) level, and that is the dominant factor in establishing trust and credibility. Which is critical in getting any message across.

I'll close this post with my personal experience that I think totally verifies Mehrabian. I founded Decker Communications, Inc. 30 years ago this year. We have trained and interacted with well over 100,000 people in 1 and 2 day "Communicate To Influence" programs. I have personally been involved with tens of thousands of our clients in coaching and training.

To my knowledge, there has not been an exception to:

  • every participant coming in content-burdened and behaviorally-challenged in some way, exhibiting an inconsistent message.
  • every participant gaining confidence and conscious control of behavioral skills - vocal and visual - that allowed them to give a more consistent and powerful message.
  • ...and finally, there has not been an exception to any participant who did not agree with the substance of Mehrabian's findings after learning of the research intellectually, and then spending some time observing themselves on video, with feedback and coaching - and seeing how important a congruent message was.

Professor Albert Mehrabian has provided a great service to communicators who learn of, and apply, his work. Let not misinterpretations of that work diminish the importance of Mehrabian.

blog post