Tag Archives: messaging

Communications Lessons from Mayor Pete

Whenever I have the chance to watch a big league politician at work, I always try to study their communications skills in an effort to learn from the best.  In a previous post, I presented what I learned watching Congresswoman Jackie Speier work a room, a pretty amazing sight, in The Introvert’s Guide to Glad-Handing.

Yesterday, I had the chance to watch Mayor Pete in action at a gathering in Palo Alto.  Political views aside [1], the man is a simply outstanding public speaker.  In this post, I’ll share what I learned from watching him work.

  • Don’t be afraid of Q&A.  I’d say Pete spent 1/3rd of his time on his stump speech, and left 2/3rds to “make it a conversation.”  It works.  It engages the crowd.  In tech, I feel like many companies — after one too many embarrassing episodes — now avoid Town Hall formats at employee All Hands meetings, Kickoffs, or User Conferences.  Yes, I’ve heard of [2] and seen [3] a few disasters in my day, but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Town Hall format is simply more engaging than a speech.  Moreover, I’d guess that when employees observe leaders who habitually avoid Q&A, they perceive them as afraid to do so.
  • Engage the person who asked the question.  I’ve gotten this one wrong my whole career and it took a politician to teach me.  I’ve always said “answer the question to the audience” (not the person who asked) as a way to avoid getting caught in a bad dialog [4], but I now realize I was wrong.  If you’re a politician you want everyone’s vote, so let’s not dismiss that person/voter too quickly.  Pete inserts a step — engage the person.  Student:  “What are you planning to do if you get bullied by another candidate?”  Pete:  “Well, what do you do at school when someone tries to bully you?”  Student:  “Well, I try to walk away, but sometimes I want to yell back.”  Pete:  “And you seem pretty level-headed to me.”
  • Answer the question for the audience, ideally building off the engagement.  Pete:  “That’s it, isn’t it?  You know you should walk away but you want to yell back.  That’s why it’s so hard.  That’s why it takes discipline.  That’s why I’m thankful that during my service in the Armed Forces that I learned the difference between a real emergency and a political emergency.  Instead of yelling back at the bully you need to …”  Note that when he finishes, he does not look back at the questioner but instead says “next question” and looks to the audience [5].
  • Squat down when addressing children [6].  There were a lot of kids at the event and Pete, somewhat surprisingly, took numerous questions from them.  There were two benefits of this:  (a) the kids tended to ask simple clear questions (e.g., “why are you going to beat rival X”) and (b) the kids introduced a good bit of humor both in their questions and delivery (e.g., “what are the names and the sizes of your dogs?”or “when will there be a ‘girl’ president?”).  I always considered the squat-to-address-children as Princess Diana’s signature move, but this article now credits it to her son, Prince William.  Either way, it’s an empathetic move and helps level the playing field between adult and child.

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  • Embrace humor.  Pete seems to be a naturally funny guy, so perhaps it’s not difficult for him, but adding some humor — and flowing with funny situations when they happen — makes the event more engaging and fun.  Child:  “Can I have an even bigger bunny?”  Pete:  “Well how big is your bunny now? [7]  Child:  [sticks arms over head].  Pete:  “That big.  Well.  Uh.  [Pauses.]  Sure.  [Applause and laughter.]  You know there’s always at least one question that you didn’t see coming.” [More laughter.]
  • Use normal diction (i.e., words) [8].  Public speaking, especially in politics, is not the time to show off your vocabulary.  Pete went to Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.  I’m sure he has a banging vocabulary.  But you’re not trying to prove you’re the smartest person in the room at a Town Hall meeting; you’re trying to get people to like you.  That means no talking down to people and not using fancy words when simple ones will do.  On a few occasions, I heard Pete auto-correcting to a simpler word, after starting a more complex one.
  • No free air-time.  He generally didn’t say the words Trump or Biden.  But he did say things like “we don’t want to go back to the Democratic era of the 1990s just like we don’t want to go back to the current administration’s era of the 1950s.  We want to go forward, …”  He used words like “White House,” “current administration,” or even “current President.”  But he didn’t say Trump.
  • Make it real.  A key part of Pete’s message is that we shouldn’t look at political decisions as some distant, academic, theoretical policy discussion.  We should stay focused on how they affect peoples’ lives.  Pete:  “When we think of climate change, we see imagery of a polar bear or a glacier melting.  I want to change the dialog so we think about floods that are only supposed to happen every 100 years happening only 2 years apart.”  Ditto for a conversation about healthcare where he talked about its impact on his family.  Ditto for a conversion about his marriage that wouldn’t have been possible but for a single supreme court justice’s vote.
  • Tell stories.  Given all the attention story-telling has gotten of late, this one probably goes without saying, but always remember that human beings love stories and that information communicated within the context of a story is much more likely to heard, understood, and remembered than information simply communicated as a set of facts.  Great speakers always communicate and/or reinforce their key messages via a series of stories.  Pete is a highly effectively story-teller and communicated many of his key messages through personal stories.

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Notes

[1]  See my FAQ for my social media policy.  In short, because my Twitter feed is a curated version of everything I read, I tweet on a broad array of subjects which, in the current era, includes politics.  However, I try to keep my blog free from any political content — with one exception:  since politicians are generally highly skilled in marketing communications, I try to learn from them and apply what they can teach us in high-tech. Towards that end, by the way, I always recommend following two people:  Alan Kelly, a high-tech PR maven (the PR guy who put Oracle on the map) who decided to take his game to the big leagues by taking his system to DC and opening a communications firm there and Frank Luntz, a market researcher, pollster, and author of Words that Work.

[2] On “there’s always some engineer not afraid to ask anything” theory, I have heard the story of an All Hands where an engineer asked the CEO what he thought about the VP of Sales having an affair with the VP of Marketing.  OK, that’s awkward for the person who suggested the Town Hall format.

[3] Where at a User Conference when asked why so few women were in Engineering leadership, the VP responded that the company had many women on the team but they tended to work in the “more arts and crafts positions,” which made everyone in the crowd wonder if they were cutting paper flowers with scissors or building software.

[4] “So did that answer your question?”  Response:  “No.  Not at all.  And I have three more.”

[5] If you do, you are silently seeking confirmation (“did that answer your question?”) and potentially inviting the questioner to ask a follow-up question.  If you’re trying to work a room, you want to engage as many different people as possible.

[6] Or those, as you can see in the Princess Diana link, otherwise unable to get up.

[7] Applying the “engage the person” rule.

[8] Yes, that was a touch of deliberate snark.  :-)

The Two Archetypal Marketing Messages: “Bags Fly Free” and “Soup is Good Food.”

There are only two archetypal marketing messages, exemplified by:

  • Bags Fly Free, a current advertising slogan used by Southwest airlines.
  • Soup is Good Food, a 1970s campaign slogan used by Campbell’s soup [1].

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soup

Quick, what’s the difference between these two messages?

Soup is Good Food answers the question “why buy one (at all)?” while Bags Fly Free answers the question “why buy mine?”  Soup is Good Food markets the category while Bags Fly Free markets one vendor’s product/service within it.  In short, Soup is Good Food is about value.  Bags Fly Free is about differentiation.

Once you see things through his lens, you will be shocked how many marketers confuse one with the other.  Some never get the difference sorted out in the first place.  Others mix up value and differentiation messages, because they are bowing to adages or dictums [2] (e.g., “always sell value” or “benefits, not features”), instead acting based on the company’s business situation.

The simple fact is that some situations call for messaging value and others call for messaging differentiation. Somewhat perversely, the hotter your market, the less you need to message around value.  The cooler your market, the less you need to message around differentiation.

Why?  Hot markets definitionally have lots of buyers.  Those buyers already understand the value of the category and are trying to figure out which product to buy within it.  That’s why in hot markets you need a strong differentiation message.

During our hypergrowth phase at BusinessObjects nobody called up saying “why should I buy a BI tool?”   Everybody called up saying, “I’m going to buy a BI tool, my boss said to evaluate three, and Gartner said to look at BusinessObjects, Cognos, and Brio.”

When that buyer asks “why should I buy BusinessObjects?” think about how stupid you’ll look if you answer like this (thinking you need to sell value):

“Whoa, slow down there.  First, let’s talk about the business benefits of using BI in general.  We’ve found that compared to writing your own SQL queries and doing centralized report generation that you can lower IT support costs, reduce the backlog of requested reports, and empower end users to do their query and reporting.  This is why someone should buy an BI solution.”

The whole time you’re blabbering, the customer is wondering if Cognos or Brio can do a better job of answering their question.  In a hot category, you better be darn good at answering “why buy mine?” in a clear and compelling way.

Similarly, in hot categories, people don’t typically ask about return on investment (ROI) [3]:  they already know they want to buy one.  Ironically — and this surprises some — when you have a lot of people asking about ROI, you are probably in a cold category, not a hot one [4].

This is why some salespeople have such a hard time when they move from hypergrowth market leaders to early-stage startups.  In their prior job, all they had to sell was differentiation — “let me explain why mine’s better.”  In the new job, they can’t survive without selling value — “wait, before you hang up, please give me a second to explain why to buy one at all.”

If you’re not sure whether you’re in a hot or a cold category, I will refer you to Kellblog official Simple, Definitive, One-Step Hot Category Test:

If you have to ask whether you’re not a hot category, you’re not in one.

If you were, you’d be too busy to ask.  You’d be growing too fast.  In too many deals.  Running around with your hair on fire.  If you have time to sit around in meetings debating whether you’re in a hot category, I can assure you that you’re not in one.

Let’s look at cold markets for a bit.  I’ll pick the early days at MarkLogic when we were selling an XML database system.  There were two not-so-subtle indicators that it was not a hot market:  first, we had the time to ask and second, Gartner had literally published a note declaring that it wasn’t (“XML Database:  The Market That Never Was“).

The value of our system (to the information industry) was that we could help companies build new, powerful information products faster.  The differentiation was that we used a unique termlist-based indexing mechanism that allowed us to process essentially any XQuery statement with constraints on both structure and text at extremely high performance.

Imagine calling the SVP of Digital Strategy at McGraw-Hill and delivering the differentiation, instead of the value, message.

Sales:  Hi, I’m from MarkLogic and we have the world’s best XML database system.

Customer (if they didn’t hang up already):  I thought XML databases were, like Snake Plissken, dead.  Gartner said so.  Nobody’s using them, I need to —

Sales:  — Wait, don’t worry about that.  Let me explain for a minute why we have the best XML database because how we use termlists instead of traditional b-tree indices to process queries.

Customer: [dial tone]

You’re telling the customer why something she doesn’t want to buy is different from something else she doesn’t want to buy.  Instead, imagine delivering the value message, telling her why she should want to buy one:

Sales:  Hi, I’m from MarkLogic and we help media companies quickly build powerful information products.

Customer:  I’m in charge of our strategy for doing that.  Who uses you and what are they doing?

Ah.  Much better.

Another way to look at this is from a Geoffrey Moore lifecycle perspective:

messaging value vs diff

Early on, you need to message value — why do you want to buy one?  Once you cross the chasm into the high-growth “tornado,” you need to message differentiation — why buy from me. Once the market cools down, you need to start working to expand it by once again messaging value.  In three phases, Soup is Good Food, then My Soup’s Better, then Soup is Good Food.

All marketers should be able to answer both questions (e.g., why buy yours, why buy one at all) [5] about their product.  But which one you develop most deeply and push most in the market should be a function of your business situation.

Think value:  Soup is Good Food
Think differentiation:  Bags Fly Free

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Notes
[1] And in my humble opinion much better than current messaging:  “Discover Flavor.  Convenient tasty solutions for everyone and every occasion.  Campell’s soups are made for real, real life (TM).”  First, let me save Campell’s $50K in legal fees — don’t bother registering that trademark — nobody’s ever going to steal it.  Presumably Discover Flavor is an attempt at differentiation, but … do the other guys’ soups really lack flavor?  I thought Campbell’s was getting hit at the high-end by tasty premium soups, not at the low-end with cheap, flavorless ones.  Seen in that light, Discover Flavor seems more a defensive message than either a differentiation or value message.  (“I know you may not think it, but our soups have flavor, too!”)  Finally, I can’t even classify “made for real, real life” as a message (other than as puffery) because it doesn’t mean anything.  Are other soups made for “fake, real life” or “real, fake life”?  Drivel, but I’m sure somehow it “tested well” in focus groups.

discover flavor

[2] Apologies to my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Maddaloni, for not using the more proper, dicta.

[3] As I often said when I lived in France, “ROI is King” (in cold categories, at least).

[4] The exception would be in a hot category where the ROI is quite different among competing solutions.  Usually, this is not the case — the return is generally more a property of the category than any given product.  When there is a difference, it’s typically due not to return, but investment — i.e., the total cost of ownership (TCO) can often vary significantly among different systems.

[5] We’ll leave the next logical question (“why buy now?”) for another post.

A Key Lesson Marketers Can Learn from Donald Trump

While we won’t go into my views on the election here, I will say that all marketers and solution sellers can learn one “yuge” lesson from Donald Trump:  understanding your audience and talking to them in their terms will take you a long, long way.

I’ve always said that solution selling entails getting the customer to conclude three things:

  1. They understand my problem.
  2. They can solve my problem.
  3. I want to work with them.

I put this in reverse form (i.e., calling the company “they”) as a reminder that these are not assertions — they are conclusions.  These are three conclusions that we want the customer to draw.  Asserting them is probably one of the worst ways to get customers to conclude them.  So how might we get a customer to conclude these things?

They Understand My Problem

How might we lead someone to conclude that your organization understands their problem?

  • Hire people who have had the customer’s job and walked in their footsteps.
  • Speak to the customer in their own language about the problem.
  • Active listen to the customer, playing back what they are telling you about the problem.
  • Complete their sentences, saying “and I bet you saw this problem next.”

The ultimate goal is to get the customer to think “Holy Cow, these people might understand my problem even better than I do.”

They Can Solve My Problem

They are several ways to get someone to conclude you can solve their problem

  • Talking about similar reference customers — where similar is defined in the mind of the buyer — whose problems you have solved.
  • Bringing in staff who have worked on solving those very problems.  Telling Pearson, “oh, when we were over at McGraw-Hill we worked on the XYZ system.”
  • Filling in requirements documents but beware that these are often, dare I say “rigged,” by the vendors who got in first as they attempt to set their differentiators on the agenda.
  • Performing a prototype or proof of concept (POC) that shows how key requirements are met using your solution.

I Want To Work With Them

How do you get someone to conclude you they want to work with you?

  • Execute the basics:  show up on time, be prepared, do your homework, communicate status.  (I’m stunned how many people screw up these things and still expect to win.)
  • Be reliable.  Say what you’ll do and do what you say.  Customers want to know they can count on you.  Don’t surprise them.
  • Be personal, build relationships, get to know people, and make them understand you want their business and care about their success.

Back To Trump

Now I have always believed that the first of these tests was the most important:  getting someone to believe you understand their problem.  But Trump has taken my belief in this to a whole new level.

By driving hard on two fronts:

  • A huge dose of “I understand your problem” — with his speeches aimed at a segment of the public who feels unacknowledged and misunderstood, he energizes crowds largely by simply active listening their problems back to them.
  • With a small dose of “I want to work with him” — the whole political outsider, straight-talking guy image.

He has been able to “get the order” from a large number of Americans without providing much detail at all about the second — and one would think rationally very important — point:  the “I can solve your problems” point.  Put differently, I’d say he put nearly 100% of his eggs in the “I understand your problem” basket and virtually none in the “I can solve it” basket (i.e., a huge amount of what and a stunning lack of how when it comes to policy).

This is all more proof that by simply demonstrating that you understand the customer’s problem and by being someone the customer wants to work with, that you can get the order without actually convincing them that you can solve the problem.

In most corporate sales cycles people incorrectly assume all the importance is on the second point — can they solve the problem?  In reality, salespeople and marketers should put emphasis on all three points and on leading the customer to conclude, in this order, that:

  • They understand my problem
  • I want to work with them
  • They can solve my problem

[Reposted and slightly revised post election.]