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Do You Know What You're Saying?!

Do You Know What You're Saying?!

August 01, 2014

Did you ever speak to someone and get a blank stare?

Perhaps you’re speaking the wrong language.

I’ve been away from our Baltimore office for several weeks, working remotely from Israel. The more time I spend out of the United States, the more evident it is that language matters a lot. But I’m not only referring to being familiar with the local language. It’s also about being fluent in the nuances and subtleties of how people communicate.

And, at its root, this is the essence of successful marketing.

So, can you avoid having prospects or customers give you that blank stare?  Read on to find out.

Sometimes it’s Black and White

Successful marketing is all about understanding your target audience. Marketing to women can often look quite different than advertising aimed at men. And selling to teens usually requires a different tactic than marketing to seniors.

Before you actually begin speaking, it’s important to pay attention to the culture of your clients.  Sometimes it is as clear as black and white, like the water tanks in Israel, where I am right now. When selling water tanks, it’s easy to determine one of the basics - which color water tank to sell to Middle Eastern customers. You see, most Israelis use white water tanks and Arabs typically use black ones. You won’t get far selling water tanks in Israel if you try to sell a black tank in the wrong neighborhood or vice versa.

But beyond some of the basic demographic differences, marketing isn’t usually quite that black and white. Most often, you need to listen deeply to grasp the language and symbols unique to each client’s culture. If you are selling to people in the Far East, you likely would bow in greeting rather than shake hands. One of my books was translated into Japanese. When the publisher came to meet me, he didn’t just hand me his business card. He bowed, cupped both hands, and presented his card like an honorable offering. And I’ve learned that in the Middle East, the dress code for business meetings is much more relaxed than in the United States. It’s not uncommon for an American to be the only one in a suit, surrounded by Israelis in jeans and untucked shirts for a multi-million dollar deal. The Americans “look out of place” when they are not plugged in.

Even within the United States, pay attention to differences between industries. For example, greetings within industries vary, from hugs to handshakes to high-fives. That’s also the case with regions, where Howdy may be appropriate in Texas, or Aloha in Hawaii, but not in New York.   

Take the time to learn the nuances. Get out of your own head and into theirs. Ask these questions to people in the industry: What’s in people’s hearts? What’s bothering them? What special language do they use? If you will slow down to get this, your resonance will dramatically rise. The more you micro-niche your message, the better off you are.

For example, recently I was speaking at an event for the pallet association. To connect well with the audience, which was primarily warehouse managers, we created an avatar named “Wally the Warehouse Manager.” I spoke about what his life was really like, based on research. Wally’s life was full of dilemmas, dealing with broken pallets, and working with vendors promising “premium grade” but sending inferior pallets. His workers showed up late, stoned, or not at all. Wally was under constant pressure to lower costs even though it wasn’t in his best interest. He showed up in the morning ready to work and meet production schedule, but the night shift used up all the supplies, didn’t tell anybody, and messed up the whole day for the manager. My presentation was well-accepted because I was speaking to my audience.

Whomever your audience is, you’ll connect best if you can show that you understand them or that you are like them - at least a little. That’s why singers and comics often open their shows with a comment about the city they are performing in: how much they love being back in that city, making a joke about the problems people in the city face every day, or relating a personal connection or incident they had in that specific city. It creates an instant connection.

“Suffer from diarrhea.”

Of course, there are plenty of stories about those who have missed the mark. Sometimes it’s lost in translation. For example, when the Coors Beer marketing team tried to translate their slogan, “Turn it Loose” into Spanish, it came out as “Suffer from diarrhea.”

And even though you may be speaking English to your target audience in the United States, know the terminology of your prospect. Selling soft drinks? Know when to say “pop” and when to say “soda.” Advertising athletic shoes? Figure out whether the people you are talking to are from a U.S. region that says “sneakers” or “tennis shoes.” Taking a client out for fast-food sandwiches? Find out whether he’ll want a “Hoagie” or a “hero” or a “wedge.” Studies have shown that there are at least ten dialects of English within the United States. So if you cross geographical regions, know your audience before you are standing in front of them.

Sometimes it’s not the wording itself, but about doing your due diligence and knowing your audience’s cultural issues. In 2009, the German pen maker Montblanc posted a giant billboard in India, selling 241 commemorative fountain pens in honor of Mahatma Gandhi.  The cost of the pens?  $24,763. While that’s extravagant in any part of the world, the price was an affront to the millions of people in India who are living in poverty, as well as to the legacy of Gandhi himself. Some Indian people were so incensed that they took the case to court, where the marketing campaign was deemed as inappropriate to Gandhi’s image and the “pricey” pen billboard was taken down.  

Doing your homework is important. Learn about your target audience and what might offend them — and create your message with care.   

The Connection Shortcut

Consider these three rules of connecting:

1. Know thy culture. When I speak to any audience, like the pallet industry for example, I take the time to understand the culture of the industry. Frankly, unless you are in the field, few of us know much about pallets. Doing my research won’t make me an expert overnight, but it will give me enough powerful and resonance to connect with my audience deeply. I’ve learned that a “stringer” is a type of pallet construction, and that “Peco” is a leader in pallet rentals. But it only comes by taking the time to dig in.

2. Ask questions. Don’t just try to promote whatever it is you are selling. Find out what the pains and frustrations your target audience deals with on a regular basis so you can relate to their needs.  

3. Listen to how they communicate. Speak their language, know their slang, and be familiar with phrases that are ‘in’ and ‘out.’ For example, if you say “groovy” to a bunch of college kids, they’ll look at you as if you just stepped out of a time machine.    

Take the time to establish an emotional connection, make sure to use their language, and your message will hit home.

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