In addition to writing for a variety of clients, I spend time working with scientists, engineers and IT professionals on their presentations to non-experts. While it’s a bit of a cliche’ that “tech nerds” live in their own world, it’s often true that their focus on data can thwart effective communicating by strangling key messages they want to convey to their non-technical leaders or customers.
What’s missing is the human factor, often characterized by emotion, empathy and stories.
That’s why, when I’m preparing to write, edit or coach, I consider three elements: heart, head and hand*. Some non-profits get this right by first tugging at your heartstrings and then providing the alarming statistics before asking for the donation.
Heart – First, you want to establish a rapport with your audience and/or share an emotional experience about the subject matter you’re discussing, even if it’s about gigabytes. Communicating with someone – anyone – is a basic human, and therefore emotional, connection. So, tell a relatable story, explain a tricky problem that your team spent long hours and nights solving, or share a common challenge that will be met successfully to improve lives.
Head – Once you’ve made the connection, now you can appeal to your audience’s desire for data – proof points, evidence – that support your position. Offer a few key facts that people can understand. But don’t overwhelm them.
Hand – Once you’ve connected with your audience as human beings and offered the right amount of information that will appeal to their intellect, then you’re in a better position to ask your audience to take action – whether it’s buying the product, donating money for the cause, or signing the petition.
Too much information!!
In one experiment, two groups of MBA students were asked to choose a make-believe stock portfolio. The first group was inundated with information from analysts and the financial media. The second group only saw stock-price changes. This second group reaped more than twice the returns as the first group, which was overwhelmed by too much information. They ended up buying and selling on every rumor and tip. The more data they received, the more difficult it was to determine what was useful.
The human factor
Another experiment shows that we tend to overthink decisions when emotions are left out of the process. When volunteers focused on the factual attributes of a variety of strawberry jams they had just rated by taste, their preferences got scrambled and they wound up giving a high rating to a jam they disliked and a low rating to one they found delicious.
We even find this dilemma in product development. Technical skills without empathy have resulted in failed products in the marketplace because an important step in building a product is having the ability to imagine how people might think and feel.
As noted in a recent New York Times article, a scholar on the cultural history of the software industry, said, “The failure rate in software development is enormous, but it almost never means the code doesn’t work.” The real problem? The product may be too pie-in-the-sky, or the developers imagine a user completely different from actual users.
Google Glass is a case in point. As the article points out, “it was a technical feat to make a tiny computer you could wear as a pair of glasses. But the product wasn’t one that typical people needed, or wanted.”
So, whether you’re trying to develop compelling content or the next “big thing” in technology, don’t forget that effective communicating means taking into account the whole person you’re trying to reach. We’re all the same – it takes hearts, heads and hands.