This week I’m picking up on a concept I introduced in my last post: that as a communicator of ideas, your real job is to be a translator. You need to translate your or your organization’s ideas into the ideas and language of your audience.
Sometimes, though, that goes wrong. So, what do you do when your message isn’t working the way it should? Here’s the quick answer to what’s happening and what to do about it (read on for more detail!)
The quick version
- GOAL: Figure out why your message isn’t working.
- PROBLEM: Your message isn’t just a broadcast, it’s a translation. To be effective, your message can’t just be sent, it also needs to be received by your audience. They have to hear, understand, and care about it. That also means there’s not one but three places your message can go wrong:
- At the source
- At the audience
- In the translation itself—this is where I’ll focus today
- TRUTH: The most irresistible messages are the stories we tell ourselves…in our own language and based on our own ideas.
- CHANGE: Become “bi-lingual.” Translate your ideas into the simplest and most basic concepts and words.
- ACTION: While the Red Thread® method is designed to do exactly this, there are several additional techniques that can help, the Feynman Learning Technique (in the #swipefile this week!) is another way to think about it: imagine you have to explain your idea to a sixth-grader.
- GOAL REVISITED: When you’re able to translate your idea into its most basic concepts, not only are you more likely to send out messages your audience will actually receive and act on, you’ll also be able to adapt your message more easily to any audience and any application.
If you want to go deeper…
When I first posted the article in this week’s #swipefile about the Feynman Learning Technique, I described it as “instantly Evernotable.” Here’s one of the quotes that made it so:
Only when you can explain your understanding without jargon and in simple terms can you demonstrate your understanding. Think about it this way. If you require complicated terminology to explain what you know, you have no flexibility. When someone asks you a question, you can only repeat what you’ve already said. [Emphasis mine.]
Ooh! Isn’t that juicy? It’s such a wonderfully concise explanation of why jargon is so dangerous: it’s not just that your audience can’t understand your idea. It means you yourself are limited in how you can talk about it! It might also be a sign that you’re limited in how you can think about your idea, too.
But if you’re an idea translator—if you speak or write at all—that’s a deadly limitation. If you can only speak about your idea in one way, with one set of words and concepts, it limits your audience to only those who can understand you enough to be interested. It limits your applications (where you can talk about your idea) to only those where that jargon or insider language works.
So let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?
You are a translator. Your message is a translation.
I get a lot of clients who are starting from a point of pain: they know their ideas (products, services) have power, but others don’t see that power…yet. They already know their message isn’t working, but they don’t know why.
While they’re coming to me to help them figure out what to do, there’s plenty that you can do to diagnose a malfunctioning message—and this is where the “translation” can help.
Why? Because translators don’t broadcast. I mean, have you ever seen a language translator just start spouting off sentences that someone else hasn’t said? Or answering questions that weren’t asked and going “off script”? Of course not. A translator translates. They convert the concepts of an idea from the language of one person to the language of the other.
When it comes to translating ideas, sure, there’s a technical “broadcast,” because so often the communications you send out are asynchronous—like an email for which you don’t or can’t get a response in real time. For an email (or any communication!) to be successful, an email doesn’t just need to be sent, it needs to be received—and not just literally! Someone has to be able to hear or read it (that’s the literal part), they also need to understand it (that’s the metaphorical part).
Let me be honest here: I hate the day-to-day mechanics of marketing like making sure emails or brochures got physically delivered or figuring out which channel will be best for which message or which new platform to pay attention to or not. That said, a failure of that literal aspect of two-way communications is usually fairly easy to spot and solve: Did the brochure get there? Is your audience actually on that channel or platform?
On the other hand, I love the metaphorical part of two-way communications, though solving for metaphorical reception gets a little dicier, so let’s focus on that.
Three places where your “translations” fail
First, let’s look at the three places where your translation can fail:
(1) At the source. This happens when your idea is only an answer…with no question attached. It doesn’t actually solve a current problem or answer a current question. I see this a lot with some of the student-led startups I mentor. They come up with a new product just because they can, not because there’s actually a need or an audience for it (like when Evernote tried to pack in a whole bunch of extra features like chat and dining recommendations when I think literally no one asked for those and/or there were already well-established competitors in the marketplace). The solution: make sure you know the question your idea answers.
(2) At the audience. This happens when you have an idea that does actually answer a question…but not for the audience you’re talking to right now. This can sometimes appear to be a “translation” question—as in, you just haven’t figure out yet how to frame the question in the audience’s language—but what I’m talking about is where your idea fundamentally can’t answer a question for your audience.
For example, one of my clients, Tracy Timm, spends much of her time talking to career-driven millennial women. Her idea, the Nth Degree, is an approach to getting those women off of what she calls the “career conveyor belt.” That approach often leads those women to leave their current jobs for jobs more in line with their purpose and passion. Let me be clear: this is a good match between idea and audience. Her idea answers her audience’s question, “How can I resolve the conflict between success and what’s sustainable for me?”
But what if Tracy were trying to take that same idea and present it to corporate CEOs who are trying to retain those same millennial women employees? In that case, her Nth Degree idea would not be a good match. There are few to no realistic ways she could connect her idea to those CEOs’ questions. She needs to come up with a different idea, a different answer, in order for her messaging to that CEO audience to work. (And yes, that’s what we worked together to do! We created the idea for a keynote that talked about how CEOs could adapt their incentives to meet the more purpose-driven needs of their employees).
The solution: if your current idea doesn’t answer a current question for the audience you’re talking to, either change your audience to match, or work to find a new idea that will.
(3) In the translation itself. This is what happens when you have a great idea that actually matches what the audience wants… and they just don’t see the connection between the two (yet!). It’s also what happens when someone asks you about your idea and you just…keep…talking. You spend 20 minutes (or sentences!) trying to explain it. Maybe you’re successful, eventually, or maybe—and you knew this was coming—it gets lost in translation.
This brings me back to the quote about the Feynman technique, above, because I think it explains why messaging so often goes wrong:
When you’re a translator—and you are!—you have to be able to speak more than one language.
It seems obvious, I know, but I honestly believe this is the biggest problem with messages and communications: You’re presenting your ideas in only one language: yours. That doesn’t work because people understand their own language—both in concepts in words—best. And telling them about an idea that can help them, for reasons grounded in their own wants and beliefs? Nigh on to irresistible, because it feels like it belongs to them.
The solution: Hopefully this one is crystal clear: You need to learn how to talk about your idea in the language and ideas of your audience. It’s the only way you can translate effectively, and the only way you can guarantee your message is received. (These, by the way, are my favorite problems to solve because they’re like beautifully intricate puzzles, with a powerful payoff: a new or important idea finally gets the attention and action it deserves. )
How to learn another message language
“Yeah, okay, Tamsen, but how do I do that?” That’s again where that article on the Feynman technique comes into play. Because, sure, you could take a deep dive into your audience and learn not just to speak like them, but think like them. When the stakes are high, that kind of deep research is invaluable.
It also takes time and money, and potentially, leaves you still somewhat limited, especially if you serve more than one audience. If you haven’t done that work for each audience—learned each of those languages—you might still struggle to get your message truly heard.
What can you do instead (or in addition)? Translate your idea into its simplest words and concepts—simple enough that a child could understand. The article suggests that you imagine you’re talking to a rubber duck or a sixth-grader about your idea—a child around 10-12 years old (conveniently I have both a 10- and 12-year-old at home!). The article also beautifully describes why that’s important:
When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand, you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. You can better explain the why behind your description of the what.
With that deep understanding and simple words, you then open up the full spectrum of possible translations—almost like understanding words at their root. You also start to understand your own idea at its root: at the individual components that come together to make your idea what it is in the first place (the problem it solves, the shift in perspective it represents, the truths it embodies, etc.) This is what I designed the Red Thread to do. The process helps you break down your ideas into their simplest and most basic parts.
The result? You can talk to anyone about your idea in just about any style, from the most basic to the most expert and involved.
You need to learn to talk about your idea in the language and ideas of your audience. It's the only way you can translate effectively, and the only way you can guarantee your message is received. Click To Tweet
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