Hiding In Plain Sight

I’m pretty sure that no reasonable person would describe me as “techie.” I don’t know how airplanes fly and I have no idea how my cell phone works. Frankly, I don’t even quite understand what keeps the electricity in my house from spilling out of the outlets and onto the floor.

I do, however, love gadgets. Nothing too crazy, mind you; I’m talking about the kinds of household items you see on display at Brookstone or featured within the pages of Popular Science magazine.

Unfortunately, this fascination of mine tends to manifest in the accumulation of “time saving devices,” most of which ultimately prove to be nothing of the kind.

One possible example is my “iRobot Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot.” I say “possible,” because after four years of ownership, I’m still trying to decide if buying it was a good idea.

Does it work by itself, even when nobody’s home? You bet. Can it sense where the stairs are and keep from falling off the edge? Not a problem. Does it do a good job of vacuuming? Exemplary.

The problem, however, is that my little Roomba friend needs to be taken apart and thoroughly cleaned after every second or third use. And while I confess to finding this task somewhat enjoyable (there’s no limit to the fun that can be had with a can of compressed air), I think that the time saved vacuuming is more than offset by the time spent cleaning the damn thing.

Yesterday, however, while taking Roomba apart, I saw something written on its underside that I don’t think I’d ever noticed before. It said: “Important. If you do not remove and clean my brushes regularly, I may stop working well.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Somebody back at iRobot HQ had decided to write a maintenance guideline in the first person. Not, “Clean brushes regularly for optimal performance,” or some similarly faceless, sanitized, same-as-everyone-else phrase. First person, from the machine itself.

The effect on me was immediate and, dare I say, profound.

It made me want to take better care of the machine. It made me feel like there were likeable, friendly, genuine people working at iRobot. It made me want to buy more things from them.

All that from one simple phrase.

Now take a look at your web site, your business card, your e-mail signature. Review your last presentation, a recent proposal, your bio. Listen to your outgoing voicemail message. Chew over your last E-Newsletter.

Still awake? More importantly, does reading any of it make you appear more likeable, friendly, genuine? Does it give anyone else, any reason at all, to want to buy things from you?

If the answer is “No,” you’ve got some work to do. Because while I know this realization can be scary, it’s also a reflection of a fundamental disconnect: In person, you and your colleagues are interesting, likeable and friendly (I know, because I’ve met you).

But somehow, as soon as we get behind our keyboards, we’re miraculously transformed into Captain Boring McTedious (the worst kids’ TV show ever).

So here’s what I suggest. Go through all your written materials and look for places where you can spice it up a bit. Nothing crazy necessarily, but real and unexpected. Some ideas:

  • Use a lot of first (“I”, “me”) and second (“you”) person words.
  • Sprinkle in words and phrases that business people don’t normally use, like “wonderful” or “ugly” or “sprinkle in.”
  • Buy a rubber stamp and ink pad and put blue penguins all over your next invoice (works for me).

The point is to do something to shake things up and capture the attention of readers.

But wait just a minute. Isn’t there a risk of appearing unprofessional, what with all this first person speaking, common word using, rubber stamp penguining going on? I mean, it may work fine for a robot vacuum, but our clients are serious people.

So yes, there is a risk. There’s also a risk that you’re the next American Idol, but I don’t think either is very likely.

Think about it. Which is a bigger, more likely problem in the marketing of your business? Prospects thinking that you’re nuts, or prospects not being able to tell the difference between you and your equally conventional-looking competitors?

I’m guessing it’s the latter. And yet despite the fact that acute anonymity is a real and lethal enemy, we’re all so scared of what might happen if we reveal our true selves that we take cover inside the perceived safety of the pack. (Geez, that was a good sentence. Feel free to read it again.)

Here’s the bottom line. In ten years of working with clients on content for their newsletters, thought pieces, presentations, web sites, holidays cards, you name it, I’ve never once had to say, “You know what, I think you guys are a little too over the top here.”

Instead, I spend nearly all my content development time trying to deliberately push them away from “professional” and in the direction of “human.” Because as the friendly folks at iRobot have demonstrated, when your competitors insist on being this dull, just a few choice words can have you cleaning the floor with them (sorry).

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