Car Talk

Much to nobody’s surprise, I don’t know a lot about cars.

Yes, I’m capable of changing a flat tire and checking my oil. I know how to refill the wiper fluid.

One time, last summer, I even managed to successfully replace the “cabin air filter” in our minivan, a Google-aided, two-day task that had me wondering why the air in the cabin needed to be filtered anyway.

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And so last week, when my left turn signal suddenly started clicking at roughly four times its usually sleepy pace, I did what any unskilled car owner would do: I tried not to think about it.

I figured, “Hey, so it’s clicking faster. I’ll just turn slower and it will all average out.”

A couple of days later, though, I was nearly rear-ended as I took a left turn from the busy road that leads to my neighborhood.

To make matters worse, not only did the other driver nearly hit me, he honked in an unfriendly manner as he flew by. Jerk.

But as I pulled into my driveway seconds later, it occurred to me that something didn’t seem quite right.

So I put the parking brake on, left the engine running and turned on the left turn signal. Then I walked behind my car.

Nothing. Not even a faint blink to accompany the loud noise within my cabin.

As it turns out and again, according to Google, a rapidly ticking turn signal is “a sign that one of your blinker lights is out. It may also be a sign that you are, in fact, the jerk.”

(I may have made up that last sentence.)

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about you.

What I was thinking about was how easy it is to assume that what we hear “inside our car” (i.e. our business) is the same as what the outside world sees when they look in our direction.

We think we’re communicating clearly. They don’t know what we’re talking about.

We think our automated systems work. They know that they’re broken.

We think we sound like this. They think we sound like that.

You get the picture. You and your colleagues are happily and obliviously driving around town in your car while everyone else thinks you’re the worst motorists on the road.

Two suggestions for making sure this doesn’t happen to you:

  • Take it for a test drive.

    There’s nothing wrong with tweaking and fine-tuning your marketing copy, web site, elevator statement, etc. But there’s a limit to how good it can get in the comfort of your own office. The true test is how it plays with the humans outside of your organization.

    As much as possible, use live interactions to try out your stuff. Pay close attention to whether other people seem to find it understandable and/or interesting. Modify from there.

    (Hint: Aim for clear and simple as opposed to impressive and shiny.)

  • Every once in a while, take a walk around your car.

    It took me several days to even get an inkling that my light was out … and it wasn’t confirmed until I got out and took a look around back.

    Do the same with your business. Subscribe/unsubscribe to your newsletter; download your free reports; call your own voicemail and listen to the message; get yourself a Gmail, yahoo, iPhone, Thunderbird, Outlook account and see what your emails look like in other formats.

    Maybe everything worked fine when you first set it up. Maybe it’s broken now.

Here’s the bottom line. I love automation, especially when it comes to running my business. But the signs that something isn’t working can be hard to hear.

Find ways to experience your words and your business from the point of view of the outside world. It may help you avoid some nasty and unexpected accidents.


7 thoughts on “Car Talk

  1. Jen @ Yellow Bird Blogs

    This is so true, Michael! I always tell clients that this is why it’s so hard to proofread your own writing – YOU know what you’re trying to say, so your eyes gloss over all the stuff you don’t think (or want to believe) is there…like typos, unclear sentence construction, etc. I’m glad to hear you weren’t in fact hit by that guy behind you – does anyone in Boston really ever signal for turns anyway? You may be the first I’ve heard of 🙂

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      I know what you mean about the signaling. A native Bostonian friend once told me (I’m not making this up) that she doesn’t signal when changing lanes because if people know where she’s trying to go they won’t let her in!

  2. Laura E. Kelly

    Excellent advice, per usual. I also tell my author clients to Google their relevant names/terms once a month to see how they’re showing up in search, and then to click on their website link in the results and peruse their site as if they’re a casual browser, making note of what’s out of date (often their Events page is way out of date).

    Thought you’d enjoy this related quote I saw in the NYTimes a few weeks ago. It made me laugh: “If one guy honks at you on the freeway, he’s a knucklehead. If five guys honk at you, you’re the knucklehead.”

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Laura! One question I have on that is since google gives results based on your own past browsing history (among other things) and since we all go to our own web sites, is there a way to really see how we show up on a search by a complete stranger?

      Love that quote. Kind of like, “It’s direct mail if you send it, it’s junk mail if you get it.”

      1. Laura E. Kelly

        Good point about the Google search results being skewed. It may be difficult to view the results like a complete stranger without using a different computer and/or browser, but at least people can do the second part of the exercise, which is to view their site through “fresh eyes” everyone once in a while.


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