Bieber Madness

This might be an overstatement, but I’m willing to bet that I’m the only person on Earth who’s ever been frightened by Justin Bieber.

After all, in broad daylight the boyish, blonde, Canadian singer is about as menacing as … well … a boyish, blonde, Canadian singer.

But broad daylight is not where I saw him…

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It all started with a text message last week from my neighbor, Tom.

Tom and his family were off on a European cruise and Tom texted me to say that his home alarm system had “detected movement in the house” and, as a result, sent him an e-mail.

Naturally, I was impressed. Our “home alarm system” consists of an affectionate dog named Abbie who doesn’t even have e-mail and who counts “excessive licking” as her sole defense against would-be intruders.

In any case, I texted back that I would take a look and promptly walked across the street to Tom’s house.

I began with a perimeter check, a tactic which struck me as both safe and appropriately crime scene-ish. Nothing. All doors and windows appeared undisturbed.

So I got the spare key and went inside. I don’t mind telling you, it was a bit creepy to be snooping around someone else’s house, especially since I didn’t even really know what (or whom) I was looking for.

Everything downstairs seemed in order. Up the stairs next for a quick check of the bedrooms. Nothing out of the ordinary there either.

At that point I was tempted to just leave. The only area I hadn’t checked was the basement (cue scary music). I don’t like going into my own basement, let alone somebody else’s in search of a perpetrator.

But I knew I’d never survive my wife Linda’s post-inspection grilling, a conversation that was sure to include the following question: “Did you check the basement?”

So I took a deep breath, covered my groin (not to suggest that it was entirely uncovered before) and down I went, hoping to find the light switch at the bottom of the stairs as quickly as possible.

I crept quietly down the steps and in the semidarkness of the basement, took a look around.

That’s when I saw Bieber. And yes, I definitely flinched.

Fortunately, for both Bieber and me, it wasn’t the actual teen idol … merely a life-size, cardboard cutout propped up behind a couch in the far corner. Unexpected perhaps, but not dangerous.

Relieved, I took a quick lap around the basement, cut Bieber’s head off with a knife from the kitchen drawer (don’t write to me, I’m kidding), locked up the house and headed back across the street.

All of which, got me thinking.

Thinking about how important context is in the way a message is perceived and ultimately, understood.

Bieber in broad daylight? Not at all threatening. Bieber in an unfamiliar, darkened basement while hunting for bad guys? Surprisingly so.

Same “information” but when the context changes, it’s a very different experience.

Your messages are similarly dependent upon the particulars of each situation. If you hope to be effective as a communicator, it’s up to you to take that into account whenever you write or speak.

In this respect, the single most important consideration is “audience.”

You simply cannot craft an effective message – one that is going to be noticed, understood, remembered and acted upon – without knowing (or at least guessing) who you’re talking to.

Think about it. Even something as simple as how to change a car tire would be explained differently – different words, different gestures, different pace – if you were talking to a 4th grade cub scout troop, as opposed to a group of business leaders. (Hint: You can talk faster with the cub scouts.)

And yet time after time, when I’m hired to write something for an individual or company and I ask, “Who’s the audience for this?”, I’m met with the kind of empty stares normally reserved for Justin Bieber fans (sorry).

Audience matters. Two suggestions:

  1. Narrow it down to a single person.

    I know, there are a lot of people who might read whatever it is you’re writing. The problem is you can’t write well when trying to address a nebulous group.

    When you pick an individual (real or fictitious, it doesn’t matter), on the other hand, to represent the quintessential audience member, you now have a fixed point to which you can target your words.

    This makes the writing easier, keeps you away from jargon, and helps you determine which things need explaining and which do not (e.g., “Do I need to first review what a lug nut is, or does this person already know?”).

  1. Read it out loud.

    I never realized I wrote out loud until I hired an assistant a few years back. Unfortunately, I was so self conscious with someone else in the office that I had to let her go.

    But it helped me realize how much easier it is to write in an understandable, authentic way when you test it out on your own ears as you go. If it sounds odd or unnatural when you hear it, it will read that way for your audience as well.

Here’s the bottom line. Good communication – written or spoken – is authentic, targeted and appropriate for both the audience and the situation. Don’t write a single word until you first determine who’s on the receiving end.

P.S. If you see Bieber, tell him I’m sorry about the whole kitchen knife thing.


11 thoughts on “Bieber Madness

  1. Anne

    Hi Michael, I know I was frightened too when I went to listen to the podcast and instead of you, there was all that HAIR! Great tips, as always. Thanks for the fun story–you have a wonderful talent for turning those everyday moments into flashes of wisdom. Wish I could be there for ice cream on Tuesday.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks Anne, and sorry you can’t join us! Always a fun time. Maybe Bieber will show???

  2. Lauren

    Crazy college story: Lambs are not scary when you can see them. But when you’re in your dorm room with the door closed and a terrified lamb is running up and down the hall while calling to its momma? Kinda scary.

    Have this happen on Halloween, around 3 am after spending a few hours discussing what makes things scary? This might make lambs terrifying.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Terrified lambs in your dorm room? Sounds like you went to college in Oz. But I agree, anything is scary when the situation allows!

      1. Lauren

        Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. (And people say UMass is wild!)

        Luckily for me he was only in MY dorm room for a few seconds. He wasn’t house trained. 😉

        But in all seriousness, when I edit product copy I try to come up with questions a customer might ask about the item. Then I fill in the blank. Sure things might seem obvious to me, but I’ve got a sample sitting on my desk.

        1. Michael Katz Post author

          I guess that gives new meaning to the school’s nickname, “Zoo Mass.”

          Great copy writing tip as well!

  3. Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

    Sometimes I observe themes in what my clients are talking about, or going through. So, that makes it very easy. That’s who I write to – in a not too personal/generic way – and what I write about.

    Kudos to you, Michael. I would have sent the dog.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That sounds like a good way to stay on target with your audience, Claudette. And you’re right, should have at least *brought* the dog!

  4. Mark Heimberg

    Your newsletter, as usual, was a great read, but this one really hit home for me. About 14 years ago, I was living in a 2nd floor apartment in a quiet town in Massachusetts. I returned home from work to find I had been robbed. Now, being a 27 year old at the time, I had nothing of value other than my music collection, but I suspect the intruder was rather disappointed with it — not the quantity, mind you, but the quality — since it was left behind.

    That said, my downstairs neighbor had also been robbed, and he had arrived home earlier and called the police. They did a search of both levels of the building, and when they were in my spare room, my life-sized cardboard Captain Jean Luc Picard was standing quietly, silhouetted against the window. The two officers drew their guns on him, and shouted at him repeatedly to get down on the floor. Needless to say, he did not comply. Luckily, one officer found the light switch before Lean Luc was peppered with gun fire, and they were able to stand down.

    When I ventured down to the police station to file a report the next day, I shared with the desk officer the story of Jean Luc. Apparently, the two responding officers had left that out of their report. The desk officer was all too happy to receive this information, and share it around the precinct at their expense.

    I moved shortly after that, in part because I had been robbed, and in part because I had caused embarrassment for the two officers, and I figured I would get fines for moving violations just pulling out of my driveway.

    So, your fear of Bieber is well founded, and even trained law enforcement officers can get rattled by the most benign of interstellar ship captains.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      That is a fantastic story, Mark! And it’s nice to know that even the cardboard version of Captain Jean Luc fears no man.


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