Communication Complication

(Listen to this post, here.)

I’m not really sure how old my children are – I’ve kind of lost track in all the commotion.

But they don’t live with us anymore, so I’m guessing that they are adults.

Unfortunately, and while I try not to take it personally, not one of the three lives in the same time zone as my wife and me. In fact, none of them live in the same time zone as each other.

We’ve got Pacific, Mountain, Central and Eastern represented. 

In terms of degree of difficulty, arranging a family Zoom call is only slightly more complicated than assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. Blindfolded.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, having not seen any of our offspring since February, Linda and I decided to meet our son Evan in Lewisburg, West Virginia, a location that is precisely halfway between he in Memphis and us in Boston.

We went for a week, rented part of a house, and had a great, mostly outdoor, time.

Lewisburg is a fun, friendly town, filled with lots of history and, as I discovered on our first day, some curious signage.

One sign, at the entrance to a parking lot, read, “Do Not Enter. Entrance Only.” I stood there for quite some time, wondering which way to move.

The second, on a theatre marquee, read, “Closed Until We Open.” This sign somehow managed to be exceedingly vague and extremely precise at the same time.

Who put these up? I have no idea. Nor do I know if they were attempting to be funny or had simply hit the humor bullseye by accident.

Either way, from a strict “communication” standpoint – which I hope you’d agree, is a sign’s main purpose in life – they were not very effective.

You Communication Needs to Be Clear

Regardless of what kind of work you do – legal, financial, consulting, coaching, writing, etc. – finding and obtaining the people and companies who will pay you to do it, is an exercise in communication.

If your words are clear and on target, people are sent your way or come on their own, and (often) hire you.

If they are not, and regardless of how smart, experienced, credentialed, or (in my case) good-looking you may be, they don’t.

All of which means that the words you use need to be well-chosen. Here are two suggestions in that regard.

#1. Pinpoint your audience.

No matter the professional service you sell, it’s not “people” who hire you – it’s individual humans. And they do so one at a time.

The narrower and more precise you can be when communicating, the easier it is for those individuals to hear you.

I understand, speaking broadly means more potential listeners. But widening your audience is a direct trade-off with having a meaningful impact.

A newsletter written to “bald marketing consultants named Michael,” may have a small readership. But among those who fit the description, there will be much more enthusiasm and interest (hint: enthusiastic, interested people are the ones who become clients).

#2. Pinpoint your purpose.

One of my standard questions when working with a client to write something or modify something they’ve already written is, “What is this about?”

It’s a simple question.

But if you ever need to silence a Zoom call full of otherwise talkative professionals, this is the phrase to use. It’s like a blank stare ray gun.

The thing is, and again, as obvious as it seems, unless you know what you are trying to communicate and why, you’ll invariably end up with a bunch of nobody-cares, business-speak blah blah.

I don’t start writing until we develop a clear and concise answer to this essential question.

Here’s the bottom line.

There’s a big difference between writing or saying words, and writing or saying words that influence your intended audience as you desire.

Whether it’s a sign in a parking lot, or a critical business communication, words matter.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever assembled a piece of IKEA furniture?
  2. If you had a magic ray gun, what would it be able to do?
  3. Do you have a favorite “odd” sign that you’ve seen?

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20 thoughts on “Communication Complication

  1. Grace Kennedy

    For me, the hardest part of writing an article is figuring out how to start it. Once that clicks, the rest flows pretty smoothly. Thank you for sharing the “what is this about” magic ray gun trick. This simple question will help me get right to the heart of what I’m trying to say, which will in turn help me get that first sentence out of the way.

    When I was 22 my roommate and I stayed up until 4am putting together an IKEA loft bed so that I would have extra space in my tiny New York City bedroom.

    It’s not a sign, but I once saw a bumper sticker that said “I used to be cool” and it spoke directly to my forty-something year-old soul.

  2. Dana

    My husband and I were driving in rural NYS and saw a sign outside a house that said “Chainsaws for sale”. It looked as you would expect a sign like that to look – hand painted on an old board and hung so that it was crooked. We drove away quickly.

  3. Steve Coombes

    1) No IKEA assembly experience yet, although our bedroom has a number of IKEA accoutrements (sheets, duvet & cover, pillows, etc). I now fancy one of their standing desks which might become my first assembled IKEA product.

    2) Silencer. Just point it at people and they can continue talking and making all the noise they want but they won’t be heard. Especially effective when children, who aren’t adults and DO still live at home, begin making noise during Zoom meetings. LOL

    3) My favorite odd sign from over 20 years ago I found in my workplace. They had a dispenser machine with various health items for sale like Tylenol. Prominently displayed next to it was a drug-free workplace sign that read, “Drugs don’t work here.” Hmm…

  4. Jan

    1) Yes, but it wasn’t that bad really.
    2) Clean the kitchen.
    3) I did a whole blog series on sign bloopers!
    It would be hard to pick one favorite, but maybe “Dogs that dig holes must have owners fill them in immediately.” After which they presumably would say “Good human! Who’s a good human?”

  5. Susan

    I often drive by an auto body repair business here in Edmonton, Alberta. They have a big sign that says,
    100% satisfaction or your dent back.
    I laugh every time I drive by it. Still don’t know or remember the name of the shop, but I’d head over there first if I got a dent!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Love that one! Reminds me, somehow, of a sign that used to be (maybe still is) at a funeral home here in Boston near the highway that said, “drive slowly, we can wait.”

  6. Stephanie Patterson

    1. I wish I had a dollar for every piece of IKEA furniture that my husband and I have assembled over the years. Once our twin sons were in their teens, we delegated the job to them–and they were pretty good at it, much better than us!

    2. My magic ray gun would clean and tidy up my house, garage, and yard, inside and out, in the blink of an eye.

    3. A long time ago my husband and I lived in Australia for several years. While vacationing in the state of Tasmania, we were on a beach somewhere on its southeastern shore, with a landscape similar to that of beaches in New England–rocky, as opposed to sandy. On one of those beaches we saw a sign warning us that “Freak waves are common”!

  7. Lindsay A Gower

    I am the furniture-assembler among my friends. They call me to decipher instructions and handle that Allen wrench. Even IKEA!

    I can’t decide about the Magic Ray gun. One that shot out warm brownies, yessir! Or one that magically (duh) rearranged deranged apostrophes. That has to be my choice, really, because we can all bake brownies — but *learn* apostrophes? Never gonna happen.

    The best sign ever was in an elevator.
    “In case of emergency, do not panic. Press button marked Panic.”
    This made me laugh out loud. I showed it to my friends and they did NOT see the humor. I thought that was funny, too. Sad but funny.

  8. Ian

    My favourite sign was spotted on a roadsidd in upstate NY. It was in two parts. The top part said ‘simply County Jail’.

    So far, so ordinary.

    The lower part read ‘Do not pick up hitchhikers’

    There *has* to be a great story behind that afterthought, second part!

  9. John

    I’ve assembled a lot of “flat box” furniture. IKEA is its own particular brand of weirdness in that genre.

    My favorite odd sign was the (formerly) lighted one on a deserted building. It read “High Qualty Poloshing and Plating”. They probably wondered why their business went under.

  10. Jess Fosnough

    3 – I have 2 favorite “odd” signs. The first is a triangle showing a silhouette of 2 people, both hunched over, one of which has a cane – it denotes an “elderly crossing”. It’s possible that this sign is common in certain areas, but I had never seen one before.
    The second one was on a placard advertising a “spicy teen” for $5 or so. My husband and I did some research and learned that a “teen” referred to the size of the sandwich (or whatever type of food it was).

    Both of these signs we saw while outside of the United States, which probably “helped” with our confusion. Both of the countries we were in spoke English, but were not used to some of the cultural differences, or common slang terms. One of the best things I have heard about communication is this: The biggest mistake in communication is assuming that it happened.


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