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December 01, 2014

New Perspectives

Simplicity in the Messaging: What Is Your Story?

by Paul Adams

Click here to order the December 2014 issue in which this article appeared or click here to download it to your mobile device.

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” —Leonardo daVinci

This is one of my favorite quotes for sure. True to its meaning, it says so much by saying so little. Anyone in a leadership position would be wise to adopt daVinci’s way of thinking. Yet, many of the executives I work with seem to want to overcomplicate things. Brilliance isn’t exhibited by how much we know. It’s exhibited by understanding how to use our knowledge and communicate it effectively.

One area of direct selling where this is very evident is in corporate messaging. We are passionate about our products and companies. There is no doubt that the research and knowledge we have used to create something special is worth being proud of.

Creating a product and starting a company is hard. It takes time, perseverance and money. So, when it’s time to share our story with the world, the challenge becomes how much of the story to share and how to share it. Here is where executives often fall into overcomplicating the messages sent to the field. Often, executives feel that the average person needs to know everything they know and have come to understand in the building of the business. This depth of information, however, is rarely necessary. The question one should ask is something like this: What does a real live person in Omaha (or any area) need to know about our new product or company in order to get excited and have a chance to succeed?

Over the past couple of decades, I have had this debate with lots of people. Some owners and executives insist that the more knowledge they can impart to their new reps, the better equipped the reps will be to run their businesses and achieve success. For example, if they are in the nutrition business, that means talking science and ingredients. It definitely means having a scientific advisory board.

It could also mean explaining why having the highest ORAC rating on the planet is something to be proud of. Apologies in advance to a couple friends of mine, but I believe that very few people even care what an ORAC rating is. Yet, sometimes, we insist that the new rep not only learn about ORAC but also how to explain it to others.

We want to teach them to be amateur scientists. This sentence should scare some people. Amateur and scientist should almost never be used in the same sentence. Rarely have I seen a company sustain long-term growth with a bunch of “amateur scientists” running around the country. In fact, these people may acquire just enough knowledge to make them dangerous. Misrepresenting a product or the science behind it is of great concern to many legal experts, who would question whether we should teach anyone to talk science in the first place. Without the proper knowledge and expertise, stories have a way of getting twisted, which often leads to health claims. Nobody wants the FDA to target them for regulatory breaches. 

Instead, reps should be trained to talk about the benefits of the product rather than the features. It’s a powerful distinction. I’ve always liked the analogy to using tools: Nobody wants a half-inch drill bit, but many people want a half-inch hole in something. We should be training reps to focus on the real needs and desires of the customers and prospects, and talk about that.

I’m definitely not trying to target nutrition companies. This is an equal opportunity mistake. It reaches across all boundaries and product categories in our industry.

So, the question to ask is what’s your story? You know, the story that customer or prospect would be interested in and a rep can share without fear of messing it up, or imparting misleading information. The answer to this question will form the basis of what your messaging should be without overcomplicating it.

When we visit with clients and work on their messaging with them, we tend to talk about a few key pieces to the storytelling puzzle. Here are the basic questions we ask in order to arrive at the best communication plan for a company, regardless of what product or service is being sold.

Reps should be trained to talk about the benefits of the product rather than the features. It’s a powerful distinction.

What makes you and your product special? What is your unique selling proposition?

You must have something that makes you stand out as being worthy of a customer wanting to purchase and/or commit time to. As amazing as it sounds, some people think that talking negatively about the competition is a good way to go. It’s not! Period! Being “better than XYZ product” only draws attention to XYZ and makes you look bad. It clearly says you’re not unique, only different. Your product must be able to stand alone without saying anything negative about your competition.

What are the benefits of your product?

Be careful, this is not a question about features. Features tend to get us deep in the weeds of explanation rather than helping someone understand how the product might make someone feel, live better, be more comfortable, etc. For example, a home theater system can have the most technically advanced DVD player on earth, but only a few people will understand what those technical advances are. However, most people will understand the experience the DVD player will deliver.

Who cares?

Who is your target audience, and are you talking to them clearly in a voice and with messaging they will respond to? You must know your target demographic. And, you must know that your demographic actually wants the product. Too often, companies create a great product that completely misses the mark by providing a great product that no one wants. A little research goes a long way. 

Is it teachable?

Can a new rep understand and repeat the company and product message within a day or two of signing up? If someone has to go through your “online university” before they can begin, you’ve created something that is way too difficult. Make it as simple as possible, and then make it simpler.

The new rep does not need to understand everything you know about the business in order to be successful.

Does the product and story create emotion?

Do you solve a problem or deliver a product that offers something really special to the new customer or rep? Face it, in direct selling, especially, we are offering something that most other companies and products do not: hope and opportunity. The product has to be real and incite interest from the prospect, and the business has the opportunity to drive emotion.

Here’s an exercise for you.

In 30 words or less, in your own words and using only your memory, write down the message that is currently being delivered to new customers and prospects via your reps. Even better, have several members of your sales, marketing and executive team complete the exercise separately and then compare notes.

I have yet to see a group do this and not be surprised by something someone on the team wrote down.

Consistency is key. If everyone is not saying the same thing the same way, your brand, your company, your product and your opportunity are not being represented properly. Clarity and focus will provide the greatest accelerants for your business.

You, the company, must own the story. It’s yours. But remember that the new rep does not need to understand everything you know about the business in order to be successful. Let simplicity be your guiding principal, and you will equip your reps with exactly what they need to run a solid business.

Paul AdamsPaul Adams is Senior Vice President of Strategic Marketing for Success Partners, which is celebrating 26 years of partnering with direct selling companies.