Communication Gaps

On a warm, sunny spring day last year, my mom offered to take my kids to the park for lunch. Within 10 minutes of arriving, my 5-year-old son complained that he had to go to the bathroom. Grandma looked around and realized there weren’t any bathrooms to be found, so she shrugged her shoulders and pointed to a spot about 30 yards away and said, “Go behind that tree.”

A few minutes later, the boy appeared again with a second complaint — this time with his shorts around his ankles: “Grandma, I can’t find the toilet paper!”

Ah, the joys of communicating with another human being. As we all know, what is so simple and makes so much sense to one person isn’t always so simple and sensible to another. We’ve all experienced the frustration of saying something to an employee, friend or spouse and having them hear something totally different than we intended.


The reason we have these communication gaps has a lot to with what’s known as a wordprint. A wordprint is a collection of information about something or some topic in your memory. If someone says they saw a killer whale on TV, you see something in your mind that looks like a big black and white fish with a smile full of small teeth and a name like Shamu.

But a wordprint is not just a definition that only offers a physical description of something. A wordprint includes a physical description plus attaches a meaning to the word, based on our individual experiences. My wife saw a movie called Orca when she was 6 years old; ever since, her wordprint for “killer whale” has included people in boats being stalked and eaten by those big black and white fish. When we went to Sea World recently, she only agreed to attend the Shamu performance if she could sit on the back row on the aisle — so she could escape quickly if necessary. I’m not making this up.

Similarly, when my teenage son says he’s starving, it means he hasn’t eaten for three hours and he “needs” a pop tart — meanwhile, that same word probably has an entirely different meaning to the nearly 1 billion chronically malnourished people on this planet.

For me, the word “cruise” isn’t just a picture of a big boat on a brochure anymore — not since last October, anyway. Now it’s now loaded with vivid images of my kids laughing, non-stop buffet gluttony (aka eating cruise style), and the gentle rocking motion of an enormous ship. And the phrase “go to the bathroom behind that tree” evidently has two very different meanings for a 62-year-old grandma and her 5-year-old grandson.

Different Wordprints

So here’s the point: Your wordprint and somebody else’s wordprint might be very different for the exact same word or phrase. Herein lies the root of many serious communications problems — which are almost certainly showing up in your advertising.

For instance, we have a sunroom client who has innovated what they consider to be the industry’s best warranties, including four separate documents: 1) a price protection guarantee; 2) a lifetime glass replacement warranty; 3) a lifetime materials and labor warrantee; and 4) a money-back guarantee, which basically states that if the workmanship doesn’t meet certain requirements within a certain time frame, the company will tear down the sunroom and either rebuild it at their own expense or return the home to its original condition.

Sounds pretty impressive, right? When I tell contractors in my seminars about these warranties, I often get a nervous laughter, as if to say “they don’t really do that, do they?” The warranties really are pretty good — they do, in fact, protect the consumer against poor workmanship and future problems. And given the fact that not every contractor is 100 percent reliable, competent or honest, you’d think that the sunroom buying public would be clamoring to do business with this company with its excep- tional warranties.

So why, then, when they’ve run ads in the past that say, “We take the risk out of home improvement” or “We have the industry’s best warranties,” do the readers yawn themselves to sleep?

To understand why, let me introduce you to a fun little game we played called tappers and listeners. I first heard of this game in the book Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, who cited a 1990 study by Stanford University student Elizabeth Newton. But since her data was inaccessible, I re-created the game myself and conducted my own experiment.

Tappers received a list of common songs like “Take Me out to the Ball Park,” “Jingle Bells,” and “God Bless America.” The tapper’s job was to tap 15 of the songs, one at a time, on a table with his knuckles while the listeners tried to guess the tunes.

Listeners were not provided with the list of songs — they were only told that they were everyday songs.

The results? Listeners with no particular music background only guessed correctly about 6 percent of the time — or in other words, 94 percent of the time, they couldn’t tell “Happy Birthday” from “It’s A Small World.” The tappers, meanwhile, got a kick out of watching their partners fail. They couldn’t understand why listeners couldn’t “hear” the tunes that they were plainly tapping out on the tables.

Impossible not to hear the tune

Here’s the key point: When you’re assigned to be the tapper, it’s impossible to not hear the tune in your head. In fact, you can hear it in full stereo surround sound — with the orchestra. The listeners, on the other hand, only hear a monotone set of like-sounding taps. They’re only being given a small fraction of the information needed to decipher the song. But look at what they’re not getting: no individual notes, no words, no rhythm. Just taps.

The problem is that when we know something, it’s nearly impossible for us to imagine what it’s like not to know it. This is where communication becomes tricky, because the more we know about something, the harder it is for us to truly “see the world through John Smith’s eyes.” We tend to impose our set of know- ledge on the person with whom we’re communicating.

So back to our sunroom client with the great warranties. He taps out a song called “We take the risk out of home improvement.” As he’s tapping that song (in an advertisement, on a Web site, etc.), he’s got the last 25 years of history firmly entrenched in his mind. He remembers the time one of his crews installed a sunroom improperly and it gushed like Niagara Falls during the first heavy rainstorm. He remembers how, after three failed attempts to fix the problem, he ordered the entire sunroom ripped down and installed again from scratch. He remembers how he sent the homeowner on a four-day vacation while he had three crews work overtime to get it done quickly. He remembers how he ended up losing over $12,000 in real hard cash on that job. And he remembers how thrilled the customer was that he’d actually gone through all that trouble to make it right. And he remembers a dozen other jobs during the history of the company where they’d gone to extraordinary lengths to do right by the customer. That’s what we call “full stereo surround sound — with the orchestra.”

Meanwhile, the customer sees his ad declaring that they take the risk out of home improvement and yawns. His wordprint of low risk doesn’t have the depth and richness of history that the company owner’s does.

OK, so how do you fix this? How do we move past platitudes and into meaningful communication that overcomes the curse of knowledge? The key is to realize that advertising and salesmanship are really not very different. You’d never imagine sending a salesman in to simply say “we take the risk out of home improvement,” and then just sit there. The salesperson, either through training or common sense, would know to tell the stories that make the concept come alive. The salesperson wouldn’t just tell a brief story about the time the sunroom had to be ripped down and built again from scratch; he’d include every little detail: the exact date, the name of the customer, the neighborhood of the customer, why the sunroom was installed improperly in the first place, how the boss exploded and insisted that the problem be fixed, the fact that they had to rush an order to the factory for the room, how they shut down production on five other jobs to get the manpower to fix it.

Clear communication is in the details. If Grandma had only taken a very brief moment to clarify what “need to go to the bathroom” meant to the 5-year old!

So here’s my advice to you: Go ahead and clearly communicate details in your marketing.

Take a look at the print ad reproduced on page 95. You might think this is too much text for an ad — but is it really? Let me ask you this: Why does it take you two or three hours in the home to go through your demonstration and make the sale? The answer is obvious — because it takes that long to help the prospect “hear” the song you’re tapping. It takes some time to get their wordprints and your wordprints to match up so you’re on the same page.

In advertising, there is no such thing as too much text or too little text. There is only such a thing as what is interesting and relevant to the prospect. We create plenty of ads for our clients that are short and feature lots of pictures. We also create ads that are long and contain a lot of words. But as long as you can pass the interesting and relevant test, your prospects will read anything you can throw at them. After all, a sunroom is a $35,000 investment, so trust me when I say they’ll take some time to read an ad, as long as the information is interesting and relevant. It has to help facilitate their decision-making process.

Applying the Concept

So let’s look at how this concept of wordprints and communication breakdown might affect a company selling replacement windows. You might think that talking about energy efficiency as it relates to windows is an important topic. In fact, if you sell replacement windows, chances are pretty good you’ve run ads that feature claims about saving on energy bills and windows that “you’ll pay for whether or not you actually buy them.” True enough?

But here’s the problem with that approach — and why it so rarely works the way you’d like for it to. The vast majority of the people who need replacement windows don’t even realize that their windows are a problem. The might know that their energy bills are higher than they’d like them to be, but they don’t realize the windows are the culprit. They think energy is just expensive. Or their bills have always been high so that’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, your whole livelihood is based on people knowing and believing their windows are causing their energy bills to be high. You’ve installed over 10,000 windows in the last 20 years, and you can discuss the merits of argon, krypton and extrusions with the best of them. In other words, you live inside a symphony hall that plays a song called “your windows are costing you too much in energy” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can’t imagine what it’s like for somebody to not be aware that their windows are causing them too lose money on their energy bills. How could anybody be that stupid?

Your wordprint for “lower energy bills” and the prospects’ wordprint just don’t match up.

Here’s what you need to realize — the message of “saving on your energy bills” is played so often by so many different kinds of companies, that John Smith, your prospect, just tunes it out. Here’s a short list of companies playing the same tune in their advertising: electric companies, roofing companies, radiant barrier companies, air conditioning system and service companies, light bulb companies, ceiling fan companies, automobile companies, gasoline companies, and at least a dozen more. Now you show up on the scene feebly tapping “save money on your energy bills.” What did you expect would happen? You’d get flooded with calls? You throw a phrase out there and expect everyone’s wordprint will match up. The prospect’s not the stupid one!

Missing Iformation

Remember — the listeners’ wordprint is missing critical pieces of information. Namely, they’re missing the piece of information that their windows are causing the problem in the first place. To get this point across to them, we’ll need to create ads with headlines that communicate this point to them in dramatic fashion. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Shocking Discovery: High Energy Bills Are Not Caused By High Energy Prices
  • 90 percent Of Homeowners Are Not Aware That High Energy Bills Are Primarily Caused By Inefficient Windows
  • How To Instantly Cut Your Electric Bill By 40 percent Without Switching Power Companies And Without Turning Lights Off
  • Want To Guess What The No. 1 Cause Of High Electric Bills Is? (Hint: it has nothing to do with the electric company’s rates)
  • What Is The Real Cause Of Your High Electric Bill? Believe It Or Not, It Has Nothing To Do With What Electric Company You Choose.
  • “My July Electric Bill Went From $404 Last Year To Just $268 This Year — And I Only Made One Simple Change In My Home.”
  • I Can Guarantee You A 40 percent Reduction In Your Electric Bill — Without Having To Switch Electric Companies Or Turn Off Any Lights
  • The Windows On Your Home Are The Energy Sucking Equivalent Of A Hummer H2 Stuck In Stop & Go Traffic.
  • Your Windows Are Sucking Money Out Of Your House — And You Didn’t Even Know It.
  • Here’s A Quick & Easy Way To Slash Your Electric Bill By 30 to 40 percent — Without Switching Electric Companies.
  • Every Window In Your House Is Costing You $10 Per Month More Than It Should In Electricity — If You Have 20 Windows, You’re Wasting $200.
  • Free Window Meter Test Will Tell You If Your Windows Are Wasting Your Money Or Not.

These headlines are relevant to the prospect without throwing the same old, usual junk at them that they hear all the time from other companies who are in the energy savings business. Here’s a radio ad that conveys the same point:

We’ve had a pretty cold winter this year, and I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about high energy bills. Did you know there’s a good chance that your bill is 20 to 40 percent higher than it should be simply because you have lousy windows? Hear me out on this one — you’re probably losing money, even if your house is new. You might think if you don’t hear wind whistling in that your windows are fine. Not true. The real problem has to do with how well they insulate — which has to do with lack of proper coatings on the glass, the kind of air between the glass, and the materials the windows are made out of. Trust me — you need to at least look into this — it could save you a ton of money. My friend Mike Nickel at American Remodeling has a high-tech tool called a “window meter” that measures how well your windows are insulating your home and isolates problem areas. Mike normally charges $80 for a window meter analysis and report but will come out to your home and do the test for free if you’re one of the first 15 listeners who call right now. If you do need new windows, Mike’s got an instant rebate of $200 per window — but only through February. So call for the free Window Meter test — the number’s 1-800-CALL NOW. Quit complaining about high energy bills and do something about it — call for the free Window Meter test at 1-800-CALL NOW right now.

Your expertise could hurt you

So where do we go from here? First of all, just be aware that your definition of a word — your wordprint — is probably significantly different than your prospects’ definition. Your expertise in your field is actually hurting you. Next, once you know and admit that, the quest becomes to find out specific and clear ways to communicate in your advertising about issues that are important and relevant to your prospective customers. Don’t be afraid to say too much; chances are that you’ll be helping yourself by explaining your real meaning. And finally, always have somebody who’s not in your industry read your ads before you send them out into the expensive media. You’ll be surprised at how valuable this little step can be to garner valuable feedback on your messaging. And next time you’re at the park, near a tree — watch your step!