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Why it Doesn’t Always Pay to be Clever

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This article was submitted by Business Wales

I’ve been setting out a communications strategy for a highbrow organisation. This organisation does sterling work and its views are sought by decision and policy-makers. But if you stopped someone on the street and asked if they’d heard of them, you’d be very unlikely to hear the word “yes”. It’s even less likely that your passer-by would know about the important work they do. And yet this organisation wants to be better known and supported by the wider world.

The problem is they’re all very clever – it’s an organisation that’s rammed to the rafters with very, very clever people. They’ve spent a lot of time in universities – many of them researching and gaining doctorates. And it’s in these environments that they’ve learned an approach to communications – and been rewarded for it. The problem is that in a university – or business school – environment, the No1 job your communications have to do is demonstrate that you, as an individual, are very, very clever.

That you understand subject matter others would struggle with. Outside of academia, however, if you want to get people on board with your ideas, you don’t need to prove to them that you’re clever. Instead, you need to make them feel that your subject is easy and interesting.

Successful communications aren’t about showing your reader how intelligent you are. They’re about making your audiences feel intelligent.

Outside of academia, academic communications can feel stiff, jargonistic and crushingly dull. Which isn’t a great formula for raising awareness or getting people to buy your products or services. So if you’re very clever – or you’re working with teams who are – these are some of the things you can do to transform communications that feel overly academic and lack oomph.

Put your audience first – In an academic setting, structure is largely dictated by setting out a premise, arguing the pros and cons, and then finishing with a conclusion. Outside of academia, your structure should be dictated by what your audiences need to see and what you need them to do. This can mean starting with a conclusion. It can mean starting with saying “sorry” or “thank you” or “don’t worry”.

If you don’t, there’s a very good chance that your intended audience simply won’t read anything you ever write. Which could fold your company if you’re marketing its products… or land it with big fines or worse if your role is to get your suppliers to comply with policy.

Be prepared to give your knowledge away  – The academic environment can sometimes be very pressured and competitive. The emphasis can be on publishing first and getting your ideas out before anyone else. It’s a mentality that says ground breaking ideas need to be protected and shielded. And even when the time comes to share that idea, it has to be done in a way that doesn’t make it everyone’s property.

The thing is, successful communications are successful precisely because they do become part of everyone’s vocabulary and easy reference. This means you have to explain clearly in terms your mother, sister, friend and colleague from another team would understand. Because they already know you’re clever. And your job now is to communicate in a way that makes them feel intelligent, more informed and eager to get on board.

Ditch complexity – Your audiences stopped being academics the minute you left school or university. Your new audiences are not being paid to read your thoughts.

Instead, they are time-pressured people who have their own projects to get on with. Any complexity robs them of time – and they’re wise to this. So if your communication looks like it’s going to take too much time and effort to get into, they simply won’t read it or watch it. “Ah, that’s because this subject matter is beyond them – so what can I do?” you may think. But you’d be wrong.

Never underestimate your reader. And never underestimate the ability of great writing to convey even the most complex ideas succinctly and easily. Your audiences haven’t tuned out because they’re stupid. They’ve tuned out because they don’t have enough time. So find more obvious, easier ways of expressing any fancy expressions.

Try to reduce jargon and business speak. Keep your sentences short – and don’t be afraid of short words.

Another tip – don’t confuse the words “simplicity” and “simplistic”. One is elegant, flowing and beautiful. The other is taking out all the hard stuff you think people won’t understand and thereby limiting their access to information and knowledge. Introducing simplicity is a great skill that takes a lot of work. Being simplistic is just cutting corners – and sometimes being patronising with it.

Make it interesting – So you’ve thrown complexity out of the window. Now you need to remember that your audience hasn’t necessarily picked up or clicked on your communication because they’re deeply interested in your subject matter. More likely, they have a pressing business need and they think you may have an answer for them. I mean, just how many invitations to listen to podcasts, download white papers and read articles have you deleted from your inbox this morning, without even opening them? So you need to make it interesting and relevant to your reader.

Work with professional communicators – If you know that you or your teams are communicating to more generalist audiences in an academic way, you can change it. And in doing so, you’ll reach your business targets faster.