I began to wonder.
I was watching a game of football with Michel, my brother-in-law, an avid fan. Now, I know enough of the rules of football to watch a game, but when he started explaining to me the strategic moves between players, I began to watch from a different perspective. And that got me wondering, how would you describe the game of football to a visiting alien from outer space?
- Is it a game where two teams of 11 players attempt to place a ball on the opposite side of the pitch, simultaneously preventing the other team from doing the same, following a seemingly arbitrary set of rules?
- Or is it a game of strategy, tactics and teamwork, where the collective team is stronger than the sum of all its players? I began to appreciate the beauty of the game when I listened to Michel’s explanations of the different moves. I realised that we remember the person who scored the goal, and often neglect the chain of events that led to his teammate passing the ball at the opportune time, allowing him to score in the first place. Could there be parallels in business, science and other sports?
- Or perhaps football is a rallying cry, a source of national pride, uniting diverse citizens, making them forget their differences and rally behind a national team? In 2018 I happened to be in Montelimar, France, at a restaurant with my daughter during the World Cup semi-final match between France and Belgium. We were watching the match on a large TV screen. I am convinced that half the people around the tables did not completely understand all the rules of football. But that did not stop them from screaming in joy whenever France scored a goal and then later won the match. And they were right. At that point, did it really matter?
Whilst I’m still wondering, how do you describe a car to that alien?
- Is it a means of transport, taking you from A to B in an efficient way?
- Or is it a mechanism that shrinks the world, opening new horizons and bringing you closer to diverse cultures?
- Or is the car a means of independence and freedom? In my generation, you obtained your driver’s licence as soon as you turned 18. For finally, you no longer needed to rely on your parents to drive you to your friends’ place. (You really could do without that embarrassment).
Closer to home, when you market an external hard disk drive, how do you describe it? Is it:
- A 2TB, USB-C, 500 MB/s, solid state storage device?
- A device capable of storing 1000’s of songs and movies?
- Or a device representing peace of mind and a guaranteed fun family movie night?
The more I wondered, the more I believed everything can be described at three levels. Well that’s my theory. Let me call the first level the “Literal Level”. This level gives the technical specifications, the facts with no judgements nor opinions offered.
The second level, which I call the “Value Level”, attempts to answer the question “what does it mean?” (or, in more cynical terms, “so what?”). It attempts to give a value judgement.
The third level addresses “how it feels”, with answers around feelings and a sense of belonging. I’ll call it the “Self Level”, as in “self-awareness”.
I’ll leave you to think up more examples where these levels may apply. Think about how you would describe a novel you just enjoyed. Do you give the plot, or describe the themes the novel is grappling with? Think about your industry. Is a watch only about keeping time, or does it say something about you? Why spend hundreds of dollars on a fountain pen, when cheap ones will allow you to write just as efficiently? You get the gist.
But the moral of this story lies in the importance of matching the levels when communicating between sender and recipient. So often misunderstandings occur when there is a mis-match. I experienced that when my father had reached an age when we thought it prudent that he give up his driver’s license. My father was a wise man, and I thought it would be easy to convince him. In fact, he hardly ever used his car, so how hard could it be? Every family member was more than happy to drive him anywhere he needed to be. And failing that, there was always the availability of a taxi or public transport. Moreover, I told him, imagine the savings on insurance, road tax, and maintenance. These alone would more than make up for the extra cost of a taxi. I believed my arguments were solid, leading to an ineluctable conclusion. There really was no need for a car. But my father, uncharacteristically, resisted.
I wasn’t getting through. And then I had an epiphany. We were not talking on the same levels. I was speaking to him at the Literal Level, whilst he was at the Self Level. He really wasn’t concerned with getting from A to B. In fact, he was happy to leave the car in the garage. Because at the end of the day, the car represented independence to him. Losing it, in his mind, meant being a burden on his family and he did everything to avoid that. Indeed, handing in one’s driver’s licence is always difficult for this reason and no doubt I shall be the same. He did hand in his driver’s licence of course. But thinking back, I should have started the conversation at the Self Level, with empathy.
So the next time you are marketing that hard disk, make sure you are communicating its tech specs only to the geek, who’ll revel in them, and not to the technophobe, who really couldn’t care less.
On the other hand, you might want to turn that mis-match to your advantage, as Steve Jobs once did. Wanting to hire John Sculley from Pepsi, he asked him, “do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”