How do we present a ‘black lung?’

Excuse the horrible metaphor, but I had two amazing conversations today that made me think a lot more deeply about what we communicators do for a living.

We do not perform complicated surgical procedures, we do not step outside the space shuttle to fix a broken rudder, we do not stand atop a Humvee in Fallujah ducking sniper fire. All we appear to do is generate content and try to get some buy-in.

OK, I know we have ambitious strategic plans, and wear business development hats, sit at board meetings and what nots. But still…

When it comes to presenting something, especially something that’s somewhat complicated, slightly controversial, icky, we  summon the best best tools from digital cameras to–as they say in the military– human assets. But we tend to lean heavily on  ‘push’ tactics.

Speaking to these two senior communicators, I realized that 95% of their time appears to be devoted to understanding the audience, and 5% into the messaging. Without naming names, one is the director of an organization with multiple audiences, another the head of an outreach effort that involves a web site, with as many audiences as there are dots on the world map. Let’s leave it at that.

  • The Comms Director was someone who’s  finely attuned to considering what the audience was interested, using the web and as a listening post, as much as a publishing platform.  “We appreciate your views in helping us grow,” he mentioned. I was not in his orbit, not geographically, or professionally close to anything that his outreach program was all about. And yet…
  • The Corporate Director was someone who thought a lot about–some would say overly sensitive to — information overload, and losing the audience. “We shouldn’t come across as far too complex. We sound like we are trying to cure every form off cancer, when in reality, we may be just experts in lung cancer.”

I asked if she meant pruning down the content? More than that, she said. “How do we present the black lung?” The what? She  remembered way back when smoking was being attacked on all fronts with logos, warning signs, ad campaigns etc, how one simple presentation in school made an impression. It was a canister with a black lung, and next to it a unsullied one. It was not the slick PSA copy in the campaign that made her decide she would not smoke. It was the black lung!

Which brings this to us.  We tend to pack our communication tool kit with everything we’ve got, when all it takes is one memorable take-away. Not to say we need to drop everything. But perhaps we unintentionally clog up (pun intended) our message.

So I am formulating this black-lung theory. We all have this black lung problem. We present way too many bronchioles, blood vessels and pulmonary side shows as a stand-in for a real solution.  In other words, sometimes it’s time to cut down that presentation deck from 35 slides to 5. Or … zero?

There are other ways to keep the black lung front and center.

  • Use more visuals, less words.
  • Speak for 35 minutes and leave 25 minutes for questions.
  • Better still, start with questions and end with a presentation, counter-intuitive as this might seem
  • Listen to the blogosphere, twittersphere, whateversphere
  • Analyze leads, study your audience, use Google analytics
  • I bet there are dozens more

If you have some great presentation examples (or even horror stories) I’d like to know. And so will my two unnamed sources.

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