Nothing to say vs. no time to listen

Something a great friend of mine said to me during a long overdue chat we had this weekend got me thinking.

The web has profoundly changed communications, or so goes the common wisdom. And a lot of what used to work doesn’t seem to work anymore. The web is abuzz with talk of conversations, social networks and content. As seductive and cool as all this talk can be, it often leaves me scratching my head.

My friend’s comment led me to ask myself a question: What if the web HASN’T changed communications? What if all it’s done is exacerbate two basic communications issues – I’ll call them the airplane dilemma.

  • I have nothing to say: There are some days when there’s nothing to report.  If somebody asks you what’s up, you struggle to find an interesting answer. It’s just business as usual. Nothing good, nothing bad, just boring. If pushed too far, you may start resenting the intrusion, or worse, say something you shouldn’t have.
  • I don’t want to listen: Now imagine you’re the person asking the questions. You politely ask “how’s it going?” and the person starts pouring their heart out to you or drowning you in information you don’t understand, don’t need or aren’t ready for.

At one time or another we’ve probably all found ourselves on both sides of the equation. I call it the airplane dilemma because when you take your seat on a flight there’s a good chance that you fit into one of the two categories. It’s rare that you have something interesting to say and sit next to someone who wants to hear it – or that you sit next to someone with something interesting to say that you’re interested in. When you do it’s magic, but it doesn’t happen very often.

From airplanes to websites

Website content faces a similar dilemma.

Nothing to say: The thought of becoming a publisher with an editorial calendar strikes fear into the hearts of most companies (not to mention sound nowhere near as exciting as working on a TV commercial).

Communications and marketing departments still seem to be most comfortable producing “fire and forget” collateral like brochures and producing ad campaigns. Why? Because in both cases it’s easier to say one thing a thousand times than it is to say a thousands different things once, without being repetitive, abrasive or confusing. The model is focused on the end product (printing, media planning) and not in the end result.

Not ready to listen: And what about the customer? Well, finding something interesting to say is only half the journey. Making it interesting for the customer is the other half. In the old days, we’d blame customer apathy on “noise”. The message wasn’t getting through because of all the clutter. But when a customer comes to your web site you’ve go their attention, at least for the first few seconds. If there’s clutter, you put it there.

You can have the funniest joke on the planet, but if you can’t tell it right no one is going to laugh. The same rule applies to web content. Your web content not only has to be of interest, it needs to appear interesting and accessible enough to get the customer to make the effort of listening (yes, listening is work, but more on another time).

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