As a marketer, communication skills probably come naturally to you, or you may like to think so. Some other professionals are not renowned for their verbal dexterity – accountants and IT consultants come to mind – but successful marketing is all about persuading and conversing with customers. So why, according to research carried out by communications consultancy Via Net.works, do small businesses claim that marketers are more likely than accountants to use jargon in their communications?
Chris Bestley, education consultant for the Institute of Sales Promotion (ISP), finds the amount of jargon used by marketers infuriating. “We use far too much jargon. It’s as if we are insecure about the value of what we do, so we dress it up in a lot of bollocks.” One word that irritates Bestley is “leveraging”: “Why would you want to use that word when you can use ‘exploiting’ or ‘taking advantage of’ instead?”
Junk the gibberish
Even if a marketer is confident that their audience is familiar with the jargon, it is still better not to use it. Neil Taylor, head of writing at TheWriter.co.uk, which runs training to help people write effectively, gives the example of a workshop he was involved with at BT. One term popular at that time was ‘operational excellence’. Taylor says: “Because it was management-speak, people didn’t really think about what it meant. Then someone described it as ‘doing everyday things better’ and everyone immediately got it.”
Before deciding what to write, it is important to think about the reader, to ensure that the right tone and structure, such as a storytelling technique, is used. Taylor says that a lot of the best marketing makes the person you are aiming for feel as if a real person from the company is talking to them as an individual. “When one of those ‘people’ is missing, the communication doesn’t work.”
He adds that “great business writing is also about finding ways to put more of your own personality into your communication. Flashes of personality are what really engage us. It’s where the emotion comes in. It’s our opportunity to persuade people, cajole them, surprise them and even touch them. Which is what marketing is supposed to be about.”
Blasé in their bamboozling
As well as obscuring messages by wrapping them up in technical language, marketers also tend to be self-deluding about how well their market is responding to them.
In his book Marketing Unwrapped, Ray Perry quotes Synesis research showing that when it comes to dealing with their colleagues, “78 per cent of marketers rated themselves as good or excellent at working cross-functionally, whereas only 23 per cent of their colleagues thought the same.” One of the main complaints, cited by nearly a quarter of those interviewed, was that marketers “did not communicate with the rest of the business when developing or launching their plans”.
Many marketers find it easier to talk than to listen, which could be why they sometimes fail to notice when their audience is less than impressed. “Marketers, by their very nature, often believe that they are excellent communicators,” says Chartered Institute of Marketing head of training Neil Scurlock, “but just because they may be able to produce mind-blowing ad copy, it doesn’t mean that they can motivate their team to produce exceptional results.” He says that marketers should really work on their communications skills in order to improve their relationships with colleagues, suppliers and customers.
Turning to experts in human psychology is one way marketers try to find out how different people operate, to help in addressing them more effectively. The problem is that psychology is not an exact science and there is no shortage of theories about how people relate to each other.
Particularly prevalent in training at the moment are methods drawn from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), with its theories about the ways in which people receive and remember information – for instance, whether they are more “visual” or “verbal”. Trainers have embraced NLP since the Eighties, and many practitioners are so enthusiastic about it that they appear almost evangelical.
Proof of its current popularity is shown by typing “neuro-linguistic programming” into search engines: Lycos and Google bring up about 30,000 results, and that’s just for the UK. There is fierce debate over the scientific validity of NLP, but like many other psychological approaches, one of the most useful aspects of NLP is that it forces people to think about their audience, and appreciate that people communicate in different ways. By paying attention to the person you are addressing – really paying attention – you are more likely to get their attention.
Whatever psychology underlies a communications course, the proof of its effectiveness is in the results it achieves. The difficulty is measuring these results. Taylor admits it is difficult to measure the impact of training in communication skills: “It won’t translate into numbers, but it will translate into confidence, creativity and a willingness to try things out.” He says he also measures the success of courses by looking at whether clients ask for him to go back and do refresher clinics, or provide reminder e-mails.
Although it is theoretically possible to measure people’s communication skills objectively, using methods prevalent in assessment centres, such processes are likely to be high-cost and low-return. Ian Luxford, head of learning at the Grass Roots Group training company, uses more immediate ways to gauge the success of his work: “When I have presented to a client, I often ask them at the next meeting what, if anything, they got out of my presentation. It’s interesting to see what they remember and whether this matches the key points I wanted to communicate.”
Good or gobbledegook?
There may be no machine for measuring good communication skills (yet), but who needs one when it is so easy to find out whether people have understood your message? All you have to do is ask them. Mentor Consultancy director Tina Coulsting believes that we are all continuously under test by the way others perceive us and respond to us. She says: “Whether we are conscious of it or not, all of us go around with our ‘communication detectors’ on all the time.”
She says Mentor encourages every trainee to see themselves under test conditions when they talk to others. “It sounds awful, but being aware that what you say and how you say it is going to affect your own and your company’s reputation is good way of making sure you prepare what you want to say, even in informal situations.”
The best course in the world will only help people to improve their skills if they are prepared to put in the work. Communicating is something we all do without thinking about it – but by preparing beforehand and studying the audience the message can be made more dynamic. Yet, as management guru Peter Drucker says, communication isn’t all about putting your own message across: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
Marketing Week asked The London School of Marketing, the Institute of Direct Marketing and the Marketing Communication Consultants Association how they provide training that helps the marketing industry improve its verbal, and written, delivery. See boxes.
LONDON SCHOOL OF MARKETING
The London School of Marketing says that its courses, from the CIM Professional Certificate in Marketing (which 15,000 students take each June) to the postgraduate diplomas, are all designed and run with communication at the forefront of the syllabus. LSM uses training methods that are far removed from a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ approach. The focus is on encouraging students to put theory into practice, with a strong emphasis on work experience and solving real problems in the business world.
‘The classic approach in education is very passive, with lecturers delivering facts and students absorbing them, and subsequently regurgitating the same facts in order to pass the exams,’ says Darrell Kofkin, LSM founding director. ‘LSM’s approach goes much further.’ For instance, Kofkin describes how working in teams stimulates and encourages students to communicate thoughts and ideas. He emphasises the importance of getting students to think before they speak or act: ‘Listening is crucial, whether it’s to lecturers or peers; students are also taught to be open-minded, non-judgemental and to respect their colleagues’ views.’
One LSM graduate, Xavier Rijmenans, from Belgium and now product manager in the marketing department of ICI Paints in the UK, confirms that the approach helped him to increase his ability to argue his case effectively, even though he is using English – not his first language. He says a vital part of the course was conducting presentations to lecturers and fellow students, who would then challenge his ideas and debate the issues. ‘This experience has given me more confidence, and I am now much more comfortable, not only in formulating new proposals, but in being able to present them in a positive manner to my colleagues.’
THE INSTITUTE OF DIRECT MARKETING
IDM managing director Professor Derek Holder believes that marketing does not attract people who are any better at communication than any other profession. However, he adds: ‘Good oral and written skills are important for marketing, not only in communications to customers but also in internal communications. I also believe you can improve a person’s communication skills through professional development and training, particularly in the areas of presentation and report writing. It is far more important that people in marketing have character and personality and can think laterally.’
The IDM offers two open courses that specifically develop communications skills: the Effective Presentations Skills and Effective Negotiation Skills courses. Collectively, 85 of the IDM’s 2,100 delegates attended these last year. In addition, the IDM works with companies delivering bespoke courses that include communications skills – for instance, it recently developed and delivered a Certificate in CRM for Vodafone.
As well as these specially tailored courses, the IDM Diploma interweaves communications skills development through its syllabus, testing ability when the students make group presentations and pitches. Last year, 300 students graduated with the IDM Diploma and since its inception there have been more than 6,000 graduates.
MARKETING COMMUNICATION CONSULTANTS ASSOCIATION
More than 120 agency staff a year attend MCCA Excellence In Account Handling training courses. Running at four levels – graduate, account executive, account manager and account director – the aim is to analyse and develop individual communications abilities. The training covers presentation, negotiating, appraisal, writing, creative briefing and examines how a person comes across day to day.
MCCA managing director Scott Knox says that what makes these courses unique is that former agency people teach them, allowing students to learn directly from the experiences of others. He adds: ‘There are at least three guest speakers for each course, giving insights from clients, creatives and senior agency personnel. Each also has work to be carried out after the initial tuition, which determines whether the individual passes or fails – and some have failed.’
Cahoot marketing director Deborah Cutler claims that the difference in the service delivered by her agency’s account director after attending the MCCA training was considerable: ‘It should be compulsory for all account handlers.’
Micky Stemmer, from Liquid Communications, the winner of 2003 MCCA Best Junior Account Handler, says the best thing about the course was that it not only taught in-depth theory, but followed it all up with real and clear practical application. ‘We came away knowing how to put everything into practice. It really has helped me to improve my role as an agency account handler.’