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Be Specific

If I could impart one piece of career-accelerating advice, it’d be to get specific with your customer stories and examples. There is no easier way to increase your credibility, make more powerful arguments, and stand out from your peers than by mentioning customers by name.

Which of these statements is more powerful?

“A lot of our customers have been asking us to build a better reporting engine”

Or

“In the last four weeks I’ve had 10 conversations with customers and found that customers like Coke, Apple, Exxon Mobile, Twitter, and Ford all need a stronger reporting capability”

I’ll tell you right now that the first example drives. me. crazy. The very first question that pops into my head is “WHO?!” quickly followed by “WHY?!”

Humans love to be told stories and good stories have details. They mention timeframes (“four weeks”). They mention characters “Coke, Apple, Exxon, Twitter, Ford.” If this story continued it would talk about the challenges these characters are facing and how they’re solving those problems today.

So enrich your stories by referencing characters whenever you can. It helps bring your audience along and paints a richer, more detailed picture for them to follow. Instead of a gray blob of “customer” your audience can picture Coke, Apple, or Ford actually struggling with the problem. For some of them, it may remind them of interactions they’ve had with users at those companies.

Best of all, mentioning customers by name helps everyone realize that you’ve done your homework. By mentioning the number of interviews, survey responses, and prototype tests you’ve done you’re showing (rather than telling) everyone in the room that you’re an expert on this problem. You may not have the right answer, but the conclusions you’re drawing follow logically from the data you’ve collected. Implicit in this type of specificity is transparency — “don’t believe me? Read the interviews yourself.”

And nothing is more powerful than open-book leadership.

Even in conversations where you may not be able to use customers by name, specificity still helps. Instead of “another customer of ours does x…” try “We have another customer who is a large regional player in your space with 26 locations and they do x…” Obviously not as powerful, but these little details add up and lend a huge amount of credibility to your point. If you’ve ever listened to someone whose good at this type of non-name name dropping you’ll see how effortlessly they can weave it into their narrative and how those little details about who the referenced customer might be pull you in.

When stories lack details like customer names or interaction counts you are creating some amount of doubt in your listeners. People will mistake your facts for opinions and instead of hearing “this is thoroughly researched and here’s the direction we’re taking” they’ll hear “here’s what I think” and they’ll start asking questions in their head — Does she really know what she’s talking about? Are we building the right thing? Whose problems am I solving?

Next time someone is speaking at your company, pay attention to how they tell their story and how they incorporate their customer examples. You’ll be surprised at the number of times a “many customers…” or “as we all know our customers…” gets dropped into a presentation or document. Notice the mini alarm bells that get triggered in your head.

How do you use customer examples to drive home your points?

What other ideas do you have for making your presentations more memorable and powerful?

Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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