Car Talk

Much to nobody’s surprise, I don’t know a lot about cars.

Yes, I’m capable of changing a flat tire and checking my oil. I know how to refill the wiper fluid.

One time, last summer, I even managed to successfully replace the “cabin air filter” in our minivan, a Google-aided, two-day task that had me wondering why the air in the cabin needed to be filtered anyway.

And so last week, when my left turn signal suddenly started clicking at roughly four times its usually sleepy pace, I did what any unskilled car owner would do: I tried not to think about it.

I figured, “Hey, so it’s clicking faster. I’ll just turn slower and it will all average out.”

A couple of days later, though, I was nearly rear-ended as I took a left turn from the busy road that leads to my neighborhood.

To make matters worse, not only did the other driver nearly hit me, he honked in an unfriendly manner as he flew by. Jerk.

But as I pulled into my driveway seconds later, it occurred to me that something didn’t seem quite right.

So I put the parking brake on, left the engine running and turned on the left turn signal. Then I walked behind my car.

Nothing. Not even a faint blink to accompany the loud noise within my cabin.

As it turns out and again, according to Google, a rapidly ticking turn signal is “a sign that one of your blinker lights is out.” (It may also be a sign that you are, in fact, the jerk.)

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about you.

What I was thinking about was how easy it is to assume that what we hear “inside our car” (i.e. our business) is the same as what the outside world sees when they look in our direction.

We think we’re communicating clearly. They don’t know what we’re talking about.

We think our automated systems work. They know that they’re broken.

We think we sound like this. They think we sound like that.

You get the picture. You and your colleagues are happily and obliviously driving around town in your car while everyone else thinks you’re the worst motorists on the road.

Two suggestions for making sure this doesn’t happen to you:

Suggestion #1: Take it for a test drive.

There’s nothing wrong with tweaking and fine-tuning your marketing copy, web site, elevator statement, etc. But there’s a limit to how good it can get in the comfort of your own office. The true test is how it plays with the humans outside of your organization.

As much as possible, use live interactions to try out your stuff. Pay close attention to whether other people seem to find it understandable and/or interesting. Modify from there.

(Hint: Aim for clear and simple as opposed to impressive and shiny.)

Suggestion #2: Every once in a while, take a walk around your car.

It took me several days to even get an inkling that my light was out … and it wasn’t confirmed until I got out and took a look around back.

Do the same with your business. Subscribe/unsubscribe to your newsletter; download your free reports; call your own voicemail and listen to the message; get yourself a Gmail, yahoo, iPhone, Thunderbird, Outlook account and see what your emails look like in other formats.

Maybe everything worked fine when you first set it up. Maybe it’s broken now.

Here’s the bottom line. I love automation, especially when it comes to running my business. But the signs that something isn’t working can be hard to hear.

Find ways to experience your words and your business from the point of view of the outside world. It may help you avoid some nasty and unexpected accidents.

About the author

Michael Katz is a Boston-based marketing consultant and founder of Blue Penguin Development. He specializes in helping professional service firms stand out from the pack by positioning them as Likeable Experts. Get a free copy of his report, "The 5 Biggest Blocks to Writing a Monthly Newsletter (and how to overcome them)," here: http://bluepenguindevelopment.com/subscribe/

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