Tired of Getting that Glazed-Eye Look from People who Don’t Understand Your Innovative Product?

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It’s not their fault. Most of us find it easier to politely stare and nod than we do to admit we’re completely confused. Asian cultures aren’t the only contexts in which people will go to great lengths to avoid “losing face.”

Nor is it your fault. You probably do a great job of describing, in detail, the ins and outs of your offering. I’m guessing that you’ve spent hours and hours working out your value proposition, analyzing your buyer personas, and developing a market-ready message.

The trouble is that there’s no possible way the market can be ready to hear what you have to say. Your target audience, whether they’re funders or potential customers, lacks the basic tools they need to make sense of your novel ideas and information: a frame of reference and the language that invokes it.

So don’t blame your audience for not making an effort to take you seriously. And don’t blame yourself for not explaining your products or services clearly enough. Blame “hypocognition” instead.

University of Michigan psychologists Kaidi Wu and David Dunning define hypocognition as “lacking a cognitive or linguistic representation of a concept.”[1] They illustrate this phenomenon with a story that many innovators can relate to.

Early in the nineteenth century, an enterprising businessman from Boston, Frederic Tudor, came up with what he thought would be a sure-fire win. He decided to sell ice to people on West Indies island of Martinque. Imagine his disappointment when the islanders shrugged off his offering. Never having encountered ice before, they could not appreciate what it could do for them, and they rejected it.

I picture Tudor hawking product samples on the beach in Martinique: “Come try a glass of cold water!” And I picture the islanders just walking by, looking quizzically at Tudor’s kiosk and wondering, “Why on earth would you want to drink water cold?”

Without a concept or language to represent ice, you can’t understand its uses. And even in our hyper-educated Western society, no one can have the language for everything. The average English speaker knows maybe 10 percent of the words in the English language[2]. That leaves a lot of margin for hypocognition.

So what does it take to compensate for hypocognition? You can “translate” new concepts into language your audience already understands and help them develop the frame through which you view and value your innovative product.

Meet your audience where they are

Many experts love glossaries. Their solution to bridging the knowledge gap between themselves and their audience is to provide definitions for technical terms. When they produce a lot of definitions, they proudly compile them into an appendix, which they offer as a value-add to their document.

This is a medieval approach. The monastic practice of “glossing” a handwritten manuscript, adding explanations and interpretations in the margins, doesn’t serve most business readers because it requires too much effort.

When you add a glossary, you’re asking your audience not only to read your main content but also to read the content explaining that content. You’re requiring them to first muddle through language they don’t understand, then learn that language, and then apply their newly acquired vocabulary to the content they read but didn’t comprehend in the first place.

TMW is what I say. Too Much Work. Rather than forcing your readers through a laborious process, meet them where they are. Start by using nontechnical language and then attach that language to a technical term. Here's an example: To evaluate the materials, we use a device that identifies substances by measuring the wavelength and frequency of light they emit (a spectrometer).

Build a new frame

The mental frameworks, or schemata, we have access to limit our ability to make sense of the world around us. Wu and Dunning explain how the knowledge structures we have in place restrict our ability to process concepts and information that lie outside those structures: "people’s finite conceptual horizons are a pervasive and powerful constraint on how they make sense of the world. These horizons represent the hard boundaries of where people’s possible interpretation can go and define the finite channels into which their understanding is funneled."[3]

Recognizing the “conceptual horizons” of your target audience can feel frustrating at first. But you can’t wish, cajole, or threaten someone to step beyond the “hard boundaries” of their cognition. You can only build a bridge for them to step onto.

That bridge is a new frame they can access and use to interpret what you have to say. For instance, if I could have given Frederic Tudor some advice, I would have urged him to investigate how the people of Martinique conceived of refreshment. How did they verbalize the pleasure that comes from experiencing coolness in a hot climate? What positive words, images, and metaphors did they associate with coolness?

Equipped with that knowledge, Tudor could have presented ice through frames his audience was already using. He could have spoken to them in the language that shaped their world view rather than asking them to change their perspective and learn a new language to go with it.

How could you create new frames to help your audience understand the value of your innovative product or service? What could you do today to immerse yourself more deeply in your audience’s world view life through their perspective and language?

If you’d like to learn more about how framing affects your messaging, let’s connect, either here or by email: dawn@clarityconnect.ca.

[1] Wu, K., & Dunning, D. (2018). Hypocognition: Making Sense of the Landscape Beyond One’s Conceptual Reach. Review of General Psychology 22 (1): 25.

[2] Wu and Dunning note that a 20-year-old knows about 42,000 words, and a 60-year old knows about 48,000. A typical dictionary contains upwards of 470,000 words. (Wu & Dunning, 25).

[3] Wu & Dunning, 25.


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