It’s been a while since I last blogged – I guess you could say I’ve been focussing on the PhD rather than entertaining the random thoughts that float around in my head (probably a good thing!)
I was recently asked to do a radio interview for a Sunday morning science show, and had been advised by our media officer that “if I wasn’t feeling nervous, then it’s probably not a good thing”. I was certainly apprehensive going in, but once we got going, I felt “in the groove” and came out with a sense that it had gone well, and was feeling confident that I had kept people’s interest on an otherwise unpleasant breakfast topic of constipation.
But I can assure you, it wasn’t always this way. I was quite the opposite when it came to communicating ideas locked up in my head – sure, I was personable if you met me on the street, but ask me to explain technical things and within a few minutes, I was guaranteed to bore everyone to death.
So I began to ask myself “What happened to the way I communicated in the past that changed over time?” What struck me as the most obvious thing that I’d completely overlooked was that I learned how to sell digital cameras.
Yeah, you heard me. Digital cameras. For an average of twice to three time a week for 6 years.
Cameras are interesting products to sell. They’re technically complex devices, they require more than a will to “point and click” to get good results from and are products that carry (to a degree), emotion. The scope and complexity of cameras varies a lot, and every customer has different requirements. The technology behind them also changes rapidly.
I was lucky in the sense that I had a very firm grasp of technology; starting this job part-time in a dedicated photographic retailer while I went through an electrical engineering degree was mutually beneficial. My studies afforded me a technical insight that others in our company’s sales team did not have the luxury of, and the retail environment gave me a place to apply this knowledge in. However, for me to be fully proficient in my sales role, I had to learn a huge amount about general photography and sales in a very short period of time, as customers expected me to have that level of expertise – it was the only reason why they would come to us in the first place.
One of the main problems I faced was how to empower customers to feel they understood enough about what they were purchasing, without them feeling like I was giving them a hard sales pitch. All in a limited amount of time (5-10 mins). Over the years, I overcame this problem by
- Listening to my customers, then asking specific questions to truly understand the problems they were trying to solve
- Condensing my sales pitch down to 5 minutes, while still giving them the information they needed
- Quickly acquiring knowledge about new cameras and features, as customers often did internet research and would know more about camera-specific features than me
The constant talking to strangers built up my confidence in engaging all sorts of personalities. Combined with good product knowledge, I was able to develop my own selling style. A training session staff were provided on relationship selling introduced me to Tony Alessandra’s personality categorising system, and it was extremely useful for me to hone in on the type of people I was engaging with, so I could accommodate their thought-processes, communication, cultural and emotional traits. A personal interest in portrait photography, and a dabbling in semi-professional wedding photography also allowed me to engage highly discerning customers (advanced amateurs and professionals), as I could share in-the-field experience with them. For them, I became more of a friend in the business, rather than an order-taker or problem solver. However, that only came after 3-4 years of working in the industry.
Little did I know that all these skills would help build my communication style, and shape the way I communicated science and other technical information. Looking back, the parallels are clear:
- Communicating complex ideas in a simple, efficient manner. Scientific/technical concepts are not the easiest things to bring across to someone, esp. if they’re in a general audience. Most of my customers did not understand what APS-C or Full-Frame sensors were, but after explaining to them that most cameras have small image sensors, and full-frame cameras have better image quality because they have an image sensor the same size at 35mm film, they were able to get a better understanding of the technology they were potentially interested in, and the implications it had on their purchasing decisions.
- Having a very good understanding of your area of expertise, and how it relates to other areas. Digital cameras are as much, miniature computers, so understanding their interactions between them and other associated technologies enabled me to solve many of my customer’s problems. So as a scientist/academic/engineer, knowing your field thoroughly is one thing, but being able to draw linkages and parallels to other areas is what sets you apart.
- Practice is key. Spending 2.5 days a week on average for 6 years gave me a lot of time to hone my communication skills. It’s the same when it comes to communicating ideas and knowledge that you’re an expert in. The more you speak about it, the better you get. Meeting sales targets to keep my job made me a proficient communicator and listener.
- Understanding who you are communicating with. A few of the mistakes I would see at work were sales staff engaging their customers incorrectly and losing business either by talking about complex technologies when Mum and Dad just wanted to take some happy-snaps of their kids, or by showing seasoned photographers equipment that didn’t really solve the problems they had. All because the staff member hadn’t done enough homework about their customer (by asking questions/listening properly) or because they had poor product knowledge. As a technical communicator, not only should you be an expert in your area, but you need to know about who you’re communicating to, why you’re doing it and what you’re aiming to achieve. This can be quite casually defined (for example, in a social setting), or quite stringently defined (in the case of a technical feasibility study, as an example). So doing your homework about the the various aspects of your communication pipeline and target(s) is/are critical.
- Walking in your audiences’ shoes. I found the trickiest, but most rewarding customers to serve were those that really knew what they wanted to achieve in their photography. Often, my conversations with them had very little to do with particular products, but their experiences they’d encountered out in the field shooting weddings, events, portraits, etc. It was only when I started to do a bit of photography semi-professionally, was I able to understand their problems and provide them with appropriate solutions. The closure of a sale was simply a by-product of me understanding their problem domain, empathising with their experience and then providing them a solution that really solved their problem. A similar approach can be applied with technical communication – asking yourself “What’s my audience likely to know/not know about what I’m talking to them about?” is the first step in a successful engagement. If you don’t know what those things are, doing your homework is a pre-requisite step.
Today, I find myself a lot more confident when talking about technically complex things (when asked), and I can attribute that confidence to the skills I’d picked up as a sales consultant – something that I’m thankful for. It’s an odd connection that ties photographic retail to technical/scientific communication, but I hope my experience inspires you to find such linkages, and makes you a more engaging and interesting communicator of complex (and often important) ideas.