Communicate Value: Fight List Maker Syndrome

05/28/2015 10:15 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

One of the secrets of successful people is that they make lists of things they want to accomplish. Then they march along their to-do list to accomplishment nirvana. While that may work for productivity, it's a terrible technique for communicating. Yet too often, people suffer from what I call the list-maker syndrome. Instead of talking about problems they solve and the ways they help enterprises move the needle, businesses and organizations offer lists of products, services, and attributes. And because they fail to insert themselves into the context of what matters most to their audiences, they miss the big chance to communicate true value.

Are you valuable?
This issue came into clear focus recently when working with two very different clients. One was trying to articulate the differentiating qualities for a new business pitch; the other was drafting marketing content. In both cases, they talked about "deep experience," being "expert" and "strategic," "caring about clients," and "offering a wide array of services." Almost the exact same words appeared, even though the clients were in completely different business sectors.

The attributes they used to describe themselves are wonderful. But think about it. Who in their right minds would say that they are inexperienced, have no expertise, and are not strategic? What was missing in each case was a storyline that lets audience members see themselves in a relationship with these enterprises. What's needed are messages that not only communicate value, but compel the target audience to become more engaged--that is, buy something, endorse something, feel the need to patronize and support.

Here are a few tips for how to overcome the list-maker syndrome.

Get out of your own head.
You can be justifiably proud if you have worked with firms in 20 industries, or if your list of services fills up an entire web page. But while you're demonstrating how busy you are, you may be the only one who cares. What really counts is how the world around you has been transformed by all that activity and what your clients, customers, or supporters realize as a result of what you do.

Adjust your mindset to see the sphere in which you operate through your client or customer's lens. If in doubt, apply the "so that" rule, as in "I do this, so that you can achieve that." For example, "We offer a suite of services so that you can maximize productivity and build your bottom line."

Get a handle on the problems your clients want to solve.
Value is created when you increase the things that people want--profits, talent, productivity--and reduce or eliminate the things they don't want--stress, hassles, excess spending, and time-wasting projects and processes. Learn the things that keep prospects and clients up at night. Talk to your customers and clients, not about what you can provide, but what they want to achieve and what's holding them back. Then target those needs.

In action, it looks like this: "The ability to provide social media and marketing communications support" is list-maker-speak. "Putting your products, services, and opportunities in front of motivated buyers or donors" is value-speak. "Providing intellectual property legal services" is list-maker-speak. "Protecting the earnings of musicians, artists, and writers so their work product is not stolen" is value-speak. "Providing team building workshops" is list-maker-speak. "Bringing dysfunctional teams together to stop a costly talent drain" is value-speak.

Use storytelling to demonstrate how you deliver value.
Storytelling isn't just communications-industry buzz. Significant published research over the past couple of decades suggests that narratives light up certain parts of our brains, so hearing or reading stories make us feel not just more alive, but closer to the storyteller.

After you've piqued audience interest by promising to reduce or eliminate a vexing problem or save time or money, it's a great idea to demonstrate how you accomplish that by telling a success story. If you are an accounting firm providing tax advice, you might say, "We help small businesses thrive by navigating the complexity of IRS rules. Just last week we worked with a company that had been overpaying because they didn't know about a deduction that could save them $100,000. Our expertise helped the firm recover enough money to buy a new software system that had been put on hold."

Use verbs first--and then nouns--to describe what you can do.
Verbs communicate movement and create momentum. Nouns are actors, but need to be activated. Good verbs to use: "reducing," "eliminating," "increasing," "improving," "growing," and "creating." Good nouns to use when discussing increases and supplements are "growth," "return on investment," "efficiency," "productivity," and "stability." When you talk about soothing a client's headaches, use nouns like "burnout," "strife," "stress," "waste," and "inefficiency."

To move from list-speak to value-speak requires stepping back and thinking through, not what you do, but why what you do matters to someone else. The why is what fuels demand, drives loyalty, and achieves results. It may not always be easy. But the returns are priceless.