A recent video I really enjoyed provides an extremely memorable anecdote, and some thoughts:
Simon Sinek (the speaker, an ethnographer and leadership guru-type) approached a homeless woman with a typical sign asking for handouts, reading something like, “I’m hungry, I’m homeless, I have children, please help.” He volunteered another approach, making the plea less about her and more about her potential donors: “If you only give once a month, please think of me next time.”
He claims she went from her average 20-30 dollars a day to making 40 dollars in two hours. All by addressing her audiences’ needs instead of her own. The new message alleviates potential guilt (“See, I understand you can’t always give, and that’s okay.”), as well as any worries about her motivations (“Yes, I really do need it, I’ve been here before and will be here again.”). I hope that story is true, because it’s totally brilliant.
This is 20 minutes into an interesting talk about how we crave connection with others more than anything, and are constantly on the lookout for symbols that help us establish that connection. The woman’s sign connects because it’s her considering your position, not just broadcasting hers. If you’re traveling overseas, just hearing someone speaking the same language is an excuse to connect. In your home city, maybe it’s a sports cap or an accent.
But it could also be the brand of clothes you wear or electronics you carry. All the most-loved companies got that way not just by making the best stuff (though many also do that), but by having a badge value. A great brand stands for something that its fans want to be seen as standing for too. Which can sometimes be mistaken for “cool”, but is more about conveying meaning — broadcasting something about ourselves in the hope others will pick up on it. It’s the same reason people tweet or update or blog or share anything online. We’re all just hoping someone notices and responds. We want to connect with each other.
It’s a desire a lot of companies seem to get slightly wrong, though. There’s a persistent idea that they should be having a ‘conversation’ with their audience now that these new technologies exist. But do most people want a connection with their TV brand? Their potato chip company? Their car dealership? They may want information or service from those entities, occasionally, but ongoing conversation? Not really. What people really want is better, more interesting conversations with other people. If they’re doing a good job, sometimes those companies will do or create something worth talking about. If they do it often enough, the symbol becomes shorthand for lots of interesting conversations past and present, and people who want to seem interesting display their interest in that symbol by putting it on their car or backpack or even body.
Really interesting people don’t just join conversations, or keep conversations going for the purpose of filling the silence. They start ones that everyone wants to join. Ones that are worth having again with new people they talk to later, because they can’t stop thinking about them, because they matter.