I’ve been telling friends about my job with the Olympics in Beijing. After all, I’m excited about it. And they’re curious.
“What will you be doing there,” they ask.
“Before the games, I’ll be installing commentary systems,” I reply. “This is the equipment that adds the commentators’ voices to the video feeds they’re sending back to their countries. Once the games begin, I’ll be operating the equipment and making sure each network gets the audio it needs.”
“Oh, so you’ll be doing the announcing…” They struggle in earnest to try to understand.
“No,” I patiently explain. “I just operate the equipment. I don’t do the talking.”
At this point, my friend’s spouse arrives and receives the news that I’m working at the Olympics. “He’s going to be announcing!” the spouse is told.
If Winnie the Pooh were telling the story, the next words out of his mouth would be, “Oh, bother.”
The problem is that my definition of what I’m doing in Beijing is a little bit technical, and it’s outside the sphere of familiarity for most people. That’s a phrase I just coined which refers to a person’s ability to process or file away a piece of information in one’s mind based on what one already knows or has already experienced. People have a hard time remembering how to pronounce my last name because it has an “sz” in it and that throws them off. When I tell them it rhymes with “nozzle,” they suddenly have a familiar point of reference and can file it away for later retrieval. In the case of my job in Beijing, all they know about Olympic broadcasting is what the guy on TV does. They forget that there’s an entire crew (or several) working behind the scenes at the same time, without whom there would be no broadcast.
I mention all of this because in my “real” job, I have to take a client’s idea and figure out how to communicate it to the intended audience in a way that will make sense. That requires me to consider the listener’s sphere of familiarity. The only way a listener will stop what he or she is doing, and actually listen and consider what my client has to say is if there is already a connection of some sort — if the listener is already familiar with, or in need of, what my client has to offer. I’m sorry that it took me so long to see this need in my own attempts at communicating with my friends.
Until you reach inside the listener’s sphere of familiarity and need, there’s no reason to listen. This is why commercials that talk about how long Company X has been in business, and why Company X is the best company to choose for all you _____ needs, are irrelevant. The listener wasn’t setting out to learn something new about Company X. The listener has enough going on in his own life to worry about. So focus on your listener’s sphere. Remember, scratching a person who doesn’t know he’s got an itch is irritating … not helpful. But scratching where it itches is welcome relief.