Zen and the Art of...Business Communications?

Back in high school, or shortly after, a close friend recommended a book he claimed changed his life. I’ve meant to read it for all those years since, and happened to buy it this summer for one of my sons. Recently I got tired of pushing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance around the coffee table and picked it up to read. Only a few pages in, I became distracted by two things that had everything and nothing to do with the quality of writing in the book.

First… had I read this book 30 years ago, it would have been in a completely different way. The first person narrative begins with the description by a father of an early morning motorcycle ride with his 11-year-old son through a Minnesota prairie in July. His description is detailed and illustrative. The teenage me, who had never ridden a motorcycle, would have had to take his word for the experience.  Today, a crusty Harley-riding father of four sons could smell the marsh grass and motor oil, feel the vibration of the engine and bumps in the road, but most importantly, fully understand the bond between the narrator and the boy clutching his ribs.

Second… many paragraphs could be lifted and presented as if about a ride taken last weekend, while others would highlight how very different the rural areas of the United States have become.

So what does that have to do with business communications?

On the primary point, we are often engaged in persuasion of audiences that have an experience set different from our own. So, while the communicator may be attempting to influence what sociologists would call the “other,” the writer likely has difficulty communicating in terms that resonate from the outsider’s perspective. Great business communicators leverage the ability to immerse themselves in the psyche of audiences very different from themselves. This requires research, experiences and maybe even (shudder) contact with people different from you in some way. If that doesn’t work, try convincing the designers to use larger type with your old copy. That won’t help, but it will feel like you tried.

On the other issue, in a world where our products and services sometimes seem to change before we can post a new status on Facebook, what’s the point of writing that has staying power?  What struck me in Pirsig’s writing were the lingering truths. The smells, the sights, the sounds… it is the senses that touch us most quickly on the surface. But in returning to the first point, the most powerful connections stem from connecting these senses to the experience and emotions of the audience in ways that are compelling.

Do this in an ad, on a website, or in face-to-face contact with an audience member, while making a link to the outcome you desire, and success will be yours. At least for a moment.