To focus or not to focus?

It’s one of those days when a recurring theme crops up in reading blogs. Jennifer Rice (referencing a good debate over at Darcy Burner‘s blog) is talking about the importance of focus. She says

If I buy your software (product service, whatever) instead of the alternative (pick one primary alternative, not several), I’ll get what benefit and why. Answer that question — without using the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ — and you’re on your way to creating a focused positioning platform that paints a clear, unambiguous picture in customers’ minds. And once they can visualize using your product in a way that’s meaningful to them, you’re that much closer to winning their business.

Meanwhile, in a good entry, seductively titled The six tendencies of persuasive blogs, (and do read it for the other five!), Piers Young says

Keep a focus to your blog. Just being yourself might be enough.

And then Ton Zijltra is promoting the search for The Perfect Corporate Weblogging Elevator Pitch.

Judith Meskill invites you to imagine you’re finally in an elevator ride with the CEO and you have this one chance to explain it all in the one and a half minute it takes to bring you to the floor you need to be. What will you say?

All three good thought-provoking stuff (I’m remembering Piers’ fourth point… and his first).

Now let me declare my own hand here. I have struggled and agonised for a very long time in response to people who say to me, “John, I like your site but I still don’t know exactly what you do…”. The focus thing. In fact, last weekend I went into the Ourhouse main site and rewrote bits of it to try and pin myself down a little more. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’ve succeeded. And I’m not sure I want to succeed either.

Now I want this to be a posting in the spirit of “Yes, And” not “No, but”. (Still on Piers’ fourth tendency here!) I am quite sure I could do with simplifying my ideas and nailing my colours to the mast. I am horribly indecisive about how to pitch my wares to the world, at least I am at the moment. So more focus may be good for me, and others. And if you look at Curt Rosengren or Church of the Customer, these are pretty good examples of focussed blogs that have vitality and passion.

AND that’s not quite the whole story. The world, I find, works on conversation and word-of-mouth and not as the slavish chorus to grand arias of us marketing folk. When I’m speaking about branding I get the audience to do a version of chinse whispers to emphasise that how a brand is interpreted is more in the control of the listener’s mind than the speaker’s. You might have the most focussed USP for your company, but that doesn’t mean what your audience understands will be the same thing. It’s important not to confuse controlling the stimulus with controlling the response.

The question I’m asking myself is this: if your product/service does lots of different things for different people do you want to go in and disrupt these conversations by insisting on a single truth in your marketing? That’s not the same thing, by the way, as being all things to all people.

And you’re bound to enjoy this argument for the periphery quoted by Earl Mardle

Picture yourself watching a one-minute video of two teams of three players each. One team wears white shirts and the other black shirts, and the members move around one another in a small room tossing two basketballs. Your task is to count the number of passes made by the white team–not easy given the weaving movement of the players. Unexpectedly, after 35 seconds a gorilla enters the room, walks directly through the farrago of bodies, thumps his chest and, nine seconds later, exits. Would you see the gorilla?

Most of us believe we would. In fact, 50 percent of subjects in this remarkable experiment by Daniel J. Simons of the University of Illinois and Christopher F. Chabris of Harvard University did not see the gorilla, even when asked if they noticed anything unusual…

Now, you might be thinking that this is really about our old friend data overload – if you say too much, people don’t listen. Good point, but then as regular readers will recall, no less an authority than my friend Ton has established that data overload doesn’t exist…) And they will listen if what you say engages them – and not if you recite some standard mantra designed for the average recipient.

And the thing that gets me about the whole elevator speech meme is the implicit assumption that when you meet a CEO you should allow him/her to force you into distilling yourself into 90 seconds. I sometimes quip that my response would be:

One thing I do is help organisations recover from the dreadful adverse effects of bosses who make people squeeze themselves into 90 second speeches – instead of fostering respectful conversations… I do this by challenging such people to answer – and we’ve got about 55 seconds left now – what’s it like to get a taste of your own medicine? Hurry, time’s running out!”

None of which is to say focus is always bad. Absolutely not. There have definitely been times in my life when I have been more single-minded and they have often been exciting (and occasionally disastrous). For me, this is clearly not one of those times… even if it may turn out to be the prelude to one…

Interim conclusion: the truth is probably paradoxical (see my post on polarity management).

Oh, and talk about synchronicity. I’ve just this second noticed a new post of Curt’s: There’s more than one right answer.

1 thought on “To focus or not to focus?

  1. Piers Young

    Great post! For me, the focus/not-to-focus question seems to have a couple of parallels.

    First is the doing/learning divide. As soon as you have a task to do, filters naturally come in (as in the gorilla example). Equally, if I’m trying to learn (e.g. what is there that’s interesting on the playing field), while there may be some focus on the subject matter in hand, I’ll tend to range around trying to make connections.

    Second is the dialectic/rhetoric divide. Dialectic as argument to a focused goal, or a “truth”. Rhetoric as argument that takes in the various needs and questions of an audience to get the message across.


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