Good Content Strategy: Talk Like a Pilot

Pilot

Pilot (Photo credit: Barnaby Kerr Photography)

If you’ve ever listened to Channel 9 audio on a United flight, you’ve heard conversations between pilots and air traffic control. The structure of these conversations, although developed early in the twentieth century, has a lot to teach us about content strategy and twenty-first century communications.

Novice pilots are often nervous about breaking into the stream of messages, especially in busy air space like the San Francisco Bay Area. Everyone is talking at the same time, using specialized language, and it’s very hard just to get a word in. Does this sound at all familiar to any content or communications professionals? Flight instructors have a very simple way to break down this challenge for students. They tell us that a correct radio call includes four things: who you’re talking to, who you are,  where you are, and what you want. Pilots evolved this communications structure in the days when radios didn’t work very well. To break through the static, communications had to be simple and clear. Sort of like trying to break through all the marketing messages your prospects are bombarded with.

Answering these four simple questions provides a model for creating clear messages, no matter who you are talking to. Here’s how it works.

Who are you talking to?

Too often, companies produce generic messages. Any comms manager more than a week out of school has had the experience of asking about the audience for a product and hearing the dreaded “Everyone needs this.” Well, no. Pilots who want to land don’t call, “Hey everyone, I want to land.” Everyone doesn’t care. With messages, narrower is better. You’ll get more attention and response from people who actually do care about your product, whether that’s “mothers with newborns in Santa Cruz” or “owners of vacation property” or “Fortune 100 IT managers concerned about securing remote devices.” The more carefully you define your audience, the more you can craft your message to suit them, to get them to do what you want.

Who You Are

Pilots identify their flight/aircraft numbers so that ATC knows who they are talking to and knows what to expect. Familiar voices from large, well-known airlines get abbreviated instructions. They are a known quantity. For marketers, the company brand provides the same function. Your brand identity, voice, and promise tell your customers and prospects who they’re dealing with and what to expect. A message from Apple or United Airlines has the force and values of a large, well-known company behind it. The value of your brand gives you a head start on communications with your customers because they know who is talking to them. Start-ups need to do a little more work in initial communications to tell audiences who they are. Using a distinctive voice, not trying to sound like every other B to B marketing message is one way to do this. If you’re a scrappy start-up, say so. Brands like Groupon do this well.

Where You Are

How does your product or service fit into activities your prospects are trying to accomplish? Not what you want to do, but what they want to do. To belabor the pilot analogy, if I’m landing at San Francisco, I give my position relative to a checkpoint they use; I don’t tell them I’m over the IKEA in East Palo Alto, even if I think they know where it is. I’m asking them to do something for me (give me a landing clearance), so I want to make it as easy as possible for them. Whether it’s getting children into a better preschool or complying with HIPPAA information security requirements, tell your customers how you can help them accomplish their goals. Trust me, they don’t care about your goals.

What You Want

Create a clear, simple call to action. At some companies, the rule is no more than three words. “Click to view,” “Learn more,” “Buy it now,” and “Sign me up!” are good examples. Any of these could go in a very short paragraph (maybe 30-40 words at most), if you want to provide more context. What you really want at this point, though, is to move the prospect to the next step in the conversation, to take an action that gives you permission to continue the conversation.

Using these four questions can also help flag content that is cluttering up your message. Maybe you’re trying to explain how the solution works before you know whether a prospect is interested. If so, save the “how it works” content for later in the sales cycle, possibly with a different audience than your initial conversation.

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In case you’re interested, a radio call (that you might hear on a flight into SFO) goes ” San Francisco, United 930, Woodside, inbound, landing Mike.”  This call translates to: United Flight 930 is over Woodside VOR (a navigation point), heading toward San Francisco Airport and wants to land. “Mike” is the international phonetic alphabet abbreviation for M and means that the flight crew has listened to and understood the current automatic weather report for San Francisco airport, updated hourly with a new letter of the alphabet.

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About good2kno

Trained in English Literature, Anglo-Irish Drama, and Business Administration, Kirsten Nelson blogs as good2kno.com. Her content strategy and communications practice includes work for Apple, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and a host of start-ups. She has served on non-profit boards, is wife and mother to Science Fiction and Steampunk geeks, and is homeschooling a budding actor.

2 responses to “Good Content Strategy: Talk Like a Pilot”

  1. Tobey Fitch says :

    One of the best, most crisp, tangible and useful blog entries I’ve ever seen. I wonder who writes this blog? hint – follow the tell them who you are advice 😉

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