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Good Content Strategy: Talk Like a 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.

A Social Approach to Learning French–Thoughts on Duolingo

Because we are looking for a way to home-school third-year French, language study has been on my radar this summer.

English Language Lab

English Language Lab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning languages

other than English has always been both too easy and too hard for me. When people ask if I speak other languages, I sometimes say that I can say “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello” and “Goodbye” in 6 or 8 languages but can’t really speak any other language fluently. Typically, I begin studying a new language to rave reviews. My ability to mimic gets me points from Spanish teachers for getting the ñ and rolling r sounds, from German professors for not turning “ich” into “ish” or “ick,” and from lecturers in Hiberno-English for making the sound between “t” and “th” that appears so often. Having dabbled in so many languages has been great for my vocabulary in English and means that I pick up words in European languages quickly–too quickly. Because I understand the initial lessons, I don’t study them enough to get them set in my brain. Very quickly, the pace of vocabulary and grammar exceeds what I can remember, because I didn’t put in the time with flash cards or written drills to solidify what I thought I knew.

I have been playing with Duolingo for about a month and finding it a very enjoyable way to resuscitate and solidify my school

English: The United Nations Security Council C...

English: The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York, also known as the Norwegian Room Français: La Salle de réunion du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies à New York Nederlands: De Zaal van de Veiligheidsraad van de Verenigde Naties in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French.  Duolingo’s blog explains that it provides “a free way to learn a language while also translating the web.” So far, it works quite well, especially for those of us who get bored with language drills and move on before we’ve really mastered something. The lessons are short. Most have 20 exercises that introduce a few words at a time and rather than forcing memorization of all the present tense forms of a verb, it teaches you one at a time, along with some vocabulary. One set of exercises will have you listen to, translate, write and back-translate “We drink the wine.” Anybody else drinking the wine comes up in a slightly later set of exercises. The exercises fit into small blocks of time. Duolingo very cleverly brings back terms for review that you have studied, so that you do actually learn them. “They drink” might be introduced along with reviewing the plural forms of animal names. So now, it’s elephants drinking. The balance of new and familiar material works really well. You can make progress with ten or 15 minutes a day. And Duolingo will send you a daily reminder email, although this feature doesn’t always work.

One of the other frustrations in learning being unable to deal with complex ideas until you have several years of language. Duolingo addresses this challenge by encouraging you to translate into your native language at first. Hardly a new idea–United Nations simultaneous interpreters translate into their native languages as this article in Slate explains. The web translation activities give you a chance to stretch beyond the basics from the very first lesson. Because I’m translating into English and am familiar with the style of wikipedia entries, I can translate much more advanced material than if I were translating into French. For example, I translated the French for “disambiguation page” in an article about the term “tube.” That was never on any of my first- or second-year vocabulary lists. Duolingo awards lots of points for translation. I tested out of the lesson on the differences between avoir and etre by translating an article on cholera. Knowing a little bit of medical jargon and having had a friend who worked during the early days of oral rehydration with sugar/salt solutions gave me enough background to work out what the French text had to say.

The cholera article was quite long and I probably wouldn’t have gotten though it without the social features of Duolingo.

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learners translate articles sentence by sentence, with feedback based on how well their translations agree with others’ translations. For simple articles, there are lots of translations and if you don’t agree with 80-90 percent of other translations, you’ve probably done something wrong, like confusing indefinite and definite articles. (“Oh rats! It said des not les.”) With longer or more specialized articles, though, there are fewer translations and the ability to see and comment on others’ translations becomes very interesting. Duolingo sometimes can’t tell if your translation is correct, but you can see what others have done with the passage.  Sometimes a translation is more faithful to the French but not colloquial English. Sometimes there’s a better phrase in context, for example “contaminated” rather than just “dirty.” In a long article, seeing how others are translating tricky words in one sentence can make everyone’s translations better in subsequent sentences. When I suggest edits and offer explanations on others’ translations, I feel like I’m helping them learn as well. And I get more points.

Duolingo currently supports Spanish, German and French.