Designing Conversations

Designing Conversations

If you dread networking, take this advice on how to make conversations more memorable and meaningful. It can work for your brand, too.

Have you considered the concept of designing your conversations?

Setting: cocktail party, somewhere opulent during the holidays.

Someone: “Hello Mr Blah, Blah, what brings you to this event?”

Me: “An Uber and the chance to meet some interesting thinkers, and you?”

Someone: “Kids are off at college so we’re having more fun. What do you do for work?”

Me: “Write books, start ventures, invest in a few and raise two great kids.”

Every conversation you have with every person, you have a chance to make a memory. If you’re not remembered, did you ever exist? To design any meaningful conversation requires a shift in thinking—removing impressions and engagements from the mix and instead focusing on building memories and behaviors.

Making memories is much harder than just making an impression. Unfortunately, we currently have a media buying currency based on impressions, yet nothing equivalent to a Cost Per Memory. Hence, we use grandma’s recipe; making memories requires two cups of storytelling, one cup relevancy, a teaspoon of broken expectations and a pinch of risk.

Pull this recipe together and you’re designing conversations.

Let’s get into it a bit more. First, there are no longer any one-way mediums available to marketers. Mediums like billboards, magazines, newspapers and television ads all now have the ability to be two-way communication devices, enhanced by our new devices, digital and social. Though, there are still plenty of brands and agencies using these media forms like one-way devices. So, when you think about designing a conversation, this concept can go from a dinner party to an ad in this magazine to a billboard on I-394. In all of these cases, it starts with the type of conversation you want to design.

Consider for a moment, how do you want your audience to feel about you? Wade through some feeling words: curious, wanting more, amused, intellectually stimulated, impressed, afraid. Then, after conversations, make a habit of considering what memories you left with someone, based on how you made them feel. Start here versus with your key messages and the list of five things you want to make sure someone knows about you or your brand. This form of empathy starts you off in the right direction to becoming a conversation designer.

Back to the ingredients.

Storytelling, just because you can talk doesn’t mean you can spin a story. Great stories have intrigue, a plot line, characters and a point of view. You don’t need a lot of them, so quality trumps quantity. This isn’t something you write out, (unless that helps you) but rather something you know well enough to craft for each of your specific audiences. And, the great storytellers weave a bit of what they hear from an audience into their story (empathy).

Relevancy grounds the story in culture, connects the story to people and a particular moment in time. An ad designed for conversation is timed to when you’re receptive and offers a highly relevant message on the challenge the brand is looking to solve for you. A brand gathers intimate knowledge, based on patterns in research and delivers a sticky message (making memories).

Expectations are meant to be broken, just like stereotypes. “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn,”  Ernest Hemingway delivers a six word story, breaks a stereotype and leaves you feeling sad. Finding expectations is the challenge of researchers, breaking them is the challenge of brand leaders and creative partners. This break in expectations gives pause and requires the listener to turn off their auditory auto-pilot.

Risk is the antithesis of the modern corporation. Organizations are designed specifically to remove risk, yet to invent, design or launch something new, risks have to be taken. This is why risk is often outsourced to agents of creativity, allowing the organization a “fire the agency” safety valve. Find a source for risk, but not a risky source.

Let’s redesign the conversation above.

Someone: “Hi, nice to meet you Mr BlahBlah, what do you do?”

Me: “I’m the founder of a creative agency in Minneapolis.”

Someone: “Oh, have you seen the recent ad [insert recent funny ad here]?”

Me: “No, sounds funny though, do you remember the brand?”

Someone: “Nope. [awkward pause] Well I guess that ad didn’t work.”

Me: “We don’t do that type of advertising.”

Someone: “What type do you mean?”

Me: “The type where you don’t remember the brand.”

Designing conversations is an elevation beyond mere “Storytelling.” Great brands don’t just tell, they listen, sense and respond to the stories of their audiences. The important piece is understanding the conversation you want to have with your audiences and having the empathy to meet them where they are.

Wendy’s irreverent tone on Twitter is a great example of a brand having a designed conversation with its customers. They’ve modernized the brand to meet the medium. Brandless, is redesigning the human relationship with brands and adapting to those who adopt.

Brands were originally invented to be extensions of us as human beings and when we properly design them, they contribute to the cultural conversation. If you’re brand isn’t making a contribution, perhaps a rethink is on the near horizon.

Aaron Keller
Co-founder and managing principal

Aaron Keller is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule, a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, and writes a monthly column for Twin Cities Business.