Business Lessons from Arrival: How Not to Alienate Your Audiences

Anelia VarelaAnelia Varela, US Director, The Writer

Just before the Oscars, I finally watched Arrival. About 10 minutes in, I realized it’s not just a movie about aliens. It’s about communication – and it’s just as relevant to companies communicating with customers as it is to humans communicating with heptapods.

*MILD SPOILER ALERT*

In the movie, Amy Adams plays linguist Louise Banks, who is asked to lead US efforts to communicate with aliens (the aforementioned heptapods) that have landed on earth. The brief: to find out if their intentions are peaceful or hostile.

Here’s what every business can learn from Banks’ approach to answering this brief.

1. Learn their language, not the other way round

Banks never tries to teach the aliens English. She’s there to learn their language; to understand where they’re coming from, in their own ‘words’. Companies should take the same approach. Instead of talking in jargon and corporate gobbledegook, think about your audience and write in language they can relate to. Or, even better…

2. Spend time with your audience

Given the option of working from recordings, Banks insists on entering the space ship to speak to the aliens ‘face to face’ (not that the heptapods have ‘faces’ per se).

When last did you spend quality time with your customers? And did you make the most of that time? I’ve seen many focus groups where marketers pore over what their customers say, but completely fail to capture and adopt the language they use to say it. (Exhibit A: research reports that say ‘the majority of customers felt the efficacy of the product was its biggest competitive advantage’… said no customer ever.)

3. Make your intent (and your sentiment) clear

In Arrival, the misinterpretation of a single alien word almost leads to interplanetary war. It’s a timely reminder that words are powerful – but also that it doesn’t take much for your audiences to misunderstand your message or its intent. For example, ‘We apologize for any inconvenience caused’ is such a stock phrase that it sounds insincere – which could aggravate, rather than placate, already unhappy customers.

4. Take your time to get it right

Banks is constantly pushed by her superiors to hurry up and give them an answer. But, as she explains, the risk of rushing it and getting it wrong is so great that it’s worth the extra time and effort. Of course, deadlines are a fact of life for anyone in communications. But is it really worth rushing that email to your customer before it’s as clear as it can possibly be? The result of getting it wrong might not be interplanetary war, but it could waste a lot of time down the line and even damage your reputation if they misunderstand your message or misread your tone.

5. Make technology your ally

While tips one to four will help you and your teams create better, more relevant content immediately, if you want to scale that content, technology needs to be part of your longer-term plan.

In Arrival, the heptapods’ ‘words’ are fed into a computer that helps Banks decipher their language and eventually compose alien words herself. And when the heptapods eventually spew out a whole mass of seemingly disorganized messages, the machine makes light work of a job that would’ve taken Banks and her team months or even years to complete.

While the movie is obviously science fiction, there are tools available right now that can help you organize, analyze, distribute and even write and edit content. And, with rapid advances in artificial intelligence, those tools are getting smarter by the day. So make sure you know what’s out there, and find out what’s right for you. The Marketing AI Institute is a good place to start.

Apply these five lessons and you’ll find yourself lightyears ahead of the competition.

About the Author: Anelia Varela worked in advertising, branding and design before being lured away to a world of words by The Writer in 2005. Today, The Writer is the world’s largest language consultancy, and she serves as its US director.

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