Rethinking our Reference Point

Here is an embarrassing story.

I was traveling with a friend in the Czech Republic visiting Prague. The friend I was with had hosted a Czech as an exchange student, and we met up with him. Frank (František) turned out to be an architect, and was so thrilled to point out all the amazing sights and sometimes errors of the incredible buildings in Prague. He brought us to little-known, barely post-soviet bars, introduced us to the weighty gastronomy of Czech cuisine (read: meat and cheese!), and also constantly spoke like the count from Sesame Street. (Ah ah ah ah!).

The issue was as an insufferable 20 something, all I could do was talk about how Prague was like the USA, and how Oregon in particular had geographical features, even buildings that were similar to what we were experiencing there! Imagine that, as if a nation and city with thousands of years of history could be compared to a state who is barely 160 years old.  The saddest part? I didn’t think anything of it. *facepalm*.

It was only years later that I started to realize that I wasn’t the only one guilty of this. For example, I heard a Minnesotan tell me baldly how Minnesota looked exactly like Norway. I have also heard people from the Pacific Northwest say the same things. My judgement from google maps is that frankly my Minnesotan friend was delusional. But now I realize, in his mind Minnesota was the only thing that gave him a reference point. People here in Pamplona, Navarra joke about themselves doing the same thing when they go visit places. Imagine someone saying, “New York? Yeah, it’s EXACTLY like the old city, only bigger and more cars!” It is not out of the question.

Here is my point: it is extraordinarily difficult for our consciousness to observe phenomenon on its own terms. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to allow ourselves to describe a place without using metaphor or simile to places and things that we already know. That’s why we started calling cars “horseless carriages” or calculators “adding machines.” But gradually, we start to form a concept of the place that gives us enough information that we can approach the phenomenon on its own terms.

For marketers, the key point is this: Know Thy Audience.

Know that anytime you decide to offer something to someone that they have never encountered before, you are going to have to use analogies and comparisons that they will understand. Another important insight from this: never condescend, but lift up. People can smell it when you are talking down to them in order to explain something. Unless you are excited about helping them from their own point of view, you can’t effectively move them to the next level. Everyone has their reference point, what are you able to do to rethink your own so that you can help another rethink theirs.?

The question to ask today is “what are they going to understand?”

I am so grateful for Frank’s patience with me. My hope is that he knows, deep down, that he helped create the deepest appreciation for Prague and its architecture, and that I have a debt of gratitude to him for the gift of his time and listening.

 

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