Being Real Builds Trust

by Steph Hay

This article was originally published on the A List Apart website on August 28, 2012.

Tons of products and services are the best, easiest, simplest, smartest, most beautiful, cost-effective, and affordable things ever. They also all increase profits, decrease costs, and save you time.

That makes your decision to choose one very easy: they’re all the best! No matter which one you pick, it’ll be perfect!

Or so it seems, anyway.

These kinds of qualifiers overrun our content because we’re constantly looking around at what everyone else is doing. We compare our own websites and portfolios against other people’s. We look at competitors’ sites, then compare how our interfaces and feature sets are different.

After we’ve surveyed what exists out there, then we try to be unique. One of the ways we do this is by describing “how we’re different” from (and better than) others like us. Consultants might talk about their unique process. Companies might design graphics that position their “features and benefits” side-by-side against their competitors’.

The problem is, this shifts the context of the conversation to external factors beyond our control. What other people do online has nothing to do with us or our users.

Our best chance for establishing trust with our users is to be honest. After all, trust inspires confidence. And it’s confidence—not just a knowledge of differences—that compels decision-making.

Perhaps we should stop fixating on what makes us different and, instead, acknowledge the real aspects of who we are, what we do, and why people choose us.

How can we start getting real?

Ask Your Mom

One way we can establish trust with users is by cutting the crap and getting real with our content. I do this with the Mom Test.

For me, no one on earth is better at calling me on my crap than my mom. She worked hard to birth me, raise me even when I was incredibly annoying, and guide me as I struggled through all my melodramatic “Who am I?” crises. All while deftly managing millions of dollars for an entire school system in Ohio.

So whenever I write content, I apply the Mom Test to ferret out hidden marketing or business jargon. Here’s how it works: I write content, then read it out loud while imagining my mom is listening. (Sometimes she actually is. Call your mom; she misses you.)

If at any point I envision my mom saying, “That sounds nice, Steph,” then I know it’s not real enough. The goal of this technique is always to elicit an actual reaction from her, like “Oooh, can I use it?” or “When is this event happening, again?” These substantive “What next?” responses indicate that she really understood.

I learned to do this years ago, when I was applying for editing jobs using a cover letter with this sentence:

I constantly analyze the best ways to leverage communication avenues in order to reach target audiences and inspire them to engage.

I wasn’t getting any responses to my applications, so I whined to my mom about it. She asked me to send her what I had written. I did. It massively failed the Mom Test.

She asked me point-blank questions like, “What are communication avenues?” and “Engage in what?” Yikes. I had applied to many jobs with that impossibly unreal sentence. I felt sheepish.

She told me to be honest and specific, so I took her advice. Here’s the rewrite:

I constantly edit and analyze. I think of new ways to deliver messages through websites, newsletters, speeches, novels, dissertations, research studies, RFPs, donor letters, press releases, and other forms of communication.

This passed the Mom Test. I thought it was too wordy (and still do), but she was adamant I keep it straightforward. She’d seen enough resumes in her lifetime to know that being real was my best hope of getting an interview.

She was right. I ended up getting a call right away—and later a job—at a startup called WCSN.

Getting Real About User Assumptions

Six years later, I’m still applying the Mom Test. Except now it comes earlier in my process: I use it to identify unrealistic assumptions I’m making about my users, well before I craft any content.

I start by writing down my assumptions about what my users care about.

Then I ask, “Would my mom ever say these things out loud?”

If the answer is “no,” then my assumptions are probably a stretch. I need to try harder to get at the kernel of beautiful truth. I keep going until my assumptions all sound like something my mom would actually say out loud.

As an example, let’s say we run SuperCool Web Agency. We want potential clients to choose us, so we create a page on our site called “Our Approach” to describe how we’re better:

We don’t force-feed you a solution. Instead, we listen to your business needs. Then our experienced team implements the most suitable technology to support your unique goals.

Now, keep in mind that this content is aimed at helping a potential client (who may not have domain expertise of the web) choose us over competitors because of our better approach.

Is this content helping a potential client trust us?

Let’s apply the Mom Test. First, we’ll dissect that paragraph for assumptions we’ve made about the user. Here are several:

  • I value this kind of approach
  • I know how technology influences my business goals
  • I think a cookie-cutter approach is an inferior approach to websites
  • I only hire experienced teams

These sound too stiff and business-driven; my mom would never say them. But rather than jump into rewriting the paragraph, let’s first make the assumptions more realistic. I could imagine my mom saying these things:

  • I don’t want to feel stupid
  • I want to hire people I trust
  • I want to have a say in the final product
  • I want to feel valued
  • I’m nervous about this decision

So now that my user assumptions are more realistic, I can rewrite the paragraph itself:

Some clients prefer we take the lead and deliver fast. Others want to work with us for as long as it takes to get it right. But no matter your preference, we’ll try our darndest to accommodate.

Cheesy? Perhaps. Pass the Mom Test, both in the assumptions and in the content itself? You bet.

Your mom may not be your target user, but she is a real person who’ll call you on your bullshit. That’s what this exercise is about: forming real assumptions, and then writing what’s real as a means to establish trust.

Having realistic assumptions first better enables us to write real content later. But traditionally, we don’t do this—instead, we write content first that answers the question, “What are we trying to communicate?”

I hope you can imagine your mom calling you on your crap, too. But perhaps your Mom Test is actually a Husband or Wife or Brother Test. Whomever it may be, use that person to keep you real. (He or she probably already does that anyway.)

Yet beyond the Mom Test, the rewritten paragraph speaks to the user’s emotional needs in a more human way.

Being real builds trust. And trust helps users more confidently make a decision.

Sameness Is a Problem

A challenge to establishing trust is that building it takes time, and time is precious. We only have a sound bite to convey worth to a user. We have real deadlines to meet.

These challenges aren’t overcome by the formulaic approach we’ve learned to accept. They’re why every car company is “best-in-class,” every cell phone carrier has the “most coverage,” and all consultancies are “full-service.”

Why pressure users to make a choice based on the same absolutes your competitors claim?

For example, I don’t know what differentiates a great TV from a crap TV (technically speaking). But that didn’t stop me from showing up at Best Buy, where I listened to sales pitches filled with words like “smart technology” only to then ask topical questions like, “Does this one come with a stand?” At H. H. Gregg, a salesperson told me I “couldn’t go wrong with the LG or Samsung,” yet I felt anxious about both. I went home exhausted and confused. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t make a decision about a damned TV. Which TV was best for me, and from which store was it best to buy? (Best Buy pun not intended.)

Amazon restored my sense of confidence. It had more than 1,000 reviews from real people, plus warranties for half the price but twice the coverage. White-glove delivery two days later only made me more confident—an emotional feeling that the box stores didn’t inspire in me.

I trusted I was making the best decision for me.

This made me feel happy.

Write Real Things

Not all of us have thousands of user reviews, better prices, or faster delivery. That’s OK, because we do have other assets. (And if we don’t, we have bigger issues than how to position ourselves online.)

We often overlook our own assets because they’re real. Real things aren’t flashy, polished, or perfect. That’s often what makes them an asset in the first place.

For designers, maybe your assets are those sketches you created in college or while listening to a conference speaker. Just because they weren’t created for a client doesn’t make them any less valuable in demonstrating your creative skills. You can still write about those sketches.

For developers, maybe it’s that Android app you quietly released that has 50 downloads and 5 stars with no marketing at all. Or it’s a peer’s email that states, “I don’t know how you fixed that, but thank you. You’re awesome.” You can still write about your side projects and the praise you’ve received from colleagues.

For organizations, maybe it’s a quote from the intern who wrote a blog post about how amazing it was to work there for the summer. Or perhaps a client or customer sent a kind email to one of the higher-ups. What did these people say, exactly?

The bottom line is that familiar-yet-generic approaches to positioning ourselves in this world work against our ability to build trust with those around us. Don’t spend any more of your creative energy on fluff. Write real things that pass the Mom Test.

If you need a little inspiration, ask your users, employees, clients, colleagues, or friends this question: Why do you trust me? Why do you trust my company? I bet their answers don’t include words like cross-platform, leverage, or utilize.

Instead, they’ll probably use plain-speak language chock full of emotional adjectives like confident or happy. Words that’ll make you blush with pride.

After all, people don’t edit themselves when they’re telling you why you’re awesome. That means you get real feedback that highlights specific assets about you.

For example, I recently asked Jared Spool why he keeps working with me. He said, “You get what we’re trying to do. I can have a very short conversation and somehow magic comes out of your fingertips. My theory is it has to do with mushrooms or some other hallucinogenic.”

The reality is more benign: I work super hard to make it seem easy. But he knows that well—well enough to unabashedly make such a joke in the first place. Best of all, he described two of my assets: an ability to comprehend ideas quickly and to write content in a way that seems magical.

A hallmark of realness is specificity. People will get specific if you ask them why they care about you, your product, or your company.

Real is trustworthy. Trust in that.

About the Author

Stephanie Hay leads Capital One’s content strategy team and weekly design sessions for 160 people across 10 locations. She’s a resident mentor at 500 Startups, co-founder of FastCustomer, and co-organizer of the DC Lean Startup Circle.

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