One day, as my professor and I were working in our biochemistry laboratory, a sales rep from a supplier company stopped by to sell us laboratory products. After failing to pique our interest with his latest and greatest offerings, he left, dejected.
What a tough job, I thought, trying to persuade a scientist!
Scientists, doctors, nurses and engineers are commonly seen as smart, analytical, rational and technically trained professionals, known for both their keen deductive reasoning and their quest for evidence-based decision making. But it takes far more than data or a logical argument to drive technical audiences to make a decision — especially when that decision requires them to change a behavior.
If you’re in a growing business-to-business (B2B) industry like health care, biotech or high tech, chances are, you need to communicate with technically trained professionals and get them to take action. Perhaps you need to market or sell your product to them. Perhaps you need to recruit them as employees. Or perhaps you manage a technically trained team and need them to adhere to new processes. In all of these cases, you need to get technical professionals to take some desired action to achieve your goal.
If only it were that simple.
You can’t simply tell them what to do, because knowledge workers want to make their own decisions. You can’t just provide them with data, because they will get caught on interpretation instead of decision or action. And you can’t just show them the facts because they will methodically tear apart the evidence. This, after all, is their job.
So, what is a good communicator to do when you need to persuade a technical audience?
After the incident with the dejected sales rep, I had an idea. And since that day, I’ve spent the last 22 years studying human behavior, understanding how technical professionals make decisions and influencing their natural decision making pattern.
I have found that technical professionals make decisions in a predictable pattern. Communicators just need to understand the sequence and deliver messages in an order that mimics the decision-making process of technical professionals. The pattern has three phases. Each phase satisfies a specific psychological incentive on the technical professional’s journey toward a decision. And it begins with a little spark.
Phase 1: Stoke their creativity.
Based on my experience, the vast majority of technically trained professionals are inherently curious people. They often study science or medicine or engineering in pursuit of satisfying their own natural curiosity. As they go about their daily work, certain observations can stimulate that curiosity, and if they experience emotional resonance at the same time, it can come with a burst of creativity.
What’s the easiest way to get them there? Deliver a provocative point of view about their work and pair it with a behavioral lever that will trigger an emotion.
For example, a subset of technical professionals often values being the first to know about a relevant discovery or technology. So, if a company is looking to engage an audience that’s likely to become early adopters of a technology, it would leverage the scarcity heuristic to instigate action by offering a limited early-access program. Such a message would invoke the sense of scarcity in our reptilian brain that increases the chances of action.
But tending to their curiosity is only the spark for instigating action in technical professionals. To advance their decision journey, intellectual fuel is needed.
Phase 2: Let them learn on their own.
Here’s where we let our technical professionals arrive at a hypothesis.
From my perspective, no audience is more equipped to be skeptical of messages that lack evidence than technically trained professionals. To them, it’s nothing but sensationalism.
Immediately after sparking their curiosity, provide them with information that they can use to educate themselves. At this point, they are looking to satisfy their curiosity; they’re not looking for the answer — yet. They are actually looking for the best way to find the answer. This is a subtle, but very important, distinction. Providing them with the answer, or worse, trying to convince them to take action at this stage can heighten their skepticism, leading them to disengage.
Use this opportunity to establish well-structured evidence with a well-crafted user experience, so that they can take a self-guided tour through the data and make up their own mind. Don’t lead them to the conclusion; lead them to make a hypothesis.
Phase 3: Make the evidence evident.
Once technical professionals have made a hypothesis, they’ll want to validate it. In this final step of architecting a technical decision, provide technical professionals with an illustration of what they will gain if they take the desired action. They need to see the result of their action in a safe simulation before they commit to engaging.
This can be delivered through stories, case studies, simulations, free trials or tests, or associations with key opinion leaders and influencers. Then, and only then, will technical professionals take action.
Whether you’re a marketer or a salesperson, responsible for talent acquisition, internal communications or process implementation in any B2B organization that requires you to lead, manage or persuade a group of technical professionals, your success depends on if and how your audience acts. Architect their choices based on their behavioral patterns, and you are significantly more likely to achieve your goals.