We’ve all said it at one point or another: “Come on, I’m not a mind-reader!”
Many of us have shouted this plea in response to a client we’re genuinely striving to please, who still keeps telling us, “This isn’t what I asked for! We’re just not on the same page.”
Those moments can be intensely frustrating, for client and creative talent alike. Yet at the same time, we creatives work hard to anticipate our clients’ needs — to understand exactly what they want, before they’ve even asked for it.
In fact, some veterans of the content industry pride themselves on magical mind-reading ability.
Although some creatives insist they can’t read their clients’ minds, and shouldn’t be expected to, I believe precisely the opposite is true: it’s our job as creatives to make our clients feel we’re reading their minds, using every technique in our arsenal.
Here are five powerful practices that’ll have your clients convinced you’re a mind-reader.
1. Develop a limitless curiosity about your clients.
We all ask certain standard questions when we’re getting to know somebody for the first time: “Where are you from?” “What do you do for work?” “What kind of music do you like?” Those questions spark more questions; and after a few minutes, you’ve started to get a sense of what this person enjoys, what they’re interested in, and maybe how you two can help one another.
Now think about the conversations you have when you fall in love. You’re ravenous to know everything there is to know about the other person — which desserts they’ll devour, which animals they’re afraid of, which country they’d visit on a dream vacation. When you love someone, you yearn to make that person’s life as wonderful as possible. You’re constantly on the lookout for insights that’ll help you achieve that goal.
Which of these two conversations sounds more like your typical interactions with clients? If you’re honest with yourself — and I hope you are — you’ll probably admit that your client calls sound more like the first conversation than the second. And there you have it:
Your lack of curiosity about your clients is the #1 reason you’re struggling with those relationships.
In fact, curiosity (or lack thereof) is one of the top make-or-break factors in any relationship. Decades of research have confirmed that curious people connect better. Partners who maintain an active curiosity about each other’s interests, goals, fears, desires and values enjoy much more productive, long-lasting partnerships — business or otherwise.
To read your clients’ minds, you need to develop a limitless hunger to know what they’re thinking. Read their blogs. Check their social media posts. Ask them what they’re reading right now, and pick up a copy for yourself. Seek to understand why they feel so strongly about this project, and kindle a kindred fire in your own heart. Get to know their world, inside and out.
2. Invite your clients to dance — then take the lead.
Imagine joining a stranger on the dance floor, only to burst out laughing as they bark out instructions for every step: “Left foot there! Right leg back! Now turn!” We all know this isn’t how dancing works — yet we often encourage our clients to order us around like this. Instead of taking the time to collaborate on innovation, we simply ask what the client wants done, then we hop to it.
As unpleasant as this dynamic can be, it stems from an understandable set of drives. The client and the creative talent don’t want to waste time. They don’t want to frustrate one another. So they zero in on a set of clear parameters and action items as quickly as possible; then they work carefully to stay within those guidelines, to minimize the risk of delivering work that’s not what the client asked for.
But as helpful as clear guidelines can be, they don’t leave anyone feeling delighted about the process. How can we improve on this system? Surely there must be some approach that enables both the client and the creative talent to innovate while respecting one anothers’ boundaries.
Approach your next client conversation as a moment-by-moment improv session.
Seek a rhythm in which you and the client are both comfortable. That may mean weekly face-to-face meetings, daily video calls, ad-hoc instant-message chats, periodic emails, or some combination of the above. Ask what’s top-of-mind for them. Offer helpful tips and insights, even if they’re not directly related to the project at hand.
Draw your clients out, bit by bit, until you’ve got them talking about what’s really on their minds.
3. Learn to listen for the sake of listening.
Most of us listen so we can talk. Whether we’re chatting with friends, strategizing with a client, or dealing with customer support, we take in only as much of the other person’s words as we need to formulate our own response. But this is a huge mistake. When we listen for the sake of talking, we miss out on most of the information the other person is trying to give us.
This tendency creates even more problems when we’re trying to figure out what our clients want. It’s much easier to skim emails and extract the action items than it is to patiently read every word — or, better, yet, to read between the lines, and seek to understand what the client means to say, but is struggling to put into words.
Clients will usually tell you exactly what you want to know, as long as you take pleasure in listening to them.
We’re all very talented listeners, under the right circumstances. Most of us will happily sit in silence while actors on a movie screen play out their lives, or while musical artists push the limits of their skills, or while our favorite authors take us on journeys to new places. It’s easy to listen when we’re reveling in a beautiful song, or captivated by the suspense of a chase scene. Every moment matters, and we know it.
Practice this same discipline as you talk with your clients. Treat every client conversation as if it were your favorite movie or song or novel. Follow the plot with close attention, because something surprising might happen at any moment. And even if it doesn’t, you’ll probably learn something you never knew before — which your client might not even intend to teach you.
4. Find the threads that run through your clients’ lives.
If I asked you to pick me up a pint of my favorite ice cream, you’d probably feel frustrated. How could you know what my favorite ice cream is? (It’s mint chocolate chip, just for future reference.) But if your best friend made that same request, you’d deliver the right flavor in a snap — even if they’ve never explicitly told you what their favorite is.
How did you acquire this mind-reading superpower? By experience, of course — and by paying attention to context cues. In the same way, it’s your job to look for common threads that run through the major decision points in your clients’ lives, and keep following those same threads into the current project.
For example, say you’ve got a client who’s launching a health-food website. You could easily put together a homepage that imitates the leading health-food brands in terms of style and voice — but does that voice align with your client’s values and beliefs? Maybe not. Maybe your client shopped at Whole Foods once, and hated it. Maybe they live in the heart of cattle country, and dream of teaching cowboys to cook veggies. Maybe they’ve never even tried tofu!
The only way to fully understand your client’s brand is to understand where they’re coming from as a human being.
Think of each initial call as an interview with an award-winning genius you’ve never heard of. What questions would you ask that person? You’d certainly want to know about their background; how they acquired the skillset that launched their career. You’d want to hear about challenges they faced, and how they overcame those obstacles. You’d ask about the “eureka!” moment when they knew they’d discovered something great.
Look for threads that run through all the client’s past projects, into this current one. Follow those threads wherever they lead next.
5. Stop acting like you “get it” when you don’t.
Nobody likes talking to someone who keeps insisting they understand, when they obviously don’t. The tension in this situation is heightened when a big decision is at stake, and we’re not sure whether the other person even grasps the nature of the problem.
And yet, as much as we all hate feeling misunderstood, many of us pretend to understand more about our clients’ businesses than we really do.
This isn’t always intentional — in fact, many of us fake understanding with the best possible intentions, sometimes without even realizing we’re failing to grasp the facts.
We hear words that remind us of other projects we’ve worked on, and we think, “Okay, sure, no problem! This is just like that other thing I did!”
Except it’s not just like that other thing.
This is a unique client, with a unique problem. They deserve better than to be treated like a clone.
The more you assume this project is the same as that other one, the more your false assumptions are going to pile up — until you’re dealing with a pissed-off client who can’t understand why you’re on such a different wavelength.
Unfortunately, this is a natural response. Our brains are extremely talented — sometimes too talented — at lumping people into categories. We’re more likely to trust a stranger if they look like someone we already know; and we’re more likely to dislike them if they resemble a person who’s done us wrong. We can’t stop ourselves from doing this; it’s pure animal instinct. All we can do is acknowledge that instinct, and work to counterbalance it.
To truly read your clients’ minds, you need to relinquish your need to be seen as smart.
Stop trying to show off. Quit trying to prove how much you know. Don’t respond to buzzwords with more buzzwords.
Instead, take a step back. Take a deep breath. And imagine you’re hearing about this client, and their industry, and their challenges, for the very first time in your life.
Resist the urge to classify the client, or to copy-paste insights you’ve had on other projects.
Look for what’s original and one-of-a-kind about this particular project, and focus on those things.
Come to your client with a readiness to learn, and they will teach you.
They’ll teach you without even knowing it — and they’ll think you’re reading their minds.
Want to learn more?
Check out BTA’s Ultimate 11-Step Guide to Mastering Your Digital Content Strategy.
A 15-year veteran of the journalism and media industries, Ben loves to energize audiences about the frontiers of science, culture and technology — and the ways all these come together.