Imagine a world where you make an announcement on a conference call and people legitimately pay attention, pausing in their feverish multitasking or online shoe shopping long enough to genuinely listen. Imagine getting your sixteen-year-old daughter to put down her phone while you explain a crucial piece of information she’d prefer to ignore. Imagine telling your husband/boyfriend/wife/girlfriend something important… and having them REMEMBER it. All of this is possible. You simply need to learn to build a ramp.
This one fits under all three categories: it can help you be a better writer, a better worker, and a better human. No joke. The reason it’s so multi-purpose is that it’s about helping others get where they need to be to understand what it is you want to tell them. You know, good ol' communication.
Think about it. Point X, the point you are determined to make, exists at a specific point in space, time, and the realm of potential understanding. You’ve already arrived; that’s why you’re the one making the point. Person Q, your intended audience, does not yet know about Point X. Person Q needs help to arrive at Point X. That’s really all we’re talking about: building a gentle, well-placed slope that helps Person Q’s wheelchair-mind to more easily and efficiently access Point X.
We often build our own ramps. If your thought process is already headed a certain direction – for example, you are frustrated with a certain process in your workplace, and you wish the uniquely sucky process sucked less – you are much more likely to perk up and listen when someone wants to tell you how they propose to change that maddening process. You willingly build your own ramp to understanding because you’re already interested in hearing a new solution. The more common scenario, however, is for Person Q to have no present or compelling interest in your Point X. Person Q is instead examining a webpage featuring an enticingly sale-priced Patagonia base layer and wondering vaguely how long you will be insisting on talking.
So what you do is build a custom-made ramp – one that establishes direct relevance to Person Q, grabbing their attention, getting them invested, and making them listen.
To illustrate *my* point today, I’ll use a Point X that most people will not initially view as particularly engaging: introducing someone to a new form they will be required to fill out.
POINT: “Going forward, before you begin a new project, you will be required to fill out Form K in its entirety. Form K has the following fields: planned project start and end dates, project description, the three primary project outcomes desired by the client, the names of the key decision makers at the client, and a ranking of where each decision maker is positioned in the overall decision-making chain of command.”
Have I lost you entirely with my astoundingly boring Point X? If I were to plunge right in, making this point without preface, you may indeed be inclined to immediate tune-out. I’ve failed to establish why you should care about using this new form. And this new form sounds like a lot of work. Accordingly, I instead begin not by making the point, but by building you a ramp:
RAMP: “Let’s admit it: no project ever goes totally according to plan. You’ve all been there countless times. Maybe you're realizing that what the client thinks of as the project’s goal isn’t at all what you thought it was. Or maybe things are starting to go off course, so you need to quickly consult with the client about how to get things back on track – and you simultaneously realize that among the cast of dozens, you’re not clear who at the client is really calling the shots. Most often, these situations are simply frustrating and time-wasting. Sometimes, however, they turn into complete – and potentially relationship-ending – disasters. The good news is that by making sure you’ve captured a few crucial pieces of information at the outset of every project, you create a roadmap that lays a strong foundation for success. So we’ve developed a tool that helps you make sure you’ve asked all the right questions as you begin each project. It will help you avoid frustration, stop wasting time, and make certain no ‘disasters’ happen on your watch. Going forward, before you begin a new project, you will be required to fill out Form K…”
Sure, we were compelled to use a rather large stack of words to build this particular ramp. But I’m confident you’re now much more willing to listen to my case for filling out Form K. I connected to your past personal experience. I reminded you how much you effing hate frustrating, time-wasting situations that could’ve been avoided. And I outlined clear benefits that tie directly into your personal success. You may hate filling out forms, but you’re now more likely to give this one a shot.
To be clear: for a ramp to work, it must be built to fit the needs of your audience. This is not your ramp to climb. Reach past your own perspective to make sure you’re tying into something that genuinely matters to your audience, and not something that matters only to you. As you prepare to build your ramp, ask yourself, “Why should they care?” Then, build your ramp around your answer.
I learned the ramp concept and terminology from the venerable As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick, by Peter Meyers and Shann Nix. As We Speak is a practical, tactical guide for helping you improve your communication and more effectively connect with your intended audience. If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend checking it out.
Finally, if I’ve succeeded in getting you to read all the way to the end of this blog post, I’d like to point you back to its first paragraph – which was itself a ramp designed with you in mind. Ramps work. Next time you have an important point to make, consider giving your new ramp-building skills a try.