The Story Economy Blog

Do You Want Fries With That?

Our air-conditioning is broken. As I write this (literally), I’m peeking out my office window, waiting for the guy to come and fix it. I trust that after we pay him $1,200, we will have new coils. Which means we will have air-conditioning. I’d love to tell you I’m some sort of granola wondergirl, but I’m so not. I’m a baby and I couldn’t make it through the summer in Cincinnati without air-conditioning. So I’m pretty much going to pay him whatever to make it stop being hot in the house.

This is a straightforward service transaction. This for that.

Straightforward service transactions mean that I get new coils and can stop whimpering about being hot. If the service industry wasn’t around, offering their transactions 24/7, my life would suck.

But a transaction is just one part of how we communicate and do business. Too many companies are mistaking transaction for interaction in their communications. They’re asking: Do you want fries with that? Instead of asking: How can I get to really know you?

The result is a big disconnect that seems to befuddle everyone.

 Skipping the Middle

I was interviewing a guy the other day about something totally unrelated to writing, but we wound up talking about writing. “I’m tired of everything I read feeling like a transaction,” he said. I knew immediately what he meant. It’s not so much that somebody always wants something, it’s that it all just feels like a shortcut to the end. It’s writing that skips the middle.

Because of the nature of our attention spans and our need to communicate faster and more directly, a lot of our mediums today promote more transactional writing. So, a text usually feels more like a transaction than a conversation, whether it’s with your spouse (Will you pick up kids? I will bring dinner home) , your friend (meet me at Starbucks in 10 min) or your vendor (concept approved, final version due by Friday). Transactional writing pings you, confirms something with you, asks you to look at something, or instructs you on what you need to do to complete the transaction.

Transactional writing moves across, beyond, or through (what the prefix trans- actually means). It doesn’t dive deep. In other words, it doesn’t interact.

We don’t always have to interact. Pinging, confirming, instructing: these are all things that we need to do in our lives and our businesses (although I personally try to make my text messages clever whenever possible).

But the problem is when we confuse the two situations. Transacting—or moving across and shortcutting to the end . . . when we really need to be interacting—or moving between and among (the very definition of the prefix inter-).

I know it’s true in person-to-person situations (like, you know, marriages), and I see that it’s becoming a pretty huge challenge in business communication as the economy of storytelling takes root: it’s too much movement across, and not nearly enough down. Like a lopsided crossword puzzle.

Big businesses that used to be almost all transactional in their communications are trying to reinvent themselves vertically so they can solve the crossword puzzle. So, for example, Fifth Third Bank is now “The Curious Bank.” They’re trying to move away from “here’s what you should look at and here’s what you get,” to “we wonder why things are the way they are too: let’s figure it out together.”

There are so many ways to create interactions with social media—and probably even texting. I’m really no expert on that. But what I do know very, very well is that you need copy that moves down, between, and among—not just across.

Instead of always informing, instructing, pinging, or asking for something, you need to inhabit the in-between spaces. Because those are the golden spaces where relationships form.

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