How to Say Something Actually Useful: The Reality Show Version

Scott McGillivray, the host of “Income Property,” is a very smart guy. But even Scott can make mistakes. In one episode he starts by passing on some useless information to his homeowners. Fortunately, he recovers and provides a model for what great communication looks like: Don’t talk about what you know.

309321879_3531876ff3_oOne of the reasons that I enjoy watching Scott McGillivray’s show “Income Property” is he frequently passes on genuinely valuable information to the homeowners who appear on his show. But even I have to admit, sometimes Scott doesn’t live up to my expectations.

On the show, Scott helps homeowners remodel part of their home into a rental suite. After the home is remodeled, the homeowners have to advertise their new suite to attract renters. In fact, the show frequently ends with Scott outlining the first few sentences of a potential ad as the show fades out to the credits.

Not Really Saying Anything Useful

On a recent show, one of the segments began with the homeowners asking Scott, “What should we put in our ad?” I was disappointed by Scott’s initial answer: “First, don’t make it too long or you sound desperate; Don’t make it too short or you won’t tell your renters what you’ve got.”

While it certainly sounds like Scott’s conveying useful information to the homeowners, he’s not. After all, how do you know what counts as “too short” or what counts as “too long”? At what point, exactly, do you “sound desperate”?

Of course, Scott knows exactly what he means and, if you gave him a variety of potential ads, he could point out the ones that were “too long” or “too short” without hesitation. Unfortunately, these homeowners were asking the question because they don’t know what’s “too long” or “too short” – they lack Scott’s knowledge and experience.

This isn’t an unusual problem in communicating (and one we discuss in Learning Tree’s course Technical Writing: An Introduction). You’ve probably run into similar problems when you’ve asked for help with something and been told to enter “the proper date” or “the correct address.” Of course, if you knew what the “proper” or “correct” information was then you probably wouldn’t have been asking for help.

Testing for Usefulness

You can often test for these kinds of “not helpful” instructions by substituting the opposite word and asking if anyone would ever say the resulting sentence. For example, would anyone ever say enter “the improper date” or “the incorrect address”? The answer, of course, is “No.”

That’s because, when someone asks us to enter information we assume we’re to enter the “proper” and “correct” information. People who add those words aren’t actually telling you anything worthwhile (I’ve discussed a related problem in an earlier post on “weasel words”). More useful information is generally more specific: “the data you shipped the goods on”, “the address the goods are to be shipped to.”

I don’t want to malign Scott, though. Even though “Income Property” has been very successful (it’s now in its 10th season), the show hasn’t hesitated to change the its format when there have been opportunities to improve it — something that I admire very much.

At one point, for example, the show’s producers reviewed minute-by-minute ratings for individual episodes and learned that the show’s viewers (a) wanted to see Scott, and (b) valued the information on the renovations required to create a rental suite. The show’s current format reflects that understanding of what viewers want: Scott now appears in the first 90 seconds (at the latest) of an episode and the initial renovation work now occurs earlier in the show (the segment of the show where the homeowners pick design options was pushed back to accommodate this).

In other words, the show’s producers took the time to find out what their audience wanted and then delivered that.

Providing Real Information

Not surprisingly, then, when asked about what to put in an ad for a rental suite, Scott did eventually deliver what an ad should contain. After that initial not-very-helpful sentence about length, Scott went on to tell the homeowners’ that their ad should contain information about the number of bedrooms, size of the suite, location, access to transportation and other critical items. Unlike the “too long”/”too short” statement, this information is specific enough to be genuinely useful: I may not be able to decide if an ad is “too long” or “too short” but even I can make sure that I’ve mentioned the location, number of bedrooms, and the rest of the items in Scott’s list.

Furthermore, based on my experience as someone who used to rent my living spaces, I know that the pieces of information that Scott listed are exactly what I looked for in an ad. Scott, as someone with years in the real estate business, obviously long ago learned what potential renters are looking for in a rental suite and, as a result, what he should deliver in an ad that targets that audience. More importantly from a communication point of view, he’s able to pass that on to the homeowners he’s working with.

What Scott (and the show’s producers) demonstrated is the essence of good communication: First, figure out what your readers want to know; Then, translate that into what you write. To put it another way: Don’t write what you know; Do write what your readers want or need to know.

And if you want some proof that it works, you can see it in Scott’s show. In most episodes, by the time that the credits roll, the homeowners have rented their property for the money they wanted…or, usually, more.

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