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Inaccurate labels and why we need them (and need to improve them)

February 13th, 2012 · No Comments · All Posts, SethGodin

If I tell you, “I’m going to the baseball game,” it seems as though you’re likely to understand what I mean.

Of course, you won’t. When George Will goes to a baseball game, it’s a religious experience. Me, I don’t even like baseball. Or maybe it’s my nephew’s ball game (the playoffs), or maybe going to the game causes me to miss an important event, and on and on.

We label the experience with just two words, and two words can’t possibly capture the emotions and circumstance surrounding an event.

The same thing is true with brands. If I tell you that a new business was funded by USV, that might mean something to you, or not. Or if someone asks you to pay extra for a brand you trust, that’s stuck with you through thick and thin, that might be an easy sale. It certainly won’t be if your experiences with that label/brand/company are negative ones.

As soon as we put a word on it, we’ve started to tell a story, a caricature, a version of the truth but not the whole truth.

The label removes us from reality. It takes us away from the actual experience. But do we have any choice?

How else can I get you started down the path to understanding me and my life and my schedule and my projects… labels are just about the best thing available to us.

A well-written book, then, is far more powerful than a blog post, because the book can take more time to get the labels right, to help you see what the author means. Five minutes of a movie is probably more powerful than five minutes reading a book because the tropes of a movie (the soundtrack, the lighting, the dialogue) are capable of delivering more accurate labels if the director is any good.

When there’s a disagreement, it’s almost always over the interpretation of labels. When you think your job title or your purchase order or your reservation means something because of how it’s labeled, you’ll end up in conflict if you’re trying to work with someone who interprets those labels differently.

The key is in placing the blame where it belongs–on the labels, not on the individuals who are stuck. Get clear about the labels, clear about the promises and what they mean, and you’re far more likely to generate satisfaction.

Seth Godin

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