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How to Drive Your Audience Nuts: Hazy Problem Statements

Too many subject matter experts begin their articles and conference presentations on the wrong foot: by failing to precisely state the problem at hand. Understandably, this can leave an audience frustrated, even angry. They are being asked to wade through a solution before they even understand the problem. 

That’s not going to fly in an online world bursting with thoughtful and easy-to-find content. Authors, presenters and thought leadership marketers who don’t rigorously define the problem statement upfront risk losing much of the audience. 

We’ve all felt the agony of such articles and presentations. By paragraph five, you realize an article hasn’t convinced you why you should care: what exactly the pain point is and who suffers from it. Or, you spend 30 minutes listening to a conference presenter explain an elegant solution with illuminating examples. But again, in the universe of issues that plague your company, you aren’t sure this one makes the list.

Readers or conference attendees will tune out of an article or presentation with a fuzzy problem statement – long before you get to show them the case studies that prove how your solution works. (This is when a conference audience thanks the heavens for boredom-killing digital devices and WiFi.) 

Conversely, if you can vividly and succinctly describe a problem in familiar terms (e.g., through a real and relatable example), you can reel in your audience. For those who know the problem exists, it’s reaffirming. For those who were doubtful at the outset, it might get them to believe. In either case, by the time you get to your solution, they are likely to be truly interested to hear your insights.

This is one of the easiest aspects of thought leadership content to learn. It’s largely about effort: Aspiring thought leaders need to put more energy into developing the problem statement, not just the solution.

As our long-time blog readers know (e.g., as in this article by our Editor-in-Chief David Rosenbaum), we advise aspiring thought leaders to develop arguments in articles and presentations in a six-part problem/solution structure:

  1. What is the problem, and who has it?
  2. Why do current solutions fall short?
  3. What is the new solution, and what is the evidence that it works better?
  4. What is the new solution in detail, and what case examples illustrate its effectiveness?
  5. What are the major barriers to adopting the new solution, and how does one overcome them?
  6. Why should companies that have the problem move sooner to solve it rather than later?

Yes, this sounds formulaic, but it works. (Just see the “Client Successes” on our home page, admittedly a bit of a brag.) 

Unpacking the Problem Statement 

Good problem statements define three elements: the precise problem; the types of organizations and people that suffer from it; and the penalties of not solving it.

Clarify the Nature of the Problem

Exactly what is the problem at hand? Specifically, what business issue is plaguing some companies, and why? Here’s an example. Consider the problem of an ineffective corporate onboarding program, an activity to indoctrinate new employees to a company. A hazy problem statement might devote all of two sentences to it such as, “Too many corporate onboarding programs are ineffective. Companies must dramatically improve them.”

A clear problem statement would get underneath the assertion that these programs are ineffective: “Too many onboarding programs turn off new employees about the organization because they don’t stress the culture, the company’s direction, and what will keep it ahead of the competition.”

Articulate Who Faces the Problem

Exactly who in an organization – and what types of organizations – have the problem? Using the onboarding example, you might say, “Companies going through rapid growth and a war for talent are particularly at risk.” Further, who in those organizations must solve the problem? In the onboarding example, the HR function is typically on the line. And if talent retention is a key problem, then the chief HR officer may be the person who must solve the issue. All this needs to be part of the problem statement. 

Spell Out the Problem’s Costs

We urge thought leaders to spell out not only the pain but also the costs: strategic (e.g., missing out on a promising new business model opportunity); operational (e.g., inefficient and ineffective business processes that lengthen cycle times, increase errors, etc.); financial (having real dollars-and-cents costs); and so on. Spelling out the costs makes them real and signals to an audience that you deeply understand their pain. 

Continuing the example above, here’s how the cost of the problem might be articulated: “If not rectified in the first year of a new employee’s tenure, a poor onboarding program greatly increases the chances that newly recruited employees will leave – long before they’re able to have a major impact. That means higher recruiting costs and potentially losing valuable employees to competitors.” (High employee turnover could be both a financial problem and an operational one – where too many inexperienced employees are working with customers, suppliers, and so on.)

Also, if the authors have an informed estimate of how much poor onboarding programs cost certain companies in turnover and recruiting costs, this would be a great place to publish that data (of course, disguising the clients). 

Delineating a problem statement along these three lines will give your audience a much greater reason to listen to your argument – long enough to hear the solution.