I asked my students to read a McKinsey Report article that featured an interview with Chip Heath, co-author of a great book, "Made to Stick." They also read a Harvard Business Review article about Heath entitled, "The Curse of Knowledge," where he talked about our assumptions that our audiences know what we know.
In the class discussion we talked about Chip's advice to use Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, and Emotional language in the form of Story to make messages stick and not to assume that audiences will know what we're saying simply because we said it. During the discussion, one of my graduate students, Laura Miller, told the class this story:
"I work at 21st Street Coffee and Tea. Our milk comes from the local Brunton Dairy. Ed Brunton delivers the milk every week in glass bottles and picks up our 'empties'.
We steam the milk for our coffee. Steaming milk at 21st Street Coffee and Tea is done differently than just about every other coffee shop in town. We do not re-steam milk. The milk we steam will be used for only one drink for one person; in other words, we do not steam large quantities and let the milk sit. We steam milk to be between 140 and 150 degrees; this way the milk tastes sweet and good for every drink, rather than waxy or burned if the milk reaches a higher temperature.
Lucas and Alexis Shaffer own 21st Street Coffee and Tea and work as baristas side by side their employees. I worked at 21st Street Coffee and Tea for four weeks before they began to train me to steam milk. They waited four weeks to train me so that before I steamed milk I would already have an idea of the rhythm of the coffee shop. I knew what a good drink tasted like, what steaming milk right sounded like, and I knew what a good drink looked like when finished.
Steaming milk the right way is difficult to learn. The balance of air, milk, and heat must be just so in order to create a uniform micro-foam which is the signature of a perfect latte. Rather than have me worry about all of the small details I needed to know in order to steam milk (precise temperature, micro-foam size, texture, etc), Luke said, 'Don't worry about all of the details. Just make it look like wet paint. Pretend like you are going to paint with it.' When talking about milk temperature he said, 'Put your hand on the side of the container. When the container is hot enough to be uncomfortable but not burn you, it is done. That is a latte temperature.'
So when I make lattes at 21st Street Coffee and Tea, rather than thinking I am making a latte, I first picture myself making wet paint. It works every time."
And, that, my friends, is language working at its best! It uses a simple, concrete, unexpected image to communicate to an uninformed person a concept that the expert clearly knows. The result? A great tasting latte - with the texture of wet paint!