Don't Let Communicating with Millennials Feel Like Eating in the Dark

So there I was, Halloween night, about to experience the inaugural "Dark Dinner" at the Des Moines Social Club with my wife and 18 of our closest friends. We were ushered in and seated at a big, round table. In front of me: an assortment of wine glasses, utensils and a blindfold. Around the table stood an army of servers (later known as "Cyclops servers") wearing flashlight headbands, ready to help guide us through the experience.

After Zach Mannheimer, the master of ceremonies, welcomed attendees, our blindfolds were placed over our eyes, the lights went out, the music started playing and the Cyclops servers went to work. We fumbled for forks, laughed nervously, had moments of vertigo and every once in a while, heard "kerplunk" as another wine glass tipped over and hit the tabletop.

At first, it was awkward. Actually, it was downright hard because it was so different. But then, like anything else done repetitively, I got more comfortable with the situation and it became seemingly easier.

So there I was again. In New York City at a two-day conference, where millennial experts like Jason Dorsey (a.k.a. The Gen Y Guy) were presenting on communicating, educating and selling financial security to millennials. Some of the more interesting perspectives/opinions I heard included:

  1. Eye contact is an increasingly unnatural behavior for millennials.
  2. Emails are OK. Just don't expect them to read more than the subject line.
  3. Phone calls are often seen as an invasion of privacy, so don't call them unless your name is Mom. (And even if it is, they will still forward you to voicemail - which they never check.)
  4. They will not read blocks of text. Save the effort.
  5. They are visual thinkers and learners. Do not try to educate them or sell them something using a long, linear approach.
  6. They want total control of the education experience. They will let you know if they need help.
  7. They feel unique, believe they have unique needs and, therefore, want engagement to be extremely personalized and relevant.

They don't want to look at me, talk to me or hear from me - that is, unless they ask for it. (To which my response would incorporate humor, wit and brevity in order to capture their attention. Maybe something involving a monkey, a whiteboard and the word "now!")

As someone constantly trying to reach millennials about the importance of financial security, I thought about the challenge of trying to eat a three-course meal in the dark again. First blush, the challenge of communicating, as described by the speakers, felt uncomfortable, confusing and insurmountable. But that's not the case. It's not hard, it's just different. Just like eating in the dark, it takes a much different approach.

Need a flashlight? Here are five quick tips on communicating effectively with millennials:

  1. Make it Interesting. Now, you don't have to be The Most Interesting Man in the World, but you want to be interesting enough that you peak their interest. This is even more important with subject matter that some would consider dry, like financial security. Tell a story they want to hear and position it so they know the action they need to take. Maybe you actually should use a monkey (or something equally unpredictable). It's all in the storytelling. I mean, hey! I got you to read this by talking about eating in the dark, didn't I?

  • Write a Magnetic Title. This is their first impression, so invest the time and thought to make your subject line, first sentence or heading compelling. "Three Easy Ways for millennials to Boost their Savings Now" will probably work better than "A Roadmap to Financial Security."
  • Start with the End. When you begin with the punchline, millennials will be more inclined to trace back through all the details. They'll be forced to answer questions like: What is this about? What do I want to say? How does this make me feel? Punch first.
  • Make it Visual. Help millennials understand and connect to your message with visuals. Use interactive tools, graphs, pictures, icons - keep them short and relevant. Avoid lots of text or websites that force the user to click through multiple pages. Keep it all on one screen and make it count.
  • Make it Personal. Make the outcome, and the specific steps to get there, as relevant as possible. Leverage everything you know about the individual, including age, gender, income, vocation and geographic location. Use "nudges" and "call-outs" in your education process to encourage them to take action or take the next step, based on their specific circumstances.
  • At first, eating in the dark was terrifying and uncomfortable. But by the second course, it was amazing as my sense of taste began to compensate for my loss of sight. Communicating with millennials can be just as exciting once you get over the unfamiliarity and understand what's most important to them.

    If you want to grab the attention of this generation, you need to personalize and tighten-up your communications approach -- which frankly, is how we should have been doing it all along.