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Perception is NOT Reality

Too often we feel that the way we see things is the way things truly are, and we are too often unable or unwilling to change our perceptions.

I will never forget many years ago I worked with a woman who said to me with great conviction, “Perception IS reality!” I had to shake my head (privately).  Perception is purely subjective and is a function of our internal “filters.”  It’s like looking through a dirty window.  The “dirt” is all of our experiences, beliefs, values, ego-driven needs and even our own behaviors that we interpret as being the same in others, that translate into a perception.

A great, old illustration of this is the Indian proverb of the blind men and the elephant.  The story goes that six blind men feel different parts of an elephant and give their interpretation of what it is: the one who feels a leg says it is like a pillar; the one with the tail says a rope; the one with the trunk says a tree branch; the one with the ear says a hand fan; the one with the belly says a wall; and the one with the tusk says a solid pipe.  The lesson is they are all right but have perceived just a small portion of the truth.

We marketers need to keep this in mind.  Marketing is simply the act of influencing people’s perception of value, helping them to expand their knowledge of the truth, and finding those who have the inclination to value what you have to offer. I read an interesting article recently on making money, from which I quote:

Value is perception more than anything. Figure out what the people you want to do business with believe value is in the first place, then give them what they want. The more of it you give, the more they’ll give back to you. Want to make crazy money? Provide crazy value.

Marketers too often assume that their perception is how others will see things.  How many products, services, ads and companies have failed miserably because of that belief?  Without a thorough understanding of what their audiences believe, think, feel and the experiences they have that influence their perception, marketers plow ahead only to find that they missed the mark.  In fact, the #1 reason why marketing plans fail is a failure to properly test on target audiences prior to launch.  Even what we think of as successful companies, like Apple, get it wrong sometimes: Don’t Like the New iTunes Logo? You Are Not Alone.

While perception is NOT necessarily reality, which matters more?  Perception, of course.  Marketing is all about gaining insights into people’s perceptions, executing strategies that we hope resonate with others, measuring response, and continually refining messages. If you are not using some kind of research in your day-to-day activities, something is wrong.  If you’re afraid to try new approaches, stick with them for awhile and risk failure, something is wrong.  If you don’t acknowledge when perceptions are wrong and create strategies to change it, something is wrong.

I wrap this up with my thoughts on five ways to overcome inaccurate perceptions:

  1. Make sure you really do understand people’s perceptions. You may need to talk to a person, or lots of persons through a research survey, to be able to say “I get where you’re coming from.”
  2. If you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge it. It doesn’t matter if you’re an individual or representing a corporation.  A woman I once worked with said to me, I paraphrase, “If you make a mistake and tell me it can be corrected.  The longer it goes on the more difficult and expensive the solution.” So speak up when you screw up. If you’re sincere, people and markets are generally quite forgiving since none of us are perfect.
  3. Learn to accept others’ perceptions, even if you feel they are inaccurate. Don’t be defensive or dismissive when someone shares with you their perceptions, because the message you are sending is that their opinions don’t matter.  Only through feedback can we learn to see through the eyes of others and improve.  When I was a kid in art class, we would all draw a picture and then the whole class would critique it.  When kids learn early to do this, it raises their self-esteem and teaches them to put many minds together to a task.  When I went back and redid the picture incorporating the classes’ suggestions it turned out better.  I have found this to be true in all aspects of life.
  4. Don’t be unwilling to change your perceptions. If your perception of something turns out to be different from that of others, then either you have to work hard to change their perception or change yours.  Changing yours tends to be easier and you may be able to incorporate others’ views into yours.
  5. Let go of the past. Too often we look at mistakes and critique as a negative.  Sure, it can sting the ego to know that your effort didn’t pan out, you offended someone unwittingly, you said something you shouldn’t have, or you discover that people view you differently than how you truly are inside.  However, we can also view these as a positive – someone cares enough to speak their truth, we can use these things to better understand others’ needs and what we can do to serve them (which is after all what we’re all here to do), and their perceptions refine not only our marketing expertise but also our character.  When we do err, or when someone else does, we have to be able to let it go and move on.  Flaws aren’t fatal!

Bottom line, everyone just wants to be understood.  Do your best to understand others, using every tool available to you, and seek to be understood.  Be honest, be forthright, be willing to incorporate others’ perceptions into your life and business, and you will create the ROI you seek.

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  1. October 3rd, 2010 at 22:27 | #1

    Namaste,

    Very thoughtful article. Thanks a lot for sharing on LinkedIn and sharing with me and with tons of users across the globe. i am empowered. i liked it too.

    Thanking You,

    Sincerely i remain,

    Phadke Subodhkumar Narayan
    Full name
    City: Pune
    State: Maharashtra
    Country: India

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