Whenever we’d meet with prospects, we used to show samples of projects we’d worked on, describing the challenges and showing the solutions. Sometimes a curious thing happened. If what we showed was even slightly different from a prospect’s needs or who their audience was, they’d have a hard time connecting the dots between what we did for someone else and what we could do for them.

This both frustrated and intrigued me. After all, I reasoned, these are smart, articulate, successful people. How could they come up short in this one area? What’s happened to people’s imagination?

I bring this up because a client recently experienced a similar thing. I can’t discuss specifics here, but suffice it to say that his company produces systems which monitor patients in a hospital room environment, and they are developing a new product utilizing the same technology, but for the OR.

In order to gauge interest and better understand the specific needs of those using the product, they decided to exhibit this product at a recent trade show aimed at their target audience. In order to demonstrate the new system, they brought along the hospital bed they use to show how their current system works. But because the environment the audience at this trade show is familiar with is the OR, the hospital bed created confusion — was the product applicable to them or for those involved in post-surgery patient care? Even a large sign in the booth showing an OR and accompanied by a headline explaining the product’s purpose failed to clarify things.

Did these people lack the intelligence or imagination to make the leap? Hardly. I think the issue has more to do with how we search for information. In a world of information and sensory overload, we have learned to look for shorthand visual cues that signal whether or not something is of importance to us. The hospital bed represented a different, and irrelevant world to this audience.

The lesson here is that the more you look to simulate reality, the more accurate you need to be. Even small differences that can be significant. (After all, humans and chimps share 96% of the same DNA.) In a seeming paradox, going in the opposite direction (e.g. abstract, imaginative, or non-descript) can work better, especially if it’s hard to accurately imitate reality. If the prop or environment doesn’t offer any visually informational cues, people instinctively skip over it and look to whatever will provide the information they need. In the case of my client, had they used a non-descript black box in place of a hospital bed, people would not have even noticed it. Instead, they would have gone straight to the large sign for the information they were looking for, and any confusion would have been avoided.

As for me, I realized that the problem wasn’t with our prospects’ lack of imagination. We weren’t sending the right signals. Instead of hospital beds in an OR environment, ours centered around expectations. We were showing results while our prospects were looking for someone who could figure out how to solve their problem. And since the results we were showing didn’t match their needs, they had a hard time finding any relevance in them. So we stopped showing our portfolio and began demonstrating our thinking, since this is really what our clients need from us and where our expertise lies.