How Do You Rank On "The Plane Test?"

You’ve just boarded a plane. You arrange your bags, remove your reading material, and say hello to the stranger who will be your seatmate for the next six hours. (For the purposes of this post, let’s assume your strategy isn’t to instantly put on your headphones and tune your neighbors out.)

The person seated next to you begins chatting with you and asks what you do for a living. “I’ve never heard of your company,” he says in response to your answer. “What is it?”

That moment—what I’ve dubbed “the plane test”—is a wonderful opportunity to test your brand messages. If your fellow passenger’s eyes glaze over at your response, you’ll know that your messages need some work. But if it leads to an interested reply and a relevant follow-up question, you’ll know you’re on the right track. 

Your seatmate is a free, one-person focus group. He or she will never know you’re testing different versions of your brand message on them. And you should take advantage of that opportunity every time.

Two Women on a Plane

When asked about their companies, most people deliver an uninspired “what” answer:

“Well, the Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization with 25 employees working in four statewide offices to improve elementary and secondary education in Arkansas.”

By the time you said 501(c)3, your seatmate probably started wishing he had just pressed play on the in-flight movie.

There’s a better technique to describe your company called the “Why + What,” which I elaborated upon in my book, The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need To Know Before Your Next Interview. Here’s an example:

“In Arkansas, we rank 50th in the United States in high school graduation rates. That means our students are among the least prepared in the nation when entering the workforce and the most likely to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. The Association for the Advancement of Arkansas Education is dedicated to changing that and to making sure our students get the high-quality education they need to successfully compete in the global marketplace.”

That answer is more likely to provoke a “wow!” response and prompt a bevy of follow-up questions from your seatmate: Why is Arkansas last? What can you do about it? What, if anything, has been working? Can you really change that trend?

If your company, organization, group, or government agency has developed messages, test them at every opportunity possible. Your “plane test” may occur while you’re in flight, but it may also occur when you’re earthbound at a cocktail reception, your child’s school play, or your local grocery store.

Take advantage of those free, one-person focus groups—and revise your responses until you find the language that regularly produces a “wow.”

Like the blog? Read the book! The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview is available in paperback, for Kindle, and iPad.