Think about the most powerful messages you’ve ever heard. Picture the most life-changing piece of advice passed down from a mentor, the most stirring call to action in a stump speech, or the stickiest slogan ever splashed across a commercial.
We’ve all been advised to “not judge a book by its cover,” to “not count your chickens before they hatch,” and that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” My personal favorite piece of received wisdom, essentially a piece of meta-advice, is “all advice is autobiographical.”
Maybe for you what comes to mind is something political, like Patrick Henry’s revolutionary “Give me liberty, or give me death!” or more recently, Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can.” In the halls of great marketing, you might remember Apple’s “Think Different,” Nike’s “Just Do It,” or Disney’s “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
Now think for a second about the other few thousand messages you heard in the past 24 hours –things told to you, like ads, warnings, instructions, or even things you’ve sought out, like articles, social media posts, or stories. How many of them do you actually remember? How many of the things that you’ve said do other people remember? Do they actually even hear what you’re saying?
Regardless if these messages are trying to get your dollars, your votes, or just your thoughts, the most effective messages all share one thing. They are simple.
Simple ideas stick. Simple messages win.
Coming in October 2023 from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win — and How to Design Them is an instruction manual for helping us get simple. Sign up below to learn more and to start your journey to actually getting heard, and pre-order today to get it on release day.
Simple messages are beneficial. These messages prioritize the receiver. They focus on the receiver’s goals, needs, and desires. What’s in it for them? How does your message help them? Just as the sender of a letter must pay the postage, the sender of a message is responsible for carrying the real and figurative cost of communication.
Simple messages are focused. Everything is there to get the point across, and anything else that’s a distraction is vigorously stripped away. Empty platitudes, useless fluff, anything that isn’t a necessary component of your story is another place to lose the receiver. You have only a small window to be heard, so don’t waste it.
Simple messages are salient. They stand out, stick up, or otherwise contrast with the environment. In a noisy world, you need to be conspicuously distinct to have any hope of being seen or heard. The brain readily adapts to repeated stimuli, blurring muddy sameness into the background, and we are predisposed to things that don’t.
Simple messages are empathetic. They show understanding of, and compassion with, the receiver. Empathetic messages speak the receiver’s language and exhibit insight into their reality. They don’t require specialized lingo, a degree’s worth of prior knowledge, or a dictionary full of esoteric words.
Simple messages are minimal. They contain everything they need, but only what they need. Minimal messages require the fewest number of dependencies—and thus have the fewest possible points of failure. While minimal generally correlates with short length, that doesn’t mean shortness is the goal. Instead, the attribute that minimal measures is friction.
Ben Guttmann is a marketing and communications expert and author of Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win — and How to Design Them. He’s an experienced marketing executive and educator on a mission to get leaders to more effectively connect by simplifying their message.
Ben is former co-founder and managing partner at Digital Natives Group, an award-winning agency that worked with the NFL, I Love NY, Comcast NBCUniversal, Hachette Book Group, The Nature Conservancy, and other major clients. Currently, Ben teaches digital marketing at Baruch College in New York City and consults with a range of thought leaders, venture-backed startups, and other brands.
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