James DeKoven
Writer & Content Strategist

Blog of marketing and branding ideas

Opinions, ideas and ramblings

If You Want a Simple Message, You Need to Try Harder

My father was a practicing Buddhist, so before the age of 10 I read a lot about Zen, Taoism, and other topics in the realm of eastern philosophy.

That’s some heady subject matter for anyone, let alone a little boy. But it all made so much sense for someone like me, a slow reader with a drifting attention span. Looking back, that’s because complex notions were distilled to their essence and made easy to grasp.

In the business world, we’re conditioned to believe the opposite: The more complex the message, the more value it must contain – even if you can’t understand the message.

This mindset explains why countless employees wander the offices of corporate America trying to comprehend what the company actually does. And confused employees create even more confused prospects.

In my years as a messaging strategist, that’s always been the most common challenge facing my clients. But while they’re aware of the need to simplify their message, they often have an urge to sabotage the solution.

Resistance comes in one of three ways:

- They believe that if you simplify the message, you’ll dumb it down or reduce the perceived value.

- They think that if you don’t use the same cryptic, industry-specific language as the competition, people won’t take you seriously and will view you as an amateur.

- They feel if they don’t cram everything into the message, prospects might not see the one piece of convincing information they need to move forward.

All of those beliefs fall flat when contrasted with reality and how buyers make choices. Look at global giants like Apple and Amazon. They didn’t earn their perch on the mountaintop with just their offerings. They also got there by simplifying the message.

Wikipedia provides a more specific example. They don’t sell a product or service, but they do ask for donations, which requires selling an idea. This was their sales pitch a few years ago:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's our commitment.

Beautiful. Wikipedia didn’t mention technology, or the process of editing or adding an entry to the site, or how they’ve revolutionized how we use the encyclopedia, or any minutiae that could dilute the power of the grand idea.

I realize simple isn’t easy. That’s why it’s almost impossible to replicate the perfectly toasted, perfectly buttered English muffin your grandmother makes. People can spend years in therapy searching how to articulate the most basic sentiment to their partners. Wes Montgomery died in 1968, yet no guitarist has matched his exquisite, single-note solos.

It’s hard to be simple because you need discipline and patience to chisel, reflect, refine some more, then let the project sit for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. You need resolve when you realize it’s not right and have to start from scratch for the 7th time.

So if you can’t understand what Company XYZ sells, that’s because they didn’t try hard enough to clearly describe what they do.

But it’s also difficult to be simple because the complex is so alluring. If you can get a pizza with five toppings, why go with plain cheese? If a block of copy sounds dazzling and intellectual, why argue against it?

Interestingly – in one of life’s every day paradoxes – things that appear intricate or sophisticated often require little or no effort to create. It’s like Mark Twain’s famous note to a friend: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

While many of us appreciate simplicity and want to embrace the “less is more” ethos, in practice we adopt a “less is mediocre” attitude.

That’s how we end up filling our homes and heads with a lot of useless objects and information, only to turn around and go to great lengths to dump of all it: Start a daily meditation routine, go on a journey to Machu Picchu, cut up your credit cards, then sell your gadgets and wedding gifts on Craigslist.

Thankfully, many of us are indeed trying to make life less complicated. Despite the ever-tightening grip of materialism on the neck of society, we live in a time where minimalism is in vogue.

We’re cutting the fat from our lives with the help of TV shows, books, TED Talks, and life coaches. From eliminating mental noise to closets filled to the brim with never-worn clothes, we’re getting better at keeping it lean.

Business, being a mirror of society, is going through a similar trend with messaging. We see it with apps and web sites built on the novel idea that people appreciate being talked to like they’re people.

If you want a compelling message, forget the internal company speak. Instead, focus on what you actually do and what people actually get with their dollars.

A design agency doesn’t create exceptional brand experiences. They help companies sell more of their products and services.

A healthcare consultancy doesn’t help their clients establish market value. They help their clients to make more informed decisions so they can manufacture profitable products.

A personal stylist doesn’t help you express your personality. She helps you feel more confident at work and social events.

A SaaS software company doesn’t help their customers to discover key performance indicators. They help customers understand what’s working and what needs to improve in their businesses.

Here’s an exercise you might find useful. Imagine a stranger sitting next to you at the bar. You strike up a conversation and she asks the inevitable, “So, what do you do?”

At this point you know nothing about her profession or employment history. You have no context to frame your response. How do you answer? To do this exercise correctly, you can’t use any jargon or industry terminology.

As an example, when I was primarily a copywriter, I knew that only a smidgen of society understood what that meant. So I usually said, “I use words to inspire people to believe things, do things and buy things.” 

The simplicity went to the heart of the matter, a baseline that almost anyone could understand. I’m not suggesting that you get as pedestrian as my examples; obviously, you need to dial the language up or down depending on the topic.

The point is that in your messaging, you don’t have to say everything. You just need enough to inspire people to take the next step so you can continue the conversation.

Remember, the goal isn’t to impress. You want people to understand, which is the first step in the sales cycle. Try harder to be simple.

BrandingJames DeKoven