Simple – A Key to Effective Messaging

We recently had the pleasure of having lunch with Alan Siegel, a well-known New York City-based brand expert. We had contacted him after reading an article in the New York Times about nonprofits turning to pros like Alan to craft marketing campaigns to sell their causes to donors. 

  Photo by  Edgar Chaparro    on  Unsplash

Alan has had a long and distinguished career in the advertising industry, in recent years turning his attention to nonprofits. We discussed our mutual interest in college basketball, Alan having played at Cornell, while I played at the University of Virginia (personal note: UVA is the #1 team in college basketball right now for the third straight week!). The conversation turned to the New York Knicks, and Alan casually mentioned, “Yeah, I designed the NBA logo.” You have probably seen this image, a silhouette of basketball great Jerry West. The NBA estimates the value of the brand Alan created for them to be more than $3B a year in licensing.

Alan is the co-author of the book Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. The book makes a case for simplicity being a competitive advantage and describes why organizations should use the principles of simplicity to enhance their customer experience.

Among the areas of “simplification” discussed is the importance of using understandable language. And how the use of more language often results in less clarity. For example, of the tens of billions of dollars of consumer electronics that are returned to stores every year, half are “in good working order, but consumers can’t figure out how to operate them.” The user’s guides are simply too complex to be decoded.

There is another good reason to keep messaging simple and easy to understand, one that is rooted in neuroscience. Our brains associate the ease of processing information with positive feelings about what it is that the words describe. Neuroscientists call the ease with which people process images and words processing fluency. The notion is images and words that are easier to process are more likely to activate the muscles of the face used to smile than are those that are harder to process.

So, processing fluency is an important consideration when crafting messaging to constituents. Here are four ways that neuroscience has discovered you can make content easier to decode:

1)     Use stories and metaphors: This is a staple of nonprofit messaging, and for a good reason. Information presented as stories or metaphors makes it more engaging and easy to digest. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, the “human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We are even built to interact with stories physically. Language that is sensory-rich and evokes mental images or sensations, like scents or tactile experiences, are easier to process.

2)     Make things clear to see: When using graphics, try to use no more than three or four visual clusters. Our brains can immediately decode up to four items, but any more requires extra effort. Our ability to instantly process three or four items is known as subitizing. As students of rhetoric know, three arguments are also powerful in verbal persuasion. Three has a feeling of “completeness.” People feel uncomfortable just mentioning two things, and often use a verbal filler like “and so on” to bulk up a list of two things into a list of three.

3)     Repetition and familiarity: Using elements of messaging that are familiar to your audience or making sure that they see the same messaging a lot makes information easier for people to process. Our brains mix up familiarity with liking. This mix up is what psychologists call the mere exposure effect. People tend to rate things that they have seen before more positively. And while novelty can catch people’s attention, they have to do a lot of work to process novel information.

4)     Minimize cognitive load: People have a limit to how many things they can keep in their minds at one time. It’s important to make sure you don’t overwhelm their attention with a single message. Being mindful of the cognitive load is particularly relevant when you are asking people to do something like filling out forms or registering to do something online. Rule of thumb: one message and one call to action. Asking people to do multiple tasks significantly diminishes the likelihood that they will do anything.

Finally, before sending out messaging, test, test, test. Find out what content gets the best response from your audience. Simple provides compelling evidence about the way organizations who embrace simplicity come out on top, although it’s not as easy to accomplish as it may sound. As Alan Siegel says, “Simplification requires a thorough and pervasive commitment by an organization to empathize, distill and clarify.”

We nonprofit professionals work to solve problems like these:

•    Someone is sleeping in sub-zero weather tonight in my city.

•    A person is being beaten right now in my county.

•    17 children lost their lives to a gunman at a high school in my country.

These are urgent issues. Our first instinct can be to convey as much information as possible, as fast as possible. But the people we are communicating with are in their psychological space. The most effective way to engage them often turns out to be the simplest. We are at war; they are not. Not yet, anyway. Write accordingly.