Keep it simple–but not stupid

Trinity College library with bust
Whether it’s promoting a book or an idea, get to the essence of the message.
(Trinity College library, Annette Frahm photo)

In my first professional job, I worked for an academic book publisher, Westview Press. My role was book promotion, trying to persuade libraries and professors to buy our books.

Each time we published an important or high-profile book, we created a full-page flyer to go into our marketing mailings. We would decide the key selling points and most compelling content of the book and tell people about them in several paragraphs.

When the book went into our catalog, we had to cut the messages down to two or three paragraphs. We needed to tell people the essential points in half the space. When the book went into the backlist, the amount of space was cut by half again. And it was cut one more time when it went into the back-back-list.

Each time, we had to decide the essence of the message. What did we really need to communicate about this book? What was less important and could be cut?

The discipline of that exercise has served me well throughout my career. I learned how to get to the point and toss the less important stuff.

As I said in my last post, I’m writing several posts about the book “Made to Stick.” The book’s first chapter is titled “Simple.” Chip and Dan Heath talk about the need to get to the essence of the idea–and be disciplined enough to stay there. You need to know where you’re going, the core of your mission or message, and communicate that. And only that.

As the book describes, the campaign slogan for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.” When Ross Perot was getting positive attention for talking about a balanced budget, Clinton said, “I’ve been talking about these things for two years, why should I stop talking about them now because Perot is in?” His advisers had to tell him, “There has to be message triage. If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”

Keeping your message simple doesn’t mean dumbing it down. Consider proverbs. As the Heath brothers say, proverbs have been a simple yet profound way to communicate messages for thousands of years. Cervantes called proverbs “short sentences drawn from long experience.”

The proverb “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” warns against giving up a sure thing for something that may or may not work out. This proverb has survived, in numerous languages and variations, for more than 2,500 years. Proverbs have staying power because they help communicate norms and standards, help people decide how to act.

Your messages need to be simple. But they also need to be more than sound bites. They need substance that can provide guidance to your readers, staff or audience.