brand story & messaging

Think your work is too complex for words? That’s not the real problem

Sandra Stewart | April 20, 2016

Deep Impact Co. struggles to communicate its core values, or even to describe what it does. On its website, in person and in the press, the company’s messaging produces knit brows rather than bright-eyed engagement. It just doesn’t add up to a coherent story.

How does this happen? Sometimes the problem is missed-the-mark messaging work from a giant brand agency. (Upstarts like Deep Impact Co. often get the training-wheeled creatives—they have to learn somewhere.) Sometimes it’s a bad fit with a boutique agency. Sometimes a company gets stuck in DIY mode, without access to a needed outside perspective.

There are many possibilities—mission shift and business model evolution, to name a couple of others. But the Deep Impact team has become convinced that their system-focused, multiple-level, multiple-audience work is just too complex to explain quickly and coherently. And so they’re resolved to keep struggling.

Many companies like Deep Impact (real enterprise, fake name) reach the same conclusion—we meet them all the time. It’s painful because they’ve committed to the least plausible explanation for their messaging problem. More important, resignation is not a growth strategy.

Getting out of your own way
If your enterprise has revolutionary ambitions obscured by word salad messaging, the first step toward clarity is to get out of your own way. Most people in this situation suffer from what the Heath brothers, in Made to Stick, dub the curse of knowledge:

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

Companies like Deep Impact think their work is too complicated to explain clearly and simply because their heads are full of details and subtleties. But you shouldn’t even try to explain the multithreaded complexity of your goals and activities right out of the gate. Embrace the idea that effective messaging—strong, simple, memorable—will lack nuance. Nuance comes after you’ve got people’s interest.

From six points to two, with power
Here’s an example from our client files: seafood sustainability organization 50in10 was struggling to explain its work effectively. Its core messaging consisted of six separate points in three categories. It was hard to remember, and in all that verbiage, there was no key differentiator. We distilled it to 41 words:

50in10 is the only organization taking a whole-system approach to restoring the world’s endangered ocean fisheries. By addressing issues at every point in a fishery system, we can ensure a rapid and lasting recovery with widespread environmental, economic and social benefits.

Complicated work doesn’t have to mean complicated messaging. In fact, it shouldn’t. Deep Impact Co. needs to figure out why its messaging really went wrong, and then go back to the drawing board with a partner who gets them. That may sound like a frustrating exercise, but it’s not nearly as frustrating as continuing to use language that fails to communicate or inspire. Everyone can do better than that—and revolutionaries deserve better than that.

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