in: Career, Career & Wealth, Podcast

• Last updated: March 12, 2024

Podcast #971: The 5 Factors for Crafting Simple (Read: Effective!) Messages

Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or entrepreneur, you want to be able to persuade your students, children, and customers with your messages. That’s a tall task in the modern age, when people are bombarded with 13 hours of media a day. How do you cut through all that noise to make sure you’re heard? My guest would say it’s all about keeping things simple.

Ben Guttmann is a marketing educator and consultant who’s helped promote everything from the NFL to New York Times-bestselling authors. He is himself the author of Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win—and How to Design Them. Today on the show, Ben explains the gap between how people like to receive messages and the self-sabotaging, complication-introducing ways people tend to send them. We then talk about the five factors of effective marketing that anyone can use to close this gap and craft simple, effective, influential messages. We discuss why you should highlight something’s benefits rather than its features, the question to ask to figure out what those benefits are, how to replace “and” with “so” to create more focused messages, how the fad of using the F-word in book titles shows the transience of salience, how to make your message minimal by imagining it as a Jenga tower and how minimal isn’t the same thing as short, and much more, including Ben’s most immediately actionable tip for crafting better, simpler messages.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Whether you’re a teacher, parent, or entrepreneur, you want to be able to persuade your students, children, and customers with your messages. That’s a tall task in the modern age when people are bombarded with 13 hours of media a day. How do you cut through all that noise to make sure you’re heard? My guess would say it’s all about keeping things simple. Ben Guttmann is a marketing educator and consultant who’s helped promote everything from the NFL to New York Times bestselling authors. He is himself the author of Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. Today on the show, Ben explains the gap between how people like to receive messages and the self-sabotaging, complication-introducing ways people tend to send them. We then talk about the five factors of effective marketing that anyone can use to close this gap and craft simple, effective, influential messages. We discuss why you should highlight something’s benefits rather than its features, the question to ask to figure out what those benefits are, how to replace ‘and’ with ‘so’ to create more focused messages, how the fad of using the F-word in book titles shows the transience of salience, how to make your message minimal by imagining it as a Jenga tower and how minimal isn’t the same thing as short, and much more, including Ben’s most immediately actionable tip for crafting better, simpler messages.

After the show’s over, check out our show notes at All right, Ben Guttmann, welcome to the show.

Ben Guttmann: Thanks for having me, Brett. It’s great to be here.

Brett McKay: So you are a marketing professor and a marketing executive and you got a book out called Simply Put where you take readers through a course on how to craft simple messages. How do you define a simple message as a marketer?

Ben Guttmann: So I define simple as a message that is easily perceived, understood, and acted upon. And these are the individual components of something being a successful message, if it’s marketing or if it’s kind of anything else is that, we have to get it from out in the world, we have to make sense of it, and then we have to do something with it. And the way which we do that as a receiver of information is… We’re kind of built to do things one way, but then as a sender of information, we’re kind of predisposed to sending messages in a different way. And that’s really the gap that we’re trying to solve here.

Brett McKay: And you bring in this idea about fluency when it comes to simple messages, this psychological fluency. Like, what is this idea of fluency? How does it shape whether a message is simple or not?

Ben Guttmann: So fluency is a word that we know. It can be fluent in English or Spanish or Mandarin or anything else, but if you ask a cognitive scientist about the word fluency, what they’re gonna describe, it’s how easy is it for you to take something from out in the world, stick it in your head, and make sense of it. And when things don’t take that much work, when they’re easy to do that, well, we’re more likely to like them, we’re more likely to buy them, we’re more likely to trust them. All the things that when you’re a communicator, you want. On the flip side of things, well, if things take a lot of work to get in, if it’s hard for us to read, hard for us to hear, hard for us to understand, and it takes these extra brain cycles, well, we’re less likely to like it, less likely to buy it, and less likely to trust it. All the things that we don’t want. And so when we’re receivers, we want stuff that is fluent. However, when we’re senders, we’re pulled in this other direction, both kind of internally and externally. Internally, we’re subject to what might be known as an additive bias. We’re more likely to add than we are to subtract. Externally, we’re pulled in a direction by the society around us, by our own individual incentives to put more, to complicate, bigger words, and that creates this rift where all the kind of really important communication, if it’s marketing or something else, kind of just falls in.

Brett McKay: Okay, so as a receiver of messages, we like things simple. We like things easy to understand, but as a sender of messages, we have a tendency to complicate things. And we’re gonna talk more about how we do that. In addition to this rift that exists between sender and receiver, where receiver wants things simple, senders tend to complicate messages, there’s also other things going on that’s making it harder for people to get their message across. What else is going on?

Ben Guttmann: Well, we are busier, we are more distracted than we ever have been. And this is not a particularly unique insight. We have been, for thousands of years actually, complaining about how the world is busier and we’re more distracted. Oh, there’s too many books and it’s kind of rotting our brains. Oh, there’s too many newspapers. Oh, there’s too much radio. There’s too much television. So I’m very conscious of that historical truth, is that we always have complained about this. But there is quite a bit of data and evidence to suggest that it is getting worse and it is getting to a point where it’s becoming a breaking point for a lot of folks. The average American consumes 13 hours of media a day. 13 hours. Once you take out sleeping, there’s really not much left. And so we’re in this incredibly noisy and busy environment. And we are built in a way which when we are in an environment like that, that biologically, psychologically, what we do is we quickly kind of get information in and filter it and get rid of the stuff that’s not important to us. And so when we’re in this environment where there’s just thousands of things a day kind of beeping and buzzing for our attention, well, we’re in this kind of like fight or flight mode here.

We’re saying, Okay, well, let’s quickly get rid of all the stuff that’s not important to us. And the result of that can often be that we’re throwing out a lot of other stuff that could be valuable to us, but is just not communicated in a way which respects that truth.

Brett McKay: So you’re in the business of marketing, selling people ideas, but this idea of crafting simple messages, what other domains is it useful in? ‘Cause I mean, someone listening to this, I think a lot of people might not be in marketing or sales, but this idea I imagine is important, even if you’re not.

Ben Guttmann: Oh, yeah. I ran a marketing agency for 10 years. I teach marketing at the City University of New York here. And so obviously I’ve spent a lot of time in this space. But what I like to say is this book is going to live on the marketing shelf. If you go to Barnes & Noble that’s where you’re gonna find it. But we are really kind of all marketers. And that’s kind of the big dirty truth behind marketing is that we are all marketers in some way, shape or form. If you’re in an advertising agency obviously, but if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re an executive, if you’re an advocate or a politician, if you are a teacher or a faith leader or a parent, marketing is just about how do you get people to kind of hear what you have to say and then hopefully get them to do the thing that you want them to do. And we all do that all the time.

That’s the biggest thing we do as people is to try to communicate and to try to influence others. And so, this is a book that is obviously if your job is to do that as a marketer, it’s going to be applicable. But I think the lessons in here are something that I purposely tried to design to be broadly applicable to anybody whether or not they’ve ever stepped foot in an ad agency.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think so. As I was reading this, I was like, man, I could see this applying to all sorts of places in my life. If you’re a manager at a job, for example, and you’re trying to convey a new protocol that you’re trying to implement in your office, you have to realize you’re competing for your employees’ attention with all this other stuff going on in their lives. The internet, Instagram, Twitter, their email inbox, their personal life. So you have to convey the message in a way that is easy and simple to understand ’cause if you don’t, chances are a big chunk of them are just gonna misunderstand or completely miss it. Or if you’re a parent, you’re trying to give your kids instructions on it. Here I want you to do X thing, you have to make that message as simple as possible because they’ve got a lot going on in their brain, so that they understand it.

Ben Guttmann: Oh yeah, and the big dirty secret behind marketing is that by default, nobody cares. Nobody cares about the thing that you’re trying to sell them, the thing that you’re trying to tell them. If you’re running a company and you say, I have this great new widget and it’s really important and I want everybody to know about it. Or again, you’re a manager or an advocate and say, I got this great new idea and I want people to understand it. People by default aren’t going to do that. We care about lots of things. We wake up every single day and we care about our friends and our family and our community and our favorite sports teams and our vacation coming up. But by default, we don’t care about your new brand of shampoo. That’s just not something that’s on our agenda. Every advertisement you’ve ever seen has been against your will. Nobody woke up today and said, you know what’s on my plans today? I’m gonna mow the lawn. I’m gonna drop the kids off at daycare. And then I’m gonna go scroll through Instagram ads for an hour or I’m gonna open up your spam email. And so once we understand that, it puts us in this very humble position, which, well, okay, we have to communicate in a way that people do care about.

And so the analogy I like to use when you are a communicator, when you’re in the position of sending a message, is just like if you’re sending a letter in the mail, you’re responsible for the postage. When you’re sending a message, you’re responsible for the literal and the metaphorical cost of that communication. It’s up to you to make sure that you’re gonna be heard.

Brett McKay: Right. If you’re a parent or a teacher, your kids probably don’t care about what you want them to do, ’cause you’re probably just gonna sound like the peanuts mom. So you have to craft your message in a way that they want to listen to it.

Ben Guttmann: Yes, absolutely.

Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier that as senders of messages, we have a tendency to complicate things. Why is that? Like why… We know as a receiver, we like things simple. So why as senders of messages do we make things overly complicated?

Ben Guttmann: And it’s gonna sound contradictory, but complication is easy. There’s a famous quote that’s often misattributed to Mark Twain that says, I wrote you a long letter ’cause I didn’t have time to write you a short one. And he didn’t actually say that. You can just kind of grab anybody’s name like Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Abe Lincoln. Just grab one of them and they said any sort of famous quote. But so it wasn’t actually Mark Twain that said that. But the message behind that kind of stays the same, which is it’s harder for us to do the editing. It’s harder for us to get focused and distill our message into something that really is valuable. We have these things kind of internally. We have this bias towards addition and complexity that I mentioned a little bit before. Externally, there’s all these kind of incentives here. When you look at what does complicated get us, well, complicated is very self-serving in many ways. It allows us to hide the things that we don’t necessarily want the receiver to get, but we want to have plausible understanding that we said something out there.

It allows us to maybe kind of put on the show of status that we are afraid that we might not have. And it allows us to just throw kind of a mirror out there instead of really a message with our audience. And so it allows us to do things that are ultimately not really serving us or really not serving our receiver, but it is the kind of easy path out of the hard task of communicating.

Brett McKay: You talk about there’s three sins of complication. What are those three sins?

Ben Guttmann: Yeah, so I just kind of hinted at them a bit. So number one is selfish. Is that when we prioritize us over the receiver and what are our needs and our goals as part of this. And obviously that’s an important component, but when we do it to the extreme, it can be something that actually becomes very kind of hurtful in some ways. A good example of that is like look at the terms of use of all the different software that you use. By one estimate, it would take 250 hours to actually read all these terms and conditions that we agree to as part of our daily digital life. Number two is cowardly. Complicated allows us to hide behind a wall of words. And I mentioned the kind of lower status and higher status bit. Something that’s kind of a half step different here, but I love the story, is if you look at how different airports refer to themselves. This is the great little microcosm of how we use language in a higher status context versus a lower status context. In the US, there’s about… And forgive me, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, about 130 or so international airports. And an international airport can be something like where I am here in New York, like JFK, which has thousands of flights coming in and out of it. Or it could be like where my grandmother used to live in Great Falls, Montana, which has just a couple of flights kind of going in and out of Canada.

And so that’s a big discrepancy between the biggest ones and the smallest ones. And so researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, they looked at, okay, well, how do these two airports talk about themselves? ‘Cause there’s this idea that the word international connotes status. Like you’re a big deal when you’re international airport. Well, when they looked at the marketing messaging from the small airports and the big airports, and they said how often do they call themselves international as opposed to saying JFK Airport or JFK? Well, when you looked at how the large airports refer to themselves, they use it about 30% of the time. They would say, Okay, we’re JFK International, so on and so forth. But we looked at the small airports, they used it about 70% of the time. They use the word international to describe themselves because, again, you want to kind of put on this dressing of status. And so that’s something that comes up a lot when you look across a bunch of different domains, is that we will use complication to kind of make up for other fears that we have about our own status or about our abilities.

Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s coward, that’s number two. What was the third one?

Ben Guttmann: Oh, and the third one is dangerous. So this can hurt us. Complicated by virtue of being an ineffective form of communicating, it can hurt us in business, it can hurt our relationships and safety. So this is the number one cause of aviation accidents, the number one cause of health care accidents. Bad writing alone, it’s been estimated, can cost businesses $400 billion a year. So it’s not kind of a victimless crime to be a poor communicator.

Brett McKay: What’s an example of a complicated message that doesn’t need to be complicated?

Ben Guttmann: Well, by the way, I’m not innocent from all this, too. Sometimes, I’ll be in a meeting there and say, Oh, I don’t have good news for the client. I don’t have a good answer to something. And you kind of just filibuster it in a way. So that’s certainly something that comes up. One thing, if I want to talk about kind of an example of a message that I think is simple versus one that is complicated, that to go completely like far away from marketing to show how this can apply to a lot of domains is I like to talk about something my dentist told me not too long ago. I’ve always had kind of bad luck with my dental genes, I guess. And I was at the dentist and they were digging away there and it was bleeding. It was horrible. And he said, You only have to floss the teeth you want to keep. You only have to floss the teeth you want to keep.

He understood it was very empathetic message and it was salient in a way that was it stood out. It was the language I needed to hear. And since then I floss my teeth like every day. And if you compare that to something like what my old dentist might have said, which is, Use of floss to prevent plaque buildup below the gum line. There’s nothing incorrect about that sentence. There’s nothing that’s really kind of terrible there, but it’s something that just wasn’t where I needed to be. It wasn’t the thing I needed to hear at the moment. It was a little more complicated than it should be.

Brett McKay: You give some examples too of the parking signs when you’re out driving in a city. And I’m sure all of us have encountered those signs where it’s not just one sign. It’s like three signs that are sort of mishmashed into this Frankenstein sign where it’ll tell you you can park here during certain times on the weekdays. And it’s, you look at this and you’re like, I don’t understand what’s going on here. Am I gonna get a ticket? And you just kind of, sometimes you’re just like, I’m gonna risk it. Maybe I’ll get a ticket. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’m parking at the right time. Who knows? But that’s another example of overly complicated messages that don’t need to be complicated.

Ben Guttmann: Oh, yeah. And if you want to hear kind of the contrast of that, so this is again, bring it back to New York, my hometown here. If you go back a few decades, we had a mayor, Ed Koch, who was kind of this very very New York caricature of a guy. He had his department of transportation put up signs for parking that said, don’t even think of parking here. Don’t even think of parking here. It was so popular of a sign that it was direct, it was clear, it was translated into Chinese and Yiddish and a bunch of other languages. And they still sell copies of it, by the way, for souvenirs that you can get. And when you compare that to something like what you’re talking about, there’s a kind of Byzantine sign of a bunch of different this and that. Well, the kind of more Byzantine sign there, that’s nice. The other sign isn’t nice. It’s not being nice to you. It’s saying don’t even think of parking here. But it is kind.

And so there’s a difference between kindness and niceness, which is the kindness you care about the results, you care about the outcome. And that’s really what you’re looking for when you’re looking for a simple communication. And it’s better to be kind than to be nice if you can only choose one of them. And in that situation, don’t even think about parking here. It’s not being very polite, but it’s being much more respectful of the outcomes of the receiver.

Brett McKay: All right. So let’s talk about how we can craft simple messages. And you highlight five factors that make a message a simple message. And the first factor is beneficial. A message should highlight the benefits of what we’re trying to sell or persuade on. And you use… I love this. I thought this is really useful. You Use the example of trying to sell a power drill. And I think if most people were given the assignment of selling a power drill, they’re gonna focus on the features like it’s got this torque, it’s got a flashlight, it’s got this magnet that can hold your bits. But you argue that selling the features is not effective because you’re ignoring the real reason someone is buying a drill. So what’s the real reason someone is buying a power drill if it’s not for the power that it has?

Ben Guttmann: So to borrow a quote from a famous marketing professor, Theodore Levitt from the 20th century, he said, People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole. People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole. They don’t want the thing, they want what the thing gets them. And if you’ve ever been in sales or marketing, you’ve probably come across this idea, is that there are features and there are benefits. We don’t really buy features, we buy benefits. We buy how our life is better because of this product or service. We buy how the world has changed in the direction we want because of this thing.

And you can talk all about that battery, you can talk all about the magnet and the flashlight and the grip and all these different things, but that is not gonna resonate with how people actually make their decisions. This is a slightly nuanced thing. If you’re talking with some highly technical sales reps for manufacturers and distributors, you have to figure out where you want to invest your communication resources. But for most situations, the more you can talk about benefits, the better you’re gonna resonate with how people actually make decisions.

And there’s a really easy way to get from a feature to a benefit, and to start to put your mind in the right place. And it’s the question, So what? So what? What does it matter? And if you look at the feature and you say, Well, so what? Well, then you’re gonna get to that first level of benefit, which I call a functional benefit. If you say, So what? Again, you’re gonna get to what I’ll call the emotional benefit. It’s where you start to realize, Okay, this is getting a little bit deeper. And if you do it again, you’re ultimately gonna get to what are kind of driving motivations.

So to pull another example, kind of from like the dental space again, for some reason. Let’s look at toothpaste. You have mint toothpaste. That is a feature. The flavor of the toothpaste is a feature. It exists in the world. You experience it with one of your five senses. But that’s not why we buy the toothpaste. So you say, Okay, mint toothpaste, so what? Well, that means I’m gonna have fresh breath. Okay, well, that’s getting a little bit closer to why we’re actually gonna buy that toothpaste. Okay, well, I got fresh breath. That’s not actually what I want, but so what about the fresh breath?

Well, that means I’m gonna have a more successful date tonight. And so, okay, well, that’s the emotional benefit. That’s starting to get a little bit deeper as to what actually drives us to do things. And if you ask it again, well, then you can look at… You’re gonna get down to that bedrock level of kind of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the thing you’ve seen in a thousand textbooks. Well, so okay, well, this is gonna align with maybe my physiological needs, maybe my love and belonging needs. And then when you understand that, you can kind of flip it on its head and begin to craft sales or marketing messaging that starts from the right place and eventually gets down to the features. You say, Well, it’s about having a better date because you have fresh breath, because it has mint flavor. That is a much more aligned message than just saying, Buy our toothpaste, it’s great because it has mint flavor.

Brett McKay: All right, so you wanna keep asking, So what? So what? Till you get down to that sort of basic primal need?

Ben Guttmann: Mm-hmm.

Brett McKay: One thing you talk about, one challenge that organizations have is as they get older… They might’ve started off being able to really tap into the needs of their customer or their audience and they’re able to really craft their messaging that hits that need. But as they get older, they start to focus on their features. So instead of focusing on the hole, they start focusing on the drill. Why is that? Why does that happen?

Ben Guttmann: Yeah. So the features, again, the battery, the magnet, the light, those types of things, they exist in the real world. They’re very tangible. You can see, smell, taste, touch, these different features. And that’s the same thing for mint flavor on your toothpaste. That’s the same thing for every feature, the heated seats in your car, whatever it’s going to be. And so as you get further and further away from the entrepreneurial moment or the launch of a product or a campaign where you’re really trying to solve a problem and you start to get bureaucratic layers away, you start to get time and space away from something. Well, those tangible features still look just as clear, but the need that people have, the problem that you’re solving starts to get more and more diffused. Because oftentimes people who are doing marketing in kind of this bigger institutional context may not be as in touch with the users, as in touch with the buyers as they were when they were first starting out. A politician that hasn’t done door knocking in 10 years is gonna be less kind of with it than somebody who did do door knocking just yesterday and was able to talk to the voters and what their needs are.

So you can see this… Something like Microsoft… I hate to kind of pick on them, but Microsoft when they first launched Microsoft Excel, they were really sharp about it. They were talking about it, there was really cool ads actually about all the things that it does and it helps you do that you couldn’t do before. But today, if you go to Microsoft office and you try to buy their product, they don’t tell you anything about what it really does for you. They just assume you know what Excel is and this is how you go download it. This happens with Lenscrafters versus something like Warby Parker. If you just look at these two websites and you compare them, you’ll immediately see somebody who is still kind of understanding what customers want versus somebody who’s just saying, Well, we’re the big company, so you’re gonna come here anyway.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for words from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. All right. So the second factor of a simple message is focused. How can we craft more focused messages? And I guess, what do you mean by focused?

Ben Guttmann: So we can really only handle one thing at a time. There’s this persistent myth of multitasking that we can understand. We can do multiple things at a time, that we can pay attention to multiple things at any one time, but it just hasn’t rung true. When you look at the research across the board, it’s just not how we work. But we still like to do it. We still like to go out and say, Well, buy our product because of X, Y, and Z. But we don’t really care about X, Y, and Z. We care about just X, right? And so we can only really pay attention to that thing once, and then we can pay attention to the Y, and then we can pay attention to the Z after them. The example that I talk about, kind of to open that chapter, is what I call the Frankenstein idea. And so in my class that I teach, I ask my students, I say, Here’s a brand, go out, develop some marketing ideas. Give me a campaign pitch for this brand. When they come back, and without fail, every semester I see the same thing happen with them that I see happen in boardrooms or large teams kind of across the world, which is they come back with what I call the Frankenstein idea. If you read Mary Shelley’s book about Frankenstein, how she describes the monster is that every individual piece is great, is selected to be beautiful.

It’s got lustrous black hair, pearly white eyes, big strong muscles. But when you put them together, it’s this gruesome composite. And that happens with creative ideas too, which is you might have one really great thing you wanna say, but as soon as you dilute it with thing two and thing three and things four, even though those are all individually great, well, it becomes worse than if you just had the one message that you’re trying to convey and you went all in on it.

Brett McKay: You have this neat trick to help you refine your message and make it more focused. And that is when you’re looking at a sentence, you want to replace and with so. How can that help us refine our message?

Ben Guttmann: So the word and is this kind of magic word. It allows us to put together a lot of things that may not make a lot of sense together, but sound like they make sense together. Our alarm bells don’t really go off when we hear a sentence that has X and Y and Z, and we think, Oh, that kind of makes sense. And we move on with it. But if you replace the and with the word so, the sentence itself may be a little grammatically funky at that point. But you start to realize, Well, okay, well, Y doesn’t come from X and Z doesn’t come from Y. And so we don’t actually have one concrete idea here. We actually have three ideas in a trench coat. And so it’s important for us to make sure that we’re kind of thinking sequentially and focused more than just kind of throwing everything at the wall.

Brett McKay: So it would be an example of how that can help you focus your message. I mean, you gave one about like, it’s a company, they’re going to develop a loyalty program. And they say, We’re going to develop a loyalty program for a cafe and release a line of collectible mugs. Well, okay, it sounds like it goes together, but let’s replace and with so, so it says, We’re going to develop a loyalty program for a cafe, so we’re going to release a line of collectible mugs. You’re like, Well, that doesn’t connect, actually, when we think about it.

Ben Guttmann: Oh, yeah. And then if… And so something that does make more sense would be saying, Well, we’re going to develop a loyalty program for a cafe, so we’ll build a mobile app to allow customers to track their points. Something like that. Well, it actually follows that kind of the mobile app makes sense in relation to the loyalty program in a way that the collectible mugs might not.

Brett McKay: All right. So the focused idea is this is helping you avoid our tendency to add. So don’t just be like, and, and, and, and ’cause that can just… You’re going to create a Frankenstein of a message. Keep it down to just one thing. How focused do you need to get? Can you do two messages or two things you want to convey or are you really a stickler for it just needs to be one?

Ben Guttmann: Well, I like to say this. Every thing you add takes away attention from everything else that’s there. Our focus, our attention is ultimately a zero sum game. And you can kind of borrow a little bit here and there, but it’s important that we understand what that trade off is. If in our marketing message, our kind of warning message, whatever it is that we’re trying to get out there, if we’re trying to say multiple things, we’re doing it at the expense of the focus that would be given to each one of those individually.

Brett McKay: Any examples of a focused message that you’ve seen out in the wild that you think really exemplify that idea?

Ben Guttmann: Yeah. One of the ones that I like a lot comes from Walmart. Walmart’s always been very focused about what is their benefit. What is the reason that people come to Walmart? And it’s about saving money. And so they had a great slogan not too long ago called save money, live better. It was very straightforward. There’s no and in there, but you could understand, okay, well, save money and live better makes sense, but save money, so live better also makes sense, right? And when you contrast that with something like Sears, which has kind of gone the way of the dodo, and they say… They would careen from offering to offering over the years, one of them was, there’s more for your life at Sears. Nothing’s wrong with that. Those are pretty words, but it’s not really focused about what is the reason that people are coming to the store.

Brett McKay: Okay. So third factor is salience. What do you mean by salience?

Ben Guttmann: So salience means, does it rise to your attention? Is it noticeable? Does it zig one of their zag? Is there contrast? And the truth is we only really notice things that are salient. We only notice contrast. It’s not really an option. We only notice figure from ground. So it’s important that when we’re competing in this marketplace of, again, 1000s of messages over the course of 13 hours a day, well, we have to stand out. We have to do something that’s different than everybody else in order for our little bit of communication to stand out from the noise.

Brett McKay: And you talk about how salience is hard because we have a tendency just to follow the crowd. And you mentioned something in the book that I noticed too. I’d say about 10 years ago, eight years ago, there was this trend in the publishing industry to produce these F-word books, right? So it’s like F this, or don’t give an F about this. And I think maybe the first time one of those F-word books came out, it was like, Oh wow, that’s… I haven’t seen that before. Now it’s just a cliché. Whenever I see a book that comes out with the F word in it, I’m like, This is probably dumb and I’m not gonna even pick that up.

Ben Guttmann: I think that’s one of my favorite examples of this, right? The first time this comes up, it is something where it stands apart in the sea of everything else that’s like, Rich Dad Poor Dad or the Who Moved My Cheese, all these different types of kind of clichéd titles. And when you see something of The Subtle Art of Not Giving an F or you know… Well, that ends up being something that, Wow, this is different, this stands out. And these books sell a lot. They sold millions and millions of copies over a very short period of time. But then as you’re saying, today, if you go to the bookstore, literally the entire personal development section is just overrun by the George Carlin seven words you can’t say on television, right? It’s lost its effectiveness. Something can be salient at one point in time and then can lose that when all over sudden everybody else kind of catches up to it.

Brett McKay: Any tactics on how to make your message more salient?

Ben Guttmann: Well, I would say the most important thing you can do is to play… If you want to do something that’s different than what everybody else is doing, you have to play by different rules. And so I argue that constraints, imposing constraints across multiple different dimensions can push you to do something that’s going to be different than what everybody else is. These can be the amount of time you have to produce something, or how long of a message it can be. This can be in terms of your space. This can be in terms of how many characters can you use or this can be in terms of your tools. You can say, Well, I can only do this in black and white, or I can only do this using letters… Words that don’t have the letter E. And these can sound kind of silly, but by doing these different kind of creative exercises, it pushes us out of our rut. A rut is formed by a wheel going over and over and over the same spot. And a creative rut is the same thing, right? If we do the same thing over and over again, when we’re being creative and we’re doing our messaging, it just kind of digs in. But you need to have that jolt to the wheel to be able to pull yourself out of it and explore new territory in a way that’s going to contrast of everything else and ultimately become salient.

Brett McKay: Right. And you gave some examples of salient messages. The one you mentioned about the parking, don’t even think about parking here. It’s like, you don’t see that typically when you’re out driving the streets, looking for a parking spot. So that’s going to get your attention. The famous one from the Clinton era, It’s the economy, stupid? That was another salient message. Any other examples of salient messages that stand out to you?

Ben Guttmann: Well, one of my favorites is from the truth campaign, the anti-smoking PSA that was very popular a couple of decades ago and has been kind of coming back. Every other anti-smoking PSA was kind of very dry. Philip Morris had one that just said, Think, don’t smoke. They were court ordered to do it and they put their back into it. But the Truth Campaign, if anybody remembers these kind of initial shocking ads that they did, is they go out to a street corner in front of a tobacco office. They’d have 1200 body bags dropped off. And so one guy gets in a megaphone and says, Tobacco kills 1200 people a day, ever think about taking a day off? And this is something that’s so different than everything else that was airing during that commercial break, everything else that was happening in the same kind of anti-smoking universe, that it kind of shocked people into paying attention. And when researchers later on looked back at, well, did this campaign actually work? They found that it did. They found that it significantly decreased attitudes towards smoking. And then when you look at that kind of Philip Morris one, that did the opposite. That actually increased interest in smoking among teenagers.

Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s talk about the fourth factor. And that’s empathetic. And this is, you have to do the work to get inside the receiver’s head to figure out what’s important to them and not just what’s important to you. So are there any sorts of questions you can ask yourself to uncover some of the erroneous assumptions you have in your messaging? ‘Because I think all of us as a sender, you have… When you put something out there, we often make assumptions about what the receiver is going to think when they get this message.

Ben Guttmann: Yeah, and so when we talk about empathy, it’s about saying, Are you speaking in the language that your audience understands? Both literally in terms of the language and the words you’re using, but also what are their motivations, what are their emotions, and how can you fit into their life? And it’s intimately tied in with benefits, right? What matters to them? So one of the easiest ways to do this is also going to be the thing that… It’s the biggest no-da thing about crafting an effective message, but it’s also the one that people really hate doing, which is to go test your message. Go find somebody that looks like your audience. You can go out and hire a marketing research firm and do all these kind of big focus groups, or you can call up somebody and ask them a question, test your message on them. I’ve gone and I’ve stood on the street corner on the concourse at Grand Central here and flagged people down to ask their opinions on things in the past. And it’s really awkward. People don’t like to do this because we’re just not built for it. We’re not built to go out and just kind of flag run people down and talk to them. And that is something that you’d have to kind of get over that hump.

But the other piece of that is we often don’t like to get feedback because we think that feedback might be something that is negative. We think that we might not hear what we want to hear, that the thing we’re working on is not as good as we think it is. So ultimately that ends up being the big challenge here. But there is really no replacement if you’re crafting a marketing message or writing a new proposal just to get a second set of eyes on it. Because it’s so easy for us to kind of stay in our bubbles and to convince ourselves that what we are saying is right and genius and very compelling when it might not be any of those things.

Brett McKay: Any examples of empathetic messages?

Ben Guttmann: So one of my other kind of favorite marketing slogans, and this goes back also a few decades, is when FedEx was kind of coming on the market and they had, I think one of the most empathetic and in many ways kind of also salient slogans, which was, When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight. When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight is speaking in the language that somebody in an office who has a document that has to get to the other side of the country is saying that is actually, those are the words saying this absolutely positively has to be at the client tomorrow.

And that’s something that is, is how a human speaks. And when you compare that with what UPS, one of its most famous slogans, which is what can Brown do for you? Well, what do you really mean by that, right? Those are pretty words. It’s very easy in marketing and in any sort of communication to write pretty words, but they don’t mean anything ultimately. So what can Brown do for you? It doesn’t actually talk about what I need and what I’m looking for, but when it absolutely positively has to be there overnight, well, I understand what the benefit is and I then know that you understand that as well.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about the fifth factor and that’s minimal. What do you mean by minimal? Is minimal the same thing as short?

Ben Guttmann: No, it’s not. And so that’s the biggest problem I think to kind of… To get past when we talk about simplicity is that we are not talking about these fewest number of words, the least amount of sentences or paragraphs or pages. We are talking about the least amount of friction. If it is harder to get from point A to point B, if it is harder for somebody to get to what you want, what do you want them to understand that is more friction. And sometimes more words or more sentences or more pages actually has less friction than putting everything kind of distilled into one piece of it. And the reason this one’s at the end is it’s kind of hard to answer the core question here, which is, do you have everything you need, but only what you need? It’s hard to know that unless you’ve thought about some of these other pieces, right? About empathy and salience and focus and benefits.

And so minimal is a very important piece of it, but it’s also very easy to just assume, well, I want the smallest word and I want the the fewest number of paragraphs because that’s going to be simplest.

Brett McKay: Okay, so shorter is not always better. So by making it short, you might miss out on too short. You can’t convey the benefits. It might not be focused. So what can you do to craft more minimal messages, but in a way that it ensures that you actually get across what you’re trying to convey?

Ben Guttmann: So I would say one of the tactics that you can kind of play around with is by playing Jenga with your message. So if you play Jenga, you have all the tower of your blocks and you can pull them out. And imagine your email or your proposal or whatever it is, is a Jenga tower. As you pull words out and you pull sentences out and you pull features out. Well, does it still stand, right? And then eventually you’re going to pull that last brick and the whole thing’s going to collapse.

And so if you look back, just kind of go back one step. And say, okay, well, this here is the minimum viable message. This is the message that has the fewest number of pieces to it that still works. And then you can use that as your baseline and say, okay, well, maybe I need to add a little bit more here, a little bit more there. But instead of starting with kind of the big thing, it helps us oftentimes to start with the smaller thing and then grow out from that.

Brett McKay: Another tactic to use that’s similar to that is you can just use like the 900… I think it’s like the 900 most frequently used words in English. And they’re all very simple words and just craft your message with that.

Ben Guttmann: Oh, absolutely. So that’s the thousand most commonly used words, which sounds like a really weird thing to say. But ten hundred is a thousand, which the word one thousand is not actually one of the thousand most commonly used words in English language. There’s an author, Randall Munroe, who wrote a book called Thing Explainer, which he explained all sorts of stuff from like the Big Bang to nuclear reactors using just the thousand most common words.

And it’s funny. He’s a web comic and it’s a fun constraint to be within. But you get the point across where actually if you can explain like the visible light spectrum by using just a thousand most common words. Well, that’s a really powerful ability. And you can kind of, again, go up from there, right? If you test your messaging against that, and there’s all sorts of tools online where you can kind of just go in and copy and paste your stuff. If you understand that where you stand in terms of the thousand most common words, well, then you’re going to have a good place to start as you start to add some of the color back in.

Brett McKay: You also recommend imagining a single person as you craft your message to help you craft a minimal message. How does that help?

Ben Guttmann: Oh, I think if there is a immediately actionable piece of advice to leave behind, it is this crowds don’t exist. We can be in a crowd, but we can’t really speak to a crowd because we don’t make decisions collectively. Every time you’ve ever heard something, whether you’re at a political rally and there’s a thousand people there, or you heard an ad on the TV watching the Super Bowl where millions of people were listening. If you made the decision about who to vote for or donate to, or what product to buy, you made that decision in your own head. It’s really still a one-to-one communication.

And so if you act on the sender side, like you’re speaking to one person, it puts you in this kind of subconscious place where it changes what word you use, changes the inflection you use, and it makes you a much more effective communicator. And you know who the best person kind of right now is at doing this? It’s Taylor Swift, right? And I appreciate her. My wife’s a much bigger fan and we went to go see her movie. And she pulls off this magic trick across space and time in this theater for millions of people that the same one she does in front of 70,000 people in the stadium where every song lyric and especially every piece of like banter on the stage feels like it’s a one-to-one conversation.

And she is kind of the best in the business of doing this right now. You mentioned Bill Clinton before he was very famous at doing the same thing. And one way to kind of cheat ourselves to do it is take out a post-it note, draw a little stick figure on it, put it on your monitor and say, this is who I’m writing this email for. It’s this one person, right?

Brett McKay: They are the particular is universal is what I’ve heard. Okay. So we talked about these five factors. Does a message need all five of these factors or do you just need one or two in order for it to be an effective message?

Ben Guttmann: Yeah, I don’t look at these as a checklist or a rubric or a step-by-step plan. I look at these as like kind of five design principles. And so the better you can activate upon them individually or collectively, the better you’re going to be. You don’t have to do every single one of them in order, but these are just important kind of bits of knowledge or frameworks to keep in mind as you’re developing a message, the better you are across them, the more effective you’re going to be, but it’s not necessarily a step-by-step plan.

Brett McKay: What role does repetition play in ensuring a receiver remembers and understands a message?

Ben Guttmann: So there’s a good deal of research that shows… They call it the mirror exposure effect. The more you kind of say something, the more you do your message, the more people like it. But there’s also some research that shows that it’s kind of like it goes up and down. People, if they hear it a few times, they like it more, they trust them more, they believe you more, but at a certain point you start to go in the opposite direction where people they don’t want to buy your stuff or whatever it is. So you have to figure out in each individual situation, what that is, but generally it’s better to be a little bit more to edge on the side of communicating a little bit more than to communicating a little bit less.

And I’ll leave you kind of a quick example of this is I’ll talk with clients and businesses that they send out their email, like email newsletters. They might send it out once a month. And even if they get like world-class open rates, like 50%, well, that means half the people on their email list don’t hear from them for two months, right? And so you have to think of all your messaging in this way, which we’re competing against so many other options for people to, to place their attention.

And so if you’re able to repeat your message a little bit, if you’re able to get more opportunity, that’s only going to give you kind of more rolls of the dice to get what it is that you ultimately want to get across.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I’ve seen this when an organization is trying to convey a new policy. And so they do a good job of keeping the messaging simple, but if they just send out one email or they just announce it once, people are going to miss that because they got their inboxes inundated with stuff. They’re getting text messages, they’re getting Facebook posts. So I find it useful, even though it might annoy some people who are conscientious and they’re just paying attention to everything, they might be annoyed by the repetition, but to ensure that you get as many eyeballs on it as possible, you might have to send out the same message two, three, four times.

Ben Guttmann: Oh, certainly. And, I’ve seen this too. I’ve I had folks I’ve known that have worked on a book for a year and they tweet about it once and they never talk about it ever again, right? And it’s like when something’s important, you should treat it like it’s important.

Brett McKay: And then you said once you crafted your message, the way you can test is just ask people, pull people aside on the street, call a friend, call some family members, present it to them and see how it lands with them. So I thought that was a really important idea too.

Ben Guttmann: And the only caveat I’ll just give on that is make sure that they are representative of your audience. If I’m designing something, a message that’s important for carpenters, it doesn’t matter how many accountants I talk to. That doesn’t really help me. If I talked to 400 accounts versus talking to four carpenters, I’d rather talk to the four carpenters.

Brett McKay: Well, Ben, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Ben Guttmann: Yeah. Thanks, Brett. This has been a total blast. I loved it. If you want to learn more about the book or to grab a copy of it, you can head on over to It’s not a great name for radio. You got to do two Ts and two Ns. If you don’t, you’re just not going to get there. But if you go to, you can go buy the book. It’s at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, everywhere else. There’s a free chapter. You can go download that.

And I also send an email every Tuesday that’s also free and I encourage you to sign up for that. Otherwise reach out to me on LinkedIn or email and I’d love to hear how this work has affected you.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Ben Guttmann, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Ben Guttmann: Thanks, Brett.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Ben Guttmann. He’s the author of the book, Simply Put. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We’ve got a daily option and a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AoM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot.

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