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Monday, December 26, 2011

Getting to the Core

During the next few weeks, I will primarily be discussing effective communication strategies.  Many of these ideas will be referencing a book called "Made To Stick" by Chip and Dan Heath.  Effective, memorable, and powerful ideas often have similar characteristics.  However, there is no all-encompassing "formula" that fits all situations.  Having said that, there are still lessons to be learned and "ideal" characteristics to strive for when crafting a message.  One such characteristic is SIMPLICITY.

Striving for simplicity in an idea does NOT mean "dumbing it down." Simplicity in this case means getting to the "core" of an idea and relentlessly cutting down and prioritizing information.  If you had to pick the most important 1-2  points in your idea, which would they be?  That is the path that this strategy takes.  You are aiming to keep the most important insight in what you are trying to communicate.

To put another way, imagine you are the head of an organization with hundreds of employees working under you.  There are many departments and you need a central message that you want your employees to refer to when they are making decisions.  You want their behavior and actions to be shaped by a compact yet powerful idea that is able to provide guidance.  THIS is the kind of thought process you should be going through even if you're NOT the head of an organization.

Forced prioritization like this is especially difficult for experts and intelligent people because they "recognize the value of all the material.  They see nuance, multiple perspectives-- and because they fully appreciate the complexities of a situation, they're often tempted to linger there."  Under most circumstances, this urge must be fought back because the more complex and dense an idea is, the less likely it is to affect people.  You aren't trying to create a technical reference manual for experts and academics, you are trying to create a powerful and easily graspable idea that can guide people's decisions in an "environment of uncertainty.  They will suffer anxiety from the need to choose--even when the choice is between two good options.  Core messages help people avoid bad choices by reminding them of what's important."

The simplicity concept can be applied in countless settings.  For instance, imagine yourself as a supervisor or as a colleague giving instructions for a project to others in your organization.  You need everyone to be on the same page so the final product and everyone's individual pieces of the project are as consistent as possible.  How do you do it?  One clearly effective option would be to get to the core of the project.  For example, if the task is to create a marketing strategy for a new product that your client wants to sell then you can emphasize the most important goal of your client.  You can gravitate towards ideas such as "Even a child should understand what this product is for" or "If your're listing a bunch of statistics, you're doing it wrong."  These ideas instruct your group to focus on simplicity and to avoid confusing people with math and stats.  Whenever they make a decision, they have these simple core ideas to constantly reference and not to veer off track.

Another setting that the simplicity concept can be applied in is in sustainable behavior.  For example, you are trying to communicate the importance of water conservation to your audience (in California).  Do you list rows of stats and long-winded water-shortage scenarios or do you communicate a simple idea such as "Water, you WILL in fact die without it" or "Remember, you live in a desert"?  Shorter and prioritized phrases are memorable, easy to grasp, and as a result, effective.

So, the next time you are trying to communicate an idea and make it stick, PRIORITIZE, PRIORITIZE, and PRIORITIZE some more.


  1. Reminds me of Tufte: "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to remove."

    That said, while simplicity and clarity are remarkably effective tools for communication, and good at shaping the actions of those with whom you are communicating, they do have their issues as well (argh, nuance!).

    You often talk about the importance of getting all sides of an argument, and trying to avoid extreme bias and/or one-sided accounts (or, if not avoid, at least try to put into context). Some ideas are complex and have nuanced implications that resist simplification. Sticking to the 'core' idea while ignoring those implications or nuances is problematic if you want to communicate unbiasedly - after all, who is to say that what you see as the 'core' idea isn't what I see as an implication of some other idea that I think is a 'core' idea?

    You are right that the most effective and actionable communication consists of short, simple messages. I'm not sure, though, that it's necessarily the best kind of communication, though.

    1. I really appreciate your thoughts Charles and you do bring up great points. You're right, I am someone that strives for unbiased arguments that covers all sides of an issue but I believe that's more in the context of analyzing issues or writing reports.

      I believe that these communication strategies are more suited for outreach work and getting attention about a topic that you want your audience to dive more into. For instance, in this particular case, you will utilize this principle to "hook" people in and actually get TO the main issue that is thoroughly covered in a longer report.

      Let's take for instance a report that YOUR office has written and you guys think the issues you covered are really important for the city and more people should be paying attention to it. When pitching your report and trying to get people's attention, you would utilize a principle such as getting to the core to actually peek people's interest and get them curious. Once you have this initial hook, your audience can now check out the more thorough report which is hopefully objectively and professionally written and without obvious bias or data skewing.

      I hope that clarifies things a bit and once again, I thank you for your thoughts. I always enjoy reading your analysis.


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