When was the last time you played Jenga? Maybe you set it up with your kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or maybe you idly played it with friends at a brewery.
Either way, after you built up this precarious tower of wooden blocks, you had one goal: to keep it from falling down. As you pull away each block, the tower wobbles and sways, until eventually, one faulty brick brings the whole thing crashing down. With the tower’s structural integrity gone, the blocks spill all over the floor. Game over.
Our communication works the same way. Be it a marketing campaign, an internal memo, or even a personal text message, we need the messages that shape our life and business to be structurally sound in order to be effective.
What does that mean? Let’s go to the base equation of how we connect with one another. Communication works only when you use language that meets the following basic criteria:
- The sender understands it.
- The receiver understands it.
If both ends of the equation understand the language that makes up your message, then you’re cooking. If they don’t, then you’ve failed right at the get-go. It doesn’t matter how good of a commercial you’ve crafted, if it’s in Italian or if its dialogue is ripped straight from a medical dictionary, I can’t understand it. If it’s full of industry buzzwords or acronyms that fly over my head, you’ve lost me. When a message doesn’t pass this test, it’s not structurally sound—it collapses.
The challenge is that, for most of us, communication doesn’t have to be scientific jargon or in a foreign language to be unreadable. According to the US Department of Education, 21 percent of American adults are either barely literate or functionally illiterate, and we get beat in literacy stats by dozens of other nations when you look at cross-border comparisons.
And that’s just the raw literacy statistics. How many times have you received an email from a colleague with some jargon that you don’t understand, and quickly hit Google to decipher things? How many times have you questionably nodded along in a meeting when an alphabet soup of initialisms gets thrown around?
Using big, complicated language that doesn’t connect with your audience doesn’t make you sound smart – it instead weakens the structural integrity of your message.
When we’re crafting our messaging, we must face the reality that the costs add up steeply with every ten-dollar word we use. You can push the boundaries, and people will pick up a few words here and there from context clues, but if you step too far, you’ll fall off the reading comprehension cliff.
When Boomerang, an email application, analyzed millions of conversations, it found that emails written at a college reading level had, by far, the worst response rate. The ones that had the best response rate? Written at a third-grade level.
Complex systems fail because they have multiple points of possible failure, and complex messages fall apart the same way. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his longtime collaborator Amos Tversky explain: “A complex system, such as a nuclear reactor or the human body, will malfunction if any of its essential components fails. Even when the likelihood of failure in each component is slight, the probability of an overall failure can be high if many components are involved.”
Each additional component in a message is another source of possible failure, or at least a point of friction. Don’t make your receiver work for it—because they won’t.
How do this? Let’s go back to that game of Jenga.
Take your message – your website copy, your email, your brochure – and imagine it as a Jenga tower. Line by line, word by word, start pulling things out. Does it still make sense? Does it still inform or persuade?
As your message stands, each block that comes out represents something that didn’t have to be there. They weren’t part of the structural supports, and they’re something you can set aside.
Eventually, you’ll remove a block that causes everything to fall apart. Look at it. That word or section was necessary, and thus it’s necessary to us to ensure that it’s language that our audience understands.
English is a big language, but in some ways, it’s also remarkably simple. Even with over 170,000 words, English follow a pattern called Zipf ’s law, which states the frequency of a word is inversely proportional to its rank: the most common word in English (the) shows up about one-tenth of the time in usage, the second most common (be) appears one-twentieth of the time, and so on.
The calculation doesn’t matter much for our purposes, but the conclusion does: you can cover a lot of ground using just the most popular, well-worn words. And you’ll build a much sturdier message by doing so.
This type of editing is hard. It’s not sexy. But it’s worth it if we have something to say – and we all do.
Ultimately, effective communication is simple: it’s easily perceived, understood, and acted upon. In my new book, I’ve identified five science-backed principles of simple messaging – applicable to marketers, but also to leaders, advocates, and all of us:
- Beneficial: What does it matter to the receiver?
- Focused: Are you trying to say one thing, or multiple things at once?
- Salient: Does your message stand out from the noise?
- Empathetic: Are you speaking in a language that the audience understands?
- Minimal: Have you cut out everything that isn’t important?
By critically examining what makes for a successful message, we can all become better at building them. If you want to learn more and get started on your journey, check out my new book, “Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win – and How to Design Them“, available now from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. (And listen to my conversation with Joseph on his most recent podcast episode!)
About the Author
Ben Guttmann is the author of “Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win – and How to Design Them“. Ben is former co-founder and partner at Digital Natives Group, an award-winning marketing agency, and he teaches marketing at Baruch College. Sign up for his free, weekly 3 Simple Things email on his website: https://www.benguttmann.com/newsletter.