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Keep it Simple: Smart

by | Nov 10, 2015 | B2B Copywriting, Content Marketing, Effective Messaging | 0 comments

All of us, I’m sure, have heard of the KISS Principle.

Keep It Simple!KISS, of course, stands for “Keep it simple, stupid” – an admonition frequently used in engineering as a reminder that “most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated.” [1]

But the KISS principal applies equally well to marketing. Simple messages, after all, are more memorable that complicated ones.

In technology marketing, though, we’re usually dealing either with complex technologies, or with complicated products that have dozens if not hundreds of features. Everything needs explaining.

So how do we avoid overwhelming technology buyers with more ideas than they can handle? How do we make simple what’s inherently complicated? How do we reduce our complex technology to a simple, easy-to-remember message?

And above all, how do we make our message stick in the minds of our prospects?

Simplicity is Sticky

The first step toward making a message “sticky” – that is, highly memorable – is to make it simple, say brothers Dan and Chip Heath, university professors who have made a deep study of what makes some ideas take hold while others are quickly forgotten.

In their research, the Heaths identified six factors that showed up again and again in sticky ideas. And in their book, Made to Stick, they show how these six factors can be applied as principles in constructing sticky messages.

The six principles – for which the Heath brothers have coined a mnemonic: SUCCESs – are:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotions
  6. Stories

Today, I want to look at simplicity. What does “simplicity” mean in the context of effective messaging? And how do we achieve it?

The right kind of simplicity – the kind that makes your messages sticky – say the Heaths, doesn’t come from dumbing down your messages into catchy slogans or sound bites. Instead, it comes from a two-step process: (1) finding the core, and (2) making it compact.

Let’s examine these two steps in that order.

Finding the Core

“Finding the core means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements,” say the Heath brothers. “But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.” [2]

As an example of this “core” idea, the Heaths cite a U.S. Army concept called Commander’s Intent.

Military strategists have a saying that goes, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Armies have lost battles by trying to adhere to a battle plan that has been shot to pieces by their adversary. That’s why, in the 1980s, the Army came up with Commanders Intent (CI).

A CI is a brief, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every battle plan order. The CI conveys the primary goal of the plan, but never enough detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events in the field. Officers may lose the ability to execute the plan, but they never lose the responsibility for achieving the CI.

In marketing, your core message, like a commander’s CI, may vary by campaign. In fact, it could be any number of things:

  • Your company’s mission
  • Your brand’s unique selling proposition (USP)
  • A specific benefit of one of your products

But it’s always the single, most important idea you want your prospect to take away from a particular communication. So it needs to be simple and clear.

The Heaths cite Southwest Airlines as a classic example. Their core message is: We are THE low-fare airline. For Southwest, this core message is not just a customer-facing mission statement or USP. It doesn’t just tell customers why they should choose Southwest. Instead, it also serves as a Southwest’s CI. According Southwest’s founder Herb Kelleher, when any Southwest Airlines employee needs to make a decision, she just has to ask herself one simple question: Will this help us to be THE low-fare airline?

Forced prioritization

To find your core message, the Heaths suggest a process called “forced prioritization.” Forced prioritization involves separating the individual ideas you want to convey and then ranking them by priority. The highest priority idea goes at the top, the lowest priority idea at the bottom.

Journalists use this process in every story they write. They put the most important facts at the beginning of the article, the least important ones toward the end. They refer to this structure the inverted pyramid, because the foundation is at the top and the importance narrows as you go toward the bottom. The most important idea of the story – the core idea – should come right at the beginning, in what journalists call the lead of the story.

When a journalist makes good use of it, this inverted pyramid simplifies decisions for both editors and readers. If an editor needs to shorten an article to free up space for a late-breaking story, she simply cuts a few paragraphs from the bottom. If a reader is in a hurry, he gets the gist of the story in the lead paragraphs and can move on as soon as he likes.

Unfortunately, this forced prioritization process isn’t always easy. Journalists often become so engrossed with the details of a story they lose sight of the core idea they’re trying to get across. What should have been the lead may not appear until the fourth paragraph or even later. Editors call this phenomenon burying the lead.

The problem with burying the lead is that while the journalist knows where he’s going with the story, the reader may not be able to tell. And if readers don’t get the point of a story early, they may abandon the publication. Not good, if you’re a publisher.

Burying the lead is the result of what psychologists call The Curse of Knowledge: when we know a lot about something, we forget what it was like NOT to know about that thing. This is especially true in fields like medicine, science and technology, where experts are accustomed to talking with other experts. They come to assume that things that have become second nature to them are also obvious to everyone else.

The Curse of Knowledge can be especially dangerous in technology marketing.

A client of mine makes aircraft wiring testers. Their flagship model is a modular system that lets customers place portable test modules very close to the various test points of the aircraft under test. The system has lots of great features that make hookup, testing and troubleshooting of wiring faults faster and easier.

But the biggest benefit the system offers is that it drastically reduces the amount of adapter cable needed to test an aircraft. The high-voltage cable required is extremely expensive, so the adapter cables are often the single greatest expense when purchasing a new wire testing system. And new adapters have to be built for every different aircraft the system will test.

So my client’s core message for this system might be phrased as shortens cables, slashes costs. But if my client forgets that core message might not be as blindly obvious to their customers as it is to them – if they allow that core message to be overshadowed by other messages about their other great features – their core message could easily be overlooked.

In other words, if you don’t identify and keep track of your core message, it’s easy to bury it.

Simplicity aids decision makers

Just as the inverted pyramid helps editors and readers, focus on a core message helps customers make decisions.

If you give people too many ideas, they’ll have difficulty focusing on any one of them. This often results in “decision paralysis.”

On the other hand, if you focus on a single, core idea, you give decision makers a simple decision: yes or no.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is a “policy wonk.” That is, he his very well-versed in the minutia of all types of government policy. And while that is a strong asset for a government leader, it proved a liability during the early stages of his 1992 presidential election campaign.

In his early interviews and debates, Clinton would move from one policy topic to another and drill down into fine details so quickly that voters had trouble understanding his message. Mr. Clinton – and many on his campaign staff – had to be reigned in. Because as Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, James Carville, put it, “If you say three things, you say nothing.”

Carville corrected this problem with his own version of the KISS principle. He captured Clinton’s core message in a simple, four-word phrase. That phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” not only became the slogan of Mr. Clinton’s ’92 campaign, it also served as a CI for Clinton his campaign staff. It reminded everyone not to get to clever, to focus on what’s important.

That simple, clear core message made it easy for Clinton and his staffers to stay on message and made it easy for voters to make a decision. Ultimately, it got Bill Clinton elected President of the United States.

Short and sweet is sticky

To maximize its stickiness, your core message needs to be succinct. Short and sweet.

Intuitively, we know our messages should be compact. We’re frequently told to get to the point, be brief, be concise. We know short sentences are better than long ones. Sentences are better than paragraphs. Three bullet points are better than six, etc.

But what if your core message is complex? What if, after you’ve stripped everything else out, your core message is still long? How do you compact it?

In reality, a compact core message is rarely easy to achieve.

First of all, we can’t compact purely for the sake of compactness. We still need to fully express our core idea. And when compacting our message, we must be careful we don’t latch onto a pithy phrase that’s off-core, just because it has a nice ring to it.

Secondly, the Curse of Knowledge will often hinder us. Our desire for precision can make compactness seem like an unworthy goal. It can make it difficult for us to choose less exact wording for the sake of brevity. Plus, we don’t want to be accused of dumbing down our message or propagating sound bites.

Proverbs and USPs

So, what are we shooting for? What’s the ideal for a compact, simple, sticky core message? The Heath brothers point to proverbs.

Proverbs are the quintessential sticky ideas. Take, for example, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. According to the Heaths, variations of this proverb exist in at least a dozen languages, including medieval Latin. It may have its origin in Aesop’s fable, The Hawk and the Nightingale (ca. 570 B.C.), in which case it is at least 2500 years old!

Now, you could express the core idea of this proverb as, “Don’t give up a sure thing for something speculative,” but would it be as sticky? Would it have the power to span cultures and centuries like a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? I doubt it.

For a marketing example, take the slogan for M&Ms candies: Melts in your mouth, not in your hand. Mars Incorporated has been using that slogan for over 60 years, because It captures their core message – their Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – brilliantly. It’s simple and compact, and it’s been sticky for at least three generations. Exactly what you want in a core marketing message.

Compacting the core

Of course, it’s rarely easy to reduce an idea or message to something as elegant and enduring as a proverb or a world-famous slogan. But if we want to approach those ideals, how do we go about it? What tools can we use to compact our core message into a form that’s likely to be sticky?

The Heaths say we should look for schemas.

As defined by psychologists, a schema “describes an organized pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them.” [3] In other words, a schema defines something we’re already familiar with.

Schemas (or schemata), say the Heaths, allow us to quickly build and express complex ideas in terms of simple ones. In other words, they allow us to build analogies. As an example, the Heaths present two ways of explaining to someone what a pomelo is.

Here’s one way to describe a pomelo (Explanation 1):

A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. Its rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The flesh ranges from light yellow to coral pink in color and can vary from slightly dry to juicy and from spicy sweet to tangy and tart.

Now, here’s a second description (Explanation 2):

A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick, soft rind.

Quick question: which of these explanations do you think you’d likely remember and use if you had to describe a pomelo to someone else? Probably Explanation 2, right?

Explanation 2 makes use of a schema that practically everyone is already familiar with: a grapefruit. When we say a pomelo is “like a grapefruit” we immediately call up an image in the minds of our audience. Then all we have to do is describe the differences to build our analogy. Not only does this greatly compact our explanation, it also provides a clearer mental image for our audience.

The High-Concept Pitch

Hollywood provides a perfect example of how marketers can use schemas.

Every week, high-level film industry executives hear dozens of concept pitches for new movies. Those execs need to make decisions and commit million dollar budgets based on those pitches. But, bombarded as they are with so many messages, they can’t possibly keep track of the details of every pitch. (Sound familiar?)

That’s why Hollywood’s “idea guys” usually use what is called a high-concept pitch.

A high-concept pitch describes the proposed film in terms of a previous, successful film the studio honchos are already very familiar with. Alien, for example, might have been pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship,” while Speed could have been described as “Die Hard on a bus.” The older film serves as a schema that gives the studio decision makers a clear mental picture of the concept they’re deciding upon.

Marketers can apply the same strategy.

Another of my clients makes “semiconductor-based energy storage devices for low-power applications.” That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Fortunately, through the use of schemas, they’ve been able to compact that message into one that’s much easier to deal with: solid state batteries.

“Battery” and “solid state” are both schemas we’re all pretty familiar with. Together, they create a mental image of a battery on a semiconductor chip. While that’s slightly less accurate that the first description I gave, it gets their message across quicker, in a much stickier form.

Take-away Points

When it comes to messaging, keeping it simple is smart, because simple is “sticky.”

Simple = Core + Compact. To simplify your message for maximum stickiness, use this two-step process:

  1. Strip your message to its core idea.
  2. Compact your message without losing the core

To find your core message, use forced prioritization.

To compact your message, make use of schemas and analogies.


[1] Wikipedia, KISS Principle,

[2] Heath, Chip & Dan, Made to Stick, Random House, 2007.

[3] DiMaggio, P. (1997). Culture and cognition. Annual Review Of Sociology, 23263-287. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.23.1.263

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