Writing

Six steps to make sure your message sticks

We live in a shouty, noisy online world. How can you make sure what you’re saying gets heard and remembered?

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It’s a very common complaint that organisations of all kinds have about social media: they feel like they’re just shouting into a room of people who are shoutingabout their own stuff. Everyone’s talking, nobody’s listening.

This is an accurate complaint, but we also need to take some responsibility for it. We’re not sat around the fire in our primal little village just having to be more interesting than Dave’s story about that time he saw something that might have been a woolly mammoth. We’re digitally connected to over three billion people. What we’re saying has to be better.

It’s often said by wise people that no more than 20% of what you say on your social channels should be about what you sell. But this is business, so you need to make best use of that 20%. It’s not enough these days to just bung up a post saying “Did you know we make super-widgets?” People don’t care that you make super-widgets. And that’s the point of your 20% — you need to make people care about super-widgets. Not about you, about super-widgets.

How to write SUCCESs

Chip & Dan Heath birthed the SUCCESs (not a typo, a slightly-cheating acronym) idea in their book Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck which works both as a great read and a top example of them practicing what they preach. The book’s a decade old now, but I find myself coming back to the concept over and over again. Whether I’m writing for myself or for clients, this structure makes sense, is easy to use, and is very, very effective.

So, how do you write something that sticks?

Make it: Simple

Simple ideas are easy to understand. Things that are easy to understand are more likely to be remembered.

So far, so straightforward. But this often gets confused with length. While, generally, shorter is better, the ideal length of your idea is not a sound bite. Sound bites so easily lead to misconception because they’re presented without context (see: the world, 2016-present).

We humans have a habit of continuing to say the same things over and over because we don’t believe the other person has understood yet. Don’t do that.

Simplicity isn’t about aiming for a specific length. It’s about boiling down your idea into its simplest possible form. What’s the real core of it? Eliminate repetition, bloat and over-explanation. We humans have a habit of continuing to say the same things over and over because we don’t believe the other person has understood yet. Don’t do that.

I’ve found it helpful to boil down the core of the message into a simple structure:

  • Because of X, Y
  • When X happens, do Y
  • If you want X, do Y

The X and Y routine also helps you keep your message focussed on the problem .vs the solution, which makes any business writing more compelling for the readers.

Make it: Unexpected

We’ve evolved to be mentally efficient (or lazy, depending on your level of cynicism). If we come across something that seems similar to something we’ve seen before, our brains will fill in the blanks from our past experiences rather than re-processing everything from scratch. Web designers would call this caching: good for performance, but risks inaccuracy. This process is precisely why stereotyping exists. It’s mentally quicker and easier to presume someone is like your previous experience of ‘that sort of person’, but it’s highly likely to be wrong. And often offensive.

Lead them part way down the expected path and then go off into the undergrowth.

So how can you get your users to clear their brain-cache and actually process what you’re trying to tell them?

Surprise them.

Lead them part way down the expected path and then go off into the undergrowth.

So if everyone’s saying “If you want X, do Y,” try “If you want X, pineapple.”

The goal is to peak your readers’ curiosity by making it really obvious that what you’re saying isn’t the same old thing they’ve seen before. Aim for the reaction “Oh, another sales messa... What the hell?”

Create curiosity. Then satisfy it.

Make it: Concrete

Now we’ve got a slight conundrum. You want your message to be new and surprising, but simple and easy to remember. These risk being at odds with each other. Thinking is hard. People don’t like to do it.

The solution is to ground the idea with a practical metaphor. By explaining it in everyday terms, you make it instantly accessible to the majority of your readership.

For example:

“When you have a situation that you’re spending a lot of energy and focus on, your perception of the length of time that situation takes can be elongated, increasing your levels of frustration without actually taking any productive steps towards resolving the situation.”

Is not as easy to remember as:

“A watched pot never boils.”

This is also known (well, possibly only by me...) as the Star Trek Plan effect. And after 17 years, I still can’t put it into words better than Futurama did in 2002:

FRY: Usually on the show, they came up with a complicated plan, then explained it with a simple analogy.

LEELA: Hmmm... If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and configure them to Melllvar's frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.

BENDER: Like putting too much air in a balloon!

FRY: Of course! It's all so simple!

Make it: Credible

People will share things they think are interesting or funny or outrageous, but to get the idea to really stick, to be repeated over and over again, to actually become a part of your readers’ world, you need to make the believe what you’re saying.

There are two stages to belief on the internet. “That feels right” and “That actually works”.

“That feels right” happens when you say something that fits in with someone’s existing views. It’s easy and popular, but it tends to cause divisiveness because it’s opinion, not a proven idea. This is how propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories get so much traction so quickly, by agreeing with people’s prejudices. Because people want to believe them, they don’t need to prove themselves. But that leads to dangerous associations for your brand and credibility.

"A lie can get half way around the world before the truth can even get its boots on."
MARK TWAIN

“That actually works” can follow “That feels right,” but can in fact be more powerful if it’s not an idea the reader believes straight away. The “that’s amazing, can it really be true?” response is a really good result. And you can help people to prove your idea to themselves by the way you write about it. Try adding in a “The next time you find...” statement into the mix, inviting the reader to test out your idea in their world.

By doing this, you’re involving the reader in the discovery of your idea, and that brings a lot of sticking power.

Make it: Emotional

We don’t make emotional connections to ideas, we make them to people. So make your message about people.

It can be you, your reader, your families, colleagues, friends, historical figures or people suffering from the problem you’re trying to solve. But if your message is about how you’re making a person’s life better, it will resonate much better with your readers and make them more likely to remember and repeat your idea.

And this is most useful when combined with the last of the six:

Make it: a Story

It’s much easier to make a message emotionally powerful if you use the tools that storytellers have been honing for thousands of years to make their stories more engaging. It is much, much easier to involve a reader if you’re telling them a story.

Stories provide all of the factors we’ve already talked about. They’re emotional, surprising, explain complex ideas through concrete actions and metaphor, the whole lot. They also naturally provide curiosity, the “what happens next” factor. Think of your marketing messages as stories and you’ll actually build in a lot of this automatically.

The structure I use most often, because it’s so simple it’s rather beautiful, is the plot structure popularised by Pixar. It’s easy to remember and can be applied to any subject matter:

  1. Once upon a time there was...
  2. Every day...
  3. Then, one day...
  4. Because of that...
  5. And because of that...
  6. Until finally...
  7. And ever since that day...

You set up the customer and their problem in points 1 and 2, introduce your solution and its benefits in points 3 - 6, then sum up the better life they now live in point 7. Do it well and by point 2 the reader is hooked. How will the problem be solved? That gives you a powerful canvas for unveiling your idea.

We can all be better storytellers

Writing compelling content for the web is difficult. You can tell that by how much bad stuff fills your feeds every day. These steps have helped me and my clients to write better and get much more out of the time investment of creating content. We can all be better storytellers, and your business will benefit from it.