This is the durable wisdom I have accumulated from twenty years of working with words, business problems and communication strategy. It is the core of both what I do and what I believe.
1. That which is boring is ignored.
We are the most messaged humans in history. An infinite number of choices face our all too finite amount of attention. And the reptillian parts of our brains are constantly looking for a reason to stop paying attention. Neuroscience refers to this tendency as cognitive miserliness but that’s just a fancy way of saying, if we can’t eat it, or mate with it and if it’s not going to eat us, we have a hard time paying attention to it.
But there’s a tension. Large companies don’t like to take risks. Depending on the industry, say banking or energy, there may be significant regulatory limitations to the ways they can communicate. But doing something interesting or different is almost always a risk. Even worse, these risks can rarely be explained with data beforehand. The most important things about people’s tastes, perceptions, beliefs and buying behavior might not even be measurable.
So, large amounts of time and money are poured into efforts that are invisible. Or, at worse, they are forced onto a customer who is actively annoyed by them.
But there are no boring subjects, only boring ways to talk about them. There is no surer way to waste your time, budget and effort than by being boring. Be entertaining, be passionate, be useful, be unexpected, be responsive, be human, be controversial — but whatever you do, don’t be boring.
2. People make sense of the world through stories.
The best way to explain the consequences of lying is not to talk about how incorrectly representing the world to another person is morally wrong because it deprives another person of their agency. It is the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
Story is the shape that complex meaning takes when you make it easy for people to understand. The reason we think in story is because we are social animals. We live and work in contexts where knowing why someone does something is often more important than knowing what they did. Is that primate baring his teeth in anger, or is it a smile?
This instinct is so deeply rooted, that we tell stories about things that cannot possibly have agency. If a book falls off a shelf near me, it is a perfectly natural thing for an observer to say, “It jumped out at you.”
People cannot develop a relationship with something they don’t have a story for. They certainly can’t love or trust it. That’s why the why of what a person or company does is so important. And in the absence of a story, we will make one up.
If you don’t give people a story, they are probably going to make one up. And if the story you give them isn’t true, they will find out and they will never trust you again.
3. Removing humanity and personality from your communications makes them less effective.
There’s an old adage in sales. People buy from people they like. To that I add, there’s nobody that people like more than people. With all our flaws, failings and foibles, it is still our common humanity that we connect to most powerful. Perfection isn’t human, it’s downright creepy.
4. Once you have someone’s attention, don’t waste it.
Wasting someone’s time and attention is an unforgivable sin. Really think about this. Not in terms of a marketing target or demographic, but in terms of your own life. What else could you be doing rather than reading this manifesto? You could be working? You could put the smartphone down and play with your kids, get in one more call with your parents, apologize to a good friend, or go off and fall in love or any one of a thousand million other things that make life worth living.
Even though we often become bored, the fact remains, attention is finite. When someone gives you theirs, it’s a precious gift. Whatever you make — whatever the interaction — it should reward the person who is giving up their valuable attention.
5. You can’t fix a bad idea by throwing money at it.
The line in film and video production is “we’ll fix it in post.” But fixing things in post is not only very expensive, it never works. Fix it in pre.
This is easy to say, but runs afoul of another problem. Nobody knows what’s going to work. Oh your skills get sharper and your instincts get better, but nobody knows what’s going to work. Not for sure. So rather than putting all my eggs in one conceptual basket, I like to go into any production process with more ideas than I can execute. Rather than spending 100% of the budget on making one idea perfect, it’s more effective to split the money across several ideas and see where the magic strikes.
No amount of money can buy magic, but you increase your odds by having more ideas. Then, once the idea is working, you can pour budget to it.
6. Don’t let your tools make decisions for you.
Technology has made it so much easier to create things. But there are grooves and ruts which should be avoided. It’s so easy to use autotune, or a filter in Photoshop, or add a drone shot to your video. Another email blast is always just a click away. Your website will take as many revisions and upgrades as you have money to spend on them.
Just because something easy, possible or fashionable doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
7. If your thing isn’t easy for people to talk about and share, your sales and marketing are broken.
The only medium worth advertising in is people. How are you going to make or do something so awesome that one person is going to tell another?
In the age of social media, you simply have to be worth talking about. In many ways, this has lowered the general level of our culture. Oscar Wilde thought he was making quip but it turned out to be a prophecy: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
8. Ultimately, what your thing does for your customer is your brand.
Apple is not cool commercials for product design. If you’ll notice, all their commercials are just product demonstration. And the best of Apple’s design choices are to make a better experience for the people who use the product.
There is so much nonsense around branding that it’s easy to forget, the brand is what the thing does. You might be able to trick someone into buying and trying, but if it doesn’t deliver — especially with the speed that we can share our opinions these days — there’s no way to hide it.