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How to Craft Clear Messages that Win with Ben Guttmann

Jarrett sits down with author Ben Guttmann to discuss practical ways to simplify your marketing communication strategies. An expert on the subject, Guttmann explains why simplicity is essential if you want to reach and move audiences—and shares plenty of tips and tactics you can use immediately to craft simpler, more effective communications.

Read Ben Guttmann’s book, Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win―and How to Design Them

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Transcript

Jared Smith:
You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jared Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab, I’m Jared Smith, SVP of Strategy at Echo Delta, a full-service enrollment marketing firm for higher education. Today’s episode is all about simplicity in communication. Intuitively, I think we all value simplicity. Case in point, I’ve yet to hear anyone say they wish they had a website, an email, or a set of instructions that was more complicated than it already is. And yet, as much as we value simplicity, most of us find it very difficult to achieve, especially when we’re trying to communicate something that we think is important. Today’s guest argues that if we really want our messages to break through, to be remembered, or to have a chance of inspiring others to action, we need to strive for simplicity. His name is Ben Guttmann and he’s the author of a new book called Simply Put, Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. We discuss why people are actually hardwired for inattention; what a little-known CIA manual can teach us about the dangers of over-complicating our messages; five principles for achieving simplicity; and tons of practical tools and tips you can start using today to simplify your communication. This was a really fun conversation, but also very, very practical. And I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I did. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Ben Guttmann. Well, Ben, welcome to the show.

Ben Guttmann:
Thanks for having me, Jared. It’s great to be here.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, I am super excited to talk about your book, Simply Put. First I’d like to start off with just a little bit of background. So you are a former agency owner. Congratulations on the former part.

Ben Guttmann:
Thank you.

Jared Smith:
And you currently teach at Baruch College, teach marketing at Baruch in NYC. I’d love to hear, briefly, the story of how you came to write this great little book.

Ben Guttmann:
Yeah, so thank you for the compliment of the agency. I used to run a marketing agency for 10 years. I started that in an old professor’s basement. And we ended up working with local ice cream shop, local cameras shop, over the course of 10 years that matured into a whole big team with working with the NFL, and Comcast, and all these really wonderful clients. But about two years ago, ended up selling the business. It was a good moment to do that. And we found a
great home for our employees and for our clients. And since then, I’ve had a little bit more time to think about, well, all the things that I would do in that business and also all the things that, I would teach at Baruch College to my students there, the questions that they would ask me. And I realized that you can take the boy out of the marketing agency, but you can’t take the marketing out of the boy. And I ended up circling the same question, which was, “Well, why does some messages work and others don’t,” right?

That’s why you hire a marketing agency most of the time. I have something I want people to know or do, and I got to somehow transmit it from my brain to other people’s brains. And so, that’s what people are asking you in the boardroom, in the classroom, students trying to figure out, learn the practice of it. But when you’re working in it, you don’t have as much perspective on it. But when I was able to take a step back up to selling my business, I was still reverberating with this challenge. Ended up looking into, what is the science of this? What is the science of communication, the science of messaging? And I arrived at what became this book.

Jared Smith:
That’s excellent. So, the title, I already said it, but Simply Put, Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. So it’s all about simplicity. And probably just to get the basics out of the way, what do you mean by simple?

Ben Guttmann:
So, I define simple as, in terms of messaging, something that is easily perceived, understood, enacted upon. And when you look at what that means, is that aligned with what a cognitive scientist will call fluency. And so the word fluency, we know from our daily life, we’re fluent in English, or Spanish, or Mandarin. But we can also be fluent in terms of how we process information. If you ask a cognitive scientist about this, they will say, that describes how easy is it for you to take something from out in the world, stick it in your head and make sense of it. And all the data points is the same direction for this, which is that, the easier that is, the less sweat you have to expend, the less mental cycles you have to go through, the more we like something, the more we trust something and the more we choose or buy something, right? And when we’re messaging, we’re communicating as marketers or leaders, that’s what we want, right? The opposite’s also true, which is, that if you make it hard to see, to hear, to understand, to process, we don’t like it, we don’t trust it, and we don’t buy it, right? So we want to make sure that we’re getting as fluent as we can with the messages that we’re sending out there.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, this book really hit home for me because as a agency guy who works a lot with colleges and universities, that’s the vast majority of who our clients are, they struggle with making simple messages. And part of it is the inherent complexity of some of what you’re trying to communicate. If you’re talking about financial aid, there is some inherent complexity there. But then, there’s all this additional academic complexity. We layer onto it with our language and the way we tee things up. And I think a lot about first gen students, these kids are the first in their family to go to college and they don’t have, necessarily, an adult in their life who is really helping them navigate this foreign world of academia and whatnot. So this book really landed with me. I’m wondering, briefly, if you could just elaborate just a little bit on the difference between complication and complexity because it’s such an important distinction, as we think about this.

Ben Guttmann:
Oh, yeah. So, as I define it, so fluency exists on this spectrum of something is simple or complex, right? We will do things, we will read things, we’ll seek things out that are complex if they’re worth it, right? We will learn how to play a complicated piece on the piano. We will read War and Peace. We will do these hard things if we’re motivated to do them.

But we don’t put up with things that are complicated. And I define complicated as artificially created complexity. Complexity is we have a lot of pieces, intricate connections. Complication is a verb, right? We complicate something by making it more complex than it has to be. We don’t put up with that. When you look at international diplomacy is complex, but the bad memo about your office PTO policy is complicated, right? We don’t like complicated because it feels unfinished, a lot of times. It feels like, “Well, this could have been better.” And that’s what we’re trying to battle against as much [inaudible 00:07:26]. This book, this whole argument isn’t against complexity. This isn’t against there being nuanced opinions, or nuanced facts, or all these different things that are incredibly detailed. That’s where a lot of the beauty in the world comes from. But this is about if you’re in a position of communication where you are trying to influence, or persuade, or inform. You have to lean towards simplicity as much as you can.

Jared Smith:
No, no, makes sense. Okay. So the first third of the book, I would say, is making the case for why simplicity really matters and you need to take this seriously. And it does so in such an enjoyable way. And then we’ll get to it, but the last two thirds are all about, “Okay, how do you actually do this?” But in the introduction of the book, you introduced this word sonder, a word I’ve never heard before, and it was, I think, really encapsulates part of the problem with complexity, or simplicity, or complication and simplicity, and the breakdown that can happen when people are trying to communicate with one another. Can you tell us about the word sonder for a moment?

Ben Guttmann:
Oh yeah, sonder is a fun one. So that’s one of those words that virally makes its way around the internet from time to time. And actually, it arrives from the internet. So there’s a blogger, John Koenig, who coined it on Tumblr actually a number of years ago. He says that sonder is, his definition, the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own, populated of their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries, and inherited craziness. An epic story that continues invisibly around you, like an anthill sprawling deep underground with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives you’ll never know existed.” He goes on a little bit more, but the idea that we are not the center of the universe, right? Every light in the skyline, every car passing you by on the highway is somebody else of their own story and their own motivations. And if you’re putting this in the marketing perspective, they don’t care about you. Your message is so important, your product is so important to you, but it is not important to the audience. And you have to find a way to make your message fit with their motivations, and their desires, and their needs, and not the other way around.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, this is something that I hear when I engage in conversation with really experienced marketers that they will touch in on. I was talking with a brand strategist who had a pedigree of big fancy agency life and he said, “You know, we obsess. We build these brand platforms and we obsess over all the nuanced emotions that we feel about our brand, and all the words that we want to evoke, and abstract concepts.” And he was like, “And then the consumer on the receiving end is, ‘uh, I like the yellow one.'” And it hits on the same idea. Part of it is, as you point out in the book, is that we are biologically wired against focusing on everything. We are wired for inattention. And I think you even go so far as to suggest that it’s a feature, not a bug. So I think we have to respect the limitations or just facts of our own neurology, the hardware and software that’s working up there. Can you tell us a little bit about that being wired for inattention?

Ben Guttmann:
Oh, yeah. We grew up as a species in a world where a lot of things wanted to eat us, right? And so we had to quickly scan the environment and pay attention to the rustling leaves or the snapped twig. And then we make an assessment, “Is this something that warrants our attention or not?” And if it doesn’t, we move on to the next thing. Things pass through our phases of memory very, very quickly. We don’t remember most things. When we do remember most things, we actually don’t even really remember them. Memory is reforming the story in our brain every single time. So when you look at it, we have squishy software up there. And we think that we live in an age where everything is documented. Everybody’s got this photograph of perfect record of everything. Most people don’t care. And the argument I try to make with both sonder in this piece is, and it sounds like what some of the folks that you talked to are on the same page, nobody wants to see your ad, right? Nobody wants to read your email.

Jared Smith:
What?

Ben Guttmann:
Every advertisement you’ve ever seen has been against your will, right? Nobody woke up today, “On my to-do list is I have to go and click some Instagram ads,” right? “I got to go open some spam.” Nobody wants to do that. They want to do a lot of things. We all have thousands of motivations. We want to make sure that our kids are getting a good grade in school. We want to got to plan that vacation. I have this deadline at work. I care that the Yankees win. All these things matter to us. But your ad for a new shampoo is not something that really matters to me.

Jared Smith:
So, well put. And that definitely lands. So, okay. So on one hand the receivers of our message are, as you say, wired for inattention. And they’re not invested in hearing this interruption we’re about to bring to them. On the other hand, as the communicator, as the sender of that message, we also have our own uphill battle to face. You point out that we are actually, in a sense, wired to complicate messages. And to do the opposite, basically, of what we should. How is that the case?

Ben Guttmann:
Yeah, so you hit it there, which is, if you break down the whole communications equation. It doesn’t matter if you’re marketing, or you’re an executive, or an advocate. There’s the senders and there’s the receivers. Receivers, we want fluency. We talked about that. But senders, we’re pulled in the other direction internally and externally. So internally, we face and what’s known as an additive bias, where we’re more likely to add than subtract when we’re in the process of changing something. We also are faced of a complexity bias, where we’re more likely to see more complex patterns or to choose to present something more complex than we should.

The external factors include, our boss wants to make sure that their stuff is in the presentation. The client wants to make sure that their face is on the website. The media cycle demands more. Their resumes demand more. But all these things pull us towards complicated. And so, how we bridge that gap is what you talk about in the second half of the book, which is, put the design hat on, look at the science and say, “Well, what are the principles we can adhere to get us closer to where the receivers need us to be?”

Jared Smith:
Yeah. And all this, I think, can sound a little theoretical, but it actually has real practical application. One of the most hilarious examples that you have in the book is, and it was actually hard to pull out the right examples in the book, you have so many good ones. But this one really leapt out at me. It was a sabotage manual from World War II. Can you tell us about that? Because I was like, “Oh, this is rubber meets the road. We’re in a life and death existential battle. And ‘Hey saboteurs, here’s something you can do with your communication that’ll actually really make a difference.'”

Ben Guttmann:
I am so glad you called that one out because that’s one of the favorite things when I came across this. So, in World War II, one of the precursors to the CIA was called Office of Strategic Services. They developed a manual for allies, for like-minded supporters, in a lot of these occupied territories. And they called it the Simple Sabotage Field Manual. So in this book, you can go download this for free, it’s on the Department of Defense’s website. I think it’s from 1944, so it’s a little bit dated, but it’s interesting. You get stuff about how to gum up factories, and put saw dust in gas tanks, and all these interesting things about how to just slow down the enemy.
But if you flip to the last chapter, the last section of that document, it talks about how could you screw up an organization? How could you make a team, a business to be ineffective. And to not fulfill what it is that they want to do? And it’s going to sound a lot like things that you’ve probably seen from people who supposedly are trying to help an organization, in your own experience. I know I’ve seen it. One of them is to make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at a great length. Illustrate your points by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to bring up a few patriotic comments. I love that. There’s another one. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible. Another one, when training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions. Give lengthy and comprehensible explanations when questioned. All of these things are things that happen in every committee I’ve ever been on, every board I’ve ever been on, every team I’ve ever been on, these things happen. And it’s funny, because this is literally what you do to sabotage an organization. This is what you should do if you want to ruin something. But we fall to it all the time when we’re trying to communicate because of all these different forces.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, I got to say, when I read that, I was laughing on the outside, but silently weeping on the inside because like, “Oh, this is, yes, all of it.” And it also, a little bit, not a small amount of guilt of like, “Oh, I’ve definitely done this. I am guilty, too.” So not throwing rocks at anybody in particular. Okay. So you lay out five principles that we can follow for simpler, more effective communication. I’m wondering if you could tick through those five at a high level. And then we’ll just spotlight a couple of those if we can’t. Unfortunately, it’ll be an eight-hour interview if we go through all five.

Ben Guttmann:
Yeah, happy to, right? So these are five design principles. It’s not a step-by-step plan. It’s not a rubric. But it’s, the better we can adhere and we can look to these goals, the better we’re going to be at communicating, right? And again, if you’re talking about advertising, but also if you’re talking about your memo, and your proposal, and your emails, those types of things. So the first one is beneficial. What does it matter to the receiver? What’s in it for them? Features versus
benefits, sales 101-type of stuff. The second is focused. Are you trying to say one thing or multiple things at once? Is it one idea or is it like three ideas in a trench coat? The third is salient. Does your message stand out from the noise? Does it rise to your attention? Does it zig one others zag? Is there contrast between it in the background? The four is empathetic. Are you speaking in the language that the audience understands? Are you meeting them where they are, in terms of their emotions, their motivations, but also their literal language? And the last one is minimal, which is, have you cut out everything that isn’t important and left only what is? And we’re not talking about the least number of words or paragraphs. We’re talking about least amount of friction. And that’s an important distinction.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, super important. And we will definitely, if we’re able to, double click on minimal.
But I’d like to start with focused because you said something in the chapter on being focused that really hit home. You were talking about committees, and how they can erode focus, and can create problems around focus. And I know you work in higher ed, I work alongside higher ed a lot. We’re constantly engaging with committees. So, I’m wondering if you could first just lay out the problem, where do committees come in? Why is it so hard for them to create simple communications? And then let’s dive into how we do better.

Ben Guttmann:
I’ve served out on many, many committees in my time. So there’s a writer, GK Chesterton, he has a great quote, which is, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” So committees have a laudable goal, right? They are meant to get different perspectives in the room and meant to be able to make decisions or give input from all those different voices. There’s nothing inherently wrong of that definition. But the problem is, how they do that is often really flawed. If you have a very flat organization, a very flat, even an informal organization like a small group, you don’t have the ability always to make the creative decisions that need to be made for something to be a good piece of communication or a good piece of messaging. Bruce Springsteen says, “Democracy in rock bands is a ticking time bomb,” right? And that’s what it looks like. He’s the Boss, he’s the decider, it’s his name in lights. And that’s a little bit of an extreme, but that’s what you need, in terms of creative work. When you look at how the best ad agencies in the world, the best, like SNL, like comedic writer rooms, how they work, is they don’t all get together around a giant table and decide something together. They, either individually, or in very small pairings, will break off, develop ideas, develop concepts, and then come back and analyze them together. It’s hard for a large group to create. It’s easier for them to comment, it’s easier for them to approve, it gives them to give feedback on something. And so, that’s really what we have to design our committees around.

Now, when you look at the science behind this, too, it’s interesting. We think that when there’s more people in the room, we’re getting more opinion, we’re getting more voices, we’re getting more knowledge. But when you look at how this actually works, once you get past about six or seven people in a room, in a meeting, we don’t see any more ideas come out of that meeting. There’s just a bandwidth problem. Only so many people can share during that amount of time. And so you really hit this peak around six or seven people where the total number of ideas and the quality of ideas doesn’t get any better. Meanwhile, I’ve been on committees with a dozen people, two dozen people, ends up being this giant thing, and you get people that are just floating along without providing the insight. There’s ways to manage that a little bit, but at a certain point, when you have too many people in a room, you are not adding anymore, you’re actually subtracting.

Jared Smith:
So you have some great tools that you drop into our toolbox and some suggestions. One of them is choosing, having someone play the role of the decider, because you’re right, there’s no such thing as the lone genius creating in a vacuum. But what is true in all effective collaborations is the decidedly unsexy act of editing. Somebody has to be trusted to make the call. Can you build on that?

Ben Guttmann:
Oh, yeah, right. So when you are the one, you’re that boss, right? You’re the Bruce Springsteen guy. You drew the target on your back. People don’t always like that. Some people, they love being in that leadership position. Some people will shy away from it because if you have to be there and decide what is the right message and what is not, all of a sudden you’ve made an enemy. You said, well, somebody said, “What about me? Why can’t I put my thing in there? Why can’t we just add it? Why can’t we just add the slide for it? Why can’t we just add the page for it on the website?” All of those things seem like a reasonable compromise, but they’re actually end up hurting us, right? We are dividing attention, we’re dividing our messaging in too many different directions. What you need is, not even, you need to either have the leader or you need to have the process for making the decision to be outlined in a way that is very clear. This chapter I subtitle it about, it’s called the Frankenstein Idea. I see this come up all the time in my class when I teach undergraduates, very flat organization, they go, I say, “Go break up into teams and I’m going to give you a brand. Come back of a pitch for the brand.” Every semester, I have at least one group, that despite as much warning as I can give them, they’re going to come back with a Frankenstein Idea. This is five different things smooshed together, right? So they say, “We’re going to use this influencer and that one. We’re going to use this hashtag and this one. We’re going to use drones, and AI, and crypto all…” And you take all this stuff, and you wrap it together with some duct tape, and you say, “There you go. There’s our proposal.” While some of those things may have been very good ideas, altogether, they’re worse than the sum of
their parts. And this is actually how Mary Shelley describes Frankenstein’s Monster, which is that the individual pieces were chosen to be beautiful, lustrous, black hair and pearly white eyes, big, broad shoulders. All these different pieces were selected because they were great components. But when you put them together, they were worse than the sum of their parts. And this will happen with our marketing, with our creative efforts, is that we will put too many things together because we’re afraid to make that tough call, and to edit, and to curate.

Jared Smith:

And one of the ways that you talk about uncovering when we have three ideas in a trench coat, which I love that turn of phrase, by the way, I am picturing penguins do you the penguins’ movie, in the trench coat?

Ben Guttmann:
Yeah.


Jared Smith:
So you talk about and versus so, and how you can use it as you’re formulating ideas to uncover when you’re starting to pack too many unrelated things together. How can we use and versus so?


Ben Guttmann:
The word and has this magical ability to tie a lot of things together, make them seem like they make sense and just go past our brain check that would raise the red flag, otherwise. My grandfather used to fix everything with string and tape. And so that was how he would fix that. His car broke down. It would be a bunch of string and scotch tape. That’s what we can do with the word and. We can and, and, and our message, or idea, or just our work into this thing that makes sense. And I’ll give you a very distilled example of this, right? So you want the first thing to flow into the next thing. The word so is the stand-in. It could be however, it could be because. But the idea, so is the closest, simplest one that really describes how there is a relationship between the first one and the second one. So let’s say your message is that we have the best customer service. And you will get a great deal. Well, that doesn’t throw up any flags, right? It is a complete, correct English sentence. And you just can go ahead and slap that on your website and say, Good job, we’re done.” But if you replace that word and with the word so, and you say, “Well, we have the best customer service, so you will get a great deal,” you start to realize that, wait a second, that first bit and that second bit aren’t related. It’s not one idea. These are two separate ideas. It might be a little clunky to think about that. But you say, “Okay, well maybe we have to modify one of these a little bit because the second one doesn’t flow from the first one.”
And if you wanted to modify that example, you would say something like, “We have the best customer service so you will leave happy,” right? And that’s not necessarily a great slogan for something, but it gives you the example of the second piece, the happiness, the satisfaction is related to the customer service. The deal isn’t always related to the customer service.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, that makes sense. And that little simple language shift, I think, is such a great test, that is so easy to deploy, and such a minor shift that can make a big difference. You also talk about salience. What is salience? How do we get more of it?

Ben Guttmann:
So salience is, does something rise to your attention, right? Does it stand out? We only notice the things that are salient, basically, that’s the operational definition of it. The argument that I make in the book is that salience is often achieved by doing something that other people aren’t. And so how do you do that? Well, if you follow rules, if you follow constraints that other people aren’t, that pushes you into a little bit of a different zone and allows you to be more creative and more novel in the stuff that you’re putting out there. Imagine it’s almost like a press coming down on a balloon a little bit, right? So if you have a little bit of pressure that’s coming out, the balloon gets pushed a little bit to a different space. If you have too much pressure, it’ll pop the balloon. So you don’t want that. And you don’t want a little bit of pressure where it doesn’t really ever do anything. You’re looking at this idea of medium pressure. That’s what we’re really seeking out. If you got an assignment, you say, “I have to give this proposal, it’s due tomorrow.” That’s a lot of pressure, right? What can I do when it’s tomorrow? I can’t do anything. I get this copy and paste, I got, maybe I’ll use ChatGPT or something. And I end up with a very unoriginal, bland piece of work on my output. Alternatively, if you say, “This proposal is due in a year,” well, that’s not my problem, right? That’s future Ben’s problem, right? And it’s too much rope and you’re apt to hang yourself on it, right? The lack of pressure also hurts us. But the medium amount of pressure, if you say, “It’s due in four days, five days.” All of a sudden, that becomes the little fire under your butt to people to do something interesting. And by doing it with time, by doing it with space, by doing it with tools, we can end up with an output that will be different than what we did if we just follow the same path over and over again.


Jared Smith:
Yeah, it’s such another really easy to implement tool that can easily shift your thinking. It reminds me of that trend you see on TikTok and elsewhere on the socials of, “Tell me you’re blank without saying you’re blank.” And I think about that in the context of higher ed. It’s like, “Tell me your students aren’t just a number without saying your students aren’t just a number.”
Or, “We have small class sizes without citing your student to teacher ratio.” How do you do that? Do you have any favorite constraints that are your greatest hits?

Ben Guttmann:
So, there’s a couple of them. So number one is, I’ll give you something that’s a little bit off kilter that you may not think of. The constraint can be a maximum, but it can also be a minimum. So this is a really fun and creative tool I like to exercise with, which is to say, “Okay, you have to come up with a slogan, you have to come with a logo.” You don’t have to come up with, here’s 10 slogans, then we’re going to pick the one. You have to come up before you can stop with 100 slogans. And all of a sudden, you get past the easy ones. You do the easy stuff in the beginning. You do the, maybe the corny stuff a little bit later. And then, sometime in the middle there you’re in the weeds and you’re like, “What am I even doing?” And you get past the point where your grooves end. And you end up at this new, uncharted territory that you wouldn’t have been at before. So constraint can come in forms of a maximum or a minimum, and that’s an important thing to keep in mind. The other term if talk about maximum a little bit, is there’s an exercise I like to use, which is to test your messaging against the baseline understanding of how people speak. And you can look at the thousand most common words as the metric for this. There’s actually been a whole books written with just using the thousand most common words. It’s a pretty interesting exercise. What you’ll find is that if you’re able to drop your email in there, and drop your website copy into that framework, and you’ll see, “Okay, well some of these words fit some of them. Could I reconsider some of the words that are going to be highlighted or read here?” You don’t have to change every single one of them. Even the word thousand, for instance, isn’t one of those words. So you can use the word 10-hundred, right, that’s why I say in the chapter. But if you’re able to look at this as a stress test, you’re able to get a sense as to, “Well, okay, we can start at this baseline and we can work up from there, instead of starting at the really high level and working down.” The thousand most common words, by the way, account for about 75% of English as it’s used, which is a pretty interesting that you can cover a lot of ground with them. And it’s funny, I just put on my website, actually, a checker for this. So I built this, funny enough, using ChatGPT, it was fun. If you go to BenGuttmann.com/thousand, my last name is two T’s and two N’s and it’s the word thousand. If you go there, there’s just a little field, drop in your text, click the button, and it will flag in red all the words that don’t fit that list.

Jared Smith:
Oh yeah, I saw you post that on LinkedIn and I’m glad you brought it up because that’s a brilliant tool and so useful. In our line of work, I think about this a lot, especially when we’re doing web content. And the usability research out there shows that even very advanced readers, people with advanced degrees, prefer very simple language because its speeds acquisition. And you even point out in the book that people perceive you as smarter when you’re using simpler language. It’s the more complicated your language, if you’re dropping too many 25-cent words, it can actually work against you, in terms of how people perceive you. So I thought it was great.
I heard you mention this, the thousand words on another interview. And I went immediately to GPT, copied a blog post that I was working on, dropped it in and said, basically told it, “Rewrite this using only the thousand most commonly words. Here’s a PDF of the thousand most common words.” And then it came back and it was a little too, it was overly simplified because there was some very technical language that actually mattered. So then I said, “You can pick 20 words that aren’t on this list.” And it came back. And it was like right at that sweet spot of really straightforward, but with enough technical precision that you weren’t sacrificing the accuracy. And I was like, it was one of those, “Holy crap, this actually works.”

Ben Guttmann:
Oh, yeah. I love that you mentioned a little bit of how do we perceive those big words? They actually backfire on us. So if you look at, I believe it was Princeton University that did some research on this, where they took grad school application essays. And they took a stack of the original essays, they ran them through a algorithm basically to complexify them. They wanted to add bigger words and more complicated language to those essays. And they took those two stacks and they asked people to judge them, asked admissions counselors to judge those essays and say, who would they let in, who would they not? Across the board, found the same thing. When you looked at the more complicated language, the applicants were rated as less intelligent and they were less likely to be admitted. If you looked at the simpler language, the original ones, they were more intelligent and more likely to be admitted. And it worked the other way, too. When they took the original essays and they simplified them, they found that, well, the judges said, “Well, this is a more intelligent writer and I’m more likely to accept them into the program.”

So this occurred with graduates, undergraduates. This occurred when they took some famous texts and they ran into through then and said, “Okay, which is the intelligent writer?” And so your big words give you away, a lot of times. They backfire in a way that can ultimately be very harmful to a lot of the things we’re trying to communicate.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, as my teenage son might say, “You’re a try hard if you’re using this.” I hope I used that correctly.
Ben Guttmann:
Want to know another funny one related to that? So they also give away our status, which is interesting. There is a study which I love, I briefly alluded to it in the book, where they looked at airports. And so in the United States there’s 130-something international airports. And these vary a lot. They can be JFK, near where I am, and thousands of flights. Or they could be like where my Grandmother used to live in Great Falls, Montana, where it’s just a few flights that cross the border into Canada. And so, these airports can be much different in terms of the scale of operation, but they’re all international airports. And the word international has this heft to it. It has this prestige that’s associated with it. And so, these researchers looked and they said, “Well, let’s look at how do these airports describe themselves? Do they call themselves JFK or JFK International when they’re talking about themselves on their own
marketing materials?” And they broke them up into small airports and big airports. Big airports use the word international to describe themselves about 31% of the time. So it was a little bit, but not a lot. Small airports use the word international 68% of the time to describe themselves. They wanted to puff themselves up and seem bigger, and wanted to, “Look at me. I’m international. That’s a big deal.” This same pattern occurred when they looked at, looked at colleges, actually, when they looked at, there’s the Ivy Leagues, and you have the ones everybody knows of, Harvard. And then you have University of Pennsylvania, great school, but people often confuse it with being an Ivy League or not. People in their own resumes and LinkedIn profiles would use the word Ivy League to describe Harvard a little bit. And they used it a lot to describe University of Pennsylvania as part of it, because it’s this perceived status piece that we’re trying to make up for.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, you protest too much. Interesting.

Ben Guttmann:
Oh, yeah.

Jared Smith:
So, okay. Last principle that we’ll double click on is empathy here. So I think empathy is one of those things that, well, I’ve yet to run across anybody who says, “I don’t want to be empathetic.”
And so, I think, conceptually, we all buy into this idea of empathy. But what I love about the book is you really explain, “Okay, but here’s how you actually can do it within the context of communication.” And there are a couple of points I’d love to hit on that you talk about. One is the idea of enlightened idiots. I’d love for you to tell us about that. And I want to talk about testing and specifically creative testing. But maybe we could start with enlightened idiots. How are they useful? Do we call them enlightened idiots? Probably not. I don’t know. I’ll let you guide us on that.

Ben Guttmann:
So enlightened idiots, that’s a good example of salience, right, something that it stands out because it’s a little bit different. I use the term enlightened idiots as a aspirational term. So, idiot, if you look at the definition is the common man. That’s actually the original origin to the word. And enlightened is somebody who knows something you don’t. And that’s what we’re looking for when we’re trying to test our message. It’s very easy for us to stay in our own bubbles, right, and to assume everybody knows what I’m talking about. Everybody knows the shape of this industry. Everybody knows what acronyms I’m using. Everybody knows all this technical jargon.
But when you look at how people, again, we talked about before, people have these very nuanced lives. They don’t pay as much attention as you do to your stuff. And so, we end up in this situation where we’re apt to say, “Well, everybody, of course, knows this. Let’s just put this language on our website. Let’s put this in our brochure.” And then the outsider, our audience, they get it, and they go, “What the heck are they talking about here? I don’t understand this.” And so, the idea of enlightened idiot is we have to get this perspective from the outside. We have to talk to our audience and to test, and to make sure we’re speaking their language. But also is this getting the point across? Is it communicating what I want to do? And the way to do this is the most no duh piece of the whole book, but it’s also the piece that people are going to ignore the most, it’s testing. You have to go and ask somebody about it. You have to say, “Well, does this make sense? Do you understand this?” I’ve stood on the concourse at Grand Central Terminal and flagged people down to ask them their opinion on this, or that, or does this work, or does that work? And it’s very awkward, right, we don’t like to do it because you’re talking to people who are strangers, you’re interrupting them, you’re trying to get feedback, which might be negative. We don’t like to do it. But we can go hire marketing research agencies and spend thousands of dollars doing it, which sometimes makes a lot of sense. But we don’t always have that type of time and budget for every single thing that we’re trying to communicate. And so, even the simple act of buzzing someone up, calling them saying, “Hey, real quick, I know you’re
in this market. Does this make sense to you?” Or sending one customer’s or one email to a customer being like, “Hey, I just want to get your two cents on this,” will Do you so much good, that it’s worth the awkwardness as part of that. It’s also important, by the way, that that person represents your audience. If you’re advertising to plumbers, it doesn’t matter if you talk to 400 chiropractors. Talking to four plumbers is going to give you more insight than talking to 400 chiropractors is going to about your message.

Jared Smith:
As you were talking about that, I was just flooded with memories of how many conversations I’ve had over the years where folks want to know something about, say, the users hitting their website. And they’re looking in analytics for the answer. And they, “Oh, do we need more of this kind of content?” Or, “Is this resonating with our audience?” And it’s like I’m on site, or Bounce Rate or whatever the metric is that you’re using that tells you physically what is happening in a mechanical sense. It doesn’t give you any insight into why. So talk to a few folks. And I think people build it up as if we’ve got to hire an outside market research firm. Don’t get me wrong, there’s like outside market research firms could be amazing. But so many times. I feel like it’s like the, “Hey, is that monitor plugged in?” Just talk to a couple of people that are in your target and see. And I also think people get hung up on like, “well, if I can’t get a statistically valid sample size, then why bother?” And I’m like, “Well, that’s a horrible choice, also.” And I felt validated. I came across some commentary from Nielsen Norman Group, the usability research
firm, and they said, “You know what, if you want to uncover the most important issues on your website, you really only need to talk to a handful of people. And that’s going to get you 85 or 90% of what’s there.” Which very much lines up to what you’re saying, the research around, do you get better quality ideas with more and more people? At some point, no, you just hear the same things over and over again. So do we need to exercise some judgment about how representative this audience is? Yeah, I use some common sense there, but at the same time, sometimes just some really simple conversations can help you get such a long way and save you a lot of time and effort.

Ben Guttmann:
Absolutely. Nielsen does surveys of the United States with 330 million peopl.e and they have a sample size of a thousand, right?

Jared Smith:
Yeah.

Ben Guttmann:
You don’t have to have every single person. You don’t need a thousand, 10 people will get you more insight than zero, right? And that will get you

Jared Smith: 

Absolutely,

Ben Guttmann:
Ten people is a lot closer to getting a thousand pieces than it is to getting zero pieces.

Jared Smith:
Right. And what’s the alternative? You’re just going to stay locked inside your own, limited perspective that, by the way, if you’re operating on behalf of a brand, you are inherently self-interested and diluted about whatOr just your view of your brand is inherently warped and your users, without their inputs, you need them to set you straight. Which takes me to your commentary on creative testing. And I think this is an area where I see a lot of folks get hung up because they want to test an ad and get absolute certainty around whether this is going to work, or it’s right for their brand, or what’s the impact is going to be, or they want to test their brand, or whatever it is, their positioning. How do you look at testing as a vehicle for building empathy, but what are the limits of testing?

Ben Guttmann:

You can totally get bogged down on this stuff. It’s very easy to get lost in the weeds with testing because it feels like a productive thing to do, but at a certain point, stops being that, right? And it feels, also, like we can get the insight from them instead of getting the validation from them. I wrote in the book, look at them as a compass and not a tour guide, right? You’re looking at somebody, it’s a check. Like, “Does this work?” But don’t tell me where to go, necessarily. That’s not going to be as helpful. But tell me if I’m on the right track, tell me if this is working, if this is effective. There’s the old adage, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would say faster horses, right, instead of cars.” That is 100% true when it comes to most creative stuff. You’re the expert. You’re the expert in your stuff. It’s your responsibility to do the creative work and get out there. You can’t get the creative work from your audience. You can get the validation that it’s working from your audience.

Jared Smith:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Ben, this is such a great book. There’s so much more we could dive into here. I really encourage folks to go out and read it. And so, if somebody is listening to this conversation, is intrigued, wants to find out more, where’s a great place to pick up a copy?

Ben Guttmann:
Well, I really appreciate that, Jared. This has been a ton of fun. If you’re interested in checking out, Simply Put, you can grab that wherever books are sold, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, local bookstores. You can go to my website BenGuttmann.com. There’s two T’s and two N’s in Guttmann. That’s not a great name for radio. But if you go there, you can find a few things. You can find that Thousand Word Checker. You can download a free chapter of the book. And you can also sign up for my email list, I send that out every Tuesday. You can reach out to me on LinkedIn, would love to hear from you. And if there’s anything I can do to help, of course, feel free to connect with me.

Jared Smith:
Awesome. Ben, thank you so much for your time today. Love the conversation.

Ben Guttmann:
Thanks again, Jared.

Jared Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit EchoDelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And, as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@EchoDelta.co.

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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.

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