Simple—A Key to Effective Messaging
We recently had the pleasure of having lunch with Alan Siegel, a well-known New York City-based brand expert. We had contacted him after reading an article in The New York Times about nonprofits turning to pros, like Alan, to craft marketing campaigns to sell their causes to donors.
Alan has had a long and distinguished career in the advertising industry—in recent years, turning his attention to nonprofits. We discussed our mutual interest in college basketball, Alan having played at Cornell, while I played at the University of Virginia. (Personal note: UVA is the No. 1 team in college basketball right now for the third straight week!) The conversation turned to the New York Knicks, and Alan casually mentioned, “Yeah, I designed the NBA logo.” You have probably seen this image, a silhouette of basketball great Jerry West. The NBA estimates the value of the brand Alan created for them to be in excess of $3 billion a year in licensing.
Alan is the co-author of the book, “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity.” The book makes the case for simplicity being a competitive advantage and describes why organizations should use the principles of simplicity to enhance their customer experience.
Among the areas of “simplification” that is discussed is the importance of using understandable language. And how the use of more language often results in less clarity. For example, of the tens of billions of dollars of consumer electronics that are returned to stores every year, half are “in good working order, but consumers can’t figure out how to operate them.” The user’s guides are simply too complex to be decoded.
There is another good reason to keep messaging simple and easy to understand, one that is rooted in neuroscience. Our brains associate the ease of processing information with positive feelings about what it is that the words describe. Neuroscientists call the ease with which people process images and words processing fluency. Images and words that are easier to process actually are more likely to activate the muscles of the face used to smile than are those that are harder to process.
So, processing fluency is an important consideration when crafting messaging to constituents. Here are four ways that neuroscience has discovered you can make content easier to decode:
- Use stories and metaphors. This is a staple of nonprofit messaging, and for a good reason. Information presented as stories or metaphors makes it more engaging and easy to digest. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, the “human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We are even built to physically interact with stories. Language that is sensory-rich and evokes mental images or sensations, like scents or tactile experiences, is easier to process.
- Make things clear to see. When using graphics, try to use no more than three or four visual clusters. Our brains can immediately decode up to four items, but any more requires extra effort. Our ability to instantly process three or four items is known as subitizing. As students of rhetoric know, three arguments are also powerful in verbal persuasion. Three has a feeling of “completeness.” People feel uncomfortable just mentioning two things, and often use a verbal filler like “and so on” to bulk up a list of two things into a list of three.
- Repetition and familiarity. Using elements of messaging that is familiar to your audience or making sure that they see the same messaging a lot makes information easier for people to process. Our brains mix up familiarity with liking. This is what psychologists call the mere exposure effect. People tend to rate things that they have seen before more positively. And while novelty can catch people’s attention, they have to do a lot of work to process novel information.
- Minimize cognitive load. People have a limit to how many things they can keep in their minds at one time. It’s important to make sure you don’t overwhelm their attention in a single message. This is particularly relevant when you are asking people to do something like filling out forms or registering to do something online. Rule of thumb: one message and one call-to-action. Asking people to do multiple tasks significantly diminishes the likelihood that they will do anything.
Finally, before sending out messaging, test, test, test. Find out what content gets the best response from your audience. Simple provides compelling evidence about the way organizations who embrace simplicity come out on top, although it’s not as easy to accomplish as it may sound. As Alan says, “Simplification requires a thorough and pervasive commitment by an organization to empathize, distill and clarify.”
We nonprofit professionals work to solve problems like these:
- There is someone sleeping in sub-zero weather tonight in my city.
- A person is being beaten right now in my county.
- Seventeen children were just killed in a high school in my country.
These are urgent issues. Our first instinct can be to convey as much information as possible, as fast as possible. But the people we are communicating with are in their own psychological space. The most effective way to engage them often turns out to be the simplest. We are at war; they are not. Not yet, anyway. Write accordingly.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.