As he does in his blog with astonishing frequency, David Cummings last week put his finger on a pervasive problem in startups: complexity of messaging. To cap-off a characteristically well-constructed case for communicating with simplicity, the post concludes with this guidance to operators: “The next time you describe your product, competitive position in the market, or value add, reduce the complexity of the verbiage. Increase the understandability. Make it clear.” Such great advice; and I’ve been thinking about it all week. But, like many things in life, it is easy in theory // difficult in practice. So, I’ve tried here to stand on the shoulders of a giant, and offer 10 tips & tricks that we’ve employed in our own efforts to follow David’s counsel toward clear messaging:
- “Fuzzy writing = fuzzy thinking”: My first boss repeatedly used this line to admonish against messaging that lacked crispness. His point: before you put pen to paper, take the time to REALLY think the messaging all the way through. Doing so will materially tighten the output and save time.
- Go Solo: For heaven’s sake, don’t group draft. So often sub-scale companies strive for inclusivity and seek to incorporate input from many parties into their messaging. It’s painful for all and rarely produces good results. Many perspectives are absolutely good / needed…but many voices are not. When it comes time to codify the message, have one person own it.
- Go Pro: All middle school students allegedly learn to write. So, it stands to reason that even the smallest of startups has the resources to craft its own messaging. But clear, concise, compelling writing is deceptively difficult. There is no shame in outsourcing this responsibility to experts.
- Go Pro 2: To further plug the outsourcing model, professional writers are often surprisingly affordable. And, beyond their sheer expertise, outsourced writers bring valuable perspective / objectivity to the task. Finally, the mere act of engaging someone to ghost-write forces real up-front clarity of thought within the company (see point #1 above).
- Go Analog: In today’s digital world, even the earliest messaging drafts tend to start on a keyboard. But, with apologies to trees, a piece of scratch-paper can be an invaluable aid to crafting one’s message. Writing down by hand one’s ideas tends to allow for total freedom and enable non-linear thought (which is surprisingly hard to replicate digitally). On the other hand, when one can easily cut and paste with a click of the mouse, it tends to breed more verbiage — frequently at the expense of brevity.
- 10–20–30 Rule: In his classic book “The Art of the Start,” Guy Kawasaki promotes an approach to startup pitch-decks that includes a simple rule: “A PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” This is a great forcing mechanism for clear messaging — it really is hard to comply with the 10–20–30 Rule while using a lot of jargon and buzzwords.
- 80/20 Writing Rule: Spend 20% of your time on the first draft…and 80% on editing / un-writing. This is likely a terrible strategy for journalists with strict deadlines…but there is no end-date on optimizing company messaging. Take advantage of that fact to let the message marinade and evolve over time.
- 80/20 Presentation Rule: A corollary to the rule above is to dedicate 20% of presentation prep time to slide creation, and 80% to nailing the talk-track. Rarely is this rule followed. But, in terms of clarifying the message, it really pays off.
- Solving versus Doing: Some of the most jargon-laden company messaging results from trying to explain “what the company does.” Instead, focus on “what problem the company solves.” The Jobs-to-Be-Done framework can help a lot here.
- Go Metaphorical: As humans, we like stories and images. They are powerful and we can remember them. These are attributes worth striving for in company messaging. Leveraging metaphors can help reduce the complexity of messaging, while also making it far more appealing. But, a few words of caution: (1) test to ensure the metaphor is truly clear and valid — mixed or inaccurate analogies are actually counterproductive, and (2) unless the business / product actually relates to war or sports, avoid metaphors that use those topics. I’ve made this mistake…just…don’t.
In short: David Cummings was dead-right — in terms of company messaging, make it clear! Hopefully these tips make it a bit easier to do so.