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Simple Messages and Digital Voices

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With so many brands vying for attention, the media and the marketplace are chock full of messages trying to convince us to buy, believe, support or join.

Whether we are listening to what is special about certain products, corporations, political candidates or public issues, the competition is so great that some of us take the easier path by tuning everything out.

Perhaps those of us who are marketers and corporate communicators should listen carefully to Blaise Pascal. Writing almost 400 years ago, it seems Pascal knew what he was talking about. At the close of his "Provincial Letter XVI," the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher apologized for making his letter so long. He wrote:

"The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no time to make it shorter."

In our age of digital voices, Pascal's lesson is more important than ever. His point was that simple messages are the hardest to craft but they are the most effective, in part because of their simplicity.

Simple as that may seem, the process is far from simple. In fact, it takes time. A lot of it. It takes a special combination of imagination, empathy and discipline. It requires deeper thought and, importantly, one built on a clear sense of exactly what you are trying to say. It rarely comes easily. It is real work. Each word must be chosen carefully, taking into consideration its meaning (denotation), interpretation (connotation), and the effect it would have on people, both intellectually and emotionally.

Among marketers and corporate communicators, simple messages are at the core of successful brands, pushing them forward. Those messages are the ones that strike a chord in the hearts and minds of those we want to reach, creating meaningful connections ... often with emotion. If we do our jobs well in selecting words and crafting language, the connection will more likely lead to action. Customers are inclined to buy, investors invest, legislators understand, regulators support, talent remain loyal and the public more likely to give the benefit of the doubt when things might go awry.

Were it possible to sit down and have a conversation with Pascal, what might he say to guide us about simple product and corporate messages in this era of digital voices?

Maybe something like this:

  • Keep it simple - Write it once and then write it again. But this time, select your words even more carefully.
  • Get to the heart of the emotion - Use language that evokes an emotional response. Reach into the gut of those you want to reach.
  • Talk in real words - Skip the jargon. Use words that we all can understand.
  • Create imagery. Use your imagination - Help the reader or viewer get a feel for what you say. Make the image match the words and make the image vivid.
  • Ensure that words resonate - Read it aloud. Read it to others. Sit in a dark room and read it to yourself. Do you get it? Do you feel it?

Unfortunately, Pascal didn't practice what he preached because that "Provincial Letter XVI" came in at just shy of 9,000 words, in spite of his apology. In fact, his lengthy messages to the Jesuits did little to cool the contentious debates. One could argue that they fueled the fire.

Regardless, Pascal's advice fits perfectly in today's era of digital communication. It's spot on.

While he likely would never have been able to come anywhere close to Twitter's 140 characters, he might have been willing to try. He might also have been intrigued by the power of Instagram and Pinterest to capture attention, if only he had a smart phone or camera. And he probably would have enjoyed the give-and-take on the pages of Facebook, if only he had access to the internet.