The Story Economy Blog

When What You Really Need is a Simple Message

This tiny sign, stuck haphazardly along the road, caught my eye the other day.

My first thought was: Really, this is your ad campaign? Just coming right out and saying “Be a foster parent”? You expect a side-of-the-road command against the backdrop of a rusty chain link fence to induce a life-changing moment for someone?

But the self-conscious randomness of it made me think that perhaps . . . it wasn’t so random. So I toyed with the idea that maybe this little sign was exactly right.

I thought about who might see it: a person, sitting at just one more intersection, one more crossroads of life, waiting for a chance to turn left, staring into the steady haze of oncoming traffic and wondering if there wasn’t something more they could be doing with their life.

What if the flash of that sign, just as they finally made the turn and headed down the quiet side street en-route to the next intersection, was like, the thing? Could that one simple message, which basically anyone could craft (as in, no high-paid copywriter necessary!), be the exact thing they needed in that moment to decide, “Yes, I WILL be a foster parent!”

Is it completely silly, or completely brilliant? I don’t know. But here is what I do know: Simple messages that are the most successful are the ones built on an enterprise.

Simple is Cumulative

For years, I wrote weight loss success stories for women’s magazines. And—unlike the other stuff I wrote for women’s magazines—I never became jaded about these stories. Because at the core of them was always a real person, and every single one of them had one thing in common: there was always a moment when the person decided to make a change. A single moment that shocked them out of their reality. Perhaps a mean comment by an ancient aunt who also tends to say racist things at baby showers and weddings. Or the sudden sight of an unflattering picture. Or just a sentence in a book or a song on the radio.

Rarely did it involve a motivational speaker or a thing structured to create a moment.

One woman told me that she was driving around, feeling terrible about herself. And then she saw a billboard for a gym. And it said something like, “Join today!” And she just said, “Okay.” That was it: a command from the side of road. A simple message telling her what to do. And it was the start of becoming a healthier person.

The story always goes way deeper than the message we remember. But we attach to the moment nonetheless, even though it is often built on acres of devastation. Or on puddles of love. Or, just on the day-after-day sense of building a life in the world.

Notice for five minutes, and you’ll see simple marketing messages everywhere, from the merely informative to the pleading. All suggesting that you DO something. House For Sale;Fish Fry 5 p.m. ‚Äì 8 p.m.; Office Space for Rent; Reward for Lost Dog; Thank a Veteran!

Simple, right?

Yet people come to the Fish Fry. They buy the house. The office gets rented. The foster parents sign up.

Simple is, in fact, highly cumulative. This is what I mean by being tied to an enterprise. There is something that goes before the simple message—something so accepted that it doesn’t need to be said: you need a place to live; your business needs an office; if you lost your dog, you would want someone to help you find it; kids need homes; healthy people live longer.

Of course, I have to take a second to point out that not all enterprises are good. It’s not all about better lives and more freedom. Sometimes it’s quite a terrible enterprise. One that, say, leads to the murder of six million people. There is a dark side to enterprise-based simple messages.

But I’m just going to assume we’re all in it for the good stuff.

Now, there is a chance that in pointing out that simple messages can do the job of more carefully crafted ones, I could be writing myself right out of a job. Because a huge part of what I bring to the table is the ability to build stories and tame metaphors and uncover voice and skillfully use rhetorical techniques. And now, it may seem like I’m saying: Forget all of the strategy: just put up a sign on the side of the road that says “Buy from us now!”

Of course, it’s not really like that. You’ve got a whole lot more work to do than that.

But the story of whatever it is you’re about is already being told. Absolutely, you should join your voice and tell your version. Absolutely, you should engage people in smart, playful, and beautiful ways. That’s how you build up a tribe.

But not every message has to be re-invented. Or clever. Or more than what it is. The chatter is already out there. Sometimes, it’s just about stripping everything else away and just reminding people to listen, with a really, really simple message that is all at face value.

That is, if you’re part of an enterprise. That’s the only way it works.

So the real question is this: what enterprise are you part of?

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