You can teach old dogs new tricks, but for heaven’s sake: one trick at a time!
I once saw the political communication consultant James Carville speak at communication conference.
“People accuse me, as a speechwriter, of filling empty vessels,” he said in his familiar Louisiana sputter. “’Naw, it’s the opposite,’ I tell ’em. What I do for a living, is I empty full vessels!”
Meaning that he, like most of us, spends most of his time talking clients out of saying everything they want to tell an audience, and convincing them to say only the one thing they want their audience to take away.
Not five things. Not three things. Not two things. One thing—in all its rich and glorious detail.
But clients are greedy, and they want to simultaneously introduce their aspirational brand promise, get the customer to like them on Facebook and sell products.
I tell my greedy clients a story about myself:
One evening a few years ago I found myself with a wine glass in my hand, watching a PBS show that promised to explain how it came to pass that in the course of domesticating wolves, humanity wound up with so ridiculously many varieties of dogs.
I like dogs. But I can’t stand seeing weird little hairless shivering dogs, and I believe they are a sign of human thoughtlessness. So I was interested.
And then the announcer sonorously intoned, “There are essentially two theories as to how the relatively homogenous original population of wolves begat so many different breeds of dogs.”
Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m only going to remember one of these theories. There’s no way I’m going to remember two separate theories.
I eased my schoolboy anxiety by reminding myself that there would not be a quiz. I took a sip of wine and sat back and listened as the show described the first theory: That, by selecting the tamest of the wolves they could find—and then mating them with other tame wolves—early peoples unwittingly created mutations that resulted in the weird little hairless shivering dogs, among all those other more magnificent breeds.
And the second theory? Of course I don’t remember it! And I’m surprised, to tell you the truth, that I overcame all my confusion and fear of failure to remember the first theory.
It’s not that adults are stupid—they know a great deal and they have sophisticated belief systems into which to fit your message. But for that precise reason—their own well-developed minds—they have a great deal of work to do on their end to fit your notion—or your product, brand promise or call to action—into their world. Every time they learn something, they’re asking themselves a hundred questions, including but not nearly limited to:
- How did I not know this before now?
- How important in the grand scheme of things is this information?
- Can I use this idea to bolster one of my favorite rants?
- I wonder if my ridiculously naïve sister is watching this.
- Did I drink the whole glass already?
- Who can I tell about this, and sound smart?
- Hey, is there some way I could make some money off this information?
Every member of your audience is putting your idea through a rigorous application process.
To ask them to absorb two or more complex concepts—from the same ad, the same speech, the same blog post—it’s not asking too much.
It’s asking the impossible.
Empty your full vessel, and get your big idea across. Or sell your product. Or get them to like you on Facebook.
But ask for all of the above and you’ll get none of the above.
David Murray is a longtime commentator on communication. The editor of Vital Speeches of the Day, he also writes for magazines and newspapers. And he blogs about his work and his life at Writing Boots.