Finding the Proverb in Your Message
We can all agree that some messages are more memorable than others but, for some of these messages, an even stickier phrasing has replaced the original. The memorable quote, “Play it again, Sam,” for example, isn’t actually what Humphrey Bogart says in Casablanca. For these messages, our collective consciousness somehow reduces them to what sounds like a proverb.
This week we’re looking at Ron Ploof’s work on proverbs and storytelling. Our brains automatically simplify complicated messages. One of the most important things about proverbs is that it’s told from one person to another, without the hope of getting something back. There are no I’s or We’s, instead, it’s always a You or an implied You.
How do we use this insight in our messages? Once we’ve figured out the concept that we’re trying to capture, try to capture it again in a proverb-like form: simple, short, and sticky. Having that proverb version of your message gives your audience the mental hook they need to hang the longer version on, which is the key to making it memorable.
– One of the most iconic lines in all of cinema is from Casablanca: “Play it again, Sam.” Except that that line isn’t actually in Casablanca. No, instead, Humphrey Bogart says, “Play it, Sam. For old time’s sake, play ‘As Time Goes By.’” Why does that matter? Why does it matter that what’s come down through history is a simplified and arguably better version? Well, the lesson there is something we can use when we put our own messages together. I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com, and this is Find the Red Thread.
Most of us would agree that some messages in and of themselves are more powerful and more memorable, more sticky, than others. But why is it that, with some of those messages, it’s a stickier, even more powerful phrasing that has come down through time? This is true, not just in movies, but it’s true in writing, it’s true in philosophy, it’s true in all sorts of other places.
For instance, an oft-memed memorable quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams, live the life you’ve imagined,” actually reads like this: he wrote, “I learned this, at least, by my experiment that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with the success unexpected in common hours.” What happened there? Why did our collective consciousness reduce it to what sounds like a proverb? Probably for the same reason that proverbs themselves are so powerful.
For this week’s episode, I am relying heavily on the amazing work of my good friend and master storyteller, Ron Ploof, who has a wonderful blog over at storyhow.com. Now, Ron has spent a lot of time looking at proverbs. Proverbs are things like, “A stitch in time saves nine,” and, “The second mouse gets the cheese.” But what was fascinating to me is, he and I started to talk about proverbs and what they were, was how often we automatically simplify, in our own heads, more complicated messages.
What is a proverb? Ron has found some very interesting things, but one of the most useful for you is to understand that a proverb is something that is told from someone to someone without the hope of getting anything back. There are no I’s or We’s in proverbs. It’s always a You or an implied You.
Think about John Kennedy’s memorable quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” which is in fact the actual memorable quote. And from that actual memorable quote, we can derive what we, as message makers, can do to make our messages just as sticky and just as strong. And that is, once we’ve figure out the concept that we’re trying to capture, try to capture it again in a proverb-like form. Try to get it down into something that sounds like a proverb, that is as short as a proverb, that is structured like a proverb.
Why is that important? It’s important for a couple reasons. One is, if you can’t make it simple, you don’t actually know what it is, so, to be able to boil your concept down into a proverb helps you clarify what that is in the first place. The second way that it can help you is that, once you’ve figured out the more explanatory version of a particular concept, having that proverb-like version gives the audience that mental hook onto which they can hang everything else. It’s really important for their memorability of your message.
A caution here: it doesn’t mean fill your talks, fill your messages with a whole bunch of platitudes. Too many and (remember our episode on coats and hooks) people will drop them. You also want to make sure that these proverb-like statements that you’re putting in do have an explanatory version that comes nearby. The proverb should serve as a shortcut for that larger, more complete idea. Without that larger, more complete idea, then you’re just spouting off memorable quotes and concepts, and that’s not memorable at all.
When you’re trying to figure out, how can I say this in a really powerful way? Think proverbs, think “Play it again, Sam.” I’m Tamsen Webster of TamsenWebster.com, and this was Find the Red Thread. If you’re looking to figure out what those concepts are in the first place, remember to find the pieces of your Red Thread, the Red Thread Statements, and you can do that with the free worksheet you can find at FindYourRedThread.com.