One of my favorite examples of a powerful message is the DeBeers diamond tagline, “a diamond is forever.”
There’s a reason “a diamond is forever” was and is so powerful: it sounds like a proverb. Proverbs, idioms, axioms, and sayings like “haste makes waste,” “the second mouse gets the cheese,” or even more modern mantras like “the only way out is through” stick in our collective consciousness.
Why? Two reasons. First, they’re extremely useful shortcuts for summarizing our beliefs about ourselves or the world (“Silence is golden”) or for telling us what to do in it (“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”). Second, they’re constructed in a way that makes them powerfully easy to remember.
If you want your idea to also be seen as an easy-to-remember and useful shortcut, then, “proverb” it! Where possible, give your the key concepts in your message (your Goal, Problem, Truth, Change, and Actions — what I call your Red Thread Statements) the qualities of proverbs.
What are those qualities, you ask? Here I need to give full credit to my friend and fellow storyteller Ron Ploof, whose book The Proverb Effect should be in every message-makers’ library. Ron tells us that proverbs have certain distinct qualities, namely that:
- They are short, usually containing no more than 129 characters and a median of 7 words.
- They follow what Ron calls “the Benefit Rule,” meaning the statement always benefits the receiver, your Audience, and not you, the message-maker.
Mimicking the first quality is pretty straightforward: refine the Red Thread Statement you’re working on until it’s short. Most of the time I tell my clients to make it fit the length of an “old school” tweet on Twitter: 140 characters (or fewer). That’s slightly more characters than Ron’s analysis shows, but hey, I’m feeling generous. 😉
If you’re not sure how to achieve the second quality, the “Benefit Rule”, there’s a quick trick you can use. It’s based on a third quality of proverbs Ron discovered:
- They are written in the second person, present tense — they almost always include an explicit or implied “you,” and are about how things are right now, not how they were.
Look at these proverbs and see how they match up:
- A stitch in time saves nine (6 words, 27 characters)
- What’s good for the goose is good for the gander (10 words, 49 characters)
- The runner and the road are one with the errand to be done (13 words, 59 characters)
- Seeing is believing (3 words, 19 characters)
- Haste makes waste (3 words ,17 characters)
- The second mouse gets the cheese (6 words, 32 characters)
- Silence is golden (3 words, 17 characters)
- Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country (17 words, 78 characters)
You can also see “proverbing” at work in a number of the storylines I showed you in an earlier post (though, yes, there is one “our” in this list, because in that case, the speakers were speaking to achieve a collective benefit to the organization).
- Make the invisible, visible (4 words, 27 characters)
- Big Data doesn’t just create more knowledge, it creates more unknowns (11 words, 69 characters)
- The greatest risk comes from the unknown (7 words, 40 characters)
- The more people who see our content, the more impact it will have (13 words, 65 characters)
- Experiences leave imprints (3 words, 26 characters)
- People are what make positions work (6 words, 35 characters)
- You’re an everyday improviser (4 words, 29 characters)
- Do scary stuff on purpose, every day (7 words, 36 characters)
- Leadership is learned (3 words, 21 characters)
- A diamond is forever (4 words, 22 characters)
- See the stone as the symbol (6 words, 29 characters)
I find that Problem, Truth, and Change statements are the ones that benefit most from proverbing. They are, after all, the main elements of your case, so those are the points you want to be clearest and most memorable—just like proverbs!
- DO THIS: Starting with your best version of your Red Thread Statements, edit them to have the same qualities as proverbs. (Keep your longer versions though, you may need them later!)
Since existing proverbs and sayings often already meet those qualities, I suggest looking at existing proverbs as a great place to start. Ron’s book also has 1500+ proverb examples at the back for even more inspiration!
One final note: even if you’re not actively working on a message or content right now, start looking for proverbs in what you read, watch, and listen to. Write down the ones you find and send them to me!
You’ll find that, the more you look for them, the more you’ll see that proverbs and proverb-like statements are everywhere, especially in the content you find most powerful. And now? You know how to make your messages and content that powerful—and memorable—too.You'll find that, the more you look for them, the more you'll see that proverbs and proverb-like statements are everywhere, especially in the content you find most powerful. Click To Tweet
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