Sometimes what’s missing from a message is… just about everything you need to make sense of it. But how, and why, does that happen?
After all, if you invest the time (and often money) to create a message, of course you want it to make sense to people. After all, people have to agree with something before they’ll willingly act on it. People have to understand something before they’ll agree with it.
With so much riding on making things make sense, then, how can we sometimes get it so wrong? Because we confuse something that makes internal sense with something that makes external sense.
You may have heard of something called the Curse of Knowledge. It’s a well known cognitive bias that says that once you know a thing it’s nearly impossible to imagine what it’s like not to know it. (The authors Chip and Dan Heath provide a spectacular explanation in their book Made To Stick, which is a must-have for message-makers.)
Your expertise and worldview make your idea make sense to you — that’s internal sense. Your clarity and cohesion make it make sense to other people — that’s external sense. You can see the potentially damaging difference in this What’s Missing from This Message video. It’s a prime example of how something that made internal sense made no external sense at all… and a very likely expensive investment probably didn’t produce the hoped-for results.
So how do you fix it? As I say in the video, context. If you know (1) who your message is for and (2) what you want people to do as a result of it, you’re much more likely to craft your message with enough context for it to make external sense.
But there’s one other thing you can rely on: story structure. For reasons we’ve talked about before, story structure itself provides context. That “automatic” context comes from aligning your message with how the brain naturally makes sense of information.
In other words, story is a “Make Sense Machine.” If you put your idea into story structure, you’re much more likely to turn something that makes internal sense into something that makes external sense, too.
So go on, give it a try. Even better, send it to me.With so much riding on making things make sense, then, how can we sometimes get it so wrong? Because we confuse something that makes internal sense with something that makes external sense. Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
What happens when context is missing from your message? Nothing good. This week on What’s Missing from This Message. We are talking about a billboard I spotted in LA that pretty much had all kinds of context missing from it, but there’s real opportunity to make that message much stronger. I’m Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com stay tuned for What’s Missing from This Message. So this is a fun one because no one sent it to me. I was literally in a car in Los Angeles, saw this billboard and it was like there is something missing from this message.
So let’s take a look at what that is. This was the billboard I saw elevating Los Angeles and beyond. So it says upper in this upper left corner, you can say it says CSUN.EDU/RISE and then we’ve got this picture of this guy and it says co-founder Rhino Records chairman Shout Factory Richard Foos who has a BA in sociology and then the CSUN thing at the bottom. Okay. Now I admit that I am not living in Los Angeles and if I were living in Los Angeles, then I might just know by magical osmosis that CSUN is California State University, Northridge. But I only knew that because this billboard bothered me so much because I had no idea.
Now think about this. If you don’t know that this is California State University, Northridge, what’s missing from this message is all kinds of context elevating Los Angeles and beyond. Who is that guy or whatever CSUN is and who is that guy? So co-founder Rhino Records, chairman Shout Factory Richard Foos and I’m so glad that he founded those things and it’s awesome and I am sure that California State University, Northridge is super proud of its alumni. I’m so glad, but I got to wonder like what is it? Who is this billboard for? What are they hoping people will do as a result? This is one of those things I don’t understand and it hurts me because I spent so many years in higher education that this could not have been inexpensive for them to either have designed or put up.
So I really want to figure out how we could make something like this as strong as possible for an organization that probably doesn’t have a huge amount of resources to spare. So the very first thing, even if it’s just an image or just an ad, is to have a sense for yourself of what is it that this ad is supposed to do? Is this supposed be something that makes people want to go to CSUN to support? Do they just want people to know about it? Because I can’t actually match any clear outcome to the copy that’s on this. Now I can kind of guess that they’re like, “Whoa, the action is to go to CSUN.EDU/RISE.”
At which point I have to tell you that A, this is a billboard and most people are driving right by it and they’re not going to remember it and they’re certainly not going to remember the slash and they’re certainly not going to remember if they don’t know what CSUN, or CSUN is in the first place, they’re really, really probably not going to go and explore it unless you’re me. And is super curious about why someone paid for a billboard, that is just not something that most people would understand, at least most people, not from Los Angeles. I don’t know. LA people have to tell me.
Because if it’s about getting folks to know what California State University, Northridge is all about and that it says elevating not Los Angeles beyond then at the very least, something that could make this stronger. B, just to spell it out, California State University, Northridge, elevating Los Angeles and beyond. Oh thanks California State University, Northridge, Los Angeles. Thank you for helping to elevate Los Angeles. And it would also make it clear whether or not it’s the university or whether it’s Richard there. Now I’m guessing that Richard is there as a proof point to say, “Hey look, we’ve got somebody who is active in the Los Angeles community right now. He went to this university and his work is now helping Los Angeles.” Great. Where’s that context?
Also, are you asking me to go or are you suggesting that I am someone who would be able to do that? So just a little bit more context, just I want to know what that’s all about. I can kind of get away. Even if we said California State University, Northridge, elevating Los Angeles and beyond and we just had Richard, I think we could probably get a sense of like, “Oh, that’s a guy I know.” Maybe, I don’t know Los Angeles very well and I think he’s important to Los Angeles and Hey look, he went to this university. So awesome, thanks.
I still would love there to be just something that makes a little bit more sense and I get that it’s a billboard and you can’t put a lot of text on it. I just wonder if there’s some missed opportunities here. If they’re looking for people to attend, then I think that the headline could be a little bit different. I still think you’ve got to tell people it’s a university because the EDU is really enough to tell people, I don’t know that this is a college. The school that I can go to, this could be a professor at that university. I don’t know. So if we’re asking people to go, then we need to make sure that the headline is a way for you to do like make an impact on your community. Go to California State University, Northridge.
You see there’s just these little missed opportunities that could take these elements and just make them strong enough for people to go, “Oh, I understand. And I do.” And to have made this investment really pay off for them in a different way. I mean I doubt that they’re advertising on a billboard to get people to get money. Maybe it’s an awareness campaign, but still, if it’s an awareness campaign, your acronym is not enough. It just isn’t. So okay, we’re going to do them an extra little favor and I’m going to actually go to the website that you’re supposed to go to even though I think we could just say what’s missing from this message from this billboard is enough. So let’s go over there. Now we’re on the website that you go to, okay.
And I say CSUN still don’t know where it is. I don’t. So I have maybe seen your billboard and gone to see said that CSUN.EDU/RISE and this is what I see and I still don’t know at the top but it’s California State University, Northridge. You’re asking me to read here before I see it. And you know what? Can’t see it because it’s white on a white background and there’s people behind it and it’s hard. CSUN I want to love this. I do. All right. The best place in LA to see stars rise. That’s great. First thing I noticed is the guy, I saw on my billboard isn’t here. Come on.
All right, but let’s read it just to see what they were trying to do. I want to help [inaudible 00:08:00] where individuals rise and take all of LA with them. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped back into the region’s economy annually from the Valley. CSUN, it makes a world of difference radiating through our region and beyond. Oh, like that play on words CSUN, pretty cool. Rise at one of the best universities in California. Oh, they want you to go. All right. All right. All right. So explore CSUNs impact throughout our region.
Okay. You just said that you want me to go and now you’re talking about you, but you’re not talking about what it solves for me. Okay. Number one, oh, these things move. I mean, it’s a beautifully designed site and I’m sure that there was… Oh Lordy. Okay, so I’m hoping that these various people rotate. There we go. And that the different folks perhaps are on the billboards that come through. Oh, there’s Richard, there’s my guy, but he’s not on the top one. All right. Oh, there’s a new message. When you invest in us, we invest in us all. Oh Nope. Yep partner putting a primary stick by investing in us what I’m really confused. Right? So I have no idea. So now I’m thinking this is actually a fundraising message, because that’s what it’s all kind of shaping up to with the impact stuff.
Leading maker of economic. No, now it’s back to students. Okay. So my friends, what can make your message stronger is context and its context, not just for your audience but that context starts with you. The context that needs to be present when you’re putting a message out there in any form billboard, website has to be, what is it and why should I care? You have to make sure that you are answering it very least those elements. Like who are you, California state university, Northridge? What do you want me to do? And what I suspect as often can happen is when a resource constrained organization has an opportunity to put a big campaign out there, they’re trying to make it do everything all at once and unfortunately by trying to make it do everything all at once, you get a very mixed context and what you ended up with is something that doesn’t provide any context at all.
Really not unless people are already familiar with the acronym, they’re already familiar with Richard Foos and they’re already familiar with relationship that all of those things have together. So what would make this message stronger and what can make your message stronger is making those decisions early before you ever put any kind of words on anything in before you put it on a website, before you put it on a billboard. Who is this for? Is this for prospective students? Is this for the Los Angeles community? Is this prospective donors, is this for prospective faculty? You do need to choose a primary audience. Who is it for? What do you want them to do as a result of this message? And then everything, everything that you write and build should be about doing that thing for those people. Making sure that the message is clear to those people that’s the thing that you want them to do.
Anything else that is off of that initial does not belong, and that is painful when you have a rare opportunity to make a big splash. But if you’ve got that chance to make the big splash, make sure you make it pay off. And that comes to making sure that context isn’t missing from your message. Thanks so much in absentia to California State University, Northridge for not directly sending me there, short form content, but if you have short form content, you want me to take a look at and find what’s missing from your message and how to make it stronger. Sending that to Red Thread Me at tamsenwebster.com. I of course am Tamsen Webster of tamsenwebster.com. If you liked this episode, please like and subscribe. See you next time.
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