The tell-a-friend impulse

How do you scale a magazine from 0 readers to being Europe’s best selling magazine? You need three things:

Great writing.That resonates.And gets passed along.

Interestingly, this list starts at the end. It’s how Henri Nannen, founder of the Stern magazine and its editor-in-chief for more than 30 years, led the Stern to actually become Europe’s bestselling magazine. He demanded from his editors to start their writing at what gets passed along. Unless an editor could clearly state what a reader was supposed to TELL A FRIEND after reading an article, they were not allowed to write the article. Nannen explained the rule by an anecdote about his grandparents:

Suppose grandpa and grandma are going for a walk. Along their way they buy the newest edition of our magazine. Now, when they come home, they do what they always do: Grandma walks into the kitchen to prepare lunch, while grandpa sits down in the living room to read our magazine. Suddenly, after reading one of the articles, he closes the magazine to shout into the kitchen: “Grandma, they’re going to raise taxes again.” It’s the one sentence that felt so important to him that it created the urge to shout it into the kitchen. It’s the same phrase that he’s going to tell his friends when he meets them in the evening. When we don’t decide what that phrase will be, grandpa’s just going to decide for himself.

What’s important to keep in mind is that it’s the same sentence that our audience is going to tell their friends (colleagues, boss, partner, …) when they tell them about the piece they just heard or read from us. It’s the same sentence our audience will reply with when someone asks them: “So, what was the pitch like?” It’s the same sentence that they are reminded of when they make a decision a month or so after we’ve talked to them.

The thing is this: Our audience will always have that sentence. No matter whether we like it or not, our audience will always have an answer when someone asks them: “So, what was it about?” … and they’re not going to ask us for support.

All the things we’re not

Many companies are quite good at explaining what their product is not but not at all good at explaining what it is instead. When you push them they will keep reminding you that “no, this is not quite what we do.”

The problem with this is that we don’t have hooks in our brains for what a thing is not. There just isn’t a place for “not Netflix”, “not a streaming service”, or “not a film producer”.

Often, the effort that’s required to remind us of what you are not and why we got you wrong is better spent at understanding what we know already and what hooks we have already so that you can attach to these hooks.

The art of digging deep

TED has popularised the art of presenting big ideas. What gets easily overlooked is how another art is even more essential to a great TED talk: the art of digging deep.

This is the art of not only identifying the stones but actually picking them up and looking under. The art of scratching our heads and asking further. The art of looking for answers as opposed to stopping at the questions. So that we arrive at ideas that don’t just look big but actually are big.

For this, it’s not enough to copy the looks of a TED talk: the structure, the storytelling, the stage layout, the timing. That’s just the surface.

A big idea is not in how the idea looks.

A big idea is in what it inspires. What it changes. Such as a fundamental change of perspective.

More often than not, these ideas originate in the mud and dirt. By digging deep. And getting your fingers dirty.

People on the TED stage are standing there because they have an important story to tell. One that originates from doing the work. Sweating the details. Looking beyond the obvious. Asking the questions and looking for answers.

The problem with our world of inspirational TED-like speeches is that it’s copying the looks of a great TED speech while missing the work that precedes it. These people copy the TED part but not the digging deep part.

Yet, digging deep is the most reliable way of arriving at a big idea talk. Dig deep and do the work. And then, tell a true story about what you worked out.

This is how you light the path.

Looking from the other side

Quick, in one sentence: What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see …

… the McDonald’s logo?
… the Red Cross logo?
… an iPhone?
… Donald Trump?
… Billie Eilish?
… your product?

We’re super quick with a short statement like “That’s fast food.”, “It’s super tasty”, “Unhealthy diet.”, “It reminds me of my childhood.” when we think about others but we struggle a lot when it’s about ourselves.

Suddenly it’s not that easy to leave this aspect out or that. Suddenly it’s super important to include this detail and that.

Yet, for our customers it’s not like that. For them, we’re the others. They are just as quick with their statements about us as we are about them. They just don’t care what we might think we can’t leave out. They will happily leave it out for us.

It’s better to do this job ourselves. What’s the core that we would like our audience to think of when they are reminded of us?

The ruthless audience

Audiences are ruthless. When, after a talk, someone asks an audience member: “What was the talk about?” they are going to answer with a short reply. In their own words. Every time.

In particular, there’s no way an audience member will reply with a 30 minute verbatim copy of what we said. We’ve had our chance during the talk. But once we’re finished, the audience is in control. Whatever they pass along, we must live with it.

In a way, that’s good news as it forces us to focus. Because if we don’t focus, our audience will happily do it for us. It’s much better to stay in control and focus our story on a concise message that people can and will pass along. Because only when we do, can we craft our talk such that that’s going to work.

Remember, audiences are ruthless. If we don’t provide them with a clear and concise message they will just craft their own.

The 2nd priority

… is the reason why we don’t accomplish our 1st priority.

Get a good price and get the deal at all cost. Grow your business and spend more time with the family. Few production errors and the cheapest product.

As soon as we have a 2nd priority, the 1st priority isn’t a priority any more. It’s become one of two (or more) constraints. The more constraints we have, the more likely it is that we have to compromise on any of these constraints.

The same is true in communication. As soon as you have two (or more) goals for your presentation, for your meeting, for your speech, you’ll probably have to compromise on either.

Let’s say it straight: The 2nd priority is the reason we don’t go full steam on our 1st priority. Better to focus on one priority and handle any other constraints as exactly that: constraints.

Why people aren’t buying from you

Because this is how you communicate your product:

The active ingredient inhibits the body’s own formation of messenger substances, the so-called prostaglandins, which increase the sensitivity of the pain receptors in the body. By inhibiting their formation, the increased excitability of the pain receptors at the nerve endings is reduced and the pain and inflammatory symptoms subside.

Of course, sooner or later marketing comes along and argues that you need a fancy packaging. With a beautiful logo on it and bright colors that make it stand out on the shelves.

But somehow that didn’t work, either.

So, performance marketing comes along and says that this is what you need to say:

Hey, look, if you don‘t buy just one of these litte white pills, but three, we’ll give you a coupon that’ll save you 10 bucks the next time you buy five of the pills. You’ll just need to scan the receipt and email it to this address …

Well, somehow that didn’t work, either. So, you build a funnel. And an Instagram channel. You design landing pages for each target group and host live webinars. You discover TikTok as the next big thing.

And then, you’ve really got a headache. Which makes you realize how easy everything was from the beginning:

Got a headache? This pill will make it go away.

So many communicators just forget to tell us what their product is for. Until people know, most of them just don’t care. But when they know and when they have that problem, they will want you to tell them more.

What is it that I absolutely need to remember from your pitch?

Ok, got it.

Now, how likely do you think it is that I will actually remember all of these things?

But wait, here’s a deal: You tell me exactly one thing and I promise that I’ll remember it.

Would you take it?

What would that one thing be?

How can you craft your whole communication around that most important thing?

The 5 most important things are probably not as important as you think

If your service is anything but trivial there’s a lot you could tell us about it. I bet you could easily fill an hour speaking about fascinating details about the product.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that I, too, must understand all these details. Yet, when I don’t, what happens? Or if I just don’t care about the details? Then what happens? What if I remember only 4 out of the top 5 things I need to remember about your product?

A more useful approach is to think about the most important thing. And that thing could even be a feeling. Actually, more often than not people fall in love with a product not because of the details but because of how it makes them feel.

The fascinating part is this: If that most important thing really does make a difference for me, if I really do care about it improving a profound aspect of my life, then I will automatically dig deeper and I will want to know more.

That’s what matters: How does your product impact me? Rather than me having to learn something about you, things get much easier for you if you learn about me.

What will they say …

… when you leave the room? When you’re not there to correct them? Or to explain what you actually meant to say? Or that this was not the point?

Yet, it’s exactly what they heard and what they made out of what they heard. If you want them to say it differently, then you’ll need to give them the words to do so. Use a clear structure that helps them see your point. Use metaphors and analogies they can relate to so they understand exactly what you mean. And use words they can easily memorize in simple language that have a meaning in their minds (as opposed to your mind).

You’ll never know what’s in their minds and there’s never going to be a guarantee that they understand it the way you intended it to, but you can always try harder to empathize.

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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