Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions - Carmen Simon (2016)
Chapter 7. WHAT MAKES A MESSAGE REPEATABLE?
Techniques to Convince Others to Repeat Your Words
When we share information at Point A, we hope others will retain it and retrieve it at Point B to inform their next action. This means that at Point A we must create a memory strong enough that it endures long term. One technique for solidifying memory is repetition.
The impact of repetition on memory is rarely doubted. However, since we are looking at memory from the perspective of the future, this chapter is not so much about repeating the same message over and over at Point A. That’s only part of the technique. The challenge is to make sure people can repeat that same message at Point B on their own. And how to create a message so it is repeatable in the long term is something that demands investigation.
Do you remember any movie lines someone may have dropped in casual or business conversation? Perhaps you heard, “Houston, we have a problem” during a work meeting? Or “You can’t handle the truth” during an argument at home? Or “I’ll have what she is having” during dinner with friends?
How about songs? Are there lyrics you can bring to memory and sing instantly? Maybe “Don’t stop believin’,” or “All you need is love,” or “It’s the end of the world as we know it …”
How about ads? If someone asked you the slogans for Nike or the U.S. Army, would you be able to state them quickly and accurately?
What makes lines from movies, songs, or marketing repeatable and therefore memorable for a long time? What attributes do these words have that make them get in our heads, stay there, and come to mind quickly? It’s important to answer these questions, because if you want to influence people’s memory, one of the most rewarding proofs of success is to hear others repeat your words.
Some answers may be intuitive; we tend to repeat what we hear or see frequently (“I’m lovin’ it”), what carries strong emotions (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”), what is short (“I’ll be back”), what easily rolls off the tongue (“Wax on. Wax off”), or what rhymes (“I feel the need … the need for speed”). But are there other properties of repeatable phrases that may not be so intuitive which you can use to craft your own repeatable content?
A team of scientists at Cornell University studied the attributes of a quotable movie line. The team built a computer program that analyzed thousands of quotes tagged by users on IMDb, or Internet Movie Database. The program compared quotable lines in a specific movie against other lines of the same length said by the same character in the same movie.
Their observation was that most memorable lines were applicable in various contexts. For instance, the famous line in Jaws, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” is portable; you can use it on or off the water to allude to the need for more resources. I recently used the phrase in a presentation about Big Data.
Other scientific studies confirm the importance of presenting a concept in various contexts to increase its recall. For example, when researchers wanted participants to remember the word “chocolate,” they showed participants in one condition the word repeated by itself, and they showed participants in another condition the word repeated in various contexts: chocolate bar, chocolate cake, and chocolate milk. Participants in the latter condition remembered the word better, likely because the multiple contexts helped them build multiple retrieval cues.
Often we forget things because there are not enough cues or triggers in the environment to refresh our memory. If it’s important to remember the word “chocolate,” you may be reminded of it when you see the word “cake” or the word “milk.” Most concepts you share with others have a habitat; they have a representation in a real context. Some objects or ideas can live in multiple habitats. For instance, if I say the word “flower,” you may picture it in a field or in a shop or on someone’s desk, or in someone’s hair, or in someone’s mouth if you imagine a sexy tango. But if I say the phrase “frozen-food aisle,” you will pretty much imagine it in only one setting: at a grocery store.
You can see why a line such as “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” is portable: you can use it in a wide variety of contexts, and many contexts are likely to trigger it. Sometimes repeatable lines may mention a very specific context (“We will always have Paris” or “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”), but the meanings are so universal that they turn into portable lines.
Compare lines that are suited for multiple contexts and that can be triggered by multiple contexts with those that apply only to special situations, and therefore have fewer triggers. In the movie The Social Network, a potentially repeatable line is “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” But how many of us could use that line in real situations? And how many environmental cues are there to trigger us to use that line?
What are some examples of repeatable messages from the business space? I remember a vice president of sales at Xerox Canada telling his team repeatedly to “Finish strong.” It was a message rooted in personal experience, as he had just completed a cure-for-cancer 600-mile bike ride. I recall a marketing executive at Metaswitch who created a campaign in the telecom industry around the directive “Make the call,” inviting partners to shift their technology and accommodate new consumer habits. I remember a vice president of operations at McDonald’s, who had just received a promotion, motivating her new team with “The best is yet to come.” We can use any of these messages in multiple contexts.
How do you craft something portable and cued by various environments? Start by creating generic statements, using few personal pronouns or indefinite articles, and keeping the statements in the present tense. The line in Jaws could have been, “You’re gonna need the bigger boat,” which would have applied only in that particular circumstance. Or the McDonald’s VP could have said, “The best is yet to come in the food industry,” which would have reduced its portability.
Any time you aspire to a repeatable message, ask whether your audience can carry your content from context to context. Can people repeat your favorite message at the supermarket, gym, dog-boarding facility, or new hair salon where a total stranger is approaching you with scissors? May the force be with you.
A message becomes repeatable when we can use it flexibly in many different contexts.
A message can be repeatable across space (context), but it can also endure through time. How long would you like to be remembered? Is it OK if others repeat your messages only for a few months until a project or a campaign is complete? Would you like your peers to repeat your content for years, even after you’ve moved on? Or would you want others to repeat your messages for a lifetime, perhaps even after you pass away?
If you want to craft a timeless message, then you aspire to create a “classic.” But what is classic? To answer this, we look beyond quantitative studies in cognitive neuroscience and learn from qualitative insights provided by sociologists, historians, writers, and anthropologists. Unlike psychologists, interested mainly in the individual, other scientists study group dynamics. If your message endures through time, that means it becomes part of a larger collective memory.
A classic anything (book, movie, slogan, dress, gesture, one-liner) has lasting impact. For example, reflecting on the world’s greatest works of literature, historian Richard J. Smith identifies what makes a book a classic by offering a three-point checklist. Any of us can benefit from this simple guide, regardless of the type of content we create: “First,” Smith advises, “the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in beautiful, moving, and memorable ways, with stimulating and inviting images. Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom.”
The checklist applies to short messages, too. Take the classic quote “My mama always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” You can see how it meets the three criteria. It addresses a fundamental human problem: the inability to fully predict the future. It builds a mental picture in your mind. And the metaphor bears repeating.
When I analyze business messages, they typically falter on at least two of the three points on Smith’s checklist. Most business communicators I hear are really good at identifying and addressing fundamental human problems. However, many fail to address them in beautiful, moving, stimulating ways, and they abuse complexity. Instead of creating a complex message that provides something profound each time you return to it, giving you a sense of discovery even if you’ve seen it before, you feel overwhelmed by it.
In his book Why Read the Classics, Italo Calvino reveals a longer list of characteristics for a classic. Here are a few extra points that complement Smith’s checklist. In Calvino’s view, a book is a classic when:
✵ It does not exhaust what it has to say to its readers.
✵ The more you think you know it by hearing about it, the more original, unexpected, and innovative you find it when you actually read it.
✵ You cannot remain indifferent to it; it helps you define yourself in relation to it or even in opposition to it.
A woman who reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina every few years tells us why: “Each time, perhaps because I’m older and have experienced more, I find things I never noticed before. Not only is it a great source of pleasure, but I inevitably feel as if I’m getting a sort of pep talk from Tolstoy: Go deeper. Try harder. Aim higher. Pay closer attention to the world.” A narrative does not have to make a mark with larger-than-life points. Often, what is profound rests in the smallest details: “I’ve always loved the scene in which Anna, having met the charming Vronsky, returns home to her husband and is struck by how unattractive his ears are.”
We can’t all be Tolstoy, but in crafting your messages, use these writers’ checklists for guidance.
How much of your content meets the criteria for a classic?
CLASSICS, NOT CLICHÉS
A classic is always marked by something worth mentioning over and over again, without the risk of becoming a cliché. Like a classic, a cliché endures through time, but along the journey, it loses its original impact and meaning, becoming worn and trivial. When the term “paradigm shift” was first used in the 1960s, it was original. A lot of paradigms have shifted in many fields since then, more than 7 million times according to Google. The term is now considered one of the most dreaded clichés, along with “breaking down the silos,” “doing more with less,” “it is what it is,” “move the needle,” “think outside the box,” “take it offline,” or “take it to the next level.”
It is a shame that even highly innovative people who are finding solutions to clean drinking water, no-soil agriculture, urban transit, micronutrients, bionics, or orbital debris removal often speak in trite phrases. Here is how an organization talks about methods for an oil spill cleanup: “Clearly a paradigm shift is needed to address future crises to minimize the potential disastrous effects on our ocean.” The statement could simply say, “We need better methods of cleaning crude oil from the ocean surface.”
We can’t exclude clichés from communication entirely because sometimes clichés are just pragmatic adaptations to new situations. Clichés can telegraph a specific idea very quickly. And repeating them can happen automatically, without thinking. After all, they come to mind so easily; they’ve been said so many times. The drawback, however, is that over time, a cliché can lose its meaning, and we may cease to pay attention to it altogether. How many of us are really attentive when flight attendants say, “For your safety and convenience, we ask that you do not move around the cabin”? Many people have great ideas to share, but when they use clichés, they drain their messages of their potency, rendering them common and forgettable.
As you aspire to repeatable messages, stay away from clichés as much as you can. These days we all want to be “the leader in every market” we serve and “benefit customers and stakeholders.” These are phrases that are easy to repeat, but they have become empty words. Clichés have the allure of repeatable messages the same way cotton candy has the allure of food. As you use the techniques in this book and gain access to your audience’s memory, plant messages that are wholesome, not processed.
In a study that analyzed 186 ads for linguistic and thematic content to see what made them memorable, the findings revealed that linguistic aspects such as alliteration, parallel construction, and metaphors correlated with brand recall, more so than frequency of exposure to that ad or the budget spent to create it. We don’t have to be millionaires to be remembered. We just have to master our language.
DISTINCT WORDS TIED BY SIMPLE SYNTAX
“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” If asked to quote anything from the movie Princess Bride, people who have seen it would most likely repeat this quote. Notice how the syntax, the order of words in the sentence, is simple and easy to understand. Yet the word choice attracts extra attention. The name “Inigo Montoya” is unusual. The word “prepare” is something we may expect in the context of preparing a meal or preparing for a meeting, not preparing to die.
In the list below, author Arthur Plotnik shows us how much harder it would be to repeat famous movie lines if they had been expressed with more convoluted syntax.
Why not give me an excuse to shoot you legally, an act I would find satisfying.
“Go ahead, make my day.” (Clint Eastwood, Sudden Impact)
I forgave you as soon as you said hello.
“You had me at hello.” (Renée Zellweger, Jerry Maguire)
Make sure you work hard so I get paid more.
“Show me the money.” (Cuba Gooding Jr., Jerry Maguire)
I favor a degree of intellectual weakness in men with whom I have a relationship.
“You’re not too bright. I like that in a man.” (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat)
The impact of simple syntax on memory is backed by scientific studies. Research shows that people are able to reproduce sentence structures independent of meaning, words, or sounds, even when they have amnesia. For example, subjects in an experiment heard a sentence like “The governess made a pot of tea for the princess,” and afterward they were more likely to describe other events using the same syntax: “The boy is handing the paintbrush to the man.” However, if the subjects initially heard, “The governess made the princess a pot of tea,” they were more likely to change their description of events to “The boy handed the man the paintbrush.” This effect is called syntactic persistence and has been observed to work in natural conversation and in different languages.
The possible explanation is based on the difference between declarative and procedural memory. Declarative memory includes knowledge and facts (e.g., “Magnesium is to the right of sodium on the periodic table”), while procedural memory is based on perception and motor skills (e.g., your ability to swim even if you have not done so in the past 10 years). Simple syntax may be part of the procedural memory system, which is more resistant to forgetting.
When creating repeatable messages, ask: Can your audience repeat your statements easily? Psychologists call this processing fluency. Are your sentences simple enough, even for non-English speakers? This is not what I see in most business messages. For example, “In this meeting, we want to discuss how governance processes and the Omnichannel platform are inextricably intertwined, and in particular, focus on common corporate governance pitfalls by studying several real-life case studies to gain real-world application of best practices.”
Simple syntax leads to repeatable messages.
Simple syntax is necessary but not sufficient for a repeatable message. Research shows that once the syntax is simple, providing a safe canvas, the foreground must be marked by distinct words, or disfluency. People are typically seduced by the opposite—fluency of words—and therefore tempted to process information superficially. In a classic experiment, researchers asked participants to answer these five questions sequentially:
What do we call a tree that grows from acorns? [Oak]
What do we call a funny story? [Joke]
What sound does a frog make? [Croak]
What is another word for a cape? [Cloak]
What do we call the white part of an egg? [???]
If you replied “albumen” to the fifth question, you’re in the minority. Most people want to reply with “yolk,” because it flows easily after the other answers, and they only reject that response upon conscious deliberation. The “yolk phenomenon” shows that people are cognitive misers, preferring to process information superficially.
Cognitive fluency certainly has benefits. Statements marked by fluency are perceived to be more likable, valuable, and accurate compared with statements that are perceived with difficulty. However, disfluency has benefits because it induces cognitive roadblocks, which, in a counterintuitive way, invite deeper processing. For example, in one study, professors assigned one group of students a set of worksheets and PowerPoint slides that were fluent to read, and they assigned materials that were disfluent to another group. The latter achieved higher test scores.
IT IS MORE LIKELY WE WILL REMEMBER THIS WORD BECAUSE WE HAVE TO PAY EXTRA ATTENTION TO READ IT
Another advantage of disfluency in messages is that it encourages us to ignore surface properties and focus on deeper meaning. This leads to the formation of abstract thoughts. Typically, when we process a stimulus, we have the capacity to represent it concretely or abstractly. For example, we might perceive Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as having 7 parts, 19 chapters, and 806 pages, or we might think of it in an abstract way as a tragic exploration of a married woman’s passion for a younger man. Researchers contend that when we find it difficult to process stimuli, they seem farther away in space and time, and because of this fuzziness, we focus more on their global, abstract properties than their concrete features. The abstract properties invite us to process the message more deeply, and this contributes to recall.
Disfluency deepens information processing.
Should an entire message be filled with disfluency? Definitely not. Just like any other hardship, disfluency has physical consequences if sustained. It reduces cognitive resources over time. Use it sparingly. A burst of disfluency, when attention is likely to fade, is especially effective.
I remember a CEO from a technology company telling me that he would like his audience at the company’s annual user conference to remember the sentence “Create a culture of transparency.” While the syntax was simple, the words were not distinct enough, making the statement trite and predictable and giving the audience members the feeling they had seen it somewhere else before. Eyes and ears would brush right over it. If you Google “create a culture of transparency,” you get about 90 million hits. He modified the statement to “Use technology to speak your mind.” The syntax was still simple, but the dissonance created by an unexpected phrase (“speak your mind”) combined with “technology” commanded extra attention in a corporate context.
Disfluency demands extra attention. And simple syntax makes a message memorable because it is encoded in procedural memory. Together, they make your message impossible to ignore.
There are many paradoxes in the remembering process, one of which stems from the tension of going back to what happened in the past and trying to fit that into what the self requires in the present. From this angle, memory is adaptive. It helps us to survive another day.
Sometimes memory is random. You go about your day and suddenly something pops into your head, such as that week you had a fever or the lyrics to “Love Shack.” Other times you retrieve what you need to complete a task, contribute to a conversation, emphasize a point, or bond with someone. From this angle, memory is motivated.
As we aspire to create repeatable messages, we must ask: What are some motivations that prompt the repetition of those messages? Sometimes we remember things and repeat them to please ourselves; other times we remember things and repeat them to please others. Let’s look at internal motivations first.
Some scientists believe that memory is a database of the self. For this discussion, let’s consider the self to represent a set of active goals and corresponding self-images. We retrieve from memory what fits coherently within our current goals, beliefs, and self-images. We self-regulate memories to give us stability. Research confirms that a coherent match between memories and the current self leads to high self-esteem and a sense of well-being. However, some scientists argue that from an evolutionary perspective, a memory system that does not keep close track of accurate experiences is not a memory system that survives. Hence, there are the contradictory demands and tension between retaining as many accurate realities as are experienced while, at the same time, satisfying a coherent self that is constantly evolving.
I once worked with the CEO of an e-commerce company to create a keynote about how top global corporations are restoring classic customer satisfaction. In this presentation, we balanced the need for maintaining coherence with the “self,” meaning the need for any company to offer outstanding customer satisfaction, and figuring out how to do so in constantly evolving venues, such as online spaces, which can be impersonal. With this approach, we combined the adaptive and motivated nature of memory: give people a message that fits within existing schemas while teaching them how to evolve.
Most business content can be considered a reflection of what researchers call adaptive coherence, meaning that we retain from our experiences only that which optimizes survival. This is why, sometimes, remembering the gist of things is sufficient. You may remember a vacation from years ago or a time when you were sick without being able to recall the details. Your memory has reduced those experiences to a few conceptual tracks that ensure survival, such as “avoid Arizona in the summer” or “don’t skip breakfast.” Your brain achieves a trade-off between coherence and accuracy. Coherence is linked to long-term memory, while accuracy is often short term. Even though you go through your day experiencing a lot of things, many memories are forgotten unless they are integrated with a long-term goal needed for coherence.
Most repeatable messages are not concerned with petty goals, such as “Did I lock the house?” They point to long-term goals, such as health, beauty, and safety. A diamond is not just for an afternoon; a diamond is forever. If you want to create repeatable messages, tie them to your audience’s long-term goals.
Most short-term memories are fated to be forgotten unless they are tied to long-term goals.
STAY CONSISTENT WITH A DESIRED SELF
Scientific research finds that we often rely on what we remember to realize a desired self. Do a quick test. Let’s say you want to perceive yourself as successful. Can you come up with four instances in the past year in which you were successful? Was this process of remembering easy for you? Numerous studies show that when subjects are told that specific traits lead to success (e.g., introversion or extroversion), they tend to recall more easily memories that exemplify how they possess those exact traits. Memories consistent with a desired self become more easily accessible, and the process of remembering is also perceived as easier.
Repeatable messages are aspirational.
Consider these slogans for a moment: Harley-Davidson’s “American by birth. Rebel by choice.” Or Visa’s “It’s everywhere you want to be.” Or PlayStation’s “Live in your world. Play in ours.” Or Adidas’s “Impossible is nothing.” Or Marks & Spencer’s “The customer is always and completely right!” Or Walmart’s “Save money. Live better.” These messages respond to people’s aspirations, to the materialization of a desired self. As a result, they are highly repeatable messages.
Research also demonstrates that the types of memories that support a desired self are general, not specific. For example, when extroverted subjects in a study are made to believe that introversion leads to success, they recall general memories that substantiate their introverted personality (e.g., “I have often blushed when speaking in public”). The generality of the statement substantiates the trait. This explains why slogans such as “Just do it” or “Think different” or “Don’t leave home without it” have such repeatable genius: they apply to all who aspire to many different goals in many different contexts. The generic quality also makes them portable.
Memory that reinforces a desired self thrives on generic statements.
When people repeat messages that support a desired self, those messages become mantras, often used for meditation or as inspiring guiding principles: “Make it happen,” “Fortune favors the bold,” “Look for the second right answer.” For a while, I was so into the Insanity workouts by fitness trainer Shaun Thompson (or Shaun T), that I started telling myself to “dig deeper,” which is his mantra. MRI studies show that mantras are like medicine. Those who meditate and use mantras display significant gray matter density growth in areas of the brain involved in memory, empathy, sense of self, and emotional regulation.
How do you create a good mantra for your listeners? Start where they are, not where you are. Listen to their vocabulary, to their way of talking. People often say the same things over and over without realizing it. Build a mantra based on what your audiences are already saying. It will make it easier to remember because those words already roll off their tongues easily.
SOCIAL DESIRABILITY (OR “What WILL THE NEIGHBORS THINK?”)
Do you ever repeat something just because it makes you look good in front of others? Your audience is no different. My parents always wanted me to get good grades for many reasons, chief of which was that they hated telling the neighbors otherwise.
A message often becomes repeatable if it confers status.
Harley-Davidson understands status. You don’t buy a Harley to keep it hidden; you buy it to show it off and bond with others. This is why people pay $20,000+ for a Harley even though they could buy another motorcycle for half the price from another manufacturer. The company realized early on that it is not in the business of products; it is in the business of human behavior. One of its main selling points is “me in front of others.” To make others repeat something relentlessly, you have to answer: How does your content make people look in front of others?
Which of the two messages below is more likely to be repeated after you talk to a group of people?
“Fulfillment Services Overview”
“How a burnt-out company doubled its customers with a new e-commerce tool”
The second example works better because it places the speaker in a storytelling position, and most people would rather come across as storytellers than mere distributors of data. If our audiences are likely to repeat messages to look good in front of others, it is useful to keep track of other people’s desires, beliefs, and intentions. But how do we know what others find desirable?
Several previous chapters include information about people’s motivations and drivers. Here is another angle. One source we use to analyze others’ thinking and what they may find desirable is ourselves. Scientists are finding correlations between memories about ourselves (autobiographical memory) and our understanding about how others think (theory of mind). This type of social projection has been demonstrated in identifying others’ moods, their motivational states, and the ease or difficulty of solving a task.
We tend to use self-knowledge more when we perceive others as similar to us. In this type of situation, if you want to create repeatable messages for an audience similar to you, reflect on what you are likely to repeat when you like to look good in front of others. For example, when Ken Schmidt, former director of communication for Harley-Davidson, speaks to other communication professionals, he generates buzz because those people are like him or want to become him. In many of his speeches, he is known for saying, “Customers who like us forgive us when we screw up.” It is easy for his listeners to repeat this because they have found themselves in similar situations with their own customers and they easily relate to Schmidt.
When you’re speaking to listeners who are different from you, developing repeatable messages is not as easy as self-reflection. When you perceive others to be different or you’re speaking to mixed groups, you have to ask a different question: Are there universally accepted values that most people like to speak about because it will make them look good in front of others without fail? The most robust theory of basic human values has endured for almost five decades and contains the following values: achievement, hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, concern with nature, social concern, benevolence, conformity, personal security, and group security. Research based on 200 samples in more than 60 countries from every inhabited continent shows that these values are recognized across cultures. The values refer to openness to change, self-transcendence, conservation, and self-enhancement. As was the case with the human needs presented in Chapter 4, some are in conflict with each other, such as self-direction versus conformity. So when creating messages with repeatable value for mixed audiences, check to see if they match with at least one of the values from this universal set. To resolve conflict between values, zoom in on one that is a priority in the context you’re addressing. For example, at a specific moment, conformity may be more important than self-direction.
Ultimately, getting our audience to repeat our words is not only about looking good in front of others; it is also about connection. Budweiser is expert at creating repeatable messages that emphasize connection. Check out its collection of ads that feature a yellow Labrador puppy. In one instance, we see the pup striking up a relationship with a Clydesdale. In another, the pooch loses his way and is rescued by his horse friends. And in another, we see the puppy waiting for his owner, who went to a party. “Next time you go out, be sure to make a plan to get home safely,” the caption reads. “Your friends are counting on you. Enjoy Budweiser responsibly.” Repeatable messages appeal to universal values and have the power to bind us. They enable stronger relationships, trust, and the opportunity for us to be best buds.
KEEP IN MIND
Criteria for repeatable messages:
✵ Simple syntax
✵ Tied to long-term goals
✵ Generic (no articulate prepositions or definite articles)
✵ Appeal to self-interest (make us look good to ourselves)
✵ Social currency (make us look good to others)