Great communicators throughout
history have intuitively grasped how to do this. In fact, we can
illustrate the Four Cs of crafting powerful messages with just one
passage from a master orator: Britain’s wartime prime minister
Here’s a paragraph from Churchill’s famous speech delivered on
4 June 1940. At this time, many countries had been defeated by
Germany, and Britain had suffered major military losses. Indeed,
by some accounts, only half the British people expected their
country to continue the war. The rest were resigned to defeat.
Churchill’s speech rallied the nation:
…Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and
famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the
Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall
not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in
France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight
with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we
shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall
fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in
the hills; we shall never surrender…
Even if you are reading these words for the first time, you can
doubtless sense the power in them. The speech was turned into
placards and posted in homes and offices throughout the nation.
Now let’s examine how this one paragraph encapsulates our four
key characteristics of a good meme:
Get to the core of your message using simple, easy-to-grasp
words and short sentences.
Churchill’s message of resolve was conveyed perfectly in the
short phrases that make up the key sentence of the speech.
Delivered aloud, each phrase would sound like a separate
"We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender… "
Although the speech as a whole has a reading comprehension
level suitable for a university student, the core message has a
reading level that a 10-year-old could easily understand.
One of our favorite examples of the effect of needlessly long
sentences and words comes from the UK’s Plain English
Before: “High-quality learning environments are a necessary
precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing
After: “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”
This is not to say that ideas must be oversimplified. Simplicity eases
comprehension, which makes for better memes. We get the
meaning of short, familiar words quickly. Extenuated anomalous
verbiage necessitates additional assiduousness. You get the
point: longer, less familiar words force our brains to shift gears,
slow down and work harder to process the meaning of each
combination of letters.
The same holds true with sentences. When we hear or read a
sentence, we have to hold all the words in our head until the end
in order to make meaning of the sentence.
Finally, don’t try to explain everything in your message.
Use strong, concrete words one can visualize. Avoid jargon,
technical terms, acronyms and abstract language. A good
communicator has to express concepts in concrete language
rather than jargon, so the audience can literally “see” what the
specialist is talking about.
We say, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” When we speak
in concrete language, the image of what we are describing
springs to life in the listener’s mind. Why is this so? Most people are
familiar with right-brain/left-brain theory. You doubtless know
that the brain’s left hemisphere processes words, numbers and
abstractions while the right hemisphere processes images, emotions, special relationships and a holistic sense of things. Also, the images created in the
right brain tend to leave an imprint that lasts longer and is more
easily recalled than a vague, abstract idea.
Your listeners must be
inspired to care. Relevance is crucial to getting an audience to
pay attention, remember, and desire to spread an idea. Our example from Churchill seems like an easy
one when it comes to relevance – of course his audience cared.
The Nazis were bombing them and there was the very real possibility of Britain being invaded. Even so, historians have written
that many people felt this was not their war, but a war of “the
high-up people who use long words and have different
feelings.”. By describing fighting taking place in Britain’s
beaches, fields, streets and hills, Churchill literally brought home
to his audience what was at stake for them. It’s also important to
note how powerfully Churchill uses “We shall” to create the
sense of intention shared by all Britons.
To discern how to best connect with your audience, think about
• Why should the audience care about your message?
• How does it affect your audience’s lives?
• Does this message appeal to their interests, especially higher values such as: national identity, concern for their children, collective future?
• If your audience is not directly involved, are others affected? Why would your audience care about these others?
• What power does this audience have to affect the outcome?
(Are we all in this together?)
A meme-like message is made to stick, and our language is filled
with lots of tricks that make words memorable. We also have sound processing parts of the brain that respond to alliteration,
repetition or rhyme. These turns of phrase add a special kind of
ring to our language. Have you ever heard a short burst of a
once-popular song, a song you hadn’t heard in decades, and
suddenly you found yourself singing along with the lyrics? Simple literary devices like rhyming and rhythm help us tune in
and retain the words. The “ring” makes them resonate. This is
evident in the power of Churchill’s speech, where he repeats the
refrain “We shall fight” over and over again.
Here’s a practical methodology you can use whenever you want
to turn your message into a meme:
1. Write down your main message.
2. Underline jargon / abstract concepts.
3. Replace those concepts with concrete language.
4. Make it relevant to your target audience.
5. Delete what is not essential.
6. Break it into short sentences.
7. Make it memorable with catchy words and phrases.
In sum, you can use the Four Cs – Concise, Concrete, Connected
and Catchy – to make your messages easy to grasp, easy to
repeat, and make your listeners want to pass your ideas on to
others; in short, to turn your messages into powerful memes.
The Master Communicator's Handbook is for people who want to change the world. Here’s the challenge: it’s impossible to change the world all by yourself. To have an impact, you need to communicate. In these pages, we share with you what we’ve learned over 30 years as professional communicators and advisors to leaders of global organizations. We seek to move each client from competence to excellence. As authors, our goal is to give you the tools you need to become the most effective and powerful communicator you can be. We want you to become a catalyst for transformation. We want you to discover that you have the potential to change the world.
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