Episode 430: Simply Put. Why Clear Messages WIN and How to Design Them

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, Ben Guttmann teaches us the secrets behind clear messaging and how to become better communicators. Throughout this episode, the author of “Simply Put,” shares the five principles of becoming a clear communicator, his experiences building, running, and then selling his award-winning marketing agency, and practical tips you can start doing today to improve your communication skills. Ben also teaches how to close the gap between simple and complex messaging, marketing, and sales strategies, explains the importance of embracing constraints to improve creativity and innovation, and more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best Podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. Welcome to the Becoming Your Best Podcast show. We are so honored to have you with us. This is going to be a fun discussion that we have today. Our wonderful guest is a marketing and communications expert and author of “Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them.” He is an experienced marketing executive and educator on a mission to get leaders to more effectively connect by simplifying their message. So, welcome, Benn Guttmann.

Benn Guttmann: Thanks for having me, Steve. It’s great to be here.

Steve Shallenberger: We’re going to have a wonderful discussion today. I’m looking forward to it. Benn is a former co-founder and managing partner at Digital Natives Group, an award-winning agency that worked with the NFL, I Love New York, Comcast, NBC Universal, Hachette Book Group, The Nature Conservatory, and many other major clients. Currently, Benn teaches digital marketing at Baruch College in New York City and consults with a range of thought leaders, venture-backed startups, and other brands. Benn, thanks for joining us today.

Benn Guttmann: Thanks again; this is going to be a great conversation.

Steve Shallenberger: It will. Benn, let’s just kick it off. Tell us about your background, including any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you.

Benn Guttmann: You hit a few of the pieces there in the intro. So, I started a marketing agency pretty much right out of college, actually. When I was at Baruch College as a student, I was the big Student Government dork. I was the president; I was heads down doing all that stuff. But I didn’t really do a lot of the internships in formal marketing that I was really supposed to. Fortunately, I had a professor who ran a marketing agency. He said, “Hey, I know you kind of want to start your own thing; maybe we can figure something out.” So, from that conversation, one thing led to another, and we ended up setting up shop in their basement. We slapped their logo on the wall, piled into my ’94 Honda Accord, and drove out of the city to their suburban office. One thing led to another, and we were in their basement for about a year. Eventually, we were too much like knuckleheads to really know what we were doing. So, while they were working with Fortune 500 clients, we were cutting our teeth with the local ice cream shop, the local camera shop, and those types of things. Eventually, we ended up moving to an office here in Queens, in New York City. We hired our first employees, moved to a bigger office, and eventually started working with some of those great clients we talked about, and 10 years later, we look back and say, “This is what a great portfolio of work, what a great experience. But do you want to do the same thing for the next 10 years?” So, you start to look around for different opportunities. Fortunately, we had a really great option to be able to find some partners to sell the agency. That was about two years ago. I’ve since transitioned out of it, but it was such a wonderful experience. I tell my students now, “Go start your own thing right away because it’s so much fun. If it works, awesome. If it doesn’t work, even if it fails, it’s still going to be a great story for your resume, for your biography, to be able to do that type of thing.”

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s a great background. Are you having fun, Benn?

Benn Guttmann: Oh, yeah. In the last two years, I’ve been doing all sorts of independent consulting, I’ve been able to write my book, I’ve been able to teach, I’ve been able to serve on different nonprofit boards, and I’ve really enjoyed after 10 years of doing one thing really intentionally being able to have this more of a portfolio view of things before I dive into that next piece.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’m excited to just talk about what you’ve done. Our listeners, I know, are going to be interested because communication and messaging are so important in every part of our lives — with our children, grandchildren, relationships, customers, clients, and employees. Is that the range of messaging you talk about in the book?

Benn Guttmann: Yes. My book, “Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them,” would live on a marketing shelf. If you go to Barnes and Noble, that’s where you’re going to find it. It’s blurbed by people who run marketing agencies rather than marketing books. It is informed by a lot of the experience I had running a marketing agency, but it is not just for people in marketing. It’s for anybody who has to, at some point, communicate, inform, and persuade. I argue that you are a marketer if you have to do those types of things. This is a toolkit that will make you more effective at all of them. It’s almost like, how do I open the little box of secrets from marketing and be able to use that to help you be better at being a parent, a faith leader, an advocate, an entrepreneur, whatever it is, that’s what we’re looking for.

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for that preface. That’s helpful. Why do so many of us struggle with communicating effectively?

Benn Guttmann: What it comes down to, if you strip away all the other pieces of this and you look into what communication is, we have a sender and a receiver. We’re both of them all the time, and we swap those hats. Senders are advertisers, teachers, parents, faith leaders, advocates, whatever; receivers are buyers, voters, donors, and everybody on the other end, people we want to communicate with. The problem is, when we are receivers, we want things one way, and when we’re senders, we have a really hard time getting to that point. So, when we’re receivers, we want something known as fluency. We know the word fluency. You can be fluent in English, Spanish, or Mandarin. You can be fluent in wine. You can be fluent in chess. Where things are easy, things are fluent. That comes from the Latin root for the word flowing, actually. So, that’s kind of what it feels like.

Benn Guttmann: If you ask a cognitive scientist about the word fluency, they’re going to say, “That describes how easy it is for you to take something from out in the world, stick it in your head, and make sense of it.” The easier it is to do that, the less kind of mental load there is to hear something, see something, process it, and make use of it. Well, we like it more, we trust it more, and we buy it more. All the things that we want more in the position of communicating. The opposite is also true. If something takes a lot of work, if something’s really hard to understand, our brain has to go through a lot of mental cycles to get to it. Well, we don’t like it, we don’t trust it, and we don’t buy it. All the things that we don’t want to happen when we’re in the position of sending. So, that’s what we want as a receiver. But as a sender, we’re pulled in the opposite direction. We’re pulled towards complicated. We want to produce things that are inner problems and outer problems; they are both pushing us in that direction. Inside of us, we have this additive bias or complexity bias; we’re more likely to add than we are to subtract. Outwardly, we’re forced by the demands of the marketplace, by the demands of the media cycle, by the demands of our boss to add and to make things harder and harder. That is the gap. That’s what we’re trying to solve when we’re looking at designing for simple messages.

Steve Shallenberger: Benn, from your experience, how can we bridge the gap? In other words, you have this tendency to want to pack everything you can into the message, and the receiver has a need to just get it pure and simple. How do you bridge that gap?

Benn Guttmann: That’s what we try to address in the second half of the book. In the first half, we talk about what the problem is and what we need in the solution. The second half is about how do we get there. When we look at the problem, my background is in design; I put on the designer’s hat; a designer arranges things in the world to solve a problem. That’s what we can do when we’re looking at the shape of our messages. I’ve identified, through science and business and history, five different design principles that we can use to be better at communicating our message simply, to be better at bringing the sender all the way to where the receiver needs them to be. The first one is beneficial: What does it matter to the receiver? What’s in it for them? The second one is focused: Are you trying to say one thing or multiple things at once? The third one is salient: Does your message stand out from the noise? Does it rise to your attention? The fourth is empathetic: Are you speaking in a language that the audience understands? Are you meeting them where they are in terms of language, but also motivations and emotions? Lastly, it’s minimal: Is it everything you need, but only what you need? Have you cut out the stuff that isn’t necessary? This isn’t a step-by-step plan, and it isn’t kind of a rubric. But these design principles, the more we can activate upon them, the better we can be at getting to where the receiver wants us to be.

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for outlining those. Those are good steps and a little checklist to go through and say, “Okay, we’re crossing the bridge here. Am I doing better?” As you think about this, one of the first words you said was beneficial. Throughout my experience, we always hear about what’s the difference between benefits and features? I’m still confused. Now, tell us why the difference is and why is it so important that we do the right thing. What should the focus be?

Benn Guttmann: You hit upon the big difference there. We buy benefits; we don’t buy features. This is like Sales 101 stuff. This is Marketing 101. If you’ve ever worked in a sales capacity, whether that’s on the big box store showroom floor, if you’ve been a telemarketer, or if you’ve done door-to-door sales, you will learn this: people buy the benefits; they don’t buy the features. They buy how their life is different and better because of the product. They don’t care about the product really; they care about the problem it solves for them. What does this mean in practice? There’s a sentence that I tell my students every semester, and it’s not from me; it’s from Theodore Levitt, who taught at Harvard in the 20th century. I tell them, if you remember only this from this class, the only this thing from your entire degree, you’re going to be better off than almost everybody else in business and marketing. It goes, “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole.” People don’t want a quarter-inch drill; they want a quarter-inch hole. They don’t want a thing; they want the thing that it does for them. We forget this so much in our marketing, in our messaging, because we see the features, we smell the features, we taste the features, we touch them. When you crack open your five senses, the features are there; they’re very tangible, but the benefits are more abstract, and they’re a little bit further down the line. The way in which we can get to them is by asking a very simple question, “So what?” So, let’s talk about toothpaste, for instance. I love this example. If you look at toothpaste, they all have mint flavor. The mint flavor is the feature. That is something you can smell, that you can taste. But do you really want mint flavor? So, you say, “Well, this toothpaste has mint flavor. So what?” Well, that means that you’re going to have fresh breath. Okay, that starts to get a little bit closer to why we’re actually buying the toothpaste. I’ll call that the first level, the functional benefit of things.

Benn Guttmann: But then we have to ask it again, and that’s where the real magic starts to happen: “Well, fresh breath. So what?” Okay, well, I don’t actually want mint flavor. I don’t actually want fresh breath. What I want is to have a more successful date tonight; I want to make a good impression. Okay, now we’re getting a little bit closer to it. But if you ask it a third time, then you start to get to the bedrock, you get to the point where it’s subconscious about what’s motivating us to say, “Well, why do I want to have a better date tonight?” Well, it’s because I want love and belonging. One of our physiological needs. Instead of looking at the five senses, you can look at Maslow’s five needs. We’ve all seen these in a million textbooks and management presentations before. But these fundamental needs drive a lot of our decision-making. We can ladder from something as trivial as mint flavor in a toothpaste all the way down to these fundamental driving needs. Once we’re standing on terra firma there, we can turn around and look and say, “Okay, let’s communicate in the opposite direction, let’s invest proportionally in each one of these levels of benefits, and then eventually the features.” And that will orient our message in a way that is going to be more effective and more in line with how our receiver needs to hear it.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a good answer, thank you. I like this. A very good, clear, and succinct answer. The second thing you talked about was the benefits. The next one is focus. So, tell us a bit more about focus. How can we use this concept to better connect with our audience?

Benn Guttmann: I’ll go back to my classroom again for another example. I ask my students every semester. I give them a brand and say, “Get into teams, give us a proposal for this brand, a pitch.” I bring in some professionals; we give them grades at the end of it. But what happens every single semester, no matter how much I warn them about this, is the same problem that I see in boardrooms, the same problem that I see in any group, is the Frankenstein idea. What does that mean? If you read Mary Shelley’s original description of Frankenstein’s monster, she describes how each individual piece was selected to be beautiful: lustrous black hair, pearly whites, and big broad shoulders. Each one of these things was individually selected for how great it was. But when you put them together, it was this horrid contrast; it was worse than the sum of its parts. That’s true for monsters, and it’s true for messages and a lot of marketing that comes from it. You can look at these student groups, and you see, because they’re inherently flat, somebody throws out this hashtag, somebody throws out that one, somebody mentions this influencer, somebody adds some NFTs and drones and AI, and all of a sudden, it’s this hideous monster, where there may have been many great things in there. But because you didn’t embrace one of them and give it the proper hierarchy, the proper level of importance, everything kind of falls apart at that point. That happens in marketing, it happens in executive leadership, it happens in politics, it happens all over the place. So, it’s very important for us to understand that when we’re messaging multiple things, it is a little bit of a zero-sum game; we only have 100% of our attention. If we’re trying to say three things at once, all of a sudden, we’re slicing and dicing that too thin to be able to get any of those things to land.

Steve Shallenberger: Let’s just take this in a slightly different direction because, from time to time, we feel like we have constraints, maybe even not all the skills we need to get to the end. What’s the benefit of embracing our constraints and realizing what they are in our work?

Benn Guttmann: I’m glad you brought that up. That is what I argue is the secret to this next piece, which is salience. How is it different? How does this rise above the noise? All of us hear 13,000 bajillion emails, messages, and notifications a day. So, how do we, in that noise, stand out and get that little tiny crack of attention that we need? I argue that constraints are the way in which we can best achieve that. Constraints mean I’m not able to do things. Well, what that really does is it puts this forcing pressure on your work, on your output, that others don’t have. It pushes you in a slightly different direction in order to get different outcomes. If you play by different rules, that’s going to get you a lot closer to them. So, the power of embracing constraints is something that’s a little bit counterintuitive, but it’s something that some of the best creatives in history have known. Anyone who’s been under the gun, under pressure, and got their big, brilliant idea, they’ll see that as something that’s true.

Steve Shallenberger: What’s your recommendation, from your experience, of how you can deal with constraints?

Benn Guttmann: Well, I would say love them. Constraints can come in terms of upper bounds or lower bounds, too. This is an interesting piece. Most people, when they talk about constraints, assume that means “I can’t do this.” That can be true, but what’s also true is a constraint can be “I must do this.” Let’s say we’re doing a tagline for a new product. Maybe your instinct is to just write down five of them, or ten of them, and maybe select from there, maybe noodle on it a bit. But what if you said, “I can’t make any selections until I write 100 of them.” When you’re writing 100 of them, you get through the easy ones; you get through the obvious ones. And then, eventually, you’re into this weird and uncharted territory. That’s where you start to find things that you wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise. So, the forcing mechanism can work in either direction.

Steve Shallenberger: I like that impetus and taking action on innovation and just pushing through it. It was Edison who said, “Innovation is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.” You’ve got to work at it. I’ll go back and look that one up! That’s for sure. So, what are a couple of tools that our listeners can immediately put to use to become simpler communicators?

Benn Guttmann: There are several different principles I went through, and I have identified a number of different tools for each. A few that I like to share because they end up being useful for a lot of people very quickly. Number one is about auditing the word “and.” Often, that means replacing it with the word “so.” That’s the best test. The problem with the word “and” is that it can tie together a lot of different ideas—talk about focus—and make them sound like they make sense together. But they don’t necessarily flow from one to another. You can say, “We are the fastest company, and we have the best customer service, and we offer the best value.” But you’re saying three different things, actually; you’re not really messaging one thing. Am I buying you because you’re the fastest, because you’re the nicest, or because you’re the cheapest? I’m not actually sure about that. But if you replace these, even in the test of your writing, the word “so” implies causation, which implies that one thing flows from the other one. That word will make things shoot up in your brain, saying, “Wait a second, that actually doesn’t make sense.” It doesn’t make sense that if we’re cheap, fast, and have great customer service so you get a better deal. It doesn’t actually connect “fast” to “better deal.” These types of things are a good audit tool. So, that’s number one.

Benn Guttmann: The second one that I’ll recommend, that everybody can use for pretty much everything actually, is to speak to one person. You can’t speak to a crowd because a crowd doesn’t really exist. A crowd is a bunch of individual people. Even if you’re advertising on the Super Bowl to 100 million people, you’re advertising to 100 million individual people, not 100 million people as a Leviathan collective. Every time we’ve ever made a decision on something, heard a message, and internalized it, it was from one sender to one receiver. When we shift our mindset, the place where we’re speaking from, as if we’re speaking to one person, it changes subconsciously so many things about how we communicate. It will immediately make us more personable and more authentic in our message. Do you know who’s the best in the world at this, by the way, right now? It’s Taylor Swift. I don’t know if you saw her concert, or her music video, or movie or anything else she’s done recently. But I appreciate her. My wife’s a huge fan. She performs this magic trick, which is that on a stage, in front of 70,000 people, and on a screen in front of millions more separated by time and space, she makes you feel like everything she’s saying is just to you. Every single piece of banter, every lyric even, is just to you. Famously, Bill Clinton was also very good at this. So, a number of the best communicators that a lot of us hold up as the model for this type of thing. This is the trick: that you speak to one person and not a crowd.

Steve Shallenberger: Can you give us an example of auditing the “and” and “so”? What would be an example?

Benn Guttmann: Let’s say you’re trying to write a memo about your coffee shop, and you want to encourage some repeat purchases. You might say, “We’re going to make a custom mug program and increase our repeat purchases.” Well, that sounds like a fine sentence; it’s not going to flag anything in spellcheck. It’s not going to make your brain say, “Stop, wait a second.” But if you say, “We’re going to make a collectible mug program, so it will increase repeat purchases,” well, you realize that the tactic might not actually tie into that strategy, and that cause may not tie into that effect. So, what would be a tactic that might make more sense? Maybe something like a loyalty program, or a points app, something like that, which will say, “Okay, we’re going to build a loyalty points app, so we can encourage repeat purchases.” Well, that’s all of a sudden a more cohesive and singular thought instead of two different ones kind of duct-taped together.

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for the example. Before we got going, for our listeners, Benn and I were talking about how far communicating reaches. You gave a number of examples, Ben. Do you want to give some of the examples that are in this range that we should all be concerned about, that we can apply these very same principles to?

Benn Guttmann: Before we hit record, you and I were talking about one little regret I have about this book. At the beginning of it, I leaned a little bit more into the world of advertising and taglines and slogans. That was intentional, because it was a world I was obviously familiar with, but also, it’s something that is kind of the highest stakes in communication. We’re spending millions of dollars a lot of times to push those messages out. But most of us aren’t doing that most of the time. Most of us are sending emails or proposals, updating texts on our website, writing a memo, asking somebody out on a date, or trying to teach a class. Maybe we are trying to get our local city council member to install a stop sign. All of these different types of venues are places where we communicate all the time, and being more effective in terms of our ability to inform and persuade is going to make us more effective in basically everything else that we ever do.

Steve Shallenberger: We’re at the end of our interview. It goes so fast. I’m always shocked by that. Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today on this amazing subject?

Benn Guttmann: This has been a ton of fun, Steve. The one thing that I’ll just leave folks with, if you don’t remember anything else about this book or this message, is that just as if you were sending a letter and had to pay for the postage, when you are the sender of a message, it’s your responsibility to pay the metaphorical and literal cost of that message. All the receivers woke up today perfectly fine. We didn’t need your new ad about shampoo. We cared about our vacation coming up, our family, and the weather report. We didn’t care about the new type of mixed-in conditioner or whatever the heck you’re doing. Nobody woke up saying, “You know what’s on my to-do list today? I want to click some Instagram ads and I want to open some spam emails.” Everything that anybody has ever had has been against their will. So, it’s important to be humble and to understand that it’s our responsibility as senders to make sure that we’re getting our point across. Simplicity is the way in which we can respect that.

Steve Shallenberger: Benn, a great show today. Great advice. I appreciate the stimulating thoughts. I, for one, am excited to go through your book. How can people find out about what you’re doing, Benn?

Benn Guttmann: I appreciate that. Thanks, Steve. If anybody wants to find out more information, you can find everything about me at If you go to, you’ll find a free chapter download. You’ll also find links to buy the book. You’ll find a newsletter that I send out every Tuesday, also totally free. I recommend signing up for that. Feel free if there’s anything I can do to help you. If you have a question about something, shoot me an email, or connect on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to hear from you.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you. It’s been wonderful having you as part of the show, and we certainly wish you the best in all the work that you’re doing.

Benn Guttmann: Thanks so much, Steve.

Steve Shallenberger: For our listeners, thank you for joining us today. We wish you all the best as you make a difference in the world. Never forget that you’re influencing people every single day as we work on becoming our best, improving our skills, abilities, and mindset, and creating new ideas of what we’re capable of doing. So, it’s been a thrill to have you here. This is Steve Shallenberger with Becoming Your Best Global Leadership, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Ben Guttmann

Principal at Unisphere Ideas

Principal at Unisphere Ideas, Marketing Entrepreneur, Educator, Author

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