Effective Messaging with Ben Guttmann

Reading Time: 17 Minutes

In this episode, my guest is Ben Guttmann a marketing and communications expert and author of Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win — and How to Design Them.

Takeaways We Learned from Ben…

Advice is Autobiographical

All advice is autobiographical. People aren’t giving advice to others; they’re giving advice to themselves in the past. When receiving advice or feedback, understand where someone else is coming from.

Understand Feedback as a Reflection

Reflect on feedback like a deliberate leader. When someone criticizes, consider what ‘team player’ means to them. It’s a reflection of their perspective and needs, not just a critique of your actions.

Listening and Empathy in Leadership

Leadership involves understanding where others are coming from, whether it’s a team member, customer, or client. Practice active listening and approach challenges with empathy to foster effective communication.

Fluency and Communication

In communication, fluency matters. Make your message easy for others to understand and process. Whether in writing, speaking, or design, simplicity enhances likability, trust, and effectiveness.

The Gap between Sender and Receiver

Recognize the gap between how we want to receive messages and how we produce them. As communicators, align your message with what your audience desires – simplicity, clarity, and ease of understanding.

Principles of Simple Communication

Activate the five principles of simple communication: Be beneficial, focused, salient, empathetic, and minimal. Craft messages that matter to the receiver, stand out, and minimize unnecessary friction.

Avoiding Frankenstein Ideas in Marketing

Avoid the ‘Frankenstein’ approach in marketing. Don’t combine unrelated ideas hoping for success. Instead, focus on coherence and clarity. Simplicity in marketing resonates more with your audience.

Website Design for Users

Your website is not for you; it’s for your users. Prioritize clarity over personal preferences. Start with a hook – a compelling message that immediately communicates the benefits users will gain from your site.

Speak to One Person

When communicating, speak to one person, not a crowd. Whether writing emails, creating ads, or giving presentations, direct your message to an individual. This subtle mindset shift enhances connection and engagement.

Visual Design for Easy Comprehension

Apply design principles not just to language but also to visuals. Structure content for easy consumption by breaking it into smaller paragraphs, using headlines, bullet points, and other visual elements. Remember, most communication comes through our eyes.

About Ben Guttman

Ben is an experienced marketing executive and educator on a mission to get leaders to more effectively connect by simplifying their message. Ben is former co-founder and managing partner at Digital Natives Group, an award-winning agency that worked with the NFL, I Love NY, Comcast NBCUniversal, Hachette Book Group, The Nature Conservancy, and other major clients.

Currently, Ben teaches digital marketing at Baruch College in New York City and consults with a range of thought leaders, venture-backed startups, and other brands.

Read the Transcript

Allison: Welcome back to the Deliberate Leaders podcast. I am your host and executive business coach Allison Dunn. Our topic today is breaking through with simplicity. Our guest is Ben Guttman. He is the author of Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. He’s an experienced marketing executive and educator on a mission to get leaders to be more effectively connected by simplifying their message. Ben, thank you so much for joining us here today.

Ben: Thanks for having me. Allison. It’s great to be here.

Allison: My pleasure. I love to kick these off with a deliberate conversation. What would be your number one leadership tip for our listeners today?

Ben: Oh, boy, well, it’s really tempting to, to go kind of dig into the stuff for the book here.

Whenever somebody asks for advice, I always like to say all advice is autobiographical. You know, that’s my favorite piece of meta advice a little bit, people aren’t giving advice to, you know, other people are giving advice to themselves in the past.

So how you can translate that to leadership is that if you are asking for advice, which you should do a lot, is always take that with the appropriate kind of grain of salt, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you just want to understand where somebody else is coming from. Same thing, when a user is complaining about something, when a customer has an issue, when a client, when a client has a challenge, or, or an employee has an issue, always understand where they’re coming from, as part of as part of how you receive that.

Allison: I love that tip. And I just want to dive a little bit deeper into that. So the guidance I give when someone says, I can’t believe that someone told me that I’m not a team player. And I’m like, Well, what does team player mean to them? Like, how was that showing up for them, like kind of a reflection on something that they feel that they’re lacking, or that you’re not providing? And really kind of understanding, like, as you just said, like, we’re always getting feedback of some sort. And when we’re confused by it, to appreciate to like to better understand the giver of the feedback, because it’s really a reflection of them.

Ben: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s on presenter. And if you want to put like a funnier, but like more cynical version of the feedback, Mel Brooks, the famous producer, he had a memoir come out recently. And he had a great bit in there, which is every time he got feedback from the studios, what he would just say is yes, yes, yes. And then he would ignore it. And that’s not what you want to do most of the time in a leadership position. But it also gives you a sense of context. Sometimes people just want to be heard on something, and the outcome is a completely separate piece.

Allison: Yeah, that’s actually that’s not uncommon to hear leaders go yes, yes, yes. And then completely ignore it. So it’s a balance, then. So simplifying our message, what are the biggest mistakes that we make as bad communicators?

Ben: Well, it’s not doing that. We when you look at how we communicate, and this is what my background is in marketing, ran marketing agency for 10 years, I teach marketing. But after I sold my business, there was the time to kind of reflect in on the fundamental question as to why you do why you hire a marketing agency. It is it is Why do some messages work when others don’t? Why does some slogans sell a bajillion products? And others don’t? Why do some political rallying cries work and an elected candidate and others down? Why do some emails work? Why doesn’t presentations work? Why do some websites work? Why do some proposals win? And so all of these kind of boil down to the same issue?

What I found out as I was delving into this topic, was there’s this gulf between how we want to receive messaging and we want to receive communication.

And then, on the other hand, how we actually produce communication, how we send messages, there’s forces that are pulling those two apart. And that’s really what I was looking into as as the genesis of this book.

Allison: Okay, so let’s talk about the forces like what we think we’re communicating and how we do it. So can you give me an example of like, how we don’t do it?

Ben: When I’ll go into the receiver part for a second here. When there’s this word fluency, and we know it right, we can be fluent in English or Spanish or Mandarin being fluent and in cooking or in chess or whatever we can be fluent in. where something is fluid, something’s easy. This comes from the Latin word flowing, basically. So that’s what it feels like once it makes fluent but to a cognitive scientists, when they look at the word fluid say that describes the processing and the perceptual phenomenon of something being easy to take from out in the world. stick into your head and make sense of it, make use of it. And when something is easier to go from outside, inside To make use of, we tend to like it more than to trust it more, we tend to be more likely to buy it all the evidence across 100 different domains, you know, from how you can read fonts to help people, if they’re stuttering of what kind of language is being used, they all point in the same direction to things that are simpler, that are more fluent, that are easier, or associative, the good stuff.

And the things that are harder, that take more stress or mental muscle or sweat, are associated with us not liking them, not buying them and not trusting them, the things that we don’t want, as communicators, that’s, that’s the receiver part of it. But the sender, where the Gulf happens is that when we are the one sending one of the ones right in that email, that proposal, you know, crafting that advertisement, we are incentivized to make things more complicated, where’s that device to add, you actually have what’s known as an additive bias in our brains, where when we’re tasked with improving something, or changing something, we almost always go first, to adding to putting more words into putting more pages on, versus doing the opposite. And that’s internally, but externally, also, all of our structures around us, point us towards, hey, you know what, like, it’s good, I got my photo in the paper, and I can put that extra line on my LinkedIn resume, and I can do all these different things. And so internally and externally, is pushing us here. But as a receiver, as a user of the world, we want things in the other direction.

Allison: Um, I personally relate with what you’re talking about and recognizing on the receiver end, as well as the delivering end. What are the tenants of effective communication as the giver of it? I guess, because that’s the only part we can control, correct?

Ben: Oh, yeah. And actually, I say, the biggest fundamental shift that establishes everything here is when you break out senders and receivers. senders are the advertisers, the employers, the politicians, the advocates, all the and then the other on the other side, donors, voters, buyers, those are the receivers. The sender, just as if you were sending piece of mail is responsible for the literal and figurative costs of the communication, it’s your responsibility to make sure that it is heard that it gets through and that you’re respecting the receiver. So that’s the fundamental piece of him, as he as you were just saying, but going into how do we bridge that gap?

So my background is in design, actually. And I looked at this as the design problem, well, we have something here and we have something there. And we how do we how do we design something that brings us to a lot closer. And I’ve identified five principles of simple communication, simple messaging, that we can activate on for that it’s not a checklist. It’s not a rubric, or a step by step plan, but they’re just designed principles that we can use to help us get there. So 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? Is it noticeable? Is it Zig when everybody else is sagging? Is there contrast? The fourth one is empathetic? Which is are you speaking in a language that the audience understands? Are you meeting them literally where they are in terms of language, but also their emotions, their motivations? And then lastly, it’s minimal? Have you cut out everything that isn’t important and left? What is and when we talk about minimal, we’re not talking about fuse numbers, words, or paragraphs or pages, we’re talking about least amount of friction that make it in sometimes that means more words, but the least amount of friction is what we’re optimizing for.

Allison: How do you do that like, So minimizing friction, I need to I need to I’m a processor on. I understood all the other ones. So explain the friction side.

Ben: Got it. So if your user experience designer, if you’re designing a web page, for an online store, for instance, let’s get away from the words even for a second, you will see this in action every time you’ve added something to your cart. And you see that the other buttons as you go through and enter your address and your credit card information and you confirm the buttons for everything else go away. It makes it very easy for you to get from point A to point B. Because there’s no more off ramps, every bit of you know language that you maybe don’t understand every option to kind of leave and to get distracted by something.

All of that’s pulled away. And the checkout process is very clear and straightforward. And there’s no way unless you exit out of that browser or press the back button to get out of it. And that’s intentional.

We understand that when the when dollars and cents are tied into it like that. But we don’t always understand those are several different pages instead of one page.

Right. And so that’s more in terms of the pages, but it’s less in terms of the friction. So we understand that when the dollars and cents are there, but sometimes we have a harder time doing that when, when we’re thinking in the more slightly more abstract realm of communication.

Allison: Right, great example, with the shopping carts, and like how it does reduce the friction to like, just, it gets you to point A to point B. Okay. Why did we make things so complicated?

Ben: Oh, boy. Well, I mentioned the additive bias before, right that, that is, that’s the biggest internal piece of this. And there’s a great other book, Lady clots from University of Virginia, who wrote a book called subtract, and him and his, and his teammates, did a whole boatload of studies to help validate this, this idea of this additive bias and show it across things, you know, from like, designing a mini golf course to like planning a vacation itinerary to editing an essay to all these different things, we’re doesn’t really matter what the domain is, our first instinct is to add. And by the way, that when you do it, the best way to kind of counteract that is, and to get more focused.

It’s as simple as saying, well, subtraction is an option. Also, just if you change the instructions, in your brainstorm in your, in your editing process, to say that you can also remove, add or remove just the couple of extra words, all of a sudden, the amount of people that will do the removal will jump considerably. And this is because of something else called the availability bias. Basically, if we see something, you know, we are more likely to go use it. If we see, you know, addition is usually is more available, right, we’re able to see things that we can put there, subtraction is invisible. So if we are able to make that option more visible, we’re more likely as the users to take advantage of that.

Allison: And you give me a example of how you’ve used that in marketing, how you use like to add or remove?

Ben: I’ll give you an example of a focus of a challenge. That’s, that’s marketing, but it’s slightly adjacent to it that I think is really important. So I teach at Baruch College of the second school of business. And every semester, I have these students, I have them put together a midterm project that is I give them a brand. I give them a brief and I say go develop a campaign based off this brief and I bring in a couple other professionals and we judge it and this happened like a week ago. So it’s very fresh in my mind. But the the every semester what happens is I get back at least one project. That is what I call the Frankenstein idea. And if you read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster is described as having individually beautiful pieces. You know, we just had Halloween, Reggie said lots of Frankenstein’s walking around in the novel, though, describes it as like lustrous black hair, and pearly white eyes and big muscular shoulders.

All of these things were selected to be beautiful. But when you put them together, it ended up being a gruesome and composite, it was worse than the sum of its parts.

And that happens a lot in marketing, where somebody says, hey, you know what, we’re going to do NF T’s and we’re going to influence her thing. And we’re going to use QR code. And we’re going to do you know, influencer, X, Y, and Z. And every single one of those things could be good, could be a compelling idea. But when you put them all together, you’re fracturing, your attention and your focus. And it’s worse than the sum of its parts. And that happened, even though I give them the warning, you know, since I started giving them the warning. They’ve gotten a lot better about this, starting a number of years ago, but it’s still not perfect, right? Even though I did that I still have one group that came back and had an excellent presentation. However, there was like 18 ideas in a trench coat instead of being said of being one coherent piece.

Allison: Thank you for that. What are some of the guidance that you would give our listeners for developing a practice to simplify our work our messaging our marketing our life?

Ben: Oh, yeah, well, I mean, I would say go check out the book. It’s full of a ton of them, but I’ll give a few away for free on the one one of the things that’s very important, is when you’re speaking, or writing or otherwise, you know, putting a presentation or website or advocate together. Speak to one person not a crowd because quite I don’t really exist, right? When I’m in a crowd, if I’m at a political rally, if I’m watching the Superbowl, I’m still one person, and I’m receiving from one speaker. So every unit, you know, atomic unit of exchange, there is still kind of that one to one, I might be in a crowd there crowd dynamics. But a crowd doesn’t really exist in that way.

You can go and hire a marketing agency, and develop personas and you know, spend a lot of money doing research. And that’s all great. Or you can go to the other end of the extremes. And take out a post it note and draw a little stick figure on it and slap it on the side of your monitor, and say, okay, every email that I write is not going to 100,000 people, it’s going to that person, every, every ad that I produced, every tweet that I write, it’s all going to go to that person, not to somebody else. And that subtle mindset shift will change everything. I haven’t mentioned this a lot recently, are you? Are you Taylor Swift Frank fan?

Allison: Who is not.

Ben: So I appreciate her I’m a fan. My wife is a very big fan, she like flew across the country to go to see her as a whole thing. But we went on, and we saw the the Eras tour, in concert, or in in the movie theater a couple weeks ago. And she is able to pull off something that is this, that is this magic trick in a way that nobody else can really do. The only other people I’ve ever seen do this are a few politicians like Bill Clinton was very good about doing this. Which is she made 70,000 people in that audience feel like she was talking to them individually, every single time she was doing some stage banter, or when every single time she was writing a lyric was to one person. And she also pulled that off over the space and time between when that was recorded and when it goes on a movie screen. So if you if you want to be if you want to be a tiny, tiny fraction of as good of a presence as Taylor’s with speak to one person.

Allison: I kind of taking the idea of speaking to one person and articulating it so that it’s heard by them. How do you add in the visual component to be compelling? Like bringing like the design the visual together with the language? What should we be talking about?

Ben: Design as a function is a business function less so than it is an art function, there can be art involved in it. But it’s not art. It’s not about self expression. It’s about arranging things in the world, to achieve a desired outcome. And some of the best designers in the world, you’ll ask them, they’re going to say, Hey, I’m a little bit of an artist in other things that I do. But the design that I do, that’s work, and that’s business. It’s problem solving. So I try to apply that framework to the language per se, how do we how do we arrange our language and our, our tone, and our attitude and our brand, and our positioning all these things? That’s one piece. But you mentioned the visual component, that’s obviously very important to most communication. And it’s weird to say this on a podcast, which is going to be primarily something that we don’t see with our eyes is going to be some of that’s going to come in through our ears, most communication comes through our eyes, even if it’s not, you know, written even if it is a word, it’s still going to come in, as on a book magazine on a piece of paper on a website on a phone.

So it’s important that we also structure that in a way, which makes it easy, which makes it fluent for somebody to intake. And the way we do that is not by throwing out a wall of words. And this giant paragraph, ah, breaking things up into smaller paragraphs using headlines, bullet points, bold, italics, call on boxes, all these things that make it more visually compelling. Because we don’t actually read when you look at the eye tracking data. And we’ve been doing this for decades. And it’s the same thing. We look at the eye tracking data, that we don’t read a book, when we read a book one way right where we go from the top left to the bottom right, if you’re if you’re reading in English, but we don’t do that on the web, we tend to jump around and we’ll go from the headline to the next headline to the next two bullet point to a call out box. And then sometimes we’ll also scan the page, we’re looking for like a phone number or a price or a name or something like that. And so we have to acknowledge, that’s how we’re going to, to behave when we consume that content. And then we have to design the visual nature of our messaging to fit that.

Allison: Okay, so just applying the tool you’re using to communicate and having it being in the web. I can understanding visually how I would consume that as the person you’re speaking to, which, absolutely, it’s about making it as easy as possible for somebody to comprehend.

Ben: It’s about on, if it’s harder for you to read some texts, because the background is is kind of blurry. And it’s, you know, there’s not enough contrast there, that makes it less fluid, right. And that makes us less likely going to like to buy to trust than if it was easier for us to read. If it’s too small, if it’s if it’s in a typeface that’s difficult to read, all of these things will hurt us in a way. But if you make it very smooth, and you say, Okay, here’s a clearly oriented hierarchy of a headline to a subsection to another lower, lower, you know, h3 headline that makes it much easier for, for us to consume that content.

Allison: In your marketing expertise, is there a Avenue which any, anyone who is in business should look to that tool that they already should already have? And simplify it the most? Which area? Do businesses fail?

Ben: The most add, I guess, oh, boy, um, it’s, that’s a tough one, I would say that the biggest offender is probably a website.

I think that most folks look at a website in completely the wrong way. Because they look at it for themselves. Because they’re there, they might make it their homepage, right. They might see it every single day, their company’s website, but their web and they might, you know, have I want this word, I want this acronym on there. But they fail to realize that your website is not for you, your website is for your customers or for your partners or for whoever your major stakeholders are, it’s not for you.

It actually doesn’t really matter that much what you like about your website, it matters, that it’s conveying what it is that that you want to convey to that group.

And to that end, a lot of folks will, will sometimes have their website, and what’s the, you know, the first thing right front and center, it’s just their name again, or it’s their logo, again, people will find your logo, they will look to the top left corner, the eye tracking studies I mentioned before, all pointing the same direction, which is we want the logo as a user, we want the logo to be in the top left corner of your website, and we want to click on it to bring us home. If you break that pattern, you’re going to add friction and you’re going to make it more difficult to get the user where you want them to go. You don’t need to put the logo, front and center, what you want to put front and center is some sort of hook some sort of small piece of language that is going to immediately convey to your user that they’re on the right that they’re in the right place.

Alright, and I’d mentioned benefits before, that’s really where it starts to come in, what’s in it for them. You know, it’s not about the thing, it’s about what the thing does for them, not a feature of benefit. That’s what I want to see right at the beginning. And I think that is a something that’s very challenging for a lot of businesses to get there. Because it you have to kind of step out of your own experience in order to really knock it out of the park.

Allison: I have a copy of your book, you have some really incredible, very helpful guidance, and I would encourage our listeners to pick it up. Where is the best place for them to find it? Oh, yeah, thank you. Amazon, right?

Ben: It’s on Amazon and Barnes Noble. It’s wherever books are sold. If you go to my website, Ben guttman.com, two T’s and two n’s and Guttmann. You can find a free chapter you can check it out there to before you get started. But I also send out an email on a weekly basis. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, all these great things. I hope that it can be useful to a lot of folks out there who have great things are working on. And please send me a note whenever you do buy it and read it and enjoy it. I really love to hear from you.

Allison: Then thank you very much for your time today and your guidance on simplifying our messaging.

Ben: It’s been it’s been a blast. Thanks so much for having me.

I'm Allison Dunn,

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