In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interviewed Ben Guttmann, a marketing and communications expert, professor, and 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 more effectively connect by simplifying their message.
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.
From the design of his book cover to the clear title, Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win―and How to Design Them, Ben highlights the importance of simplicity. He talks about concepts like fluency and discusses how the things we perceive as easy often bring about positive reactions. Ben and I explored the five key principles of simple messaging: being beneficial, focused, salient, empathetic, and minimal. Understanding these principles can significantly impact the way you market your business.
Questions I ask Ben Guttmann:
- [01:32] What was the thought process that went into trying to make the book cover as simple as possible?
- [04:56] Why do clear marketing messages win?
- [06:30] Do you find it is actually harder to be simple?
- [10:48] Is simplicity a technique that people can actually use in some ways to mislead?
- [12:05] What are some examples of great messages and why?
- [14:03] What are the five principles of how to create simple and effective marketing messages?
- [15:33] How do you show empathy in your marketing message?
- [19:10] How can people connect with you and where can they find your book?
More About Ben Guttmann:
- Get Ben’s book – Simply Put: Why Clear Messages Win — and How to Design Them
- Check out Ben’s site here
- Connect with Ben on LinkedIn
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Speaker 1 (00:03): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. This is John Jantz. My guest today is Ben Guttman. He's a marketing and communications expert, professor and author of Simply Put, why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. Currently, Ben teaches digital marketing at Baruch. Hopefully I said that right. College in New York City and consults with a range of thought leaders, venture-backed startups and other brands. So Ben, welcome to the show.
Speaker 2 (00:33): Thanks for having me, John. It's great to be here. And yes, you did pronounce Baruch correctly.
Speaker 1 (00:36): Okay. I thought that's probably, that was the New York pronunciation anyway. Right? So you owned an agency right before doing your thing here?
Speaker 2 (00:45): Yeah, I ran a marketing agency called Digital Natives Group for 10 years. I had a couple partners. It was a ton of fun. We started in an old professor's basement up in Westchester and we did the reverse commute for a year doing that. They had some extra space in their basement. We slapped their logo on the wall, we're on some folding tables, and that was a ton of fun. We started with the local ice cream shop and camera shop, and eventually we worked our way up to the N F L and I love New York and a bunch of really awesome clients.
Speaker 1 (01:14): Yeah, that's awesome. So some of what we can talk about, we can talk about in the context. Obviously the message in the book is for anybody, but certainly agencies work with a lot of people trying to figure out their messaging. So we could probably talk about both those contexts. One of the things I wanted to hit on first was the book title is Simply Put, and I would say the cover is one of the simplest covers I've ever seen. So I'm sure it was intentional, but I'd love to, obviously people are going to have to go online and look at the cover. You're not going to see it here unless Ben, there it is. Okay. I knew he'd have one. What author doesn't do that? What was the thought process or what went into trying to make it as simple as possible?
Speaker 2 (01:55): Oh yeah, I appreciate that. I mean, getting to this was a bit of a journey. So this is a traditionally published book. My publisher is Barry Kohler, who they're excellent. My agent was saying he's been in this business for 30 years, 40 years, and this is the most author friendly contract he ever saw when he saw the offer from them. So I'll give them a big thumbs up as part of this. But as part of the process, which is interesting, it kind of replicated a piece that we talk about in the book about testing and about talking to your audience is it wasn't just here's five names. The people internally are going to look at them and figure out which one works. It was we put together a list of names, list of titles, a list of subtitles, and we went out and I pulled in a bunch of people that were like my target audience that worked in marketing or that were entrepreneurs that were leaders of some form. And I said, well, which of these titles best encapsulates the message I want to say in this book? And I got quantitative feedback, I got qualitative feedback, and that's how we ended up at Simply Put in terms of the title. So that was a fun process. And then the cover itself, so my functional background is in design. I mean, that's the hat that I wore as
Speaker 1 (03:08): Creative
Speaker 2 (03:08): Director for a long time. And I didn't design the actual book, but where I worked with their, I worked very closely with their internal designers. And because my background was as a creative director and as a designer, it was a lot smoother of a process than somebody who comes in having no background with that. I knew exactly what words to use. I knew the colors and the typefaces that we wanted to lean towards, and we go through lots of iterations, but we eventually got to something which I feel like really stands out.
Speaker 1 (03:39): So you didn't say I'll know it when I see it. Just design something, I'll know it when I see it. The great direction.
Speaker 2 (03:46): A little bit. A little bit. I've got plenty of little doodles in my notebook here. Also where I would, I doodle it holds up to the camera and talk to our designer. One thing that, it's funny, so you mentioned I teach at Baruch College. My students, they're all marketing majors, but there's a wide range of things that means, and some of them have a background in design, but I specifically include a lesson on design in my course because I'm saying, look, you might not be a designer, you might not want to be a designer, but at some point if you're working in marketing, you're going to work with designers. And it's important for you to have the language and the base level understanding that allows you to get the best out of them. And so I think that this is an interesting example of that too.
Speaker 1 (04:30): Yeah, I always tell people when it comes to marketing topics, you don't have to get down and know how to do ss e o, but you sure better know how to buy it, right? I mean, that's kind of what it comes down to. The same idea. You have to understand it enough to know what you're looking for, your objectives are. So let's cut to the chase. I mean, why do clear messages win?
Speaker 2 (04:52): So I say this in the first page of the book there, which is why do some messages work when others don't? Right? Why do some advertisements work and others fall flat? Why do some warnings work? Why do some political slogans work when others don't? And the answer is that the ones that are effective are simple, and the ones that aren't are not simple always. And if that's enough, if that's it, then don't buy the book. You got it. You don't need to read anything else. But if you're interested in the why or the how, then that's how we end up with a 208 page book about saying something simply, which sure sounds like I didn't take my own advice. The backbone to a lot of the kind science behind. It's this idea of fluency, which scientists, sorry, psychologists, cognitive scientists will describe fluency as anything that is easy.
Speaker 2 (05:41): We know that word fluency, we can be fluent in English or Spanish or man or motorcycles, but when something is fluent, it's easy. It's easy for us to take something from out in the world and stick it in our heads and make sense of it. And when something takes less mental processing power, when it's easier for us to get in and use, we like it better. There's a whole body of research about this. We are more likely to trust something more likely to buy something more likely to something that is easier than something that is more complicated. If something is harder to read or see or understand, even something that's like a blurry font that is associated with all sorts of negative feelings, which are again, not likely to buy, not likely to trust, these are the things that we don't want as a marketer.
Speaker 1 (06:30): Do you find, I certainly have found over the years, and certainly working with clients, it's actually harder to be simple, but I think sometimes people misunderstand the word simple as being short or something like that. And there's really a lot more to that effective being simple and being effective. I, I started with the point of it's harder to be, and I think that's why I always quote this. I think it's attributed to Mark Twain. I would've written a shorter letter if I'd had more time. I don't know if that's who said it or not.
Speaker 2 (07:07): I say that same thing actually. You mentioned I was going to drop the same quote.
Speaker 1 (07:13): So I guess I've been rambling now and haven't asked the question. Here's the actual question, why is it harder?
Speaker 2 (07:20): So I mean, again, that quote is great. It is one of those things that's often attributed to Mark Twain, but I don't think it's actually his, just like everything else, that it's either Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln, every quote or Yogi
Speaker 1 (07:29): Vera, Yogi, Yogi Vera, Albert, Einstein. There's
Speaker 2 (07:31): Like four or five people. That's it. The thing about simplicity, so you also mentioned the idea of less, right? And I mentioned this, especially when I talk, I have five different principles in the book. One of them is minimal. It's not everything is about minimal. There's stuff about saliency and empathy and everything else, but when we talk about minimal, we're not talking about the fewest number of words, the fewest number of paragraphs, fewest number of pages. We're talking about the least amount of friction. And I'm looking at this from a user experience perspective. I mentioned the design background before and talk about the title and figuring out that word design was the part that we noodled on the most was I really wanted to get that word in there because that's the perspective that I'm taking on this, which is we want to minimize the amount of friction.
Speaker 2 (08:18): If there's a bump in the road somewhere where we don't understand something, where it becomes harder for us to make use of something, we're going to go take the off ramp and go somewhere else, right? There's 13,000, sorry. There's 13 hours a day that the average American spends consuming media. We see thousands of messages in that time. There's plenty of other things competing for our attention. And so any bit of friction is a piece, is an opportunity for us to get sidetracked. But to answer the question of why it's so hard, part of it is internal, part of it's external, the internal component. And there's some great studies in this book that I cite from his book, subtract, which just came out. It's all about this additive bias that we have when we're faced with a question of how do we improve something or change something.
Speaker 2 (09:08): But whether it's something like a Lego structure or a mini golf course or a vacation itinerary or a piece of music or anything else, they've run through this experiment dozens of times. Our bias is to add our first choice for 75% of s s O is to add instead of subtract. And this is, again, repeatable throughout a lot of different frames and ends up becoming, it becomes something like feature creep. If you look again to the UX world, and then the external component is that we have all sorts of structures set up in our work, in our society, in our life that will reward more, reward the addition, but don't so much reward the subtraction. You don't get the award for maintaining a bridge or taking a bridge down. You get the award and you get your picture of the paper for building a bridge or something like that. And then ultimately it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to be simple. You don't have anywhere to hide. We've all been in meetings where we don't have the answer to something and we just throw a wall of sound at the other side to try to get out of that sticky situation. And that's a defense mechanism that a lot of us can put up. It's ultimately harder for us to be simple.
Speaker 1 (10:22): So I'm going to take a negative turn for a moment, and I'm not debating that this isn't just as effective. Maybe you'll get your point actually across, but sometimes people use very simple messages to actually be misleading, to actually hide behind what's really there. We can see it in politics all the time today. Defund the police is a message that says maybe kind of one thing, but it's way more complacent than that. So is this a technique that people can actually use in some ways to mislead? I mean, we see it all the time.
Speaker 2 (10:56): Yeah, I think that's certainly something that can be said for almost everything in marketing. And one of the models that I was looking at as I was writing this book, and I wanted to try to be as close to this other book on the shelf, would be influenced by Robert Cialdini. And I'm sure you've read it, I'm sure everybody in this podcast has,
Speaker 1 (11:18): Robert's been on this show a couple of times.
Speaker 2 (11:22): That was one of the foundational books for me when I read it in college about doing this. And I think he has a really great perspective in that book, which is this is about defending yourself sometimes against the influence and the practice of persuasion. And I try to as many, as much as I can, lean in that same direction, which is saying, this is about how we can do good things trying to avoid and not about how to manipulate or to trick anybody.
Speaker 1 (11:50): He said, he's been on my show a couple times and he actually said that very thing. He said, I set out to write this book to warn people of here's how you're being influenced. I created the roadmap for how to do it. So he goes there as well. Hopefully you can cite an example or two maybe of a redo. I'd love to hear that somebody here was kind of their messaging or whatever, and we turned it into this. Or even just if you weren't prepared to answer that, just even maybe a couple examples of here's a great message and here's why.
Speaker 2 (12:23): Oh yeah. And so in the book I talk a little bit about one of the reasons simplicity is so effective is that it's kind. And the example I use there is I look at traffic signs. So here in New York, we had a mayor a few decades ago named Ed Cotts who was kind of gregarious character and
Speaker 1 (12:43): On a Saturday Night Live. Sure.
Speaker 2 (12:46): And so his Department of Transportation put up signs that have become this iconic piece of road infrastructure, which has since spawn sequels and people buying the souvenirs, which is, don't even think about parking here, don't even think about parking here. When you compare that to the more Byzantine kind of no parking of the state of this day, that
Speaker 1 (13:06): Violators
Speaker 2 (13:08): This many axles, whatever, it's one of those is kind. And one of those is nice and so kind is when you care about the outcome, it's when you care about the wellbeing and the fundamental nature and goodness and outcome of what you're saying. Nice is the surface level piece of it. That is the, I care about politeness, I care about decorum, I care about everything, just kind of going smoothly with a smile and getting out of there. And so that's an example of that sign. Don't even think about parking here is simple because it's kind, but it might not be nice. There's another version of that which was like, no, I'm going to butcher this one. It's like, no parking, no stopping, no standing, no kidding. And so these types of signs, their embodiment of a little bit of the New York idea where we're kind, we're not always nice, but we're certainly kind.
Speaker 1 (13:58): So the second half of the subtitle is and how to design them. So let's spend a little time talking about the how to part of it. Is there a five step framework? Do we just go ask our customers and they tell us what we should be saying? Or is it, well, I'll just let you answer that.
Speaker 2 (14:18): Well, talking to customers is certainly part of it. So there are five principles to simple messaging that I've identified in the book. The first one is beneficial. What's in it for the receiver? How do you make their features and benefits? We've talked about this since sales 1 0 1, marketing 1 0 1, but it's so easy to forget it and it's so easy to not understand why it's important. Number two is focus. Are you trying to say one thing or are you trying to say three different things at the same time? Number three is salient. Does it stand out? Does it come to our attention as noticeable? Does it contrast to the background? Four is empathetic and this is about are you speaking in the language of your audience? Are you meeting them where they are linguistically obviously, but also emotionally and their motivations. And then the last one is minimal, which is what I mentioned before, which is everything you need, but only what you need. I put that at the end on purpose. It's hard to know everything you need, only what you need unless you consider the other pieces here as well.
Speaker 1 (15:18): Yeah, so go over the five again, just the names of 'em.
Speaker 2 (15:22): Beneficial, focused, salient, empathetic and minimal.
Speaker 1 (15:28): Awesome. So let's just focus on empathy for a minute. That's got to be a tough one for people to get into a message, right? I mean, because it means so many different things. So can you just break that one down? What would we be looking for that would show that we have some empathy?
Speaker 2 (15:45): So the empathy one, the title of that chapter is Welcome The Enlightened Idiot, and it's meant with love, not with malice, right? We are all the enlightened idiots idiot. If you look back at the origins of the word means the outsider, it means the common man. And so we're looking at what is the knowledge of the outsider? It's very easy for us to get caught in our own bubbles if you look at all sorts of studies. But we're much more likely to believe that our behavior, motivations, and knowledge are much more common and much more normatively, right? Than they really are in the population as a whole. And the best way to do this is kind of the no dub piece, which is go talk to your audience. If you can run a focus group and pay to a bunch of people sitting in a conference room and talking to them and making sure that all the right demographics and they've been quizzed a million times, that's great, but most of us can't afford that or don't have the time to do that or don't have interest in doing that.
Speaker 2 (16:45): The best thing you can do is maybe get as close to that as you can, and that can sometimes be as easy as finding somebody who is outside the room who is outside your company and somebody who is somewhat tangentially related to your audience and talking to them and just running it by them. And the other version of that is sometimes speaking it out loud, I tell a story in the book of a dinner I was at where a friend came and they were working at a company that was all in the news of some bad pr, some product recalls. It was the butt of late night jokes, all this bad stuff. They sit down, somebody else at the dinner says, oh, so how's it going at X, X, Y, Z? And they go, well, it's unfortunate however, and everybody just starts laughing because none of you, nobody ever uses the term.
Speaker 2 (17:33): It's unfortunate, however, that to describe anything you've only ever written that it's only language that you use as a press release used behind a podium somewhere. And so that's an example of not having empathy in your message. And if I wanted to pull an example, I like pulling examples that aren't always marketing in this. I talked about road signs before. I'll talk about my dentist this time. I have always had genetically terrible teeth and I had some gum problem and it was all a mess and whatever. I go to the dentist and they say, well, you only have to floss the teeth you want to keep. That's good. Ever since then, I have flossed every single day, and it's made some difference for sure, but still my teeth are terrible. When you compare a message like that, which is meeting me in the language that I'm at, meeting me where I am, it's much more effective than something like use of floss to prevent plaque buildup below the gum line. That's true, but that's not going to connect with me in the same way that the other messages.
Speaker 1 (18:35): Yeah, I tell you one secret you talked about can you afford focus groups? I tell you a secret weapon out there that I tell people all the time, increasingly every business is getting Google reviews now, and a lot of times the actual words somebody uses talk about the promise, talk about how they experienced your focus, some level of the real value that they got. And I tell you there, there's some golden in just looking at those if you're not paying attention to 'em.
Speaker 2 (19:06): Oh yeah.
Speaker 1 (19:07): So awesome. All right. Well, we have run out of time. Ben, I appreciate you stunned by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast. You want to tell people where they might be able to connect with you and certainly I guess they can enroll in one of your classes if they are in the New York area, but also where they might find your book.
Speaker 2 (19:25): Appreciate it. Thanks for having me, John. I've had a ton of fun being here. So my book is out now. It just came out, it released October 10th from Barry Kohler Publishers. You Can Buy wherever books are sold. It's called Simply Put, why Clear Messages Win and How to Design Them. If you go to Simply Put book.com, which is the easiest way to spell it, you can just find all the information there. Otherwise, I'm at ben guttman.com, G U T T M A N N, two T's and two Ns. It's not minimal. I know that it's got an extra N at the end. Everybody always forgets it, and you can again get the book there. I send an email out every Tuesday as well, but you can go check it for free.
Speaker 1 (20:01): Yeah, I like, actually, I love the format of your email, which is very simple. You're going to get this, this, and this, and so go there and check it out for yourself. Again, thanks for stopping by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast and hopefully we'll see you on these days soon. Out there on the road.
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