By Tim Ward
We believe in the power of the truth. Yet in the realm of politics and public debate, all too often, lies seem more powerful. This is because some politicians are very good at telling people the kinds of lies they want to hear. Gleb Tsipursky speaks of these as “comfortable lies” in the forthcoming book he and I have written own the subject, Pro Truth: A Practical Plan for Putting Truth Back into Politics (Changemakers Books, 2020). “Comfortable lies” easily fit the mental frames of the audience, affirming their worldview, reinforcing their biases. Truth is all to often uncomfortable. Reality challenges our expectations, our plans. And so when communicating the truth, it’s important to take extra care in using language that draws people’s attention, that is easy as possible to understand, and that is designed to stick.
This is especially important when it comes to communicating your key messages, whether in a speech, article, or even a tweet! Great communicators throughout history have intuitively grasped how to craft powerful messages. In fact, we can illustrate the Four Cs for crafting strong messages with just one passage from a master orator: Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.
Here’s a paragraph from Churchill’s famous speech delivered on 4 June 1940 (found in the middle of the 1-minute video, here). 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 four key characteristics of a powerful message:
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 sentence:
“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 Campaign:
Before: “High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.”
After: “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”
This is not to say that ideas must be oversimplified. Simplicity eases comprehension. We get the meaning of short, familiar words quickly. Whereas 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.
Use strong, concrete words one can visualize. Avoid jargon, technical terms, acronyms and abstract language. A good communicator expresses ideas in concrete language, so the audience can literally “see” what the speaker 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 (these days, this theory of localization itself is being questioned, but the idea of two different ways of mental processing still make sense). 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. The “left bran” abstractions tend to fade quickly in our memory. But the vivid images created in the “right brain” tend to leave an imprint that lasts longer and is more easily recalled.
3. Connected (to what we care about)
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 these questions:
• 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 powerful 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, like a bell. This is evident in the power of Churchill’s speech, where he repeats the refrain “We shall fight” over and over again.
Churchill’s short speech gave the English the resolve they needed to resist the Nazis. With allied help, they won the war and changed the course of history.
What messages do we need to hear today that will give us the courage and the will to overcome humanity’s greatest challenges? To prevent a climate catastrophe? To preserve democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism? To protect the natural world from extinction? To end violence against women, racial prejudice, poverty, terrorism, and addiction?
Use the 4 Cs to give your words the ring of truth. Craft your messages to change the world.
Here’s a practical methodology using the 4Cs that you can use whenever you want to turn your idea into a powerful message:
1. Write down your idea.
2. Underline the jargon and abstract concepts;
3.Replace the jaron and concepts with concrete words that describe things your can see and touch.
4. Make it relevant to your target audience by evoking what they care about.
5. Delete whatever 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 ideas into powerful messages.
Please turn to my book, The Master Communicator’s Handbook, co-authored with my partner Teresa Erickson. In these pages, we share with you what we’ve learned over 30 years as professional communicators and advisors to leaders of global organizations. As authors, our goal is to give you the tools you need to become the most effective and powerful communicator you can be. You can read the first chapter for free, using the “Look inside” feature on Amazon.com.
Note: This article has been adapted from The Master Communicator’s Handbook, and recently appeared in my blog on Medium.com.