The power of one idea

It Gets Better Project

The most successful communications efforts begin with one clear idea that is conveyed in a compelling manner. Next year, rewrite your communications playbook. Focus on just one big idea and do it well. Your organization will thank you. On three occasions this month, the It Gets Better Project captured my headspace and time. Not that I mind – it’s a fantastic campaign with a compelling message and some seriously engaging video. What is noteworthy about the fact that I was exposed to it thrice is that I don’t subscribe to or follow them in any way. Nevertheless, as a result of hearing about it again and again and again, I spent upwards of 15 minutes perusing their site, swept away by the raw power of the user contributed videos.

If you’re not yet familiar with the It Gets Better phenomenon, it is one of those amazing examples of a simple idea that took the world by storm and created a great deal of “good” along the way. From its website:

In September 2010, syndicated columnist and author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner Terry to … tell Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender youth that, yes, it does indeed get better. Eleven months later, the It Gets Better Project (TM) has turned into a worldwide movement, inspiring more than 25,000 user-created videos viewed more than 40 million times.

This is the kind of unfettered marketing success that we dream about, either for our own nonprofits or for the organizations we fund. And for those of us who serve in any kind of communications capacity, we secretly (or not so secretly) harbor visions of our next campaign breaching the tipping point and delivering our messages to the masses in a flurry of fundraising, strategic alliances, public awareness, and meaningful impact.

This kind of marketing wildfire is not the norm. It’s the exception. For the vast majority of us, we’ll want to aim for incremental growth and attainable benchmarks that take place over time. Still, the It Gets Better Project demonstrates what I believe to be a very important communications lesson; something that this sector struggles with consistently. The most successful communications efforts begin with one clear idea that is conveyed in a compelling manner.

There are actually three components to that statement: 1) one idea, 2) a clear idea, and 3) conveyed in a compelling manner. Each component warrants elaboration:

Just one idea: The less number of ideas that one tries to communicate, the greater the stickiness of those ideas. “I have a dream” being one of the clearest examples. The rule of three says that in writing and storytelling, things that come in threes are inherently more satisfying and the reader/audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information. This is true, but it applies more for narrative than for marketing campaigns and oration. In general, if you want to raise awareness, educate, inspire, drive action, incite change, galvanize movements, and get media attention along the way, then keep it simple and strive to convey just one central idea. Everything else should be adornment.

Eschew Obfuscation: Even a single powerful idea can be corrupted by verbosity, jargon, multiple clauses, caveats, and sub-messages. Resist the urge to layer your ideas with nuance. In fact, think of nuance as your metaphorical sacrifice to the communications gods. A common fear when simplifying our messages – is that we’ll be perceived as “simple” – particularly among peers. The thinking goes like this: I need to assert my sophistication within my chosen field, not mask it. If I dumb down my ideas, my competitors (or other leaders in this space) will assault my simple views to gain relative advantage among target audiences.

Nothing could be further from reality. By engaging audiences with clear and basic ideas, we become conduits for a larger dialogue. Audiences will perceive you to be accessible and down-to-earth, not simple.

Compelling Manner: At first blush, this one feels more subjective than my last two points. What makes something compelling? Isn’t it true that what one person interprets as compelling, another might find down right un-engaging? Yes, this is absolutely true. Nevertheless, there are marketing campaigns and ideas that, despite differences in how individuals interpret them, are touted by the masses as compelling. The “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” advertising campaign. Barrack Obama’s Presidential run. And the It Gets Better Project.

So what then makes these compelling? Beyond the simplicity and cleanliness of the message, I would suggest that it’s the lack of glitter and flash around the idea that helps to make something compelling. Take the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC campaign.” Two guys talking to each other standing in a completely white space. Only after the initial success of the original ads did they begin to layer in new elements. The “Yes We Can” campaign: a powerful message, delivered by one charismatic statesman. It Gets Better: A simple message delivered from real people talking into a web cam. No fancy production value. When there are too many moving parts, it often serves to distract and remove focus from the main idea. This makes the idea itself less compelling.

I’ll wrap this post up with a somewhat unrelated observation, but one that will be interesting to you if you’ve made it this far. Despite the power of the It Gets Better message, despite my spending 15 minutes on the website, and despite my writing this blog post, I didn’t give anything to the nonprofit itself. I didn’t purchase any of their schwag, and I didn’t sign the pledge. There are a ton of great causes out there which compete for our wallets, our voice, and our time. A single powerful idea delivered in a compelling manner in no way guarantees that any one individual will be inspired to action. But it will stack the odds in your organization’s favor.