Behavioural science principles: simplify messages

Published by Francesca Hazel on

Do we need to simplify messages?

Table of contents

Let's keep it simple!

Do we need to simplify messages?

In this Digital Age, aka the Information Age, learning is available 24/7.  But are we being bombarded with information that we no longer know how to process or even need to know?

Information overload happens when we receive too much information at one time and cannot think about it in a clear way. In the same way, designing and delivering learning also needs to take into consideration our cognitive system and how much we can process at one time.

The term ‘information overload’ was coined even before the internet existed by Bertram Myron Gross, an American Social Scientist and Professor of Political Science at Hunter College (CUNY) in his paper The Managing of Organizations (published in 1964).

Let’s not forget the 1960’s acronym: Keep it simple, stupid (KISS) created by the U.S. Navy. The principle states that wherever possible complexity should be avoided – simplicity should be a key goal in learning design.

abstract concept of light bulbs balancing, demonstrating simplifying messages

So, let’s revisit why we need to simplify messages.

If we write with clarity (and simplify messages), learners will keep reading – well that’s the idea. By writing with clarity, we make our learning content more accessible, compelling and powerful.

Aristotle, a famous Greek philosopher, described as the founder of ethical reasoning, believed that communication was about how well we appeal to our audience through the art of persuasion in three different areas: Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

Ethos: Appeal to Ethics – A means of convincing your audience using the authority and credibility of the persuader, whether it’s a notable or experienced figure in the field or a popular celebrity.

Pathos: Appeal to Emotion – A way of convincing an audience of an argument by creating an emotional response to an impassioned plea or a convincing story.

Logos: Appeal to Logic – A way of persuading an audience with reason, using facts, figures and rationale.

When crafting learning experiences, we draw upon these ‘modes of persuasion’ to inform, motivate and encourage behaviour change in our learning by removing complex language to provide the clearest explanation and to simplify messages.

‘Sticky’, snappy statements with power.

As humans, we want complexity simplified. So, let’s not underestimate the value of creating ‘sticky’, snappy statements in our learning experiences. Why? Because studies show that people prefer short statements which are easier to understand, repeat and remember. People are also more likely to believe them and spread them to others (Reber & Greifeneder, 2017).

Like influential speeches, creating learning experiences is all about ‘the art of the effective’ – we are persuading our learners through language and media to effectively change their behaviour. Using rhetoric helps us deliver compelling, inspiring and engaging learning.

One of the most powerful rhetorical devices is the tricolon, also known as the ‘Rule of Threes’: A series of three words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm. The effect is to combine these words, phrases or sentences to make a single, powerful impression – sticky, snappy statements.

This isn’t a new phenomenon – Julius Caesar’s famous tricolon consisted of three verbs: “Veni, vidi, vici”. The tricolon is phrased in ascending order, ending with the most important action: “I came, I saw, [and] I conquered.”

Churchill was also a tricolon enthusiast. Faced with peril in the second world war he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears.”

Why use tricolons? Because they are effective in embedding a thought in the memory or our learner.

The magic of threes

The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras believed that the meaning behind numbers was deeply significant. He considered the number 3 as the perfect number – the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.

Strangely, we are tuned to the rhythm of threes, whether it’s from politicians such as Julius Caesar or Churchill, or it’s in the stories we tell our children, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs or the Three Musketeers. 

We also see the power of threes in advertising, like the British Transport Police campaign: ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’, the NHS England campaign helping protect us from ‘flu: ‘CATCH IT. BIN IT. KILL IT’ and the Government slogan for Covid: ‘STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES’.

US President Barack Obama provides another great example with his campaign slogan: “Yes We Can.” He also peppered his speeches with groups of three, giving them a lyrical quality – something that is also as effective in writing.

abstract images of light triangle representing rule of threes

Make it memorable

In our short-term memory, we can comfortably process up to three ‘chunks’ of information.  Our brains are pattern-seeking machines, constantly looking for relationships and meaning in the world around us. Three is the smallest number we need to create a pattern, the perfect combination of brevity and rhythm.

Using simplifying messages and sticky, snappy statements in our learning experiences

When a client asked us to support the creation of a more modern culture of learning within their organisation, we talked about behavioural design from the onset. A key element of the learning is to raise colleagues’ awareness, get them motivated and to encourage a positive mindset to the subject matter.

The project will utilise the insights: simplifying messages and sticky, snappy statements via positive psychology and human-centred design to help embed the key messages.

If you’d like to talk about how to use simplifying messages and sticky, snappy statements in your learning or any other elements of our behavioural science mantra, please contact us.

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