May 14, 2015
One of the most common mistakes made by marketers is trying to cram too much information into their communications materials. They’ll typically say: “Well, we probably need to mention this… and this… and this,” along with a bit of “Here’s some empty space. How can we fill it?”
Their mistake reminds me of my high-school job as a dishwasher for a chain steakhouse. While washing dishes is the grimiest job in most eateries, I didn’t mind it. There were clear objectives and performance measures, the work was predictable, my co-workers left me alone most of the time, the radio made the time go by, and I didn’t have to think all that much (beyond knowing not to lift cast-iron cookware with bare hands after it came out of the 180-degree rinse).
The lesson comes from my first day, when the manager shoved a three-inch three-ring binder in my face and told me to read it. It was the chain’s employee operations manual. Dishwashing procedures took up about four pages. The rest contained excruciating detail about every imaginable facet of running the restaurant; from how to properly prepare each potato to how to stack foods in the walk-in freezer. After a few minutes, I went to the office to return the manual so I could get to work.
The wide-eyed manager looked at me and asked, “You read all of that already?” When I explained that it was mostly about things that weren’t my responsibility, such as preparing cherry tomatoes for the salad bar, he glared at me. “You might need to prep cherry tomatoes for the salad bar someday!” he snapped. “Now go back and read the whole thing.” So I spent an entire shift earning money by reading the exhaustive and overwhelming manual.
I don’t disagree that proper preparation of cherry tomatoes was important to the restaurant’s reputation. However, given the fact that my job responsibilities consumed only about one percent of what appeared in that manual, I couldn’t understand why he insisted that I try to digest the whole shebang in one sitting.
As humans, we’re only capable of learning so much at once. And what we learn on a given day tends to erode over time, unless we receive a booster shot of knowledge now and again. That’s why fourth grade usually begins with a review of what students learned in third grade. It would have made far more sense for the manager to ask me to read only the portions of the manual that were immediately relevant to my job. Then, if a cherry tomato crisis arose, I could take two minutes to review that portion.
But the manager thought like far too many marketers. Like him, they reason that “we should tell everyone everything they need to know now, so they’ll remember it when it becomes important to them.” That’s a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, people simply don’t retain that much of the overload of information that fights for our attention every day. Second, it presumes that what you have to say is relevant and extremely important to your audience. Odds are that it’s neither.
A far more effective approach is to break the information into small chunks, and feed it to your audience as they need to know it. Make sure the additional information that they may want is accessible, so they can get to it if the need arises. And don’t be afraid to repeat key messages again and again. You may be aware of the repetition, but they probably won’t notice it.
The information you have to convey is important. I recognize that. But it’s just as important that you recognize the audience’s capacity to amass, process, and retain that information. If you keep churning out more detail when the audience has already been saturated, it’s like trying to pour additional gallons of water into a one-gallon pail. All of your additional effort is wasted and neither you nor your audience will benefit from what you’ve spilled.
And for the record, in the months I spent working in that restaurant — and in the several decades since — not once have I been asked to prep cherry tomatoes.