You can feel the tension in the compressed smiles, quick nods and pointed questions at the annual Morgan Stanley Global Healthcare conference. Schedules are packed as the high-stakes finance crowd gathers to hear 20-minute rapid-fire talks by CEOs of start-ups and public companies who seek funding or favorable stock analysts' reports. Presenters speak fast, using complex medical and financial terms.
In contrast, my client, the CEO of a new biotech company walks on stage, rolls up his shirt sleeve, and stops at the center of the stage. As he turns to the audience, he pauses briefly to smile. He raises his bare forearm, pointing at a patch. "When patients put on our medical patch they will feel the pain-relieving effects faster than the latest Porsche can go from zero to 90."
By linking the speed of the medication's effect to a Porsche's acceleration, he evoked the "Compared to what?" conversational cue. We are wired to draw connections between things, even where there aren't any. This makes the world seem more understandable, familiar, even safe. If your "Compared to what?" connection grabs people's attention, you have set the context in which people will view it and decide upon it, just as a general chooses terrain favorable to winning a battle.
Here are some examples of different ways to craft such a message:
Use a familiar slogan in a fresh way: After a company has spent millions to make a slogan familiar, skew it in a new direction for your intended meaning. Piggybacking on the famous "Got milk?" slogan, the Redwood Hospital in Northern California launched a billboard campaign to seek blood donations with this appeal: "Got blood?" My friend, Paul Geffner, once owned a chicken take-out joint in San Francisco called Poultry in Motion.
Startle with specifics: "Ten times as much funding is devoted to research on the prevention of male baldness as malaria, a disease that kills more than 1 million people each year," said Bill Gates on the need for creative capitalism to serve more people. And venture capitalist John Doerr, who has invested in green technology, likes to say, "We can bail out the economy — we cannot bail out the environment." In a TV commercial for outdoor gear maker REI, we see the backs of two women who are sitting atop a peak, taking in the scenery at night, when the announcer intones, "October 28th. Jenny Kruger finds out that even the finest four-star restaurant is no match for one with 4 million stars."
Add a dash of dry humor: A Cuban, after apologizing because he could not offer his guests anything to eat, explained the consequences of Castro's Revolution: "The three successes were education, healthcare and sports. Three failures were breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Now, more than ever, your capacity to create indelible messages is vital. More than money, smarts, social standing, or attractiveness, in this increasingly complex yet connected world, being most frequently quoted can keep you or your brand top-of-mind. Whoever most vividly characterizes a situation determines how others see it, talk about it, and act on it.
When asked how he managed to write such gripping horror novels, Stephen King once responded, "I cut out the boring stuff," and so can you. As a journalist, I slogged through more interviews than I care to recall, in which smart newsmakers would often drown in their own generalizations and jargon, despite being desperate to make a point across. Don't make that mistake. The stories that grab us are those with the most vividly apt illustrations. Interestingness, like a cork, always bobs up to the top of our attention.