Now, imagine that you’ve ordered a slice of cheesecake, expecting this delicious, sweet treat. But, it’s been served to you without one of its layers. Only filling, no topping. Or, even worse, crust and topping, without the filling? No one deserves such misfortune!
There’s no cheesecake without layers. All three of them make it what it is: a cheesecake. When you think of it, it exists in your mind only with all of these layers. Exclude one, and it’s not a cheesecake anymore.
We can talk about the essential layer of cheesecake. We can vote which one is irreplaceable. We can even fight over the issue of whether we can call it a cheesecake if it doesn’t have any cheese. But let’s not do that. Let’s agree on one thing, for a start – layers matter.
Now that the issue of cheesecake layers has been settled, it’s good to know that a powerful message also has its layers.
Let’s talk a bit about a powerful message. Without a message, there’s no communication. What makes a message powerful is its ability to trigger people’s mind, evoke emotion, and result in action.
In marketing, it’s all about that message. Not only does it have to be relevant, but it also has to move people towards doing something. Marketing goals are straightforward: get a new customer, create loyal buyers, pose be seen as the good guy.
On the other hand, the essence of non-marketing communication is building a relationship with a customer. Not selling, not branding, not forcing them to think, feel or do something. It’s about creating and nurturing the authentic, genuine relationship based on mutual trust.
So, just like proper cheesecake has to have its three layers, a powerful message in marketing, as well as in non-marketing communication, also has its three layers. The attributes describing this kind of message are known as the three “i’s”: informational, inspirational, instructional.
Every powerful message has three ingredients. This is good news because cheesecake, although it has only three layers, contains much more than three ingredients. So, is it easier to create a compelling message than a cheesecake? Let’s see!
Think about the three ingredients as essential for a powerful message. What makes them so important and relevant is the simple fact that they derive from the very basis of the human psyche. If we strip them down, we can see that they are a part of many basic psychological processes. The same ones that have enabled us to evolve and survive.
What makes them revolutionary is your knowledge of them and the effect they can have on your writing, communicating with customers and brand image.
Our bodies, as well as our brains, are perfectly equipped for survival. Being able to rationally think, analyze and draw conclusions from them is what makes us reasonable. The part of the brain in which these processes occur is known as prefrontal cortex – an exceptional gift from evolution reserved only for higher primates
The brain's prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to plan, think, and know. It’s the finest (and youngest) part of our brain. Besides, there is the entire set of organs and nerves that allow us to perceive: from the basic ones such as eyes to see and ears to hear, to the hippocampus which is responsible for putting things in context.
Being a complex mechanism that it is, our brain has a strong desire to make sense out of stimuli it receives. It's also known as drive for sense-making and it represents one of the foundations of human motivation. The only tool our brain has for dealing with random pieces of information is to structure them in a sensible way. It's like seeing a partially assembled puzzle: you don't have to see all the pieces at their place to be able to see the entire picture.
Our perception isn't the only cognitive function prone to this sort of designing the reality. Memory is one of them as well. It prefers complete instead of fragmented pictures. So, what does our brain do when there's not enough information for a complete memory? It makes it up! So, every time you’ve remembered that beautiful sunset over the beach from two years ago, there is a great possibility that a piece of that memory is made up by your brain. And what's best, the brain does it automatically, so you're not aware of it, and you can't tell which parts of the memory are… well, let's not say fake, but enhanced.
Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman has described another interesting thing about the human mind. His decades-long research showed that there are two different ways of how the brain thinks. System 1 is automatic, fast, unconscious, and emotional (we'll get back to it), while system 2 is logical, conscious, slow, and calculated. System 2 is all about investing a certain amount of mental effort, such as directing our attention, giving someone your phone number, trying to remember a song you heard on the radio, determining if you should say hello to an acquaintance you just saw or try to avoid them… It’s something like the greatest hits by our prefrontal cortex.
The message containing only this knowing/informational layer is as simple as “It's seven o'clock in the morning.” Pure fact. If this information makes us worried that we're going to be late, it means that, by using the abovementioned System 2, we have given it a specific interpretation. Or we have reminded ourselves that we have a meeting in 30 minutes. The fact itself doesn't mean anything, but adding some context and interpretation to it results in a certain feeling. Which is our next “i”!
Feelings come from a completely different part of the brain than thinking. Emotions result from the activity of our limbic system. Evolutionally speaking, they are older than the prefrontal cortex. They, and not the ability to schedule our appointments during a busy week, have enabled our survival. Back when we lived in caves and when giant bears and other animals were a real and everpresent threat to our lives, it was our emotions that saved our lives and, therefore, saved the entire species from extinction.
This ancient, socalled lizard brain (and it's called that because the entire brain function of lizards is stored in the limbic system) is responsible for reactions such as fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and reproduction. Humans have evolved and (obviously) gained extra brain functions, but the basic survival system is still here, and it still drives our actions. It's still our numberone tool for survival.
When you are driving a car, and you suddenly see another vehicle crossing the intersection, do you take your time to think what to do next, or do you instinctively hit the brake? Do you calculate what would be the best reaction, or do you instantly, without thinking, do something? Well, that was your lizard brain, saving your life.
Remember System 1 from earlier? Well, it’s congruent with our emotion-based reasoning. This one makes a decision about hitting the brake: automatically, unconsciously, immediately. The same system is employed when we see a cute animal and feel “awww”, when we read, solve a simple problem such as climbing stairs, recognize our name when someone calls it. System 1 operates in the background of our mind: it’s always alert, vigilant, and awake.
How immediate the response is from our emotional/irrational/lizard brain has been nicely illustrated by a term coined by Daniel Goleman – ‘amygdala hijack’. Amygdala is the part of our limbic system that processes information way faster than our rational brain. When we receive stimuli that trigger our limbic system response – for example, when we hear a song we like, hear a joke or smell a familiar perfume, the processing of this information is even faster than it would have been if these stimuli weren’t familiar. So, amygdala hijacks our brain when we encounter an emotional, personal stimulus, which results in an intense and immediate response.
So, it’s safe to conclude that our “emotional brain” is like a highway, while the rational one is more like the main road.
Emotions are all about telling us what’s important to us. Fear saves our life. Anger tells us that our boundaries have been crossed. Disgust strongly advises us what not to eat, or with which people not to mingle. Sadness gives us lessons about what we care about and what we lost. Happiness is just like a friendly pat on the back, telling us “Doing this makes you feel good”. Surprise appears when something which we didn't see coming happens.
As you can see, these basic emotions have a fundamental purpose. The rest of emotions derive from them, and altogether have the same purpose: telling us what’s important to us.
So, when your eyes see that it’s seven o'clock in the morning, your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (along with amygdala and cerebellum, but let’s stick to basics) “remember” that you have a meeting in about 30 minutes, your limbic system reacts. As a result, you feel anxious about being late. And then you do something about it. Which is precisely our third “i”.
When we realize that seven o’clock means that we will be late (knowing), we become anxious (feeling). And then we speed ourselves up: we skip breakfast (not a good idea, by the way), we hurry up with getting dressed, avoid reading emails before leaving the house. The former two (knowing and feeling), result in doing.
A large brain region that controls our movement is called motor cortex. So, there are different parts of the brain that control our thinking, feeling and doing. They influence each other. For example, if we are overwhelmed by fear, it’s harder to make rational decisions or consciously choose what’s best to do. This is why there are illustrated instructions on what to do on a plane in case of emergency or in public spaces during fire. We can remember what to do when not afraid, but in case something happens on a plane or in a supermarket, we would need clear instructions on what to do.
When it comes to human motivation, it derives from both our thinking and feeling. Emotions, overall, have a stronger effect on our actions. They even prepare us for certain actions. For example, when we recognize danger, our mentioned lizard brain instantly chooses running away from it or fighting against it. It’s called the fight-or-flight response, and it has nothing to do with our rational thinking or decision on what would be the wisest given the circumstances.
Having instructions on what to do – whether it instinctively comes from our brains or a third party – minimizes our cognitive effort. It can reduce negative and/or amplify positive emotions. In the context of marketing, this circuit (knowing, feeling, doing) is what makes a message powerful. It’s what makes the difference in the world full of noise.
Psychology, once again, offers an answer to the question: How can we make an instruction that will be easy to follow? The answer is: by using mental simulation. Remember how amygdala hijacks us when we encounter familiar, personally relevant stimuli? Well, mental simulation is all about placing stimuli in a way that feels natural to respond. In advertising, orienting a product towards a customer’s dominant hand results in facilitating mental stimulation, which leads to a motor response: fetching it (with a mouse click).
Even if you don’t condone a cheesecake that doesn’t have all three layers and ingredients, one of them is still the most important: cheese. It’s even in the name of the cake; it’s what makes it creamy and irresistible.
In marketing, what you want to accomplish with your message will determine what will be the cheese of your three “i’s”. If you are launching a new product, the focus will be on telling people what that product is: what its purpose is, which problems it solves and how it can make their lives better.
So, if you are advertising a new type of bike, you will tell people what’s new in your product, what that bike has and others don’t. It will still affect their emotions, but the focus will be on knowing.
When talking about a familiar product, there is no need to explain what it is and what its purpose is because people already know. This is the situation in which triggering their emotions is the best strategy. When you, for example, advertise soap, you don’t need to explain what it is, but you will associate it with specific attributes: beauty, care, freshness, etc.
No matter which of these two layers you choose to be primary, the third one – instructional – is always important. This is because we don’t want people to think about how your new type of bike is fantastic, and then do – nothing. We don’t want people to feel the desire to try your soap and then do – nothing. This is why we call them to action – tell them to try it, visit the store, check our website, etc.
In non-marketing communication, we take care of all three “i”s. We give our customers just the right amount of information. This amount depends on the customer’s circumstances (for example, if we give them bad news, we won’t give them any details that can distract them from what they should do next). This way, and with careful wording, we handle their emotions [people will only remember how your words made them feel]. In the end, we tell them what to do. We give them clear and straightforward instruction.
In a way, this is even easier than in marketing, because we don’t directly provoke their emotion to encourage them to do something. Instead, we carefully craft our message while being aware of how it could make them feel, and then give them clear instructions on what to do.
How can we use this in verbal, nonmarketing communication? By writing in the style that is the same as everyday talking. Without too many words, without phrases, without all the rules that make writing formal. So, instead of “our team is looking forward to greeting you at our branch and introduce you to our service”, we can say “I’d be happy to meet you at our branch and tell you all about how it [a service or product] works.”
Imagine your bank sends you this note:
This is just a reminder – you’ll no longer be able to make a purchase with your Visa.
Imagine your bank sends you this note:
Come to our branch to get a new Visa because your old one expires on 4th of November.
How did you feel after reading the first sentence as opposed to reading the second one? I bet the feelings weren’t the same. The first one made you feel like the ground was shaking and you didn’t know where you were. The second one made you feel secure and, what’s most important, in control.
These messages basically tell you the same thing: your Visa will expire and you should renew it. But the ways of saying it are very different.
The first one only tells you about a problem you are going to have. The rational brain thinks, “Why am I no longer able to buy stuff with my Visa? Have I gone bankrupt? Did the bank steal all of my money? What happened?!” It provokes strong emotion of fear, even dread. And then it leaves you just like that! It doesn’t tell you how to stop it from happening or what you should do to resolve this issue.
The second one is different. It doesn’t provoke fear and leave you in a state of confusion. That’s because it incorporates all three “i’s”.
Answers the question HOW (to get a new Visa)
Answers the question why (come to the branch)
Answers the question WHAT (is happening with your Visa)
Instructing people directly what to do, instead of the somewhat passive-aggressive “this is just a reminder” makes a huge difference in how will they respond, both emotionally and behaviorally.
Instead of provoking fear (mainly because the reader can’t know why they won’t be able to make a purchase with that Visa card anymore), we offer a simple solution: get a new Visa. And all the reader has to do is come to the bank’s branch and get a new Visa. A piece of (cheese)cake!
The first message doesn’t offer any sort of explanation on why this is happening. As a result, the reader feels even more scared. Not only will they not be able to use the Visa, but they also don’t know why. Not informing a person and provoking fear isn’t a good way to build a genuine and authentic relationship with a customer; it’s quite the contrary.
The information about the old Visa expiring also has its inspirational value: the reader now knows why they should come to the branch, so this part of the message serves not only its informational, but also inspirational purpose.
Great communication is all about transferring the entire message to the person at the receiving end. All participants in this process are important: the one who sends it (us), the message itself, the channel which we use to send it and the receiver. The message should be crafted so that the receiver is able to understand it. We should take into account to whom we are sending it: the person’s situation and context, relevant demographic (such as age, ethnicity, gender, marital status, income, education, employment) and psychographic (interests, hobbies, attitudes, lifestyle, etc.) characteristics.
Informing a person WHAT they should do, WHY they should do it and HOW to do it is a simple formula with rules for clear and genuine communication.
Building good relationships with people is all about open communication. These universal rules are applicable in all areas of life, not only in non-marketing communication.
Each and every part of your message that doesn’t include these “i’s” certainly contains (at least) one of the three “d’s”: decoration, distraction and damage.
These tree function as a gang: Decoration seduces readers, Distraction takes them away and Damage punches them in their face. This is how they work:
Decoration – Every message element whose sole purpose is to make it look nice, without any contribution to its usefulness or meaning, is pure decoration. It’s like wearing huge sunglasses indoors – excessive and useless. In writing, it often results in wordiness, too fancy vocabulary and needless complication. Decoration is good at disguise because its twin brother is Distraction, the second “d”.
Distraction – This “d” is all about the wrong ways of attracting the reader’s attention. Form-wise, it’s using multiple fonts, murky designs and unnatural formatting. Content-wise, it’s all things that are redundant. It’s like someone is yelling while you are trying to listen to radio. How to get rid of it? Reduce or, even better, remove any noise from your message, especially if you are writing about a sensitive topic or delivering bad news to a client. Don’t hide behind Distraction (and Decoration) and don’t use them to dilute the effect your message might have on a reader.
Damage – This one comes as a result of consistent use of the previous two “d’s”. The first two come to beat the reader up and then the third one finishes them off. By collaborating with Decoration and Distraction, not only do you waste your reader’s time, but you also make it harder for your message to be understood. This is especially bad when you are informing a customer about a matter that is important to them. Now when you know more about how brain processes reality, you also know that hiding behind these “d’s” can do no good to anyone. It damages communication and the reader’s perception of you and it also prevents you from building a genuine relationship with your customer.
The same as you wouldn’t make your cheesecake with spoiled cheese, don’t do this with the most crucial part of communication: the message.
The three “i’s” are a framework for understanding and approaching messages and people.
There is no universal principle, just like there are dozens of cheesecake recipes. You will like some of them more than others, just like some messages will be more effective for customers than others. And now you know what not to put into your cheesecake, as well as in your message.
If you strive to be a master cheesecake maker, you will have to search for your perfect recipe. In the context of writing, exploring and playing with words, curiosity, and… well, using your System 2, will bring you a profound understanding of these layers and turn them into your allies.
Think of the three “i’s” framework as your playground, a place when you can learn, play and grow. Remember, the rules are simple:
Adding proper intention, creativity and a bit of patience during the process, you will come up with your unique piece: no matter if we’re talking about cheesecake or writing.