He's a longtime professor at the University of Chicago. He's been called the father of "behavioral economics," which, according to the Harvard Business Review, "combines insights from psychology, judgment, and decision making and economics to generate a more accurate understanding of human behavior." And he just won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.
Yet, despite Richard Thaler's impressive credentials, his philosophy is the epitome of simplicity: "My mantra is if you want to get people to do something, make it easy. Remove the obstacles."
Thaler has demonstrated the soundness of this three-word maxim--make it easy--in such ways as encouraging people to save for retirement or become an organ donor. And Thaler is most widely known for his 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, co-authored with Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, which applies the ideas of behavioral economics to public policy.
And while Thaler hasn't specifically studied the field of communication, his principle works just as well if your mission is to reach and engage your audience. For example, here's what Thaler said in a 2011 interview with the consulting firm McKinsey: "When I say make it easy, what I mean is, if you want to get somebody to do something, make it easy. If you want to get people to eat healthier foods, then put healthier foods in the cafeteria, and make them easier to find, and make them taste better. So in every meeting I say, 'Make it easy.' It's kind of obvious, but it's also easy to miss."
How does this relate to improving communication? Here are seven key ways to apply Thaler's approach:
- Develop a single high concept to summarize your message. "High concept" is borrowed from the Hollywood movie industry; the idea is that to pitch (to a producer or the money guys), you have to convey an entire two-hour movie in about 12 to 15 words. To make it easy for your audience, distill what you're trying to convey in a short phrase or sentence.
- Lead with your point. And now that you've figured out the most important message to communicate, make that your headline or subject line. The headline is the first thing audience members notice. It grabs their attention. It promises the solution to a problem.
- Emphasize the benefit. Answers your audience's key questions: "How does this affect me?" "What's in it for me?"
- Be briefer than you ever thought possible. Don't worry about word count; just cut and cut until only the nugget is left.
- Use visuals to instantly convey your meaning. We're living in a visually mediated society, and most people would much rather watch a video or scan a photo or spend time on an infographic than read. So visuals provide a real convenience.
- Reduce friction. In communication, friction occurs when an audience member is intrigued by a topic, but then encounters resistance on his or her quest to engage with content. So think about how to make the experience easier.
- Provide a clear way to learn more. Most people will want just a bite of information, but some will crave a snack (and a few will actually be hungry enough for a meal). So provide the amuse-bouche along with an easy way to get more substance.
By making your communication more convenient, you'll make it easy for your audience members. The result? They'll get the message faster and will be more likely to take action.