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Are Simple Messages Dumber?

Posted by on May 29th, 2013
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Copywriting, Nonprofit Messaging   

In an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, Doug Hattaway and Jenn Henrichsen make an argument that embodies our philosophy at Mission Minded: simple language can strengthen complex ideas.

For many nonprofit leaders, this comes as disappointing news.

Imagine your organization addresses the issue of homelessness. You’ve studied the issue and worked in the field for years. You know that the causes of homelessness are complex and multifaceted. You realize that varied services, some of which require great sophistication, exist to help the homeless.

To simplify or “dumb down” what you do goes against every fiber of your being. You desperately want people to know how tough the problem is and how smart your solution is. The last thing you want to do is simplify the problem. It makes you feel like your work will be undervalued.

Yet Hattaway and Henrichsen, citing the work of Daniel Kahneman, argue that most decisions come from intuition rather than cognition. We’re prone to make snap judgments, trust our gut, and place weight on first impressions.

Cognition requires deep thought, analysis, and “thinking things through.” This process drains our energy and stalls decision-making.

They explain:

“‘Fluency theory’ holds that if people can easily comprehend ideas or information, they are more likely to believe they are true. Anything that inhibits fluent mental processing impedes understanding and trust. Taxing people’s limited store of mental energy can also de-motivate them: Throwing unfamiliar words or complex data at people distracts the brain, as it searches ‘working memory’ and attempts to process that new information. …People literally stop listening—and miss the whole point. Most won’t invest the energy to figure it out. ‘Dumbing things down’—in effect, simplifying your message—isn’t just about helping people understand the message. To facilitate fluency, you must avoid jargon and complicated data.

“This poses a challenge for experts, who tend to use jargon and data to persuade. If you want to connect with non-experts, you must translate your professional lingo into simple, intuitive statements using everyday language, and select data that explain the situation in a new and meaningful way.”

In his 2009 TED talk Simon Sinek echoes this idea by showing how most decision-making happens in the limbic, or intuitive, part of the brain, which is also the oldest part of our brain from an evolutionary perspective.

Rational, analytic thinking happens in the neo-cortex, the front part of our brain that enables us to analyze and process. But as Sinek explains, most information we receive is channeled first to the limbic part of our brain. In essence: we feel before we think.

All of this goes to show why branding works. Strong brands, especially strong nonprofit brands, are simplified expressions of complex ideas. They appeal to our intuitive, emotional brain before they appeal to our rational, cognitive brain.

The result of smart branding, as Jennie argues in another post, is that we feel an affinity with an organization and see its brand as a reflection of our own personality, even before we have a deep cognitive conception of what it actually does.

Weak nonprofit brands appeal only to our rational neo-cortex. Strong nonprofit brands speak first our heart—located in the limbic, intuitive part of our brains.


Zach Hochstadt is a Mission Minded Founding Partner and runs Mission Minded’s Denver office, leading the company’s creative teams in the areas of message development, writing, graphic design, and web design and development.

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