Two key pieces of digital communication, rarely combined (but game-changing if they are)

What's the difference between strategy and marketing? What's an information hazard? How to make information 'sticky'? And how does this all add up to propell your mission forward?
Written by
Merlin Eric Bola

Strategy & Content Direction

Last week, I ran into one of my favourite things:

Simplicity on the right side of complexity.

I listened to a podcast episode where Chris Williamson takes a quote from Morgan Housel’s book and digs into a claim he made:

»Best story wins. Stories are always more powerful than statistics. Why?«.

Morgan answers:

»I drives you crazy if you think the world is gonna be governed by the right answer.

’If I could just come up with the right answer – that’s what’s gonna change people’s minds!’

It’s almost never the case. What actually gets people to nod their heads is just … whoever is telling the best story, the most compelling story. And that’s not to say that they’re fooling people. If you have the right answer and you’re not a good storyteller, you may or may not get ahead.

But if you have the right answer AND you’re a good storyteller … the sky is the limit.

It’s so easy to discount the power of a story because it’s a soft skill. A lot of analytically minded people think: ‘If I can just find the right answer in the spreadsheet, if I can just create the product that works the best, everything else will just take care of itself.’

And it just doesn’t work like that.«

This overlaps with the notion that that strategy and marketing should fundamentally be the same – a notion that I first encountered in No Bullshit Strategy by Alex MH Smith.

The idea is that marketing is best when it’s the outward communication of strategy. It should not add too much fluff, but rather represent a robust core.

In a blog article, he even put it like this, referring to two revered management thinkers:

»Drucker saw the business of marketing the same way as Martin Glen, former chief exec of the FA, who summed it up by saying.

“The fundamental role of marketing is to decide what a company is”.

Stop and consider that for a second. What a company is. Clearly there is nothing more crucial and fundamental than that. The clue in fact is in the name: “marketing” — as in navigation of the market. As in determining how the business clicks into the market and interfaces with it. In other words, determining its very nature from an external point of view.«

We’re coming out of an age that saw this principle violated.

A lot.

One or the other, but rarely both

Commonly, someone either has the right answer, or tells a good story.

Many diligent workers, bright scientists and passionate idealists struggled to tell a good story, and their right answers were lost to the noise. They failed to turn their knowledge into a coherent signal to amplify and resonate with.

All the while, pushy crooks figured out how to oversell bad solutions with puffy language, focussing more on fanfare than fulfillment. It’s rare that right answer and good story meet, since the skillsets for arriving at each don’t necessarily overlap.

Combine the right answer and a good story, tho, and you have the recipe for:

  • Success
  • Transformational change
  • The world we all either consciously or subconsciously seek

You just received the ‘big idea’ of this article:

Right answer, good story.

The two ingredients.

You’re at a crossroads now. Grab them and run, or join me in an exploration of how to get there.

*twiddling thumbs*

Still here?

Fantastic, I knew I could count on you – let’s dig into it.

The beauty of the ‘right answer and good story’ model is that integrity is baked right into the formula:

The right answer

You’re not arriving at the right answer without some care and diligence.

You can’t take a shortcut here, and noone is born equipped like this. We all have to grow into this world, adapt to it, become familiar – and ultimately acquire the depth of insight required to change it.

Sure, a rare breed can take the way of the fool. They just go ahead with marvellous ignorance and succeed because they didn’t know it was impossible.

Is that you?

If it isn’t, your capacity to contribute something essential to the change we seek probably shoots forward from the fertile ground of one or two areas of specialization combined with broad, trans-disciplinary education – turning you into a ‘T-shaped person’.

These T-shaped folks seem to be set up best to deliver the right answers.

Let's assume that's you. How did you get there, what's the sequence of qualification steps that not everyone takes?

You kept on digging.

Learning.

Persisting.

Despairing.

Bouncing back.

Hitting another wall.

Doubting yourself.

Regaining confidence.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Until you nailed it to a … T.

Through iteration and tenacity, you have trained your perception and cognition to digest complexity. You have managed to turn it into an intuitive sense of direction, which is the payoff to accept the daunting task to make sense of a quick-moving, complex, beautiful, and scary age.

All of this is what your ‘right answer’ is made of, but it sure can be hard to communicate the wealth of insight that this process produced.

It can feel almost impossible to distill. It can feel absolutely impossible to make the distillation do your actual knowledge justice.

But there’s a way – not around it but through.

To find it, we have to dissect three moving parts:

  1. Resonance-free complexity
  2. Information hazards
  3. Sticky information

Let’s start with …

1. Resonance-free complexity

I recently got frustrated with myself, and – frankly – the whole field of science.

As I was reading a scientific paper, I noticed that I was actually skimming.

Sounds fine, doesn’t it?

To me, it didn’t.

Because I COULD read instead of skim.

I learned to take scientific lingo to the forehead. The words that I don’t yet know I can deduct from the Latin roots. If I can’t, a Google search is readily in reach. I absolutely could have read the paper word by word, and yet I didn’t.

This partially brings home the point I am making here: Even those equipped worm through dense papers … don’t want to.

We rather save the energy.

This experience rekindled an old pain. The pain of ‘should’. The idealist pain that it shouldn’t be this way. True science should be readily recognized. I should be willing to read this a full, given the effort that went into it.

In response to my frustration about the skimming, I asked a question and wrote a list:

What’s actually working?

If ‘truth’ or ‘science’ are not what’s infusing our collective sensemaking at scale …

… what is?

Let’s confront reality.

This is the list I wrote, of things that DO manage to create the stir I’d hope self-evident truth would:

  • Money, incentives and rewards
  • Media and the perception of things, not their reality
  • Law, social status and reputation
  • Violence and the threat of it
  • Fear and loss aversion
  • Science … or rather the appearance of it, its useful distortions
  • Social proof (what does the tribe say?)
  • Want, and the scarcity of wanted goods

I surely forgot something, but let’s find patterns. Most of these boil down to ‘what do I gain?’ (or not lose) and ‘what’s safe and easy to believe?’.

It’s personal gain, ease and comfort that most people are after.

We look for effortless ‘System-1-thinking’.

We look for information to confirm our beliefs.

We look for a easy info snacks at the cost of scrutiny and truth.

Very few look for deep, uniquely insightful, challenging to think through, and rewarding to do so anyway.

Well … sobering.

Meanwhile, philosophers, scientists, and the most dedicated truth-seekers on this planet struggle to see their impact and their message heard.

Something else than truth wins.

The information itself isn’t what’s moving the needle.

Noone cares if you have the right answer if you fail to turn it into a good story. The right answer will only be heard if it’s wrapped correctly. You have to turn your wealth of insight into something uncluttered and digestible.

You have to transmute it into a story that effortlessly connects to people’s brains and recalibrates their mental environment.

2. Information hazards

The arguably best example for ‘recalibrating a mental environment’ is an information hazard.

An information hazard is a piece of information that can do damage simply by being known.

Think of literally explosive information in the wrong hands, like leaked blueprint that not only enables someone to create a gigaton bomb – it also prompts the idea to create it in the first place, along with the ability to do so.

Part of the power of information hazards is that our subconscious registers that the hazard is high-leverage information, and will struggle to forget it. You can’t really unlearn it.

Once wedged into our minds and sitting nested within, it does its work. Your mind will try to adjust to and make sense of what you’ve just learned. But the human mind is powerful beyond adjusting and sensemaking – it’s proficient at creation.

Instead of solely adjusting to the information, it might try to adjust reality to what you’ve learned.

In a truly hazardous information spill, that dynamic typically plays against us – or the people that live around the gigaton bomb builder.

Now, can it play for us?

Yes, there are positive, constructive, beneficial information ‘hazards’.

Things I personally can’t unsee

You surely have your own examples of things you can’t unlearn or unsee, but to illustrate the concept …

… these are some of mine:

  • A realization about blind trust in modern society
    Having blind trust into something is the open door to get fooled. The way that our systems are designed, there’s endless opportunity to stack deceit over decades and centuries. You can even make it law, with the next generation forgetting that this was different once. It’s an insight made me go really cautious on authority, international institutions, and science, and given the degree of censorship and algorithmic manipulation we’re seeing, this puts me into a state of agnostic suspense.
  • A vision of a bioregional civilization
    We originally structured life between mountain ridges as watersheds, and water catchment areas between mountain ridges naturally outlined a home. It’s how we structured our life around the availability of the one absolutely essential and innegotiable resource – water. It’s not only where we’re coming from, it’s the way forward aswell. Combined with trustless systems and decentralized technological infrastructure, learning that the future could look like this flipped a switch for me.
  • Unique laws of the mind
    We’re looking for natural laws, but we’ve ignored the unique laws of the mind. There’s no set-in-stone future reality that can be extrapolated from the past. Whatever we genuinely believe plays a role, because downstream of belief is the adequate action to realize it. Belief shapes thoughts, then words, then actions. There’s a space of ‘psychological wisdom’ that’s marked by a conscious degree of healthy ignorance and selective perception. There are ‘functional beliefs’, beliefs with inherent constructive merit if they’re held in the mind, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies. This is well illustrated by the phrase »Whether you think you can do it or not – you’re right.« (Henry Ford)
  • The effective-ethical sweetspot in marketing
    After a diet of science and philosophy, when I set out to be a marketer to see some more impact, a strong distaste for marketing-as-usual blocked the path. I didn't just want to make sure I wasn't selling out, or turning pushy at some point of forgetfulness – I also wanted to avoid moving 'too ethically’ (= cautious, teethless, ineffective). I was looking for balance and not sure I would find it. Today I see that – given the fatigue that people feel around intrusive marketing –there’s a sweetspot emerging between ethical and effective, marked by higher effectiveness … precisely because of an ethical backbone.

These are just a few examples to give you an idea.

Once learned, these are hard to unlearn, shaping your perspective and judgment from here onwards. Now imagine that you could provide the next positive information hazard in the minds of your audience.

What if you could gently offer encouraging, believable and robust perspectives to the minds of demoralized people?

What if you could invite them to see a path ahead, and also propell your mission and business forward at the same time?

Turn the right answer into a story that your audience can’t forget.

Make it sticky.

3. Sticky information

There’s at least one whole book written on this.

Made To Stick is a fabulous read. The Heath brothers, Chip and Dan, explore what makes information sink into brains, spread through culture, and enable effortless retention of information through a lifetime.

They told many stories of visceral, multi-sensory experiences across these pages that were impossible to forget, and introduced the Velcro Theory Of Knowledge. The mental image is that Information has ‘hooks’, our brain has ‘loops’.

The more hooks – involved senses, emotional charge, story elements – the better it sticks.

You know what sticks like Velcro? Making you imagine you the sound right about … now

One story was about a lesson in history.

Learning about the First World War, the students saw the adventure far from a boring class room more than anything. They were a little too starry-eyed on something they fundamentally misunderstood. So the teacher decided:

These kids really need to develop a distaste for what war actually is.

So he got a cow bone.

And a bone saw.

After telling them that most often in war, there weren’t any painkillers around … he started sinking the teeth of the saw into the bone. The room was filled with metal slowly grinding through bone. It took a while, time enough to smell bone dust floating through the air and have an emotional experience of imagining to sit through this without any relief.

Many hooks.

They felt it, and it stuck with them.

Forever.

They were later asked about this lesson, and not a single student had forgotten.

It was Velcro’ed to their minds, and hitched up to a web of surrounding knowledge about the war.

Alright, let’s wrap up.

We covered three moving parts:

  • Resonance-free complexity is the situation that many people face
  • A positive information hazard to bring in touch with people’s brains is the goal
  • Sticky information in the form of stories or multi-sensory experiences are the vessel

Now, you can’t always create a multi-sensory experience, and stories are the next best thing.

They can make you picture the actual experience so vividly that you’ll come out with increased retention almost as if you had experienced it. I noticed that I still effortlessly remember an outstanding amount of stories from the book.

Why is this relevant?

Magnetizing the right prophecy

Most people are:

  • Overwhelmed with information
  • Filled with apocalyptic movie scenes and dire expectations about the future
  • Influenced by scientific models extrapolating a catastrophic future from a messy past

The problem is: While we can’t tell all of these apart, they’re emotionally charged enough so that they ‘stick’. They merge into a general sense of anticipation for what the future will bring, leading many people to habitually hold the ‘wrong’ images in their minds.

This is an information hazard.

A little more fool’s freedom would be fantastic here – knowing less, trusting more, acting with zest and abandon.

Apocalyptic horror is not a good basis from which to create a future of planetary regeneration and human flourishing. It’s not a good prompt to see a bright path ahead and then move to make it happen. The human mind creates self-fulfilling prophecies, and if we marry made-up movie images to scientific ‘facts’ only to ardently believe in our downfall …

… we might make it happen.

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!

– Aesops Fables

We could then say ‘see, science and the movies told us’.

But we would have missed the fact that our collective belief made it happen more than anything, and that a more psychological wise crowd would have found countless pathways to turn the ship, and would have resisted to give into the fascination of existential dread and horror so much.

Now, we have the opportunity to turn this from a Would Have into a Will Do, then a Doing it!, and then a Have Done.

How?

By making positive information hazards sticky.

Turn your right answer into a good story

What if you had a robust vision for a worthwhile future for people to recognize?

You’d draw attention.

You’d spark intrigue.

You will find people doubting and objecting to your vision, some reasonably and others … because these exist aswell. But many people will consider your take if it’s possible, grounded, and well argued.

What if that power could play on your side not just for vanity, but real-world results?

What if it could ‘drive business’?

If you’re the purpose-driven type, chances are that your business is infused with a good sense of direction. If it was scaled, it would benefit many people, not just you.

If that’s what you’re working with – please turn your right answer into a good story.

Storytelling is the royal path to make people imagine a different future without pushing it on them. It effortlessly draws attention, walks people through a scenario of your choice, and helps them make sense of a complex chain of events.

Stories:

  • Pose challenges and obstacles (objections)
  • Show how to overcome them (solution)
  • Foreshadow a happy end (benefit)

It’s marketing turned visceral, sticky, and unintrusive.

It’s a gift to ourselves from our stone-age past, perfect for people with a vision to bring it alive ahead of time.

Deliver a missing piece to the puzzle of reality that fits so well, it can’t be unseen.

For me personally, this adds up like this:

If you have the right answer, you have a binding obligation to turn it into a good story.

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