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What to do when simplicity makes the client anxious

by Jessica Van Onselen, Managing Director, BrightGuide Africa

There are some good reasons your client might be freaking out about simple messaging. Here’s how to listen to them while sticking to the plan.

What do you do when your client responds to proposals around simple messaging by getting anxious or stressed out?

Some of the projects I’ve worked on have been pretty complex. Either they’re really large, or the operating context is a conflict or post-conflict state, or the stakeholders see things very differently, or the actual project design is a beast. Sometimes, it’s all of the above. (In which case: I’d recommend a single vodka on the rocks.)

And the pandemic has of course multiplied the complexity even further.

But occasionally, when you start working with clients about getting the fundamentals in place, they panic. They resist and disagree, double down on the jargon, or find the whole exercise infuriating.

It’s important to think about where these concerns are coming from. In my experience they are seldom irrational or without reason. They often tell you something.

Some clients worry that adopting simple messages about their project does them a disservice.

They think it makes the project look trite, or its ambitions too modest. Or, they’re worried the simplicity means their thinking as the leadership team might come across as unconsidered or unsubtle. In some cases, people I’ve worked with have given up half a decade of their lives designing and fine tuning a project’s framework – they’ve pored over every angle, meditated on every detail, consulted and refined endlessly – and the idea that all that sacrifice is being reflected in a one-line message is shocking to them. In others, the stakeholder or internal tensions around the project are real, and the consequences so potentially serious, that to simplify feels flippant.

Sometimes the concerns are epistemological in origin. Working with PhDs, medical doctors or senior leaders, these experts and leaders have devoted decades to mastering their subject matter. This knowledge is textured and patterned and deep and, more often than not, tremendously enriching to be around. It also means that these experts hold a lot of history, with vivid recollections about the evolving story which has shaped the situation today.

These concerns are important.

In fact, they’re not just important – this is mission critical stuff. Listening to and understanding and taking on board as much of this detail as possible is the difference between a middling message and a precision one. You have to pay attention to as much of it as you can possibly absorb.

(To illustrate my point I googled “Sponge sucking up water” and found this moderately pleasing video.)


So what do you do with these worries? Here are some suggestions.

1. Reassure.

Demonstrate to those you’re working with that you’ve genuinely wrapped your mind around their concerns. Not just in theory, but mirror back some of the specific concerns they may have voiced, and ask about others you suspect may be an issue, to show you are also thinking about these issues properly. Also reassure them about the purpose and role of messaging. Think of the headline messaging as the starter at a great restaurant; the warm-up act to a great live show; the elevator to the top floor; the trailer before the movie. It’s not a substitute for the main event – it’s just an invitation to engage more.

2. Share your thought process with them.

Wherever possible, show them how their thinking has influenced your crafting of the message, however simple it is. What changes have you made to the language? What emphasis have you added? Talk them through how you got to the word you chose or the phrase you selected, and why. Be transparent about how what they told you and what you came up with are related.

3. Stick with simplicity.

Like a healthy diet and lots of exercise, simplicity is scary and a shock to the organisational system at first, but in time it becomes easier. Don’t be talked out of it. Rather, reassure everyone involved that simplicity doesn’t mean one can’t tweak and adapt messages, but just that they should be very few of them, and they should be as clear as possible.