If you can’t explain everything someone needs to know in one sentence, then your explanation is too long.
When you have an important message inside of you, then you also want to spread it. The problem is the more you learn about something, the harder it is to explain it to someone else in a way they’ll care about.
This is the Curse of Knowledge.
How to Lose Friends and Bore People
Once you know something, you tend to think it’s more important than it actually is. All of a sudden, you can’t just give someone a general understanding without also giving all the excruciating details they don’t care about yet.
Years ago, I lost more friends than I made by trying to be a guitar instructor. I learned to play when I was young, and when I got to high school (surprise, surprise), a lot of my friends wanted to learn to play, too.
And why would you hire a teacher when your friend could do it for you?
So, I tried.
I’d set up a meeting. We’d get out a couple of guitars, and I’d start to explain everything about them. I’d tell them about the different parts of the guitar, what they’re made of, why they sound the way they do.
And once that was all done, then it was time to start explaining the notes and how to tune the thing, how to read music, and on and on.
Meanwhile, eyes would glaze over and roll to the backs of heads.
After a few hours, it was time to play the thing, but that didn’t matter anymore. No one wanted me to teach guitar after that lecture session.
They’d be frustrated about listening to something they didn’t care about for hours, and I’d be annoyed they didn’t want to learn anymore.
Why was this happening?
Because they wanted to play the damn thing, not learn how to make it.
I had years of experience playing guitar at this point, and I was trying to explain everything I knew about it in the first session, before giving anyone the chance to actually try it and enjoy it.
Looking back, that’s not how I got interested in the guitar. I didn’t care about anything besides rocking out. All I wanted to know was how to play the damn thing so I could impress some girls.
Eventually, I fell in love with the instrument and ended up learning all the other details.
What if I’d just taught people the way they wanted to learn instead of trying to force details down their throats long before they cared about them? What if I’d taught them the same way I’d been taught?
The Truly Great Create Simplicity from Complexity
Southwest Airlines is a great company. For decades, they’ve been one of the cheapest ways to safely get around The U.S. by plane. I know that if I need to fly somewhere, I’d better be sure to check Southwest because they’ll probably have the lowest fare.
Why is that?
There’s a lot of thought and complexity that goes into making sure that Southwest actually is the lowest fare available, but it stems from one simple core:
Southwest is THE low-fare airline.
That’s the decision Herb Kelleher (the longest standing CEO) made years ago. It’s a very simple statement, but also a very powerful one.
Herb never had to explain to anyone at Southwest how the company does its accounting or show anyone fancy graphs or spreadsheets, he simply said, “Southwest is going to be THE low-fare airline.”
That simple statement informs every decision every single day at Southwest all the way from the CEO’s office down to the baggage handlers.
A lot has to happen to keep Southwest competitive, but only one little thing needs to be remembered in order for everyone who works there to make good choices for the company.
If it doesn’t somehow make it cheaper to fly on Southwest Airlines, it’s not a good decision. Period. End of story.
Now, what if when I was teaching my friends how to play guitar, I’d just shut up about all the details and showed them how to play a chord?
Maybe I’d have more friends! And maybe they’d even be great guitar players!
The One Sentence Solution
How do you play the guitar? You strum a chord and make it sound good. Then repeat.
To introduce someone to a new idea, one sentence is about as much time as you get to make it stick.
And what’s more important when you’re just starting something new—to learn everything all at once or to be intrigued enough to keep learning for a lifetime?
If you have something important to say, then you need a way to explain it to someone new in just one sentence.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as my partner and I start our new business project, BrewPony.
What’s the one-sentence description? BrewPony is THE easiest coffee subscription service.
There are lots of things I’d love to say about it. It’s an exciting business and there are many details. But the only thing anyone needs to know is that it’s the easiest coffee subscription service available. End of story.
If you want to spread your idea, I’d encourage you to think of something similar.
What do you want to tell the world? And how can you do it in just one sentence?
Side note: A big thanks to Made to Stick, an excellent book about spreading good ideas that informed much of this essay.
Image by: choconancy1