O&M London's Chief Strategy Officer, Kevin Chesters wrote why the Ten Commandments are a good lesson for writing better briefs in Marketing Society.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing. And the skill of writing (and not just in a mild panic about writing this kind of thing). And especially the skill of brief writing for planners.
I’m a firm believer that equal with strategic smarts for any planner is the skill of writing well. After all, it is not just a brief for creatives it is a CREATIVE brief. If one cannot put one’s strategic point-of-view into a coherent, creative flow then I’ve found it is much harder to get anyone inspired to work on it. The converse is also true – the better written the argument, the more cogent it becomes.
I’ve been musing on this for the last few weeks and it occurs to me that if you wanted a blueprint for advice as to how to write well (especially briefs) then one could do a lot worse than to look at the Ten Commandments. OK, I’m sensing you think this is a bit tangential. But I think there is pretty concrete behavioural science to back me up. The Ten Commandments are a blueprint for all sorts of heuristics that beyond their spiritual significance would probably mean this set of ten life rules would probably stick in the mind.
For starters, they are short. Regardless of the version of the Bible one picks they use less than 100 words in total to deliver the entire blueprint on how to live your life. By anyone’s idea of efficient word-count that is off the charts. I’ve had shopping lists with more words on them than that. There is a behavioural science heuristic called the Concreteness Effect that proves this. Simple, short, concrete nouns and words are processed faster by the brain than more complex equivalents. I think that written briefs should ideally never be more than a page, and if possible not in a traditional written format at all. A short presentation deck is best – written to inspire rather than inform. By all means, have a written brief to share at the end as a summary, but don’t ever read it out in the briefing. The brevity of the Ten Commandments is amazing – Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal – and we’re left with zero ambiguity as to what we are meant to think, feel or do.
n.b. One of my theories BTW on why the Ten Commandments are so short is that they had to be written on MASSIVE STONE TABLETS. Now if you had to carry your instructions into the briefing written on two colossal bits of granite I suspect you might think a bit harder about your economy of words too. It’s a very early example of the media fitting the message and vice versa.
Secondly, as a set of instructions, they are really simple. This is also a behavioural principle called Chunking. Making things bite-sized makes them much easier to process and remember. When writing your briefs make sure they are simple and clear. If you look up the word “brief” in the dictionary it’ll give you a big clue – concise, clear, succinct!
Next, the Commandments work because there aren’t many of them. They are also a good example of the Scarcity Effect – there are only ten of them, to live your ENTIRE LIFE BY! Things become more attractive & valuable to us when we believe they are scarce (“Only Ten Commandments, get them before they’re gone!”) Be ruthless about what you leave out of your brief or briefing – as the old saying goes, good strategy is sacrifice.
Another behavioural principle that makes them so effective is the Labour Illusion. There are ten commandments, but it does suggest that perhaps their author had sifted and selected these ten from a longer of list of potentials.
And if you still don’t believe me, the final one is a bit more obvious, the Messenger Effect. We often believe the messenger more than we believe the message – in this case God wrote them, so that’s a cheat. But you get my point. Make sure you are an effective messenger for the message – think about the theatre of your briefing as much as the content of your brief. It matters. I suspect that Moses popping down the mountain carting two massive tablets was a pretty effective delivery mechanism.
Finally, I think that they work really well simply because they are a list. Lists are a brilliant example of all those behavioural principles put together. Short, clear, selective. Lists work really well for strategy and for briefings. I love the thought that the Ten Commandments are the earliest form of the Buzzfeed List. A simple ten-point checklist for how to live one’s life, regardless of whether or not one has a faith. I personally don’t but I can appreciate the clarity, the brevity and coherence of the list. We all love a list.
I’m sending all my planners on a creative writing course in the next few weeks. I’m not sure they’ll come up with anything as great as “Do not let thyself lust after thy neighbour’s wife” but I live in hope.
Read the original piece, published in Marketing Society.