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How to be the dumbest person in the room

Sophie Meadows

When I started working in advertising, people talked about industry roles using character tropes. Accounts? Bubbly, extroverts. Creatives? Aloof, child-geniuses. Strategists? Introverts in glasses; the cleverest people in the room. 

Unfortunately for a Strategist, I am gifted with perfect eyesight. I am also plagued by the conviction that thinking you are the cleverest person in any room guarantees the opposite.

I was worried. How would I fit in? Could I buy a pair of glasses without prescription lenses? No, I was on a starting salary in advertising: Cubitts was out.

I thought some more about the role of the Strategist. Strategists untangle complex client problems to produce a clear direction from which creative ideas can flow. So how best to reduce complexity? For a start, don’t create more of it by asking smart questions and using convoluted language. 

Instead, be intentionally dumb. Ask “Why?”. A lot. The optimal number of times is five, apparently

The “what”, the “why” and the “how”

At The Frameworks, most of our clients work in technology or finance. They are operating complex business models with sophisticated and often unique offers. 

We unlock their briefs by infiltrating their technical, jargon-saturated landscapes and finding a clear path back out. Not immediately understanding their challenges is an essential part of the job.

Here are some tools that I have found useful in the complex-to-simple process.

The “What”: SHE knows best

Strategy is as much about what is not included as what is. 

In every project there are many “whats” – business challenges, audience insights and product benefits are classic examples. By reducing and prioritising you identify the question at the heart of strategy: what is the problem you are trying to solve? 

Technologist and designer John Maeda explores models for navigating complexity in The Laws of Simplicity (2006). His SHE model – Shrink, Hide, Embody – is especially useful. 

First, shrink down the list of possibilities. Then, reviewing what remains, hide the complexity; articulate what is essential in the most simple way possible. Finally, embody this by thinking about how it can be made manifest, either physically or verbally. The model is born from product design but it has many applications elsewhere.

Recently, we’ve been redesigning our employee value proposition at The Frameworks. We workshopped a list of all the things we offer our people, in terms of culture, resources and benefits. We made a shortlist of the non-negotiable attributes (Shrink): “respect for the individual”, “diverse workstreams”, and “access to clients and training”. 

We distilled these ideas (Hide) and found that the commonality between them is “culture and challenges that inspire us to do our best”. We chose to articulate this human truth (Embody) within the creative brief as “let us bring out the best in you”, which will form the foundation for our big idea and resulting execution. 

The process necessarily forces prioritisation and direction, thus yielding a simple clear idea we can build on.

The “Why”: managing the chimp

When it comes to the “why” of audience engagement, communicating in B2B is no different from B2C: however important rational benefits are, emotional ones resonate more. 

In The Chimp Paradox (2012) Professor Steve Peters uses analogies to illustrate how and why we think, feel, and behave the way we do. He describes three components in the brain: the chimp (primal drives), the human (learned, rational responses) and the computer (points of reference for past experiences). 

This model is an insightful way to think about how you evaluate ideas, as well as how your audience might receive messaging. 

Should you feed the chimp? Can you appeal to the human? Is there an opportunity to tap into the computer? 

We recently redesigned the brand for an insurance group’s charity. Our key audience was the people who the charity exists to support: people in and around the business applying for funding. 

Reading through the funding applications, I was surprised by how raw they were. People were applying on behalf of loved ones, and their applications were heartfelt and moving. They weren’t driven by their “human”, or a desire to appear to do good. They were driven by something more primitive: love, grief and hope. This gave us permission to talk to “the chimp” by pouring these emotions into the brand manifesto, in a celebration of bravery and vulnerability. 

The “How”: thinking like a child

How do you get to the bottom of complex topics? A particularly effective technique is to ask your client to pretend they’re talking to a child. 

We used this exercise in a client workshop as part of a product naming brief. The products in question are the epitome of “niche”: radio frequency power components that play a vital role in the way cancer treatment machines work. We needed to strip back the technical language to understand the single most compelling and distinctive thing about each product. 

We asked the engineers to describe the products in no more than two sentences. Words with more than three syllables were banned. We then had them highlight keywords that were evocative, or were an active verb. 

We simplified these descriptions of why each product mattered to their audience and was different from their competitors’ and translated them into a naming theme. The result? Distinctive, memorable product names all linked to their integral value. 

Seeing is believing

The value of strategy lies in encouraging clients to see their businesses differently, and to press ahead in a new direction accordingly. This requires conviction, which is most easily achieved by presenting simple, clear choices. 

In my experience, tried and tested models and processes are invaluable for achieving such simplicity and clarity. And if all else fails, there’s always Cubitts.