Over the summer, I remember a specific message I saw on TV.

California was going through a drought and needed to conserve some water. Governor Gavin Newsom addressed the state and proposed a solution. Everyone in California was to cut their water usage by 15%. This was to last until drought conditions in the state improved.

While it seemed like a calculated decision on the outside, it was anything but. Telling people from California to cut their water usage by 15% was a hopeless proposal. It more than likely deterred action than encouraged it.

When you dive into the message, it makes a lot more sense.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick, the two introduced the concept of “concrete” messaging. If you want your messages to resonate, they can’t be broad, abstract, or opaque. They need to be rooted in language, verbiage, and visuals that create a clear, compelling, and actionable message. If you’re not clear about how you want something to get done, don’t expect it to get done.

If we go back to Newsom’s message, one of the big problems was the lack of clarity – or “concreteness” – behind it. Think about the amount of water you use on a daily basis. How the hell are you supposed to know what 15% looks like? Even if you tried, how do you know what 15% water reduction looks like? It’s too abstract. Most people aren’t even going to attempt to change their water usage habits. They don’t have anything actionable they can try. They just have a vague number delivered through vague messaging.

Now, let’s look at this message below:

For the next three weeks, all California residents should strive to pitch in and help reduce water usage by cutting their daily showers by 60 seconds. 

While Newsom’s original message lacked clarity, this one is much more actionable. There’s a specific time frame and a daily objective. Is everyone going to cut their shower time by 60 seconds on the dot? Of course not. However, you’ve given people something they can do. There is no barrier to action. It’s less abstract and it’s more concrete. 

If Newsom wanted to take things even further, he could have included other actionable strategies that include turning off runner water between dishes, brushing your teeth, or combing laundry loads. All of these accomplish what he originally intended. He just didn’t deliver his message in a way people could act on it. It wasn’t concrete enough.

As a coach, Newsom’s mistake should make you think about your messaging. Are your messages vague and abstract (throw harder), or are they clear and concrete (land in a position you’d want to punch from)? If you leave interpretation up to them, don’t expect them to act in a way you hoped. Make it clear from the start. The less abstract it is, the easier it will be to follow. 

Oh, and I hope all you Californians cut your water usage by 15% this past summer (whatever the hell that means). 

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