“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space. Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”
This was part of Fred Rogers' commencement address at Dartmouth College in 2002. His message was simple — deep down we know that what matters in life is helping others win. That was his lifelong message. Later in the short talk, he repeats what he said during his lifetime achievement award in 1997#.
It takes a minute to think about the people who helped you — near and far in space and time — and thank them silently.
imagine how grateful they must be, that during your silent times, you remember how important they are to you.
It’s not the honors and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls.
It’s the knowing that we can be trusted. That we never have to fear the truth. That the bedrock of our lives, from which we make our choices, is very good stuff.
Clarity of language is the reason so many consider Rogers one of their first teachers. A special kind of teacher who related to children and adults across a screen. He made every effort to anticipate how what we said would come across. His aim was to relate.
There's a new documentary out on Rogers' work and life by Oscar winner Morgan Neville — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In the opening lines, we learn that it was his belief that “What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”
For those who don't know about the show, Fred McFeely Rogers was an American television personality, musician, puppeteer, writer, producer, and Presbyterian minister. He created, hosted and composed the theme music for the educational preschool television series.
As The Atlantic reports#, Rogers was very good at putting himself in the minds of children watching. The writers of his show named his quest for accuracy and clarity Freddish. Arthur Greenwald and Barry Head, two writers on the show, came up with a short 9-step guide for translating into Freddish:
- “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
- “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
- “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
- “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
- “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
- “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
- “Rephrase your idea a ﬁnal time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.
The most minute details to the most important messages were put through this process. What Rogers wanted to say was put through the paces to figure out how to say it so it sounds right for children and the adults watching.
Rogers' portrayal of the kind-hearted, neighborly persona who nurtured connection to his audiences was as much a product of research (the emerging field of child-development) as deliberate choice.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” a quote attributed to Einstein, illustrates the principle of Occam’s razor. When faced with two answers to a problem, we should pick the one that makes the fewest assumptions.
Rogers took the time to learn about the people to whom he wanted to relate. He knew what he wanted to say. The guide is an example of the process he used to say it with clarity. The shows took children and adults on a journey, and each step of the journey provided a consistent experience.
Today we have many more screens to relate with customers. The noise level of messages, things to watch, and things to do has gone way up. But our capacity as humans has not changed much. Most of our activities still require a combination of bonding and bridging — we have limited attention spans and common biases trick us.
The human tendency to generalize is also a double-edged sword for brands — when the experience with a company is poor, we tend to generalize across all of them. Which means all of our communications should deliver a consistent experience across the customer journey.
Mister Rogers did this well. He knew his shows could influence behavior, so he kept striving to make them better. He spoke in the language that was easiest to understand for his viewers.
Screens change culture. Social media has made it more conversational, too. We share visuals, sounds, and written words. Each form of communication changes what and how influences us.
The shifting forces in digital culture are creating serious constraints on brands — compression, disposability, curation, and self-promotion. But they're also opening potential opportunities for deepening, timelessness, creation, and self-reflection.
It's our choice — do we want to be healers or dealers? The healers (or platforms) are marketplaces that connect people, like Kickstarter, Etsy, AirBnB. The dealers (or aggregators) aim to harness attention to either sell ads, or leverage the data. They aim to build attention economies.
Our communications tell a story. When we put language or cultural barriers between groups and business units, we end up putting them in front of customers. The amount of care we put in identifying our bottlenecks, where things get lost in translation, shows customers we care.
A few questions to get you started in creating value for your brand messages:
- Is it simple? Does the message come across clearly?
- Is it culturally smart? Do the people you want to talk to understand it?
- Does it talk the walk? In others words, can people identify your brand with it quickly?
We rarely have time and resources to do it all, or to know it all. When our choices come from a deep sense of who we are, we have a good start. “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” says Rogers. Good communication delivers a consistent experience and earns trust.
“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in the world.”
How to generalize in a case study or success story, to make it applicable to more customers.