Use the Human Scale

human_scale_blogMy friend Jason is a genius.

Like many parents across the country, Jason had struggled to explain the price of college to his daughter. Seventeen-year-old Rachel had fallen in love with a school whose tuition is upwards of $60,000 a year.

For a while Jason tried to communicate by multiplying that number. “You’re going to graduate with a quarter-million dollars in debt,” he would say. But that strategy never worked.

Then Jason changed his approach. “Remember how hard you had to work to save the $4,000 for your car last year?” Jason asked his daughter. “Going to that school would be like buying another car every single month.”

With that, his message officially stuck.

The technique Jason used is one familiar to those who have taken our Decker Made to Stick Messaging workshops. It’s called the human scale principle. The idea is to contextualize statistics into terms that are more every day. When he talked about an abstract $60,000 a year, it never registered with his daughter. Then he switched to human-scale language, and it clicked.

As well as Jason used the human-scale principle to communicate the cost of college to his daughter, Wikipedia did him one better. Here’s the text:

Dear Wikipedia readers: We are the small non-profit that runs the #5 website in the world. We have only 150 staff but serve 450 million users, and have costs like any other top site: servers, power, rent, programs, staff and legal help. Wikipedia is something special. It is like a library or a public park. It is like a temple for the mind, a place we can all go to think and learn. To keep it that way, we’ll never run ads. We receive no government funds. We run on donations averaging about $30. If everyone reading this gave the price of a cup of coffee, our fundraiser would be done within an hour. If Wikipedia is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year. Please help us forget fundraising and get back to Wikipedia. Thank you.

There is a lot to love here. It’s in plain language. It touches us on an emotional level (Wikipedia is “a temple for the mind”) and a logical one (“we have only 150 staff but serve 450 million users”).

Yet what we love is their use of the human scale principle: If everyone reading this gave the price of a cup of coffee, our fundraiser would be done within an hour.

Even better is their choice of human scale phrases. Consider how much more effective it is to ask the audience to give up the price of a cup of coffee compared to giving up, say, a tank of gas.  To most people a cup of coffee is a minor sacrifice.  A tank of gas feels like you’re giving up something significant. It also conjures up conflicting emotions – “I can’t believe gas is $3.50 a gallon now” and that sort of thing.

Here’s the truly amazing part: Wikipedia never actually tells us how much money they need to raise, nor how close they are to hitting that mark. They don’t tell us how long they’ll be fundraising for, either. They simply disregard the giant, intimidating numbers and speak to us in human terms.

This is a savvy, savvy pitch.

I challenge you to use the human scale principle in your communication today – in a fundraising pitch, sales pitch, meeting with a direct report or even as small talk around the water cooler. Tell us what you used in the comments.

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