Why You Should Write About the Same Idea at Least 5–7 Times
Lessons from communication theory
Sometimes I develop a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach just after I publish an article.
It’s not because I’m worried about how my readers will receive my article. It’s because I’m worried about how I will ever come up with another article idea as original as the baby I just sent out into the world…
I used to feel like everything I wrote had to be completely original and that I couldn’t write about any ideas that anyone else had already written about — not even if I’m the one who wrote them!
But all this changed when I started studying communication theory.
Writing is a form of communication. And insights gleaned from studying communication in the workplace, advertising, and psychology can help us to write more effectively.
Insights from the workplace
PROSCI, the global change management organization, recommends that managers and change management professionals repeat messages five to seven times before they consider that their stakeholders have “heard” what they’ve said. That’s right… prior to repeating themselves a minimum of five times, they should not expect that people have heard them!
Writing on PROSCI’s blog, Tim Creasy states that “communication should be viewed as a process and not an event.” What does this tell us? That as writers, it’s unwise to view one article as being capable of fully communicating any one idea to our readers.
We should always view idea communication as something we do over a series of articles. Not necessarily an overtly numbered series, but as a process where we’re communicating the same idea, albeit in different ways and on different days. I’ll give three tips for doing this below.
Insights from advertising
One of the oldest principles in marketing is the rule of seven. It tells us that, on average, it takes a consumer viewing an ad seven times before they’ll take action on the marketing message.
Businesses who believe in this principle don’t expect their potential customers to take action on their offer before they’ve put their marketing material in front of them seven times!
Crazy, right? And we think writing about our idea one time is enough for people to notice it, get it, and put it into practice in their lives.
People are overwhelmed with information and advice. If we want them to use their small amount of free time to read our article, then we need to look at our writing as a marketing plan and aim to get our idea in front of them a minimum of five times.
Insights from psychology
This is really about psychology. And psychologists have something relevant to add to this discussion. It’s called the mere-exposure effect. Writing about the mere-exposure effect on LinkedIn, Marton Jojarth tells us “that people show a preference for a thing, an idea, or a message if they are familiar with it.”
We need our readers to not only read our content and understand it, but to also take action on it. And, as psychologists tell us, people are much more likely to take action on something that they’ve become familiar with.
As your readers become familiar with your ideas, they’ll also become more likely to click on future content that makes them recall that same idea that they’ve developed a preference for.
“A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work”
That’s what the father of a one-year-old girl said upon seeing her struggle with a print magazine — trying to ‘swipe’ its ‘screen’ as she did with her parents’ iPad. We can’t ignore how our readers are reading our work. They’re consuming our articles digitally. And this changes things.
Studies have compared reading comprehension in print mediums vs. digital mediums. And although the results vary, many studies have found that when people read content on a digital screen, they read less, retain less, and find it more mentally taxing.
Since our writing on Medium is published and consumed digitally, it’s possible that people are reading less and retaining less than they would if it was printed. Therefore, writing about the same idea multiple times increases the potential that our readers will hear what we’re saying.
People Are Incredibly Distracted
You worked really hard on your new article. But you know what? The vast majority of people won’t give it the time it deserves. They didn’t choose to go to the store, buy a physical copy of the book you wrote, and commit to reading it. And even if they had, lots of people don’t read the books they buy!
No, your article might be something they came across while scrolling through Facebook. And maybe they’ll spend one to two minutes reading the headline, looking at the picture, scrolling through, and reading the subheadings and a paragraph or two. And maybe that’s it.
It’s relatively safe to assume that many of the people reading your stuff have not grasped the concept or felt the call of the takeaway like you hoped they would. If your aim is for people to truly understand and apply what you’re saying, you’ve got to get your idea out there so much that they’re in danger of tripping over it.
As a general rule, people are going to get your article way after you expected that they would.
To Do This, Use Reframes, Metaphors, and Examples
When you write about the same idea multiple times, it’s helpful to use reframes, metaphors, and examples to further explain and reveal your subject.
Here’s an example of a headline and how we can reframe it, use a metaphor to describe it in a fresh way, and use an example to give it more personal support. Each of these represents a separate article, but I’ll just focus on the different headlines here.
The headline of the original article:
This is a real article I wrote. It’s an exploration of Simon Sinek’s book, “The Infinite Mindset,” and it provides my readers with a clear overview of the idea and how to implement it in their lives, work, parenting, and relationships.
Now, I’ll show you how I could reframe this article and use a metaphor and an example to publish three more distinct articles about the same idea.
Using a reframe for a new article:
How Having a Finite Mindset Leads to Perpetual Unhappiness
Here I’m talking about the same idea, but I’ve reframed the way I’m approaching the topic. I’m focusing on the opposite of an infinite mindset (‘a finite mindset’) and I would conclude the article with a section outlining how to cultivate an infinite mindset.
Using a metaphor for a new article:
An Infinite Mindset Is a Trillion Second Chances
Using a metaphor, I zero-in on how having an infinite mindset keeps people from quitting when things get tough. I’ve shared this aspect of the idea in the other articles, but here I make it the focal point of my article — which leaves the reader feeling as if it’s new. And, again, my core idea is getting reinforced.
Using an example for a new article:
How Having an Infinite Mindset Made Selling Ice Cream the Most Meaningful Job I’ve Ever Had
Using an example is a powerful way of putting some ‘flesh and bones’ on a conceptual idea. And the most powerful examples we can use are stories.
Many readers who might not have connected with the more ‘conceptual’ description of the idea in my original article may very well connect with the real-life story of how an infinite mindset practically improved my life.
The first time you write about an idea, many people just won’t understand or connect with what you’re saying. But by reframing the idea in a new article, describing it with a metaphor, or by explaining it with a real-life story, people who were uninterested before might be drawn in and transformed.
This Advice Might Not Be for You
If you’re just writing for yourself, then this advice isn’t for you. However, if you’re writing to help and provide value to other people, then this is for you.
But to provide them with real value, you first need to empathize with them and understand what their pain and desires are. Now, I can’t help you figure that out — it’ll depend on who you’re trying to help. But, if your ideal reader is a human being, there is some advice I can give you:
Give them numerous opportunities to read about your idea.
The majority of your readers are probably distracted, and they probably don’t read and retain a lot of what you write. So you’ve got to write in such a way that your readers are more likely to hear what you're saying. And for our discussion here, that means giving them numerous opportunities to read about your idea.
Find Your ‘Effective Frequency’
There’s really no magic number of times you should write about the same idea.
As a general rule, I’d say start by shooting for five to seven times. It seems challenging, but it’s doable — especially considering it’s far less than the 20 times that Thomas Smith recommended in his 1890 book, “Successful Advertising!”
So, experiment with the frequency and see what feels effective to you. One thing’s for sure, though: Write about your ideas more than once. It’ll increase your publishing frequency (which is a very positive side effect of all this), and it’ll help your readers to understand and apply your ideas.
If you’re writing to help people, then you shouldn’t be afraid to publish the same idea multiple times. In fact, you should write about your ideas until you’re so sick of thinking about them you could scream!
Why? Well, here’s what we know:
- Communication theory in management, advertising, and psychology tells us that people need to see/hear/interact with information multiple times before they will really hear it, understand it, and take action on it.
- Your readers are people too. And most of them are probably distracted and don’t read and retain a lot of what you write.
- You can help them by writing about the same idea multiple times. How? By using reframes, metaphors, and examples.
So you shouldn’t be afraid of writing about the same idea again and again and again and again and again.
In fact, your readers might just thank you.
This article was originally published by Michael touchton on medium.