From the Newsletter: Why Mr. Rogers didn’t blow things up
by Joel K

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Do you know how much Mr. Rogers weighed?

143 pounds—and that’s no accident.

In fact, Fred Rogers stuck to a rigorous exercise regimen to keep his weight at *exactly* 143 pounds for over 30 years.

Why? Because to him, 143 = “I love you.” Yes, seriously.

I = one letter
Love = four letters.
You = three letters.

Fred wanted to step on the scale and be reminded of love. See? Not an accident.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that TV’s sweater-vest darling did nothing by accident in the way he communicated.

His language for children was so exacting that his writers took to calling it “Freddish”—a language of his own.

I was reading a legitimately fascinating article in The Atlantic that speaks to the depth of this:

“For instance […] a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said, “I’m going to blow this up.” [the writer] recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”
Freddishwas an unspoken code; a way of breaking down a message to leave no room for misinterpretation.”
Messages like “It is dangerous to play in the street” sound good, but they would never fly: far too scary and abstract.
Through a process no less than nine (!!!) steps outlined in the article, Fred would transform the phrase into something kids can’t possibly get wrong:”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.”

Honestly, I think Mr. Rogers would’ve made an amazing copywriter, and here’s why: Research is understanding the ins and outs of your audience: their pain points, their desires, even their language to describe them.

But empathy is understanding their motivations and imaginations. It’s a Fred-Rogers-Level of knowing an audience so well that you can imagine where their minds might go—and why.

Let’s make this practical before I sign off: I’m working with a SaaS company for supply chain management. Every competitor in the field is preaching the benefits of, “Automate this! Automate that!” But do you know what I learned reviewing forums and listening to demo calls?

This audience is curious about automation and its benefits, but terrified of losing control! For them, automation is foreign and frightening, a black box of funky robotics that is bound to run amok.

And when a mistake can cost tens of thousands of dollars? Trust is key.

I rewrote that line to read: “[Client] automates the exact same steps you go through to process orders today, eliminating hours of work without robbing you of control.”

It’s longer. But I know where imaginations might go, so every word belongs.

Friend, don’t settle for research—push for empathy. To do that, you’re going to need to be like Fred Rogers:

1. Listen to people. Eavesdrop. Observe how they live. Read what they read. Watch what they watch. Go where they vent their fears and frustrations without a filter.

(A fun aside: Fred Rogers was known to be a terrible person to interview because he spent so much time asking questions of the interviewer, trying to befriend them. Be like Fred.)

2. As you write, ask yourself three questions:

+ Could any of this be misinterpreted?
+ Where might my audience’s imagination go?
+ How can I be more specific?

You may be surprised how it changes things.

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1 Comment
  1. Kathy says:

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