When less is more

COVID-19 vaccines and the micro message

Posted 6/9/21

I recently saw a New York City Health Department television ad encouraging people to trust and take the COVID vaccine. It presents a series of questions and answers.  In a slide …

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When less is more

COVID-19 vaccines and the micro message


I recently saw a New York City Health Department television advertisement encouraging people to trust and take the COVID vaccine. It presents a series of questions and answers. In a slide-show type of format, it flashes the information about the many issues of concern that have surfaced about the vaccine and its safety. The information is correct but the format is a killer. The death knell is the overload of information and the fast-paced delivery of details.

It came across as a force-feed coming from bureaucrats who are desperate and anxious to get their message across while missing their target by flooding the moment with too many facts.

This is not Madison Avenue using its best practices but a public service announcement on overdrive. It reads like something of a checklist of concerns these health officials feel desperate to have heard. But it is too much in too little space and time for an audience that cannot possibly assimilate all of what is being said. The main message is ultimately buried in the rubble of words and information overload.

It takes me back to my days as a student rabbi. In one of my internships, I was serving as the weekend rabbi at a wonderful community-based center for aging in Fairfield, CT with something of a sophisticated population.

After delivering my sermon at my first Sabbath service, my supervisor criticized my delivery for its use of verbiage and vocabulary that was sure to miss its audience. My penchant for diction and rich language was beyond the listening skills of most in attendance.

In this case, it wasn’t a matter of education as much as cognitive impairments. But the experience highlighted a basic point in communication: Know your audience. One might want to sound eloquent and wax poetic, but it might result in a blessing in vain when overdone and not carefully tailored to the audience at hand.

There were easier ways to deliver the same message that could have better reached the people in front of me. Back then, in 1983, most people were said to read at a sixth-grade level. The New York Times, I recall being told, was, at least then, written around an eighth-grade level. I dare not begin to think of how much more our vocabulary has dipped since then.

Argue all you want, but one has to know before whom one stands.

Ironically, these very words are often inscribed in their Hebrew equivalent over the Holy Ark that is at the front of each synagogue and that holds the Torah scrolls.

Da lifnei mi atah omeid,” “know before whom you stand” (Talmud, Tractate Berachot 28b).

And while it is a call to worshippers to act with awe and awareness of God’s presence, especially in a place of prayer, Rabbinic license has often been employed to turn it around and use against the preacher themselves as something of a warning on how to appreciate the abilities of your target group and not lose one’s listening audience.

I do often quip that the sermon is a great community or public service, even for those who are not listening, in that it provides a nonchemical solution to insomnia and without any side effects to boot. This might give a secondary purpose for the large wool prayer shawls worn at morning services, which double as a blanket. So many are those who sadly return from synagogue well-rested.

The Talmud, the oral traditions and teachings of the Rabbis, makes a statement that rings well as a useful sound bite and portable tool for effective communication. “Tafasta merubeh lo tafasta,” namely, that if you grab for too much, you lose your grip and run the risk of holding on to nothing (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 4b).

This takes us back to the craft of communicating over the airwaves, TV, or computer screen. The general audience is best served by the KISS model: Keep it short and simple. Indeed, less is often more.

The objective of these commercials is to dispel fears and draft more candidates for the shot. Media experts point to the saturation effect as the secret to success. The more one hears the message, the more apt one is to be won over to the cause. In fact, once a person begins to tire of the message from constant exposure, the greater its measure of efficacy. Its frequency of use and the extent of its reach mean that the memo has been received.

Rather than bombard the people with a surfeit of details, a simple statement should suffice.

All that need be said in this context is, “Take the vaccine. It’s safe, tried and tested and it will protect you.”

More than that is overkill. The clinical information beyond that is superfluous. Hammer home the bare truth and key objective. Clinicians can pick up the slack before rolling up one’s sleeve. Mass media should focus solely on the invitation and opportunity, clearly and succinctly stated, in a way that will convince and compel.

We might be more mindful of the tendency to overstate our case when a simple, catchy line or two is sure to be heard and register. The urgency for effective messaging in the face of a race toward herd immunity requires a strategic line, not a dissertation.

Indeed, this is one of those situations when, in fact, “more is less.” As the power of the proverbial elevator speech in context, this message is best served up short and sweet in a tight and targeted way.

As clergy, I know too well the desire to share one’s inspirational wares. But as the rabbis of the Talmud also stated, “yatzah s’charoh b’hefseido”—with overreach, you lose what you sought to gain (Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, 8:12).

 The day is short and the work is great. Brief and strategic in this case should be our operational way.


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