What cherry tomatoes taught me about marketing materials

Back in high school, I learned a valuable lesson about marketing materials while working as a dishwasher for a chain steakhouse.

Washing dishes may be the grimiest job in most eateries, but I didn’t mind it. There were clear objectives and performance measures, the work was predictable, my co-workers left me alone, the radio made the time fly by, and I didn’t have to think all that much. Plus, after you’ve spent countless Friday and Saturday evenings washing dinner dishes for hundreds of people, you don’t grumble about cleaning your own cookware.

The marketing lesson came from my first day, when the twentysomething manager shoved a three-inch three-ring binder at me and told me to read it. It was the chain’s employee operations manual, and dishwashing took up about four pages. The rest contained excruciating detail about every imaginable facet of running a restaurant. Need to know how to bake a potato? It was there. What’s the proper way to stack foods in the walk-in freezer? Ditto.

After a few minutes of breezing through all that information, I was ready to get to work, so I brought the manual back to the manager’s closet-sized office.

Startled to see me, he asked, “You read all of that already?” I explained I studied the dishwashing section, but most of the content focused on things that weren’t my responsibility, such as preparing cherry tomatoes for the salad bar. He glared at me and stiffened his shoulders. “You might need to prep cherry tomatoes for the salad bar someday! Now go read the whole thing!” I spent my entire first shift earning money by reading the overwhelming manual.

I understood proper preparation of cherry tomatoes was important to the restaurant’s reputation for having a generous and tasty salad bar. But given that my dishwashing responsibilities consumed only about one percent of what appeared in the manual, I couldn’t understand the manager’s expectation that I digest the whole shebang in one sitting.

Far too often, I see marketers taking a similar approach, doing their best to cram as much information as they can into their communications materials. You’ll hear them say, “We need to mention this … and this … and this,” as well as “Here’s some empty space. How can we fill it?” Clearly, they have so many important messages to convey and don’t want to omit any.

Unfortunately, that approach ignores the realities of the human brain. We’re capable of learning only so much at a given time, and what we learn one day tends to erode in the days that follow. It’s why fourth grade teachers generally start school with a review of what students learned in third grade.

Had the restaurant manager understood this, he would have instructed me to read only the portions of the manual that were immediately relevant to my job. Then, if a cherry tomato crisis sprouted, I could take two minutes to review that portion.

Like many marketers, he was using flawed reasoning. “We should tell everyone everything they need to know now, so they’ll remember it when it becomes important to them.” That’s a bad idea for marketers for a couple of reasons. First, people simply don’t retain that much of the overload of information that fights for our attention every day. Second, it presumes that what you have to say is relevant and extremely important to your audience. Odds are that it’s neither.

It’s far more effective to break the information into small chunks and feed it to your audience as they need to know it. Make sure the additional information they may want is accessible, so they can get to it if the need arises. Also, don’t be afraid to repeat key messages again and again. You may be aware of the repetition, but your audience probably won’t notice it at a conscious level.

I get that the information you have to convey is important. But if you fail to recognize the audience’s capacity to amass, process, and retain that information, churning out more detail is like trying to pour additional gallons of water into a one-gallon pail. All of your additional effort is wasted and neither you nor your audience benefits from what you’ve spilled.

Oh, for the record: in the months I spent washing dishes in that restaurant — and in the several decades that followed — I’ve never been asked to prep cherry tomatoes.