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Why the simple lessons of our fathers continue to endure

By Dan McDonough, Jr.

One of the best parts about Father’s Day is thinking about the lessons one learns from a dad. Those that stick over generations are the most simple. “Get mad at it,” my father would tell the 10-year-old version of me when I was trying to open the peanut butter jar. “Ya gotta wanna,” he’d say when I was trying to drop in a half-pipe on my skateboard. Those lessons required few words, but had a lot of meaning. And they resonate still for me today.

“Keep it simple, stupid,” was another of my father’s favorites even though it came to life as a design principle in the U.S. Navy in 1960. That lesson of my dad’s guided all the other important ones. Simple resonated. Simple stood the test of time. Simple just worked.

Unfortunately, many stories today aren’t simple. The more complex they are, the less they connect with their audience. Effective narrative arcs are like a father’s lessons: they can be summed up in just a few sentences. The movie industry understands this principle well. Think of how short a movie blurb can be and still get its audience to the theater. And this comes from an industry that famously talks about the measure of a film being less about what makes it into the picture, and more about what gets excised to the cutting room floor.

Getting attention in a way that will make a connection is about building a quick narrative around a simple concept. Ed Lynes wrote on the Woden blog recently how today’s true scarce resource, and the economy that matters most of all, is attention. When you measure the sheer volume of what’s out there, it’s no surprise. Every day, two million blog posts are published online, Hillary Weiss writes on the Crew blog. And of the few that actually get clicked, more than half of their readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading.

“Factor in that the average reader gets through 250 words a minute, and you’ve got a measly 62 words to grab someone’s attention,” Weiss writes. “That’s it. And this isn’t just for writers. That 15-second rule applies to your design, your app, your site. Every day on the Internet is a battle for attention, and most of us are losing.”

Part of making your narrative simple is cutting out all of the unnecessary details. Those details may become increasingly more important once you have captured the interest of the audience, but the less you need to tell the initial story, the better. This holds true not just with the written narrative, but with the visual as well. Consider the evolving insanity surrounding some men who attend Pitti Uomo, the menswear tradeshow held in Florence, Italy. Certain men attending the show have attached so many visual details to themselves as to spark the moniker: “Pitti Peacocks”.

“Whilst we admire those extraordinary icons and denizens of style who come to represent something more than their own vanity, those individuals that arrive with hipster beards, dressed in short chinos, bright green and banana yellow skin-tight double-breasted jackets and unnecessary accessories are not genuinely stylish,” complains Aleks Cvetkovic in a recent blog post on The Rake. “Rather, they attend with the explicit purpose of affecting a certain look to appease the mob of photographers who come like moths to the flame, eschewing men who dress with sophistication and originality in favour of the generic, neon-coloured peacocks.”

Having all of those extraneous details may make one flashy – something lampooned in this video by Aaron Christian – but it doesn’t add the kind of lasting substance that will endure. Simple endures. Always.

Cutting through the clutter is about simplifying the narrative to its core essence. It’s why the signature StoryKernel™ Woden produces for clients is driven by how much it can say in as few words as possible. It’s about capturing not just attention, but emotion, in an instant. As the digital landscape continues to grow, the art of keeping things simple will only become even more important.

“Typically, our minds are too occupied with thoughts to allow complete immersion even in what is right in front of us,” Neuroscientist Moshe Bar wrote recently in The New York Times. “In everyday life, you may find yourself ‘loading’ your mind in various ways… All these loads can consume mental capacity, leading to dull thought and anhedonia — a flattened ability to experience pleasure.” If your story isn’t simple enough to quickly break through the mental load and develop the pleasure of an emotional connection, your story will end up being worthless.

For my father, I’ll keep my story as simple and yet complex, as it needs to be: Thank you, dad. I love you more than you’ll ever know.

I’m thinking that will do the trick!

Dan McDonough, father to the most amazing 10-year-old boy the world has ever created, is a founding partner at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryBlueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how we can help tell your story.