Imagine you’re working on something new. I don’t mean new to you; I mean something truly new, as in, not done before. In the initial project stages you have an vague mess of ideas, some clearer than others. Incrementally, you make sense of these ideas; give them form.

Eventually, you’ll need to scale your efforts. If the project is come to life and grow, eventually you’ll need to recruit others. To do this, you must describe what you’re doing in terms they can understand. But how can they understand something that is new and messy? You must describe it in terms they already understand.

One way to go about it is by developing a high-level concept: a pithy statement that describes your idea by leveraging other ideas. For example:

  • ALIEN: “JAWS in a spaceship.”

  • HOOK: “What if Peter Pan grew up?”

  • LinkedIn: “Facebook for business”

  • YouTube: “Flickr for video”

None of these statements do full justice to these movies and platforms. But they’re remarkably easy to grasp and remember. In the parlance of the Heath brothers (whose book, Made to Stick includes a section on high-level concepts), these statements are sticky.

As long as the interlocutor knows what JAWS, Peter Pan, Facebook, and Flickr are, he or she will now have a way to dive into the subject. Once in, they can begin making the necessary distinctions that really set the idea apart. They will also be able to describe it to others, helping the idea spread.

Although high-level concepts are short, writing them isn’t easy. Doing so calls for tough decisions. What is this project really about? How does it compare to what’s gone before? Is this something people will get excited about? Boiling things down to such a statement can be hard, but it’s important that it happen. Doing so brings clarity and alignment. It also informs structural decisions at a point where projects are vague and ambiguous. Articulating a clear and compelling concept goes a long way to clarifying a project vision so others can bring it to life.

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