Guest writer Haley Lee shares what her time as an elementary teacher taught her about marketing—and what we can all learn from the kids.
In my eight-year tenure teaching first grade, there was one unit that had me pulling my hair out every year, without fail: Telling Time
It’s second nature for us to do as adults, but if you take a moment to think about it—it’s pretty confusing. We measure it using ‘hands’ (where are its fingers? kids ask); we measure hours, which only go up to 12 (if the hours are bigger, why is the hand smaller?); the other measures the minutes, which go all the way up to 60 (so lunchtime is at 12:60?).
What a nightmare.
But there are plenty of lessons I took away from my time teaching—all of which have made me a better copywriter. Teaching is a constant exercise of evaluating your own effectiveness, and quickly recalibrating to figure out what will reach kids best.
Replace ‘teaching’ with ‘marketing’ and ‘kids’ with ‘customers’…and it sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So, here’s three lessons I learned from talking to kids that can make you a better marketer.
Grown-ups love to overcomplicate things. We mistake big words for intelligence; length for depth; and equate ‘more’ with ‘better.’ In my early years of teaching, I scrambled to fill dead air time with wordy explanations, naively assuming that if I was talking, I was teaching.
For instance: I check the clock and see we’re behind schedule. I call out: “We’re running late and we have to get to recess! Everybody get your coats and put them on, make sure your shoes are tied and come line up at the door.”
Half the class rushes to the exit without their coats, only hearing the last five words; others dash to their cubbies, tripping and falling over peers bent to tie their laces. In my effort to provide more information, I’ve actually made things more confusing.
Now imagine instead I say, “Lace check!” Then: “Coats on. Line up.” This time, they know shoes need to be tied first, so no one is tripping over anyone. The only things I’ve said are the only things they needed to hear, and so everyone knows precisely what to do. This brevity is referred to in the teaching world as ‘economy of language.’
Brands have plenty to learn here. They send emails and post content according to a strict schedule—twice a day on social, twice a week via inbox, in a concerted effort to make customers take notice of them—only to have zero engagement and abysmal click-through rates.
If customers don’t find the content you share valuable, it’s quickly interpreted as noise—and a surefire way to earn an unsubscribe and unfollow. When you say too much, the words that really matter get lost in a sea of unnecessary filler. And when that happens, can you really blame customers for tuning out?
But cut the clutter, and every word becomes that much more valuable. Maybe that means posting content twice a week instead of twice a day or paring down your email comms to once a week.
Channel your energy into increasing quality rather than quantity. Condition customers to expect only excellence, and they’ll start to look forward to hearing from you. When you’re discerning with your words, you communicate that every single one matters—so when your brand talks, it’s worth listening.
Build a message you, and others, will believe in
One of the biggest mistakes I made as a teacher was subscribing to the mentality of ‘my way or the highway.’ It’s the way most of us experienced school, where the teacher was the sole authority in the room and everything was done, “because I said so.”
And while, for some kids, this method of management may work, for many others, it breeds resentment, erodes trust, and does lasting damage to the classroom’s culture.
Instead, when teachers have ongoing discussions to answer questions of “Why this activity?” or “Why this rule?” it creates authentic buy-in. And kids, just like adults, are much more likely to buy what you’re selling if they believe in it.
It’s not just kids who need this. Leadership books like Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why and Elena Aguilar’s The Art of Coaching argue that a sense of purpose is the most effective motivator for adults. The need for purpose is a universal human trait, and customers, just as much as employees or students, want to know the answer to the question: Why should I care?
Don’t be a marketer so wrapped up on the shine and shimmer that you forget to communicate what matters most. If you fail to nail your core message, a beautifully redesigned website or new Canva Instagram post templates will only get you so far. You may get initial traction but eventually, you’ll lose customers’ attention—and their respect. Build a message and a strategy you believe in, and your audience will follow suit.
Think like your audience
There were so many times during that ill-fated Time Unit that I’d sink into my chair, completely defeated. “What am I doing wrong? Why aren’t they getting it?”
No matter how many times I explained—more slowly, loudly, in a higher pitch, then a lower pitch (desperation at its finest), the message simply wasn’t sticking. But as Einstein once put it: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
I needed to tailor the message to fit my audience—in this case, fun-loving first graders. The fix? A catchy jingle with our arms flexed like bodybuilders, half-singing, half-shouting, “The little hand holds the POWER, it tells the HOUR!”
It worked like a charm.
Your customers probably aren’t six-year-olds, but the lesson is the same: Make your message personal. Good marketers know their audience inside and out—the language they speak, what matters to them, and how to reach them.
Take for instance, Procter & Gamble. It owns two nearly identical diaper brands—Pampers and Luvs. Pampers is marketed to first-time parents who need the highest-quality product to put their minds at ease; Luvs is the ol’ reliable diaper for the experienced parent who knows where it’s okay to cut corners. Same company, same product, two totally different messages.
Think about your customers as more than just dollars signs or minutes spent. Whether they’re fifty, or five, people want to feel cared about. Use every interaction as an opportunity to connect, build your brand identity, and make a long-lasting impression that will stand the true test of (Telling) Time.
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