Clarity & Simplicity

March 12, 2013 • #

I’ve gotten interested recently in how people and businesses communicate ideas, in the contexts of work, project management, product marketing, education, et cetera. Late in 2012 I read a book called Made To Stick, a study on what constitutes sticky, viral ideas. While the book is about the communication of ideas in a marketing context, it struck a nerve and got me thinking about how we communicate in general, whether as individuals or companies.

The book postulates that “sticky” ideas have six core properties: they’re simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and they tell a story. There are dozens of great examples of ideas that have lasted for decades or centuries, things like urban legends, proverbs, and countless meme-like advertising campaigns. The book makes a very compelling case, replete with examples to demonstrate the point. But what I’m interested in more than viral nature of ideas is what makes some interpersonal communication so effective, and some so ineffective. Much of theory in the book is relevant to everyday communication, too, not just marketing. I think bad communicators struggle mostly with clarity and simplicity.

I recently watched a talk given by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at Harvard, and he nails what it means to communicate clearly, in his case when publishing opinions of the court (around 58:30).

The entire talk is fascinating, but this part stands out — on editing for clarity:

“The genius is not to write a five cent idea in a ten dollar sentence, it’s to put a ten dollar idea into a five cent sentence. That’s beauty, that’s editing, that’s writing. The editing we do is for clarity and simplicity, without losing meaning and content. And without adding things. You don’t see a lot of double entendres, you don’t see wordplays or cuteness in the opinions. We’re not there to win a literary award, we’re there to write opinions that some busy person, or someone at their kitchen table can read and say ‘I don’t agree with a word he said, but I understand what he said.’”

Care and attention like this is missing from a lot of communication. It’s sometimes difficult to understand who the audience is for a piece of information—employee, customer, boss, citizen, spouse—and to tailor the message so that it connects with them in a way that’s comprehensible. If the message we want to convey is important enough that we want it to sink in (when is it not?), it takes more care and mindfulness to hone it to its fundamentals.

One of the stories in Made to Stick involves the idea of the “Curse of Knowledge” as a contributor to these common disconnects between communicator and audience, meaning the conveyor of information (whether it’s your boss, your client, or the Supreme Court) holds a body of knowledge about a subject that the recipient does not. Think of times when company leaders talk about bottom lines, synergies, or corporate strategy—terms with completely ambiguous meanings to a regular employee. If we remove the layers of abstraction and insert common everyday language, it might not sound as pretty, but people certainly get the point.

Take the book’s example of JFK’s 1961 address to congress in which he made his famous call to put a man on the moon:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? … We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Few words, but tons of concreteness. There’s no confusion about his intent. “We’re going to the moon, and here’s the deadline.” The author provides a contrasting example of how an American big business CEO would probably put it:

“Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”

That’s absolutely something you would see on a Fortune 500 company website. There’s far too much of this abstractness in the working environment today, and I think it hurts young people coming into the workforce. It creates poor writing and lures people into wordsmithing only to maximize the buzzword count.

A quality I admire in people is an ability to be articulate, to clearly express a point or intent in few words, and to get to the point quickly. It’s frustrating to have someone tell you something, or ask a question, to then find out they haven’t thought through the point. The burden is then on the audience to figure out the intent, and then to respond. The notion of Commander’s Intent can be helpful in understanding the value of clarity and articulation. In order for the listener to take your information and respond appropriately, goals, purpose, and a clear picture of what the successful “end state” looks like are critical to clear understanding.

I highly recommend Made to Stick to anyone interested in improving messaging, particularly in the context of products or business. It certainly helped me to get outside of my own head and think about copywriting and messaging around products with a more objective viewpoint.