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Field Notes #079: Clarity vs persuasion: when being too clever fails you

Clarity vs persuasion: when being too clever fails you

If you’re choosing between being clear and being clever, chances are, you should choose clear. 

Write like you talk, as Paul Graham says:

“Written language is more complex, which makes it more work to read. It’s also more formal and distant, which gives the reader’s attention permission to drift. But perhaps worst of all, the complex sentences and fancy words give you, the writer, the false impression that you’re saying more than you actually are.”

I recall the scene in Fight Club where the narrator says some clever joke about “single-service friends,” and Tyler asks him, “how’s that workin’ out for you – being clever?” 

Simplicity in Copywriting

“Some copywriters write tricky headlines – double meanings, puns and other obscurities. This is counter-productive. In the average newspaper your headline has to compete with 350 others. Readers travel fast through this jungle. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say.”

― David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

In all forms of copywriting – even brand and creative copywriting – it’s best not to try to be too clever. In doing so, you may impress your peers, but this can come at the expense of reaching your potential customers. 

In fact, the best copy is often stolen from the mouths of your potential customers. It comes from doing voice of customer research

What we’re trying to do is reduce cognitive load while increasing the motivation to take action (purchase).  

Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to process and understand information. 

There are three types:

  1. Intrinsic Cognitive Load: the inherent difficulty of the subject matter or information itself.
  2. Extraneous Cognitive Load: the mental effort required due to the way the information is presented or structured. Poorly designed layouts, confusing language, or irrelevant details can increase extraneous cognitive load, making it harder for the reader to process the content.
  3. Germane Cognitive Load: the mental effort associated with creating mental models, making connections, and integrating new information with existing knowledge. Effective use of examples, analogies, and visual aids can facilitate germane cognitive load and enhance learning.

I’ll say it more simply: if you make things easy to understand, it’s more likely that people will read, absorb, and remember your message. 

There are many ways to reduce cognitive load, from design decisions to formatting practices (e.g. breaking up walls up text) to language choice (smaller words and sentences) to the use of analogies and common references. 

All of this boils down to reducing the amount of friction required to consume your message. 

Simplicity in SEO

Often in editing content for SEO, I have to dial back the creativity on the page. Assuming the substance of the page is good, my stylistic advice can usually be boiled down to this: do less.

Which is a good thing; I’d rather have more marble to whittle down than have to add onto a piece. 

Very often, a writer will come up with a hyper-creative headline with puns and alliteration. And then I look at the SERP, and it’s like the most basic titles ever:

So, like, maybe the straightforward SEO headline, which maps to the user intent of the search query, is sufficient. And then you can get creative within the piece. Maybe you add a little bit of spice to increase click-through-rate, but if you’re too clever, you risk confusing the searcher and getting no clicks. 

Another SEO malady: fluff. Get to the point; I wrote a previous Field Notes essay all about this, largely inspired by Gaetano’s post on “introduction-less content.”

There’s a lot of advice out there on how we have to be storytellers, and it’s good advice, but it’s misconstrued and applied too broadly. 

Remember: user intent.

What do people want when they search for something? Usually, an answer. Or a destination. Or a list of tools. 

They usually don’t want a New Yorker piece. Save that for your barbecue content, or your ironically long newsletter essay about keeping things simple. 

It actually takes a lot of discipline for a smart person and a great writer to dial things back, but it’s the right thing to do.

This is where writers will often conflate SEO content with bad content; this connection isn’t inherent. Rather, I believe there’s art in crafting something an algorithm will pick up, a user will click on, and a reader will read and potentially convert on. It’s just not as unconstrained as other mediums. 

David Ogilvy actually had a bit on this regarding advertising, which I think is 10X as true when it comes to SEO:

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”

Simplicity in Website Messaging

I learned a lesson long ago while working at CXL on conversion rate optimization. It came from a 2009 paper from Dr. Flint McGlaughlin.

It was a simple concept for website messaging:

Clarity trumps persuasion. 

I think about that all the time. 

Sometimes, when I play tennis or pickleball, I try to get fancy. When I do, I just as often hit it into the net or out of bounds. When I keep things simple and just try to return the ball, I usually do really well. 

In billiards, they call it putting “English” on the ball when you put spin on it. 

Watching Peep Laja’s series, “Do You Even Resonate?” where he conducts actual message testing on SaaS websites, I can’t help but think too many product marketers are putting English on the ball. 

That’s why you get these jargon-y, meaningless value propositions that just confuse you into requesting a demo so you can understand what it is they even do (that’s my conspiracy theory, anyway…)

(It’s a CMS…)

Can you get away with this stuff if you’re Salesforce? Apple? Yes. 

Can most benefit from increasing the clarity of their value proposition? Also, yes. 

And whenever you’re delivering a talk, just say “use” instead of “utilize.” Easy trick. 

Simplicity in Pitching Ideas

A friend asked my advice recently on services he could sell as a consultant. His ideas were brilliant – too brilliant, perhaps. 

I asked him to, instead of starting with trying to come up with innovative and novel ideas that have never been sold before, to first start at solving core customer problems that people already know how to articulate (and value monetarily.) 

“I want to make more money.”

“I want to save more money.”

“I want to be more efficient.” 

Whatever the thing is, you have to solve a known problem, unless you have a lot of time and money to invest in educating the market on something new. Category creation, demand creation…blah blah blah. We have a finite set of desires and needs – all of your demand creation taps into those, too. 

Then, use language they already know in relation to the problem. 

People understand what organic growth, and more specifically, SEO is. 

For a while, we tried to complicate things, calling our services things like “holistic organic growth strategy.” This is fine when it comes to differentiation, but there’s no existing category called “holistic organic growth strategy,” and people need to know how to contextualize you. This helps them compare you to alternative solutions, and it also helps to already have a budget line for the thing you’re selling. 

Another thing I’ve learned, specifically about pitching executives and larger companies, is they don’t want to feel stupid. That’s not to say you need to dumb things down for them, but they need to feel like they understand what you’re saying in order to support it.

You’ll just have to trust me on this one. My life has been so much easier since I started using language people are used to when trying to pitch my ideas. 

Who Are You Trying to Impress?

A lot of this “being too clever” thing, I think, comes from insecurity or from trying to impress other people. 

Ryan Holiday talked about this in his letter to an ambitious young person:

“Ask yourself: “Am I saying this because I want to prove how smart I am or am I saying this because it needs to be said?” When you’re just getting started, it’s usually the former.”

I’ll entirely admit that this was me for SO many years. Now I try my best to be comprehensible without talking down to my audience (whether that’s here on this newsletter, in a public talk, or in an all-hands meeting with my team). 

When In Doubt, Don’t Overthink It

Something I remind myself frequently: Don’t overthink it. That’s a core principle of ours nowadays. Allie, David, and I remind each other of it constantly. 

Whenever we’re getting too into the enigmatic inner workings of our minds, we can enter a state of paralysis where we seek a perfect solution (nonexistent) and sacrifice a good one (which may turn out to be great). 

In the context of marketing, you can often just invoke a simple thought exercise: ask yourself, from the perspective of the intended customer or audience, “what’s in it for me?” 

If, in your messaging, the answer isn’t very clear, it’s time to refine it.

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Alex Birkett

Alex is a co-founder of Omniscient Digital. He loves experimentation, building things, and adventurous sports (scuba diving, skiing, and jiu jitsu primarily). He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog Biscuit.