How to simplify language (Part 1)

a yellow pineapple to represent content marketing simplified

In content marketing, clear and precise language translates into a powerful and resonant message. Clear language is often simple, but it’s not simple in the sense of being basic or subpar. We call language simple when it’s easy to understand and when it presents no difficulty of comprehension to the intended reader or audience. The audience can instantly grasp the message. Yet how an audience embraces this message often depends on their prior knowledge of the subject.

English grammar and usage manuals often use the terms clarity and grace in place of simplicity. Language that has clarity is coherent and intelligible, and as readers we do not need to strain our minds to understand a key idea or concept. The late English professor Joseph M. Williams argued that prior knowledge of a subject usually influences how we interact with a given idea or concept. As he says, “What counts most in comprehending a text is how much we already know about its content.” Text and message are interchangeable. If we know a lot about a subject, chances are we interact positively with the message because we understand its argument, whether we agree or disagree with its overall message. If we know little about the subject, and we’re reading a text that assumes we know a lot, we usually respond with irritation and confusion. We ultimately fail to comprehend the message because the writer assumed too much.

The amount we comprehend about a company and its message depends on our prior knowledge of not only the brand but the industry and its accompanying technical knowledge. When I land on Uber’s main home page, I see the following message: “Move the way you want.” The message uses freedom to appeal to both drivers and riders. As consumers we can hail an Uber ride whenever we want; as drivers we have the flexibility and freedom to work at our convenience. We comprehend Uber’s message because we know that Uber offers transportation, and when we connect freedom with transportation, we have a message that communicates convenience and ease.

When a product or service is more complex and technical, prior knowledge becomes a key pivot point because writers have to estimate how much information their readers need in order to understand a message. Yet when there is no product or service, but rather a technology, the issue magnifies the implications. Take cryptocurrency, for example, an innovative technology built on blockchain, which is a decentralized ledger recording all transactions across a peer network. I’m not an expert in cryptocurrency, but after reading about crypto and the industry, I find myself fixating on the idea that cryptocurrency is often defined as an encrypted string of data, at its most basic level. Go further into the construction of cryptocurrency, and the tech jargon piles up: algorithms, hash functions, and Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT). Fittingly, the prefix “crypto” means secret or hidden.

If I don’t have a knowledge of encryption—or even a generalized conception of it—then it’s much harder for me to grasp a company’s message or white paper about cryptocurrency, particularly when they emphasize its encryption methods. In other words, my lack of prior knowledge hindered my comprehension of a fundamental concept operating in cryptocurrency.

Companies face a fundamental issue in their messaging materials when deciding how much knowledge their target audience must possess. Each community or target audience will possess unique bodies of knowledge, or “characteristic ways of thinking about problems, of making and evaluating arguments,” as Joseph M. Williams says. A doctor will confidently discuss with another doctor how a virus replicates within the human body because the doctor can safely assume that the other doctor attended medical school and knows that viruses are obligate intracellular pathogens that need a host cell to replicate. Both doctors are part of the same interpretive community.

If a doctor discusses the biology behind virus replication with a patient, chances are the patient does not have the same background to instantly (and I specifically say “instantly”) understand the full scope of the main message. The doctor would have to go back to basics to make sure the main message and concept of virus replication relay to the patient. To drive the cryptocurrency example home: a strong writer must juggle a concise but in-depth explanation of encryption while not diminishing or foregoing the main value points of cryptocurrency.

Each audience possess different knowledge sets that vary in scale. While people in IT most likely will have a deeper understanding of various encryption methods, and will better relate to a cryptocurrency message touting some unthinkable advantage over others, a different audience may not. The marketing fundamental, know your audience, is commonplace for a reason. And to those that say cryptocurrency does not have a target audience because it is a global currency, I would then put forth the argument that the audience is everyone. For crypto to become global and widespread, people with various backgrounds would need to know what it is.

In marketing a product or service, the ability to predict how much our audience knows can mean the difference between a sale and a bust. In other words, the rate at which we process a message is key. If an audience can quickly and almost instantly comprehend a company’s message in marketing collateral, then the message forges a strong identification with potential customers. And given that an audience’s attention span has decreased dramatically in the last decades as research has shown, there’s a limited window to craft a resonating message. Williams rightly says “that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see.” While there are other components to clear writing, the fundamental idea is that we want our audiences to hopefully use as many human senses as possible to experience a brand and message with clarity, despite the varying amounts of technical information needed to understand a given product and its industry.

Finding the right balance between knowing how much to assume as a writer is vital. Given that this balance is often different when writing a slogan or white paper, and varies according to each industry’s specifications and target audience, the right balance is often the difference between confusion and comprehension.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.

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