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Make It Understandable, Not Simple

Gayle Ronan | Feb. 18, 2014

How often do you hear the complaint, “It’s too simple; make the message more complex”? Close to never, right? We want our headlines concise and our content short.

We can point toward our time-challenged lives or claim that our electronic habits have diminished our attention spans. We can even blame the quest to economize words on the Millennials in our target audience, asserting that they don’t read—despite being the most educated generation ever. But, there may be another force underlying our affection for brevity. The need for simplicity is just instinctive. Depth? Now, that takes some time to think through.

Biased Toward Quick Answers
Among the behavioral biases social scientists have identified is our bias against ambiguity. Despite all our brain power and capacity for deductive reasoning, we still evolved with a preserve-the-human-race preference for fast, easy-to-infer answers when faced with uncertainty.

This is why behavioral scientists find that when faced with situations with known odds, we tend to be more comfortable and confident making decisions than when we face uncertain outcomes. For instance, making a call on a coin toss or buying a lottery ticket can seem more certain than choosing to purchase shares of a mutual fund. The coin toss has 50/50 odds of working out. The lottery ticket has specific odds—very long odds—though we reduce it to a simple “someone has to win” analysis that makes each ticket seem like it bears 50/50 odds. But a mutual fund? Who knows what it will do in the next year.

Simple Fixes
Dan Ariely, a behavioral finance professor at Duke University, and his colleagues have explored the role ambiguity can play in our personal dealings.1 Oddly, they did this by focusing on online dating.

What their online dating study found is that the shorter, more ambiguous and imprecise dating profiles were, the more viewers liked the profiles. That may seem counterintuitive, but the thing is that our general dislike of vagueness can lead us to fill in the gaps with specifics that will put ourselves the most at ease—much like playing the lottery. This is because, in addition to being behaviorally biased against ambiguity, we also tend to harbor a bias toward optimism. So, when confronted with uncertainty, we fill in the gaps with the details that we would most want to hear.

By the way, the professor’s experiment found that predate “like” turned into after-date “disappointment” as optimism gave way to reality.

Perhaps We Should Rely Less on K.I.S.S. and More on Tell
At first blush, it makes sense for marketers to embrace the K.I.S.S. approach (Keep It Simple, Stupid) when creating content, since simple explanations are preferred and any information gaps are likely to be filled in with optimistic projections, which should lead to more “likes” for us.

But, it can also increase the probability of incurring the same results as the online dating study—undue optimism followed by disappointment in the face of reality.

Perhaps the better strategy for building long-term relationships with clients can be found in “telling.” By using the emotional aspect of our messages to pique instinctive involvement, while also engaging the more rational, reasoning part of our brains, we may make a better case for the services and products we market by making the complex more understandable.

This means even brief marketing messages should use:

  1. Clever lines to open the door to a more serious exploration and emotional commitment to the products and services we are writing about.
  2. Storytelling to reinforce the message, so that your brand and your product are what is remembered, not just the story.
  3. Graphics that complement the story and help the viewer make the emotional connection to better appreciate how what you offer fits their needs.

Simplicity for simplicity’s sake misses the point. Making the complex understandable to bring greater certainty to our target market’s decisions is what we should all be after.

What have you been doing to make the complex more understandable? Share your ideas here and get the conversation started!

[1] Dan Ariely, “Ambiguity, Gangnam Style,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 2012; Dan Ariely, Michael I. Norton and Jenna A. Frost, “Less is More: The Lure of Ambiguity, or Why Familiarity Breeds Contempt,” The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007
Gayle Ronan

Gayle Ronan

Gayle has over 25 years of financial services marketing, research, and writing experience to craft compelling content for the digital age.