Nuance vs Simple Messages

By  on Clean Technica, 17 Aug 2017

We’re in the business of communications at CleanTechnica. We have to constantly consider how to communicate in a useful, interesting, and clear way. One topic that comes up practically every day is how to balance simple messages with the extra depth, nuance, and details that create a more complete story.

Obsessively exploring this topic for many years — while working on CleanTechnica, following and engaged in political campaigns, watching movies, listening to music, negotiating deals, launching cleantech startups, and even back in college when I was studying sociology, social movements, environmentalism, and how to inspire environmental action — one conclusion has been very clear: simple messages are powerful.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity — this is the first key to mass marketing, the first key to effective political campaigns, and even the first key to normalizing some of the most absurd ideas in history.

I’m not going to name any names right now, but if I told you someone was greatamazingbeautifula great negotiator, and a very successful businessman, you would know who I’m talking about. In actuality, there’s a very low chance you think he’s any of these things. However, constantly using these words — sticking them in place of any detailed explanations … about pretty much anything — has led to millions upon millions of people associating him with those descriptions.

If I told you someone I knew had gone through 4 bankruptcies and had a horrible reputation for scamming people and not paying people/businesses back — so bad, in fact, that hardly a bank in the United States or Europe would loan him money — you would probably not consider this person a good businessman. However, consistent, regular, strong repetition of the claim that he’s a “great businessman” is enough to convince most people otherwise. If they hear that 5 times, they are likely to believe it — no explanations required. Even if they don’t believe it at first, if they keep hearing it, they will likely wonder a bit if it is actually true.

There’s a lot of nuance to all of this — how to repeat the message, how to convey it, how to visualize it, how to personalize it, etc. But the key point is that a simple, clear message is the most important ingredient to convincing a lot of people of something. The more you can simplify the message, the better (if your goal is to affect the beliefs of large numbers of people).

Why is this important for cleantech? Why is this article even being published here on CleanTechnica?

Well, many advocates of cleantech are detail-oriented, thoughtful, scientifically inclined people. We like to look at the nuance and think about it. When we explain a cleantech-related matter to someone, we are inclined to get into the details … and quickly bore the hell out of them. When anti-cleantech myths pop up, we are quick to write long comments explaining in detail why those myths are wrong. Long comments = better, right? More thought, more detail, and more arguments = better, right?

As it turns out, when we do that, we’re launching into the Overkill Backfire Effect. As the author of the article linked there writes, “Information that is easy to process is more likely to be accepted as true.”

Think about that for a moment. Simply making a message easy to understand breaks down barriers in our brains. Providing a super simple message is more likely to convince someone of something, in part because it’s just easy to get that message into their head. If it feels easy — because it’s super simple — we are more likely to believe it’s true.

Also from that article: “Common wisdom is that the more counter-arguments you provide, the more successful you’ll be in debunking a myth. It turns out that the opposite can be true. When it comes to refuting misinformation, less can be more. Debunks that offered three arguments, for example, are more successful in reducing the influence of misinformation, compared to debunks that offered twelve arguments, which ended up reinforcing the myth.”

I know that it’s very hard for many readers here to accept that less information is valuable. I know it’s hard to acknowledge that “dumbing things down” is often how we can be most effective in communicating a message. I know that academically minded individuals like to delve around into the nuances of a matter, explore the scientific facts and remaining questions, and not converse with others on a 3rd grade level. However, if we want to be heard, we need to learn to do that more.

Being hyperattentive to this matter, I often cringe while watching people try to explain why something is wrong, or watching people reinforce a myth they are trying to debunk(which is almost always how people do it).

It’s also frustrating to see people who are obviously lying but are getting away with it because they know how to communicate to the masses.

Donald Trump is an extremely frustrating person to watch because of how much he lies, how much he consciously or subconsciously cons people, how much he obviously doesn’t understand, how much he hurts our democracy (attacks our democracy), how much he stirs up hate and anger, and how much he rolls around in hypocrisy like it’s a mud bath that he guiltily loves. But if you continue to wonder how he got into the position he did, I’ll simplify what Michael Moore and Joe Romm tried to tell people over a year ago: the man knows how to repeat a message and myth obsessively, until people believe it.

He knows how to warp people’s sense of reality by hammering home extremely simple messages over and over and over again. He knows that simple, simple, simple messages and words are hugely effective. Even many of his sentences don’t make sense as sentences because he cuts them so short — but that distills the message, makes it more potent, makes it more powerful, and makes more people believe it.

It is absurd that he seized and misappropriated the term “Fake News” to attack the independent media — the most important pillar of democracy, according to Thomas Jefferson. It’s absurd that after an election in which Russia used truly fake news as a cyberwarfare tool in order to help Trump get elected, he is now attacking the genuine journalists who uncover the skeletons in his closets and correct his lies as “the enemy of the people” and “#FakeNews,” but that is what he has been obsessively and very simplistically doing. Many in the media more or less ignore it because of how simple and obviously false the claim is, but that increasingly leaves open the opportunity for Trump to get his (incorrect) point across, for his followers as well as others to get more hostile toward — I’ll repeat — the most important pillar of democracy.

This presidency has so far been a lesson in messaging for me (well, among other things). And it’s something I think we should all use practically in order to more effectively communicate why cleantech is so good.

There’s no need to lie! Don’t assume I’m recommending anyone push lies like Trump pushes day in and day out. But simplifying our messages and repeating them in simple and clear ways will more quickly get other people to believe/understand the key points.

  • Solar power is cheap. (Compared to buying electricity from the grid for the rest of your life — if you need to expound on that first part.)
  • Electric cars are freakin’ fun.
  • Electric cars are so easy to use and charge.
  • Wind power is the greenest, cleanest option for electricity generation.
  • Waking up to a fully charged car every day is super convenient.
  • Never having to go to a gas station is such a relief.
  • Not funding oil wars and oil dictatorships on a weekly basis (at the gas pump) is so liberating.
  • Not polluting the air that young kids, babies, grandparents, and your own family breathes removes a guilty conscience you probably don’t even realize you have.
  • Electric cars are so smooth, quiet, and luxurious to drive.
  • Not killing people with the electricity you use and transport you choose is awesome!
  • Cleantech is cool.
  • Saving lives is great.
  • Renewable energy and electric cars are much, much, much better than 20th century pollution technology.

Now, it may seem a bit nonsensical that I wrote a long article about why messages should be short and simple. However, I think I implied why near the top — many of our readers like to read, like nuance, like to consider details and ramifications of various types. For such people, sometimes complexity is more useful than simplicity — or at least more interesting.

Also, all of that allowed me to repeat my point over and over again, in one way or another. I repeated some form of the word “simple” 22 times (not counting the URL and just repeating it again in this sentence.) Repetition probably comes right after “simple” in the art of persuasion. Repetition is so insanely key to getting your message across. It can be annoying as well (including for the person who has to do the repeating), but it is powerful. We are not computers. We are not AI. We need repetition in order to accept, remember, and act on a message.

Provide nuance if you can’t help it — but if you are trying to get what you think is an important point across, simplify the message as much as possible and then repeat that simple message like you’re a freakin’ parrot on a pirate ship.