Because you’re reading these words, chances are you’re an ideas person who shares your ideas through writing.
You write to attract new partners, new investors, new talent, new prospects, new clients. You write to educate, persuade, and inspire action.
You write because you believe in your ideas. You want your thoughts to reach others, make good things happen for you and your clients, and ultimately change the world.
This article on the topic of clarity—specifically content clarity—will help you attract what you want through your writing.
Our first stop will be the meaning of clarity. Then, we’ll explore why straightforward content is essential and look at five questions you can ask whenever you feel unsure about your writing or need deeper clarity. The questions will expose potential weaknesses in your content and guide you toward writing more straightforward text that resonates with your audience, builds awareness and trust, and, ultimately, wins sales.
First up—what does “clarity” mean?
What is clarity?
The word clarity comes from Middle English in the sense of glory or divine splendor.
With that etymology in mind, I like to think of clear ideas as glorious ideas, and clear writing as glorious writing. Clear thought leadership, then, shines in the minds of readers as if splendid, as if divine.
Hyperbole and etymology aside, according to Oxford Languages, clarity is the quality of being:
- Coherent and intelligible.
- Certain or definite.
- Transparent or pure.
An image from The Free Thesaurus provides a clear path to further insights.
Synonyms of clarity, denoted by green circles, include lucidity, explicitness, obviousness, and straightforwardness.
Antonyms often give as much or more insight into the meaning of words. Antonyms of clarity, denoted by red squares, include haziness, dullness, and imprecision.
Picture a hazy sky, waiting for a storm to blow away the particulates and pollution, revealing the cerulean heavens.
Imagine dull scissors that tear and mangle what you’re cutting and how much you wished you had a sharp pair to finish the job well—and in half the time.
That’s why you want your content to exhibit the qualities of clarity’s synonyms, never its antonyms.
There’s no one-step shortcut to clarity in your marketing content
Leaving the definitions behind, another crucial thing to note about clarity—particularly content clarity—is that it’s the sum of many elements:
- Conciseness—the content communicates without unnecessary words and ideas.
- Simplicity—ideas in the content are easy to understand.
- Familiarity—new ideas in the content relate to what readers know.
- Connection—the content tells readers, “I see you.”
- Precision, specificity—the content lacks vagueness.
- Honesty—the content says, “No tricks or half-truths here; this is who I am.”
Why is content clarity important?
We all know, intuitively, why clarity in the words we write and the content we produce is essential. That intuition is correct, but let’s make it conscious by putting it into words.
1. Content clarity wins in times of information overload
To readers, a lack of clarity is the same as information overload. In the old trade journal Direct Marketing, direct response copywriter Dean Rieck expressed why this is so.
“When a person does not understand something, information is nothing more than random data. Even short messages can overwhelm people if the meaning is not clear. In advertising, this is often caused by too many writers working on a single project—a sure way to muddle a message. It is also caused by regurgitating facts without understanding them, by not having a tangible purpose for the writing, and by striving to impress rather than communicate.”
2. Content clarity boosts credibility, leading to confidence
In an interview with WordRake, Ben Riggs, senior communications specialist at Kettering Health, had this to say about clarity and confidence:
“Clear communication—and the plain language that enables it—leads to confidence in readers. People make decisions primarily when they’re confident.”
I’ve found that true in my experience. Have you?
Imagine this scenario:
You’re interested in buying software and begin researching vendors. One vendor’s website lays out its features and functions clearly, seemingly answering your questions and eliminating your objections as you read.
After reading, you feel confident in the vendor. You might not choose them because you have more vendors to review and more due diligence.
But you noted that clarity. Or, rather, you didn’t notice a lack of clarity.
That’s what clear content accomplishes; it lets readers read on without disruption, stumbles, and questions. Confidence is the result.
If your content is unclear, that’s when readers take note.
3. Content clarity reduces cognitive load
Every topic inherently contains a certain level of complexity. When you teach or convey your subject, you’ll add more complexity—it’s unavoidable. But the more precise your thinking and writing, the less complexity you’ll add to your content, and the easier the reading will be.
A study in Communication Reports examined the link between clarity and cognitive load and found that clarity reduces that extra dose of cognitive load, allowing readers to process information more deeply.
Another thing to keep in mind is that readers can’t ask you questions while they’re reading your content. If they get confused or have a burning question, they’ll have to hold on to it—unless they call you immediately or your organization offers immediate chat. Like cognitive load, burning questions take up a lot of mental overhead, reducing clarity.
4. Content clarity fights the curse of knowledge
Knowing a lot about something can make it harder for you to understand what it’s like for someone who doesn’t know as much. This situation is known as the curse of knowledge or hindsight bias.
Hindsight bias arises when we speak or write about something we know well. It’s hard to put that knowledge aside and think like someone lacking the same background and expertise.
For instance, if I were to start speaking to you about how prescriptive grammar often violates organic grammar, you might scratch your head, wondering what I’m talking about—unless you’re a word nerd into such topics. In that case, you’d share my curse of knowledge, and lack of clarity wouldn’t be an issue.
I might write about the topic clearly, but readers may not pick up on that clarity if I fail to consider my audience.
5. Busy, picky readers prefer content clarity
Your readers are smart and busy.
Yes, they could certainly work hard to understand what you mean in your content, but who has the time?
Readers don’t want to re-read a piece three times, Google what you’ve written about, or draw diagrams to figure it out.
If your piece needs more clarity, busy readers will drop it fast in search of another source whose author did focus on clarity.
Questions to ask in pursuit of content clarity
If you’re struggling to write a piece or wondering whether your writing is clear, the good news is that you’re on the right track—you’re thinking about your readers.
Ponder these questions centered around the elements of clarity to get unstuck and clear about the clarity of your message.
1. Does your content connect you and your readers?
As experts, we sometimes get wrapped up in our heads and forget about the people we’re writing for. To add the clarity that comes from connection, try this simple exercise.
Imagine you’re at a coffee shop with your ideal customer. You’ve been telling them about your company and its products and services. Your ideal customer is leaning in. They’re fascinated and are waiting for you to say more.
Now, write, speaking directly to that customer. Use second person—pepper your content with the words “you” and “yours.” Doing so lets readers know you see and hear them.
You may also need to produce more formal content, like research reports, policy documents, and academic articles, without writing in the second person. In those cases, introductions and executive summaries are the places to create connections.
2. Can readers grasp the topic of your content quickly?
Imagine your readers as astronauts, used to NASA-style, state-of-the-art training that doesn’t mince or waste words. That’s the kind of clarity you’re aiming for.
To help your readers grasp your ideas quickly:
- Structure and organize your ideas well; pull out your table of contents and evaluate it independently.
- Add headings and subheadings that tell the full story to readers as they skim through.
- Use bullet points and lists to summarize key points or steps.
- Write in active voice and use straightforward words and sentences.
- Use images, charts, and infographics to break up and illustrate text.
Love or hate them, Buzzfeed helps readers grasp topics quickly through easy-to-read listicles.
The Economist helps readers understand complex topics using charts and data visualizations to complement in-depth articles.
3. How would you explain the big idea in your content to a child?
I realize that many people cringe at this advice. However, expert-written content is often full of jargon and $1 words. To write for clarity, substitute more understandable 25-cent words instead. For instance:
- Utilize ► Use.
- Ameliorate ► Improve.
- Disseminate ► Spread.
- Ascertain ► Find out.
- Endeavor ► Try.
Use simpler words and eliminate word baggage to improve clarity in your content
Copywriter Bob Bly once said that no one ever complained about his content being too easy to read. Those are my sentiments, exactly.
4. What baggage in your content gets in the way of clarity?
Baggage, in this sense, means unnecessary ideas and words. When you consider your content, examine every thought and expression to see if you need it to convey your idea.
Need guidance on what baggage to eliminate? I can’t help with idea baggage in this article, but I can help with unnecessary words. To get closer to clarity, scrub these words from your content when it makes sense to do so:
- I think
- I believe
- Kind, sort, type of
5. Are there places in the content where explanations are vague?
Specificity is an element of clarity. To add specificity, shun vagueness and embrace precision. Here are several examples adapted from the San Jose State University Writing Center.
- Vague: I failed the class for many reasons.
- Clear: I failed Engineering Statistics because the professor was visiting from Russia, and I struggled to understand him.
- Vague: My daughter is in the orchestra.
- Clear: My daughter plays principal viola in the Asheville Symphony. (She’s still in college, but a mother can dream.)
- Vague: The sales presentation flopped.
- Clear: The sales presentation flopped because it needed more convincing numbers to sway the CEOs at the Clarity Conference..
Asking those questions about your content will help you produce materials more likely to achieve your desired outcomes—influence, conversion, and sales.
In my next article, I’ll take you on a deeper dive by providing 10 techniques for bringing clarity to your content. Stay tuned.