It’s in our ears. It in our eyes. It’s in our head. And as professional communicators, we put it in and out there unwittingly.
Usability Consultant Jakob Neilson1 coined it “information pollution”. Newspapers use the term “interruption overload”. The rest of us call it TMI (too much information). Basex, an IT research company that focuses on knowledge and information management, calculated that distractions from information overload cost the world economy $650 billion per year in lost productivity; and most of that overload is driven by emails.2
So I really appreciate those of you who opened my eDM to read this post. I will do my copywriting best to make it as knowledge and insight packed as can be.
Now in case you blinked and missed it, we’ve zoomed passed the Information Age (digital revolution) into what is now referred to as the Knowledge Age (or Knowledge Economy). But most of us are stilling shoveling out information in the lazy hope that some of it might stick. In a recent conversation I had with Father Bob Maguire, he declared that we must all, ‘learn the difference between information and wisdom’. I will use the word “insight” here as I am not qualified to write about wisdom. From observations of my own mind-field, insight sometimes is and sometimes isn’t born out of knowledge (see Table 1).
Bottom-line: we’ve all got TMIANEI (too much information and not enough insight). And as I said, we scribes are guilty of giving it when our role is to extract and distil story, meaning and value out of all that data and information.
Many of my students and clients believe that people log onto the website for information. Sure, but when the page downloads and you’re looking at screen-to-screen text, the eye-tracking experts say nobody reads it all. Their F Shape Eye-Tracking heat maps show that you pretty much skim, scan and snub after the first couple of lines. And that’s only after the 60 millisecond “snap decision”3 to like or dislike the page in the very first instance. So we’ve got two hurdles to overcome:
Firstly, the 60 millisecond snap decision to like or dislike, then the F Shape eye scan to a waste of writing effort. Do you still feel like shoveling out the dead facts of information?
It’s time to dig a lot deeper before you write and in my classes, the Hierarchy of Meaning has proven to be an effective thinking model to apply. Visualise it as a mountain (or pyramid), starting at the base with data, then further up is the information, near to the top is the knowledge and right on top (where you can see a 360° view) is the insight. And it’s on top of the metaphorical mountain where you experience the eureka! Here’s a summary of each step:
Unorganized and unprocessed facts and figures as statistics and calculations — SYMBOLS
Aggregation of processed data into purpose and value — THE WHO WHAT WHERE & WHEN
Understanding and appreciation of truths through perceived importance or relevance — HOW & WHY
Empathy, vision and seeing a bigger picture or the invisible — MEANING
The ‘ah ha!’ moment; the sudden clarity — IDEA, VISION, THEME, TRUTH, STORY
That knowledge and/or insight is what gets you to the Key Proposition/Message of any communication brief. The Eureka moment gets you to articulate it in a creative way. And the thinking process leads you to write more meaningful, valuable and interesting copy.
Table 1 explains the characteristics of each level of intelligence and how it’s best used in various forms of communication:
Given that $650 billion per year distractions we experience in our daily lives, it stands to reason we as readers much prefer the juice — the knowledge, and better still, the insight. (Of course, the top of the pops is wisdom).
We professional communicators are like juicers. Which one are you — a centrifugal or slow press juicer? Because the latter is slow-juicing, it provides more nutrition. Quality content requires quality time to summarise, analyse and synthesise dead facts (data and information) into living, breathing meaning (knowledge and insight). This involves deep thinking, Socratic questioning* and the perseverance to do both as you look for the needle of “truth” in the haystack of data and information. The extra time we spend in the thinking and writing saves your reader precious time getting what they need.
A valuable practice I do with my students is this summary-analysis-synthesis procedure:
- Choose a page worth of information (article, web copy or report)
- Summarise and list the key points (data and information)
- Clarify the one significant message/point/meaning they add up to (knowledge or insight)
- Write this into one sentence like it was a 6 second elevator pitch
Sometimes I instruct students to write it in 70 characters. Tweeting is an excellent discipline for making you get to the heart of the matter. And 70 characters forces you to be single minded in articulating the key point.
EXAMPLE: 350.org blog post on the Bob Massie Talk — Life After Coal: Towards a Low Carbon Economy
Summary points from information extracted from two other blog posts and a Guardian article:
- Massie’s great insight learnt from his University teacher is that “people can want the same thing for different reasons.”
- He says: “When people talk about a just and sustainable economy, what they are saying is they do not want to see the destruction of human beings and the planet for limited prosperity for a few people.”
- During his decades-long career, Bob created and/or led three renowned organisations bringing coalitions commercial and conservation interest together in global corporate sustainability movements.
The add-up (or juice) —Unifying leadership. That’s the story and the headline could be The Man Who Can Herd Cats to a Low Carbon Economy.
Now you may be wondering how do you get insights**?
The short answer is that insight is seeing the invisible; seeing the connections others never notice.
The long answer, according to cognitive psychologist, Gary Klein, author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights is that ‘an insight is an unexpected shift in the way we understand things. It comes without warning. It’s not something that we think is going to happen and that’s why it’s unexpected. It feels like a gift and in fact it is’.
Done properly, summary-analysis-synthesis is a third eye opener, and often quite obvious after the fact. I say “third eye” because most of us have seen Hindu imagery with third eyes and probably wondered what it means. In Sanskrit, the third eye is called Ajna, the sixth chakra, which can be translated into western lingo as “sixth sense”. The opened third eye symbolises activation of intuitive knowledge. Descartes identified this as the pineal gland (located between the two hemispheres of the brain). Anyway, it’s the symbolism that matters here because the discipline of transforming data and information into knowledge and insight is the same discipline that a Yogi uses to activate their third eye (with the aim of experiencing enlightenment). So it’s not a wasted practice to incorporate into in your daily work life.
In copywriting, you can divide insight into three categories:
Strategic insight: a simple solution to a problem, or what to say.
Creative insight: a simple concept that conveys the solution, or how to say it.
Human insight: a genuine understanding of your target audience, or empathy.
It’s all comes down to simplicity. But simplicity does require a lot of hard work and discipline (whether you’re a stockbroker in Oslo or a saddhu in Mumbai). It’s like diving for pearls, you have to go deep into the sea and swim passed a lot of distracting scenery to find the pearl buried within. It’s interesting to note that there is even a phrase, “pearls of wisdom”. According to Wikipedia, its origin probably comes from two sources: Matthew 7:6 refers to casting pearls (the wisdom of the gospel) before swine. The next time this association was made was by the poet James Russell Lowell who refers to the writer, Edward FitzGerald’s (1809-83) translation of Omar Khayam’s Rubayyat:
These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,
Each softly lucent as a rounded moon;
The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,
Fitzgerald strung them on an English thread.
Stringing them into a fine narrative thread is the next exciting adventure in the articulation of knowledge, insight and, now that it’s been mentioned, wisdom.
To sum it all up into one juicy line: clear, concise and compelling writing always begins with clear, precise and insightful thinking.
1 Jakob Neilson, Coping With Information Overload, 1995
2 Adam Frank, About Time: Cosmology and Culture at the Twilight of the Big Bang, 213
3 According to researcher, Gitten Lindgaard, a reader takes 50 milliseconds (1/20 of a second) to judge a website.