How to win in the clarity battle
Perhaps the coffee sludge at the bottom of my cup triggers a yearning for clarity, but as I dunk my kourabiedes, I wonder if this cute postcard is actually an arrogant displacement of clarity in favour of creativity?
Then I start wondering about the intersection of creativity and clarity, and why so many novice creatives (and seasoned ones) rocket straight past that old intersection without as much as a peep in the rear-vision window, choosing instead to idle by themselves in lonely Obscureville.
I’ll write about obscurity in a sec. But for the moment, let’s return to the question of the postcard’s clarity.
The back of the postcard says this:
“talking about dying won’t kill you”
It’s actually a postcard about palliative care (though there’s nothing on the front of the card that flags the topic, even in a small way). You’ll agree that messages about dying are important ones. And you’re likely also to agree that the communication of messages about dying is fraught by factors such as fear, repression and the perceived ‘negative’ valence of the topic.
“ In any other mode of communication that needs to persuade instantly, hard work for the audience attenuates clarity. ”
A sense of play and humour is helpful in softening an audience to make them feel comfortable.
A message delivered with creativity can definitely capture attention, which is important when you’re competing against the constant noise.
The problem with this postcard is it is so creative it takes work to decipher.
Side note about work
Work is expected by an audience when they read literary fiction or watch a Fellini film. That’s because we expect Fellini or Saramago – or whomever – to challenge us. We expect the engagement to take energy and effort. The payoff is that limits and boundaries are pushed and we see the world anew. Isn’t this, after all, part of the pleasure provided by ‘high art’?
So, clarity and creativity operate together effectively when the amount of work required to understand a message is appropriate to the medium, and when creativity doesn’t arrogantly stomp over clarity.
With all the above in mind, what exactly is the problem with this message? How does it represent an imbalance of creativity at the cost of clarity?
- There are too many tropes: the origami, the colour of the dinosaurs, the speech bubbles, the font. All of these tropes are derived from particular genres within themselves and each of these meanings have to be deconstructed separately in the process of interpretation. On top of this, when placed together, the different tropes are not congruent with one another.
- The font is cursive, so it’s difficult to read: a significant problem when time is of the essence.
- Apart from the origami being its own symbol, it is difficult to tell on first glance that the dinosaurs are not another animal. Without instant recognition, the joke is lost.
- Without a context, the reference to the asteroid or ice age doesn’t make sense.
- The punchline doesn’t contain internal logic: the dinosaurs are talking about death, but they’re actually, well, dead. So they’re hardly a symbol of survival? So the punchline on the back of the card, “talking about dying won’t kill you” is undermined by the message on the front.
One of the best guides to clear communication is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
Elements was first published in 1935 and it remains the go-to guide for those who want to hone clarity. For instance, “Prefer the standard to the off-beat” is advice from Strunk and White that deserves contemplation in every creative field from design to neuroscience.
One thing I’ve noticed teaching creative writing is students often sit well outside the intersection of clarity and creativity in their communication, frequently opting solely for the latter.
Perhaps in an effort to show off their creativity, creative writing students are prone to communicate in ways that lack clarity and can actually be very annoying if you’re a busy person on the other end of an email like this one:
Late yesterday evening, I did rid myself of the burden of the curse of the overdue critical reflections. In concentrating so, I’ve realised that I am in danger of losing marks for failing to schedule a final meeting to check that my hypothesis for reflections on Heart of Darkness are sound.”
This student wanted to say simply that he needs to make an appointment for consultation about a particular assignment. But the message is obscured by flowery language.
Work works in some contexts, but it’s a form of arrogance to impose it when it’s not necessary or not part of the expectations of the communication transaction.
I’m not suggesting that creative forms should never contain complexity, multiple meanings or ambiguity. But none of these conditions should ever preclude clarity.
Every creative endeavour is a communication transaction.
Choose clarity and avoid confusion to make an impact.