The Power of Clarity

Clarity and Social Advocacy

Clarity is especially important if you want to move people to action. If the spread of social innovations depends on particular people or groups taking certain actions, the clarity of your message may be the hinge factor. In social advocacy, likewise, clarity of your message may easily outweigh numerous other factors. This might explain why many social advocacy campaigns fall flat. Often, charities and other NGOs come up with simple and engaging messages, but their call to action is less than crystal clear, and this lack of clarity is usually enough to break its overall effectiveness.

Even more generally, if your message lacks clarity, it may fail to move to action even if it is simple and vivid. Simplicity usually backfires if it sacrifices clarity. And clarity is also one of the best indicators of competence.

Clarity Trumps Virtuous Character

Consider one of the experiments done by Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett. The researchers wanted to find out if they could persuade college students to donate some food to a charity. Before they requested students to donate food, they asked students to assess which of their fellow students were most likely and least likely to donate.

Once they ranked the students into generous and stingy ones, the researchers randomly sent two kinds of letters requesting food donation. A basic letter simply announced a food drive the following week at a well-known plaza on the campus and asked to bring some canned food. A detailed letter requested a can of beans, asked students to think about the time they would be near the food drive, and it also included a map with the food drive spot.

The students who received the basic letter were uncharitable indeed: only 8 percent of the generous students donated some food and none of the stingy ones. The students who received the detailed letter were much more charitable: 42 percent of the generous students and 25 percent of the stingy students donated some food. As Heath brothers remarked in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, “if you’re hungry and need a can of food, you’re three times better-off relying on a jerk with a map than on a budding young saint without one.”