Has this ever happened to you?
You read through some new content you've been toiling over. But something's wrong. It feels – how should I put it? – less than inspired. A bit boring.
You imagine a prospect downloading your content.
She fires it up and reads a few sentences but you can see her eyes glazing over. She skims a few pages ahead. Tries again. Flicks across to her email.
A few hours later she’ll spot the barely-read document still open in her browser. She'll save it to read later.
But she won’t read it later.
Does the thought of all that wasted time and effort make you shudder?
And yet it’s all too common.
Mounds of boring B2B content gets published every day. Heaped, festering mounds of crap, as Doug Kessler so memorably described it.
Would you like to know two tricks you can use to make your content more vivid, engaging and memorable? To stop your readers' eyes glazing over?
They both stem from a little-known fact about how our brains process information.
Just what goes on in your brain when you read?
In The Tell-Tale Brain, we get a hint from neurologist V. S. Ramachandran:
In primates, including humans, a large chunk of the brain […] is devoted to vision. Each of the thirty or so visual areas within this chunk contains either a complete or partial map of the visual world.
Think about that for a second.
Your reader has some 30 different areas of her brain devoted to vision.
How many of those areas are being lit up by visual imagery when she reads a typical piece of B2B content?
Large chunks of her brain stay dark. No neurons fire excitedly in the visual processing centres. Because the sentences she’s reading offer nothing to stimulate them. They paint no pictures in her mind.
You can see the problem, right?
You have a reader whose brain isn’t getting turned on. So she starts to feel disengaged. Bored. She stops reading.
Our brains hunger for shimmering pictures. Not dry-as-dust abstraction.
And so writing that stays abstract without ever getting down and dirty misses a crucial trick to engage readers.
As story-writing coach Lisa Cron notes in Wired for Story:
Abstract concepts, generalities, and conceptual notions have a hard time engaging us. Because we can’t see them, feel them, or otherwise experience them, we have to focus on them really, really hard, consciously—and even then our brain is not happy about it. We tend to find abstract concepts thumpingly boring.
So what can you do?
You sneak in some flesh and blood details that your readers can imagine. That’s what.
You paint pictures to keep the visual parts of your readers’ brains stimulated.
But hang on a second. If we’re so geared to processing visual information, how come people tend to write so abstractly?
Have you heard of the Curse of Knowledge?
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath argue it’s one of the main reasons people write in abstractions.
Imagine you’re learning about something for the first time. You learn through examples, through concrete details, right?
As a child, if you were lucky, you learnt how to do division with chocolate bars. But over time, you learnt to solve maths problems without chocolate.
And that's where the trouble began.
Chip and Dan Heath explain:
Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. And, because they are capable of seeing a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level. They want to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally.
For some reason, once humans have gained a smattering of knowledge, they find it damnably hard to imagine that everyone else doesn’t also know what they've just learnt.
So we soon forget about chocolate and chess pieces. and start to talk in differential equations and strategy.
And that’s the Curse of Knowledge.
But it gets worse.
Because we often hear experts talking abstractly, the effect of the Curse gets compounded. We start to associate abstract communication with expertise. We imagine that using vivid images and concrete details risks making us sound stupid. And we completely forget how darned hard this makes things for those who aren’t yet experts to grasp our ideas.
Can you see what a fatal problem this is for B2B content?
With your content, you’re often trying to explain to an early-stage prospect how they could solve a business problem. Your content is designed to attract and educate them. They’re not an expert yet. But you’re writing abstractly because you think that will make you sound like an expert.
And what's happening?
They’re glazing over and not reading your content.
So what can you do?
Let's look at 2 approaches.
Do you know S. I. Hayakawa’s concept of the ‘ladder of abstraction’?
It describes how, in our language, we can climb up and down a ladder of abstraction – from specific things we can see, hear, taste or touch to increasingly abstract, higher-level categories that contain those things.
Imagine your firm's an Internet of Things (IoT) smart-parking vendor.
At the bottom of the ladder, you might have a magnetic sensor installed in a parking bay outside 42 Braintree street. As you climb up the ladder that sensor is a part of ever larger groups. The individual sensor is an edge node in your firm's IoT smart-parking network. Higher up the ladder, this network is part of your company’s entire physical infrastructure. Even higher, it forms part of your firm’s assets.
Do you see how as you go up the ladder the language gets more and more abstract?
As writing coach Roy Peter Clark describes it in his book Writing Tools:
At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are words that reach for a higher meaning, words like freedom and literacy.
To create vivid images in a reader’s mind when talking about abstract concepts, you need to deploy a few examples to make things real.
See how CITO Research does this as it defines the Internet of Things in its white paper for graph database company Neo4j:
In the Internet of Things, practically any item from a smartphone to a carton of eggs becomes a node on a network. Information about that smartphone [..] may be gathered from its interactions with WiFi networks and cell towers, while the comings and goings of that carton of eggs is gathered passively with barcode and RFID scanners.
The physical details – the barcoded carton of eggs and RFID scanners; the smartphone, WiFi network and cell towers – offer concrete visual anchors upon which the paragraph secures the more abstract concept of the Internet of Things. They are simple, imaginable things. And they keep reader’s brain visually engaged.
But what if you what you’re describing is so abstract you can’t just drop down the ladder to give a concrete example?
What if, say, you're writing about machine learning?
Take a look at how SAS describes developing machine learning models in its white paper Statistics and Machine Learning at Scale:
Developing the right model to fit the data is like Goldilocks. We want the fit to be not too much, not too little, but just right.
By comparing Goldilocks tasting the bears’ porridge with a machine learning programme seeking to find the right model to fit the data, we instantly grasp this abstract mathematical process through analogy. And our brains get a sneaky shot of visual imagery to jolt them awake to boot.
But metaphors can do more than just anchor abstract concepts in bowls of steaming porridge. They can help your prospects think in new ways too.
Chip and Dan Heath describe such metaphors as ‘generative’:
Generative metaphors… derive their power from a clever substitution: They substitute something easy to think about for something different. […]
For example, the metaphor of the brain as a computer… [enables] psychologists to use various well-understood aspects of a computer – such as memory, buffers, or processors – as inspiration to locate similar functions in the brain.
Take a look at how NetSuite uses the metaphor of a retail store department on wheels to explain how it helps create personalised ecommerce in its white paper The Secret to Turning Online Revenue Into Profit:
Decades of retail experience and data-gathering has enabled retail merchants to arrange their […] racks, displays, and shelves in every department and category to optimize the shopping experience.
Imagine how convenient and efficient it would be […] if each store could put every department and every display on wheels and have them magically reconfigure to meet every customer’s personal preferences when they walked in the door. While retailers certainly can’t do this, ecommerce can.
If NetSuite had just talked about ‘creating a personalised online navigational hierarchy to improve user experience’, a super-keen reader might have worked out what it was talking about.
But by drawing analogies between the online world and physical stores, the company writes smart. It doesn’t force its readers to do extra legwork. Instead it engages their brains with a pre-existing visual schema. As a result, readers will more easily grasp and recall the concept it’s describing.
As engineering professor Barbara Oakley observes In her book A Mind For Numbers:
Metaphors… help glue an idea in your mind, because they make a connection to neural structures that are already there.
So what’s the trick if you’re writing about an abstract concept you can’t illustrate with examples lower down the abstraction ladder?
Find an analogy with something else that offers a striking image your reader can see to grasp your concept more easily.
The curse of knowledge is like a malevolent spirit constantly dragging your writing up the ladder of abstraction. Pulling you away from the world in which your readers live and breathe.
To connect with them, you have to fight back down the ladder and offer them a helping hand. A hand they can see.
And it’s not so hard.
When you next read back through a draft, simply ask yourself: if my target reader were to read this, could she easily imagine what’s happening?
If not, drop in some vivid examples.
Use a visual metaphor to explain an abstract concept.
And light up your prospects’ brains.