The Write Stuff – Blog

Jan 31 2011 Are You Too Clever?
Copywriting tips - keeping language simple


Of course not. How can you be too clever? Well, if like me you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you might think Dr Sheldon Cooper is just a little bit too clever, but I’m afraid you’d be wrong.

While he may be insanely intelligent, his “cleverness” is surprising lacking.

The kind of “clever” I’m talking about, is that reserved for smarmy game-show hosts, political spin-doctors and ad-men. Those who think they’re misunderstood because of their overpowering genius, rather than because they’re just obscure, ambiguous and make no sense to any reasonable thinking person at all.

These are the same guys who come up with nonsensical jargon such as knowledge process outsourcing, or thought showers (huh?).

What ever happened to saying what you mean and meaning what you say?

The trouble with being “clever” is if your audience isn’t on the same wavelength, chances are they’ll be left scratching their heads wondering what the hell you’re on about. Fine if you’re a politician trying to introduce a new tax (sorry, “preparatory fiscal realignment”), not so good if you actually need people to know what you’re on about.

Which Brings Us To The Kitchen Sink

I love my kitchen – and I’m well acquainted with its sink… it’s right next to my beloved, well-used dishwasher. I must admit, however, I was somewhat confused when I found it in my WordPress toolbar!

Of course, being the adventurous little poppet I am, I clicked it anyway and after a raft of new buttons were revealed, had one of those “a-ha” moments Oprah is always on about.

Several days after my amazing discovery, I was chatting online to a fellow business owner about the layout of her website copy and suggested she consider full justification for her text, rather than centred alignment. Her response was she didn’t have those options on her site.

A small bell rang in the back of my head, as I remembered all the glorious formatting options revealed after hitting the “kitchen sink” button in WordPress. I immediately asked her to check her toolbar and try clicking this button if she had it. She did – but hadn’t clicked on it because she didn’t understand what it would be for and was afraid of doing something she might regret.

Keeping It Simple

The above example perfectly illustrates how being “clever” can go tragically wrong. Sure, I had a moment of wry amusement after “everything but the kitchen sink” was revealed on my tool bar, but honestly, “additional formatting” would have been a perfectly appropriate and far more suitable name for this button.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s hundreds – maybe thousands – of people who have avoided clicking on the “kitchen sink” button because they don’t understand what it’s for.

It would certainly explain a helluva lot of website designs!!

So the next time you’re tempted to come up with some clever, witty way to convey your message, promise me you’ll stop and think about this: is it more important to come up with a concept that’s “clever”, or one that’s easily understood?

Got questions about this post or other business communication matters? Feel free to ask them on my Facebook page where I’ll answer them for you.

7 Responses to “Are You Too Clever?”

  • Reply Belinda Weaver February 01, 2011at 1:45 pm

    I couldn’t agree more Anna and one of the things that struck me about your example is the shift in the WordPress target market that must have contributed to this misfire.

    I’m sure WordPress was a tool of techies once upon a time, and the (rather obscure) kitchen sink button would have been right up their alley. But now, we’re all having a go, no experience required! And while I don’t mind an obscure reference that makes me feel a bit clever, the formatting functions are … well I’d say they’re pretty essential

    I think that knowing your audience (however broad the group) is at the heart of successful marketing. Great post!

    • Reply Anna Peterson February 01, 2011at 2:01 pm

      Totally agree with your point about knowing your audience.

      Further to that, people also develop certain expectations through the consistency of experience. When we see a Word style format, we expect to find certain options. When we go to the check-out of our supermarket, we expect a certain process. When you throw in the unexpected, most people will balk.

      It’s why keeping your message simple and clear is so very important.

  • Reply Kelly Exeter November 07, 2011at 11:47 am

    Love it Anna. I love reading ‘clever’ stuff because when I “get it”, I feel clever too. But as you say – more often than not, obscure references and ‘cleverness’ causes confusion and alienates people MUCH more than is useful 🙂

    • Reply Anna Butler November 07, 2011at 1:54 pm

      Yep, it is nice when you “get” the clever reference, but not so nice when you don’t. 

      So should we “dumb” everything down? 

      Well… I don’t think so, but I do think we need to consider the context of what we say/promote. If jargon or “in” jokes will be understood by a select, targeted audience then there’s no harm in using them, but if that information is intended for wider distribution it will need to be modified.

      It all comes back to understanding your audience and speaking to them in their own terms.

  • Reply Adrian Brien Auto November 07, 2011at 12:05 pm

    Good one, being clever when it comes to sales and marketing is not as important as being able to build rapport and relate to your audience.

    • Reply Anna Butler November 07, 2011at 1:58 pm

      You’ve hit the nail right on the head! 

      We see plenty of “clever”, obscure campaigns which win industry awards, but do they win more customers? And isn’t that what it’s all about?

  • Reply http://tirey.tv September 13, 2013at 3:37 pm

    “Are You Too Clever? | Copybreak Copywriting Services” was
    a fantastic blog post, can’t wait to look over far more of your articles.
    Time to squander a lot of time on the web lmao. Thanks -Ricky

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