Several years ago, at a tradeshow cocktail reception, a colleague introduced me to a small group of associates as “a thinker.” I sensed some duplicity in his compliment; afterwards, I asked him what he meant. Inhibitions gone by this point, he explained that I sometimes “overthink” things. After thinking long and hard about it, I had to agree.
The danger in overthinking in our business is that you can make your audience work too hard to comprehend what you are trying to say. How many times have you heard creative concepts positively described as “quick” or “fast,” and others rejected because they “make me work too hard?”
I listened to a wonderful take on this issue recently in an interview with Dr. Daniel Kahneman, father of the field of behavioral economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Dr. Kahneman posits that we think in two primary ways: System 1 thinking that is fast, intuitive, and automatic, and System 2 thinking that is slower and more analytical.
He says our System 1 thinking, such as our emotional reactions, can’t be turned off. He also says our System 2 thinking is lazy and would rather yield to, or rationalize, our automatic thoughts and reactions.
Assuming this assessment is valid, here are some thoughts we, as communicators, should keep in mind.
- Information-heavy content has its place — but it’s probably not at the top of the funnel. “We shouldn’t be looking for rationality so much,” says Kahneman. “Facts matter much less than people think.” (We are all too aware of that these days.)
- Audiences operate from what they know, from a set of reinforcing stories that have developed over many years. “Conclusions come first and rationalizations come later,” says Kahneman. This is why the creative process must include a solid understanding of the audience’s current mindset and beliefs.
- The best creative has an uncanny way of tapping into, or tweaking, how you see the world or your own life experience. This is why metaphor can be such an effective tool — it co-opts the familiar to make a new point in a novel way.
So, at the risk of overthinking, it’s a good idea to keep the message simple and direct. Don’t try so hard to sell or educate. Remember that our communications must first tap an emotional need or desire, and then provide the supporting rational justification.
Jim Pontarelli is RDW’s President and lead researcher and planner. Over the years, he’s worked on numerous Fortune 100 brands. Endlessly curious about how people think and behave, he recently became a licensed clinical social worker and trained group therapist.