Clear vs Clever: A Quick Guide To Avoid The #1 Mistake In Writing

Dickie Bush & Nicolas Cole

Ultimate Guide Table of Contents

Ahoy and happy Monday!

This week’s Deep Dive is a quick guide into the difference between CLEAR writing and “clever” writing.

The reason this warrants its own Quick Guide is because even though most people think they understand what this means, their actions say otherwise. Companies, especially, are notorious for saying:

“We want our customers to know exactly what we do...”

And then at the very top of their website they decide the best way to communicate that clear message is by trying to be witty, funny, or clever:

“For People. With People. By People.”

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!?!?!?!??!?!!

It’s practically an epidemic how many writers, communicators, so-called messaging experts, and industry leaders opt for clever instead of clear.

And here’s why:

  • They think their “pun” is what will attract the reader’s attention.
  • They believe the reader will stop dead in their tracks, hypnotized by their “mysterious headline.”
  • They make the assumption that what the reader wants is to be entertained (more than they want to be educated, informed, or given clear instructions).

And all of these are wrong.

For example: imagine you are driving in a foreign country. You’ve just left the airport, and now you are trying to make your way to your hotel. Except the moment you exit the airport and pull onto the highway, all the signs say things like, “Sunshine you can taste” and “The best there is, and the best there ever will be.” At first, you’re mildly entertained. And then after a mile or so, you start to shiver with anxiety. WHY WON’T THE SIGNS JUST TELL YOU WHERE YOU’RE GOING?! You start to get frustrated. You slam your hands on the steering wheel...

  • “Unleash your creativity...” What?
  • “Real-time changes, real-time trust...” STOP IT!
  • “Data and analytics so good, you can taste them...” JUST TELL ME WHERE I’M GOING!!!

Here’s how the story ends:

Eventually, you get so frustrated you turn right around, return the car at the airport, and hop back on a flight back to wherever it is you’re from. Because at least there, you know what people are saying. There, the world is CLEAR—not “clever.”

This is exactly what happens every single day, every time a customer reads your website or landing page, clicks on a product or digital download, or tries to read one of your Twitter Threads or LinkedIn posts.

So, here’s a good rule of thumb for you to follow:

If the reader is confused, they’re going.

Said more specifically: if the reader starts reading and realizes you are trying to be “clever” for clever’s sake, they’re not going to stick around. They don’t understand what you’re trying to say. They are that foreigner driving down the highway just trying to get to their hotel, and no matter how far they drive (or how much attention they give you), they can’t seem to get a straight answer. So, they turn around and leave.

Nothing kills more websites and landing pages, or costs a business more money, than the diseased desire to be “clever” instead of clear.

Remember that.

A Quick Guide On How To Be Clear, Not Clever

So, now that you understand the urgency of the problem, let’s talk about how to solve it.

#1: Be Clear About The Category

The very first thing you need to make crystal clear to readers/customers is “what it is.”

Doesn’t matter if you’re selling a product, a service, or an idea, the reader and/or customer needs to know what it “is” before they can decide how they feel about it.

  • Is this a gasoline-powered car or an electric car?
  • Is this a manual vacuum cleaner or a robot vacuum cleaner?
  • Is this regular bottled water or carbonated bottled water?
  • Is this a home air mattress or a camping air mattress?
  • Is this a collectable watch or a smartwatch?

Notice how changing the modifier word in front of “the thing” drastically changes your perception of it. Before you can care about a company or individual’s brand you need to know what CATEGORY the “thing” is in. And in order to make that category crystal clear, you need to use modifier words to get more and more specific for your readers.

  • Is this a book on money?
  • Or a book on investing money?
  • Or a book on investing money for teenagers?

Specificity is what tells people WHAT they’re looking at.

#2: Be Clear About The Problem

The second thing you need to be clear about is the problem.

  • What’s the problem?
  • Why is it a problem?
  • Have others tried to solve the problem (and failed)?
  • Why is solving this problem so urgent & important?

Readers don’t care about ideas on their own. And customers don’t care about products or services on their own. They only care once they sufficiently understand the context within which the product, service, or idea sits. So, don’t beat around the bush. And don’t just say something “clever” like “Big Problem? You Betcha.” Be specific. Tell the reader exactly what the problem is, why it’s a problem, and drive home the urgency of they should feel in solving it.

#3: Be Clear About The Solution

“We deliver asynchronous reporting data and analytics to integrate your business into the creator economy’s growing community.”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

This is B2B speak for “we have no idea what we’re saying,” and unfortunately it exists everywhere. It’s just another variation of “clever”—except instead of trying to sound funny the company is trying to sound “smart.”

Instead, just say:

Sales Analytics For Creators.

Boom. Done.

A good exercise to push yourself to be clear about the solution is to try to get it down to 5 words or less. If you can’t say “what you do” in 5 words or less, you don’t actually know what it is you do. You might know all the things you help with, but you don’t have clarity around what it is your reader/customer values most about your product, service, or idea.

5 words or less.

#4: Be Clear About The Transformation

And finally, you need to be clear about the transformation.

Give the reader a full story arc to hold onto.

  • [Beginning] Where are they starting?
  • [Conflict] What’s the problem—and why does it matter?
  • [Solution] How do they solve this problem?
  • [Transformation] And how is their life different as a result?

Contrary to popular belief, customers don’t buy products or services—just like how readers don’t buy books.

Customers buy solutions to urgent problems. More importantly, they buy transformations in their lives. They want to buy your product or service because of who and what they believe they will BE “on the other side.” Just like how readers want to buy your book or course because of who and what they believe they will BE “on the other side.”

So, don’t make them guess.

Help them imagine their own future.

Paint them a picture of what they will feel like after going on this journey with you.

And if a 3rd grader couldn’t understand the story arc you're telling them, then you need to start back at the beginning.

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