Complexity and clarity: why critical thinking is essential

Everybody talks about the importance of communication, so let’s take a closer look at it.

I’ve spent the last three months immersed in an intensive study of marketing, messaging and branding. In fact, this site is an exercise in rebranding, so it’s only fair to set out the components of the brand.

Rebranding implies changing the way something is presented and shifting the focus away from some aspects in favour of others. Having said that, however, there are a few themes that carry over; chief among those is an emphasis on critical thinking. (There’s that authenticity thing again.)

Let’s begin with what critical thinking is and is not. The presence of the word “critical” can be misleading; critical thinking is not merely about criticizing things. It’s not about disparaging or belittling things, and it’s not about trashing people or throwing shade.

No. At its most basic, critical thinking is the ability to discern meanings, to see analogies, to follow chains of reasoning, to discern underlying assumptions, to recognize faulty logic, and to pick ideas and arguments apart and determine whether or not they make sense. In short, it’s about being able to deal with nuance, with complexity. It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree.

Some years ago, I came across a wonderful compilation of short, engaging and easy-to-digest videos on basic logic and critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t an easy thing to cultivate, so finding something that cues it up in less than 15 minutes is a rare gift. (Thank you, Brain Pickings.)

Disclosure: this is going to draw, in part, on essays written a few years ago. The main arguments, however, are just as relevant now.

It’s easier to adopt and repeat shallow memes that fit on lapel buttons than it is to think critically. It’s easier to adapt and paraphrase, or even repeat verbatim, simple and facile arguments that can be expressed in 200 words or two minutes than it is to analyze, to gather information from a variety of sources, and to compare arguments, evaluate evidence, and arrive at a considered view of things.

Nothing new in any of this, of course. It’s why so much of what passes for public conversation is reduced to binary either/or terms. And it’s why so much of that conversation seems to find expression in simple manufactured narratives; no matter what the issue, no matter what the facts, just pass everything through a predefined ideological lens and bingo, you’ve got your storyline.

It’s why it’s so important to filter. Yes, we’re busy, and yes, lots of things are competing for our attention, so yes, it’s important to be able to attract attention with just a few words. But that does not mean that the messages or ideas we’re trying to convey have to be simple.

So how do we capture attention? With compelling content. With compelling ideas. This cuts across not only partisanship, but context as well. This holds true, it says here, regardless of whether we’re discussing advertising, marketing, entertainment, or public policy.

Back to filtering. Recognizing worthwhile information and distinguishing it from distractions is what makes us active rather than passive.

Back to compelling content. Again, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about marketing, advertising, or shaping public conversation; what matters is the effectiveness of the message. From this point of view, the most important aspect of effective messaging is clarity.

And just so we’re clear: clarity doesn’t necessarily require simplicity. Indeed, reducing everything to simplistic lapel-button slogans not only does a disservice to the idea of messaging itself — it betrays a fundamental lack of respect for the audience. It assumes, implicitly, that they can’t handle complexity, that they can’t process more than one idea at a time, that they’re incapable of reconciling contradictory messages. In short, it assumes that they lack the capacity for critical thought. The challenge is in crafting messages that are clear, compelling — and succinct.

More on this to come.

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4 Comments

  1. […] Earlier this week, we raised the subject of critical thinking and why it’s important. To marketing, to advertising, to civic life, and to communication generally. Today, we’re drilling deeper. From overview to details — not just what it is, but some of the key components. (Again, disclosure: I’ll be drawing on content written a few years ago, but the principles still hold.) […]

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