The Dark Side of Adjectives
Want your content to go viral, or at least get shared? Then don’t overdo the adjectives. That’s one of the interesting findings Dan Zarrella shares in his book, Zarrella’s Hierarchy of Contagiousness.
Zarrella analyzed a group of stories and posts from a variety of sources – news outlets, blogs, etc. – and compared how often they.were shared via social sites. He found that the complexity of language in the content was inversely correlated with the number of shares. The simpler the writing style, the more likely it was to be passed on.
Zarrella then dug a little deeper, and found that the least shared content had the highest use of adverbs and adjectives. This isn’t totally surprising. Experts have told us for decades that nouns and verbs move the reader forward, but modifiers slow the reader down.
Adjectives do have their place – judicious use of vivid modifiers can make products more appealing. (See Adjective Power.) But more often than not, these modifiers serve little purpose other than to pad content length and raise the complexity level of the copy.
The Neuromarketing takeaway is simple. Writing at a doctorate thesis level may make the writer feel smart, but it will kill social sharing. Unnecessary modifiers are stumbling blocks in the path of reader engagement. So, don’t use adjectives and adverbs that aren’t essential for clarity.
Simple copy is shareable copy!
This is extremely interesting. Thank you for posting this!
I suspected this was the case, thanks for confirming. I think that overly-dressed content looks fake and comes off as desperate for links / shares.
As a side note, I just ordered Brainfluence and look forward to reading it especially after your Pubcon session.
Thanks, Will, I hope you enjoy Brainfluence!
My own experience suggests that “clarity of concept” is key to getting shared. A blog post could be thoughtful, insightful, and well documented, but if the core idea is too complex or simply hard to spot, it won’t get shared. Fits in with the overuse of modifying words.
Some examples would have been entertaining & illustrative.
krattiger, I think examples of complex writing wouldn’t necessarily pop out as “bad” – in fact, they might seem well-written and even literate. It’s just that their tendency to go viral or be shared via social media is lower. There are a variety of tools that scan text for reading comprehension level, and it seems that easier to read stuff gets shared more.
Sometimes I tend to stray in the “academic” language and people just watch me with the big eyes.
Switching back to “street” fixes things.
I’ve tested that in various forms (phone texts, social medias, meetings in person, audio, even public speaking) and people do like it when it’s: 1) simple
and 2) in their language.
I guess Hemingway was right!
It’s hard to argue with Hemingway, Gail!
As Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
Another important aspect about the simplicity of the message is the fact that a simple and concise message is easily processed, therefore easily encoded and remembered after a certain time.
yeah.do with words like you did with the food.if u want somebody to share your post be ready to be stupid.people want fastfood.understand this and you can understand most of people behaviour nowadays.
hemingwey was a mediocre writer
Iustin, I guess one way you could interpret this is that you should “dumb down” your copy. Perhaps a more positive interpretation would rely on cognitive fluency: the ease with which our brains process information affects how that content is perceived by us. Of course, introducing terms like cognitive fluency probably results in increased disfluency. 🙂
Personally, and speaking strictly and exclusively from my own confined and circumscribed point of view and, here, expressed opinion, I find the reiterated and boringly–if not downright hackneyed, trite, oft-repeated, and worn-out–so-called argument’ and supporting position in flagrant, egregious, and excessive approbation of an unadorned, stark, non-adjectival, non-descriptive, lean, clean, writing style to be–no! not a defence against blurring and misleading and confusing obfuscation, on the contrary and even from another or different angle of examination and perspective, the fully descriptive and richly effusive employment and use of adjectives definitely and without hesitation enriches and even deepens and intrigues the reader’s experience. Hemingway was certainly and indubitably wrong and incorrect. As proof–just contemplate, cogitate, think, and consider how many people read Henry James for pleasure and enjoyment?
Just noticed Roger Dooley’s chin-stroking over the phrase “cognitive fluency” in his post, just above. Language should do more than simply transfer information from writer to reader. Language should also ITSELF quicken the reader’s attention and provoke his/her understanding with newness. Newness, not strangeness (which simply deflects). A phrase like “cognitive fluency” is clear, but it also compresses new meaning into a new package and PULLS the reader forward. Yes, we should strive to say more with fewer words, but that quest should quicken our perception of language as a CREATIVE tool. Clear, plain writing does not have to be ugly.
Lots of research confirms that “newness” is good, Clark – our brains look for new things, and are far more likely to notice something new than whatever was there before. “Difficulty” isn’t so good. It slows comprehension and tires the brain.
I didn’t think of it that way. I guess you can never over-complicate yourself through doing too much. Adjectives have their place, but never omit them out either. They bring some life to your writing.
I think using adjectives is just a small part of having it go viral. Viral work has always been produced with all the qualities that it takes. I did talk about that in my article “How To Write A Killer Article Like A Killer!”.
Never over-do things. Excellent article! 🙂