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Content, Without Context, Is Meaningless

In the late 90s, I taught marketing classes at a local college. I vividly remember a particular lecture I often gave on the power of storytelling in communications.

Stories are not just for entertaining our audiences. They also give our content context. Context is far more important than we think.

In Daniel Kahneman's seminal book, “Thinking Fast and Slow,” the brain makes quick and intelligent guesses based on its unconscious use of context. The lack of context creates confusion. According to Dr. Peter Vermeulen:

“In making sense of the world around us, context is our guide, especially when the input is vague, incomplete, or ambiguous. Our brain (is) an expert in using context, which not only helps us to predict and recognize communication, but also helps us to avoid all the confusion of the ever-changing meanings of what people say or show us.”

We have an overwhelming compulsion to compare and contrast almost everything we encounter. We think in relative terms, not in direct terms.

We relate things. That’s how our minds work.

So if we construct our communications — from educational content to advertising campaigns — by applying this simple rule, our efforts will perform significantly better.

During one of those lectures I mentioned earlier, one of my students, who was also a bit of a class firebrand, approached me after my talk. He wanted to illustrate my point — or perhaps make one, I'm not sure.

He pulled out a chair and placed it beside my desk, and asked me:

“Mr. Fortin, what's the difference between this chair and your desk?”

“One is to sit on and the other is to write on,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you're relating the difference rather than stating it.”

He was absolutely right. The difference is their function. “Function” is the absolute answer. Describing the difference by comparing the function of the desk with the function of the chair is the relative answer.

I was relating the difference as opposed to stating it directly.

For example, I could have said:

  • The desk is made of wood and the chair is made of plastic.
  • The desk is five feet long and the chair is only two.
  • The desk is brown and the chair is red.

But in each of these, I wouldn't have directly stated what makes them different; I only related it. Their differences are, respectively, their construction, size, and colour.

The point is this.

Giving your marketing context reduces friction and unnecessary critical thinking when trying to interpret your information. Also, your message will be more powerful and impactful when you give it something the mind can relate to, such as through the use of metaphor, simile, analogy, and story.

This applies to all communications, not just marketing.

Without context, one of two things might happen:

  1. You create confusion and subsequently reluctance in the mind of your audience. “The confused mind never buys,” goes the adage, whether it's selling an idea or a service.
  2. You allow if not force your audience to decide on their own what you mean, which may be something completely different and perhaps unfavourable.

So the more context you provide your audience, the faster their comprehension will be, and the more meaningful what you say (and sell) will become.

Tell stories, use metaphors, make analogies, or at the very least, offer comparisons.

Because content, without context, is meaningless.

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Strategic marketing consultant Michel Fortin