How to Avoid Insulting the
Intelligence of the Reader

dumb reader

Imagine I was telling you the story of Goldilocks and The Three Bears.

Imagine I told you about Goldilocks, and how she found this house of the three bears. And how she ate their porridge. And how she sat in their chairs.

And… Are you getting impatient yet?

You should be.

Because like most people, you’ve already heard the story many times before. And when you tell a story that your readers already know, your readers do two things in rapid sequence.

  1. They try to stay engaged, hoping the story will somehow reveal some hidden mystery.
  2. They realize that there’s nothing new, and they start to nod off.

In short, you’ve insulted the intelligence of your reader.

So the question arises: How do you tell a well-known story without insulting the reader’s intelligence?

  1. You can tweak the storyline.
  2. You can abbreviate the story.

So let’s tweak the storyline. We can still have Goldilocks heading into the forest, but this time on a motorcycle. And she’s wearing a Hell’s Angels jacket.

That kind of changes things, eh?

Maybe the bears live in the wealthy side of town, where there are no break-ins. And Goldilocks breaks in anyway. Watches their Tivo. Eats their low-fat organic porridge. Re-sheets the beds with a lower thread count.

The story line stays the same, but the little tweak has sparked interest. This keeps the reader involved.

But hey, you may not want to do any tweaking. You may want to use the original Goldilocks story for the first fifty words of your article.

And you know that at least 80% of your audience knows the story. So that means 80% are tuning out, past the fourth or fifth line of your article.

That ain’t good, eh?

So what do you do? You assume the reader knows the story, and then you frame your opening like this:

Remember that girl Goldilocks? And how she broke into the house of the Three Bears? And how she ate their porridge, sat in their chairs, and slept on their beds?

Well, that’s what Wall Street has done to the rest of the world. But they’ve gone much farther than Goldilocks…

You saw how we made the dramatic transition between Goldilocks and the financial crisis? And we did it without boring or insulting the intelligence of the reader. We kept the storyline intact, thus enhancing the ‘actual story’ you were going to write about anyway.

And this way, you’ve got your reader interested in your first fifty words, and you’ve got them slip-sliding into the rest of the article as well. Which is what you set out to do in the first place, didn’t you?

Question for Copyblogger readers: What are some of the other ways that writers insult the intelligence of their readers?

About the Author: Sean D’Souza offers a free report on ‘Why Headlines Fail’ when you subscribe to his Psychotactics Newsletter. Check out his blog, too.

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Comments

  1. “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

  2. When websites are presented as brochure-ware Flash, slowly revealing bullet points about world-class quality and excellence in customer satisfaction.

    And the images that accompany the story? Stock photos that you’ve seen a jillion times before…

  3. Another way writers insult the intelligence of the reader? Linking too much!

    I love a well-placed, helpful link to get more information (Maybe one for people who haven’t heard the story of Goldilocks would help? Probably not.), but I hate when writers link to nearly every word they mention, especially when it’s information that’s common knowledge.

  4. I write a blog that can be technical in nature at times. In order for me to explain an advanced concept, I feel I have to describe the basics. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details of the basics. I’ve found it better to then write an article on the basics of the concept and then link to it at the beginning of the article.

    For example; When using the equalizer, you should first know the fundamentals (then I link to my 101-level article.) When using the equalizer on an acoustic guitar…

  5. Sean I love your blog it is so refreshing.

    Nathan’s comment hits home best for myself, brevity. How can you hold a persons interest when they need to pull out a thesaurus just to follow along? I was lead to a site recently on a subject I was researching but it only took a paragraph for me to realize they were writing to doctorial candidates. Jeff Paul, the Certified Financial Planner turned mailorder marketer summed it up well,”You need to write so Homer Simpson can understand it, even though you may be highly educated, then anyone will understand it.”

    Looking forward to reading the rest of your posts.

    AZMike

  6. When a writer thinks that in order to connect with an audience from Texas, they have to use words like “y’all.”

    http://www.anonymousadguy.com

  7. I agree, keep things short and sweet. There is nothing worse when reading or listening to someone tell a story that gets no where. You lose interest right away.

    Craig
    http://www.budgetpulse.com

  8. That reminds me of the story about the 3 bears that came home.

    Baby Bear said, somebody ate my porridge. Papa bear said somebody ate my porridge.

    Momma Bear said, “Shut the hell up, I ain’t poured it yet.”

  9. I had a good laugh at 6:05am

    Funny :)

    That reminds me of the story about the 3 bears that came home.

    Baby Bear said, somebody ate my porridge. Papa bear said somebody ate my porridge.

    Momma Bear said, “Shut the hell up, I ain’t poured it yet.”

  10. One way to insult your reader’s intelligence is to say, “I know you are dumb, but this article can help you.”

  11. I’ve really begun to skip all those list posts. 67 clues for living a better life! and usually not a single new idea in it. Gathering a bunch of has-been-said will still not make it new.

    ari

  12. When every single post is “Top N Ways to…”, and it’s a list of links every single time – with none of the author’s insight.

  13. I agree with everyones comments about the top ten lists. These seem to be copied from blogs all over and pasted in.

    I do, however, think that Google loves to chew on things that have ul tags in it…so maybe they’re on to something. This is of course just anecdotal evidence from a lot of my blog searches but it seems like the lists of junk come up a lot.

    My blog is top 10 list free.

  14. “My blog is top 10 list free.”

    That sounds like a good web badge campaign: http://tinyurl.com/4vw9be

    To clarify – I think lists are an excellent structure for a blog post, but it’s the “lists of links” pasted in (as Paunchiness mentioned) that I’m referring to. I know we all have tabbed browsers, but seriously…

  15. Content regurgitation is often a big waste of time and it is insulting when publishers publish such content and manage to hit the home pages of various social bookmarking websites just because they know a few “active” users. Even if you have got nothing original to say you can always present your own perspective to sound original.

  16. That was an excellent transition between Goldilocks and the financial crisis. And a great twist to a well known story without insulting anyone.

  17. Nice contribution there, Sean.

    I think this is the common technique of some money-making tips bloggers. They are convincing their readers that they will be rich by following their tips where in fact, they themselves are not making good money of it.

  18. Great post, would love to hear more about Goldilocks and the 3 Hells Angels… that would be one good story! :)

  19. ::nods::

    True.

    But as a fiction writer, I gotta say that there is an exemption, and that Goldilocks might be a bad example for this reason.

    When it comes to news stories and blog posts, redundantcy is a snoozer, especially if it is unoriginal, unresearched, or trite in nature.

    But when it comes to fictional stories (especially with an epic or moral tone) people like hearing the same ones over and over. Like songs and poetry, they become a part of our shared identity and branding for our culture, especially stories written stylistically, rhythmically, or poetically. This is doubly true for stories with fantastic imagery, relatable characters, or truths that we like to be reminded of.

    In the case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears hearing “This porridge was too hot! This porridge was too cold! This porridge was just right” pleases… in part because we expect it. It is familiar.

    Actually, Goldilocks and the Three Bears always made me want to eat porrige. I think I like Cream of Wheat because of the warm feelings I associate with that story–which probably comes more from my mother reading to me than from the content.

    So all you bloggers and journalists? Stop rehashing ideas. And for the love of the Verse, don’t write unresearched, meaningless tripe.

    But don’t give up storybooks just because you’ve heard them before. When was the last time you read to your children?

  20. A friend of mine uses a simple question to cut to the good stuff … what did you learn that surprised you … or … what did you learn that you didn’t expect?

    That’s the stuff ah-has and brain wrinkles are made of.

  21. This an excellent post , I’m grateful to you , thanks a lot .

  22. I think I’m guilty of this. Thanks for the twist. My ideas for writing a blog post has run out, because I’m saying the same story over and over and readers would not really read it.

    Well said.

  23. “…and then one time at band camp…”

    Okay so “Band Camp” is a place where members of a high school band will go to learn more about their particular instrument along with social interaction within the members of the band.

    Mmmm, you’re right over-explanation can ruin ANY story!

  24. No one is fool.

  25. That is an awesome post man. I remember Gary Halbert encouraging the same stuff. He always start his copy with something unrelated and slowly phase into his pitch.

    Like including an Iraq coin in his letter… if anybody here knows what I’m talking about.

  26. Whoa, the closing line of this post has sparked a lot of meaningful conversation in the comments. There are less of ‘it’s a great post’ and more of ‘how you can insult the reader’. Meaty. Good luck.

  27. Yes!
    Slightly off topic comment: Perhaps someone should send this blog post to McCain and Palin? As a Canadian, I am insulted by their sarcasm and assumptions that we don’t understand the message.

    BTW,Canadian politicians just aren’t as shiny and interesting.

  28. @Maggie — I disagree! Chretien avoided assassination in his own bedroom because his wife heard the intruder in the hallway and locked the door. Trudeau dared the press to trip him up and gave them the finger on at least one occasion. And then there is the whole McKay/Stronach/Domi/Rice love quadrangle… Come on, what’s not to get excited about!

    And all of Canada’s politicians get on Rick Mercer at some point or another. You don’t see Bush getting Colbert in a headlock in the Rose Garden or Rumsfeld skinny-dipping with Letterman.

    The only thing wrong with Canadian politics is that we don’t have The World’s Number One Political Team to blow it out of proportion with sound bites and Coulter-like personalities.

    Then again, maybe that’s one of the things that is *right* with it…

    ~Graham

  29. I personally detest lists…e.g. Seven Ways to Write a Headline’ etc. And there’s a reason for detesting that method. It’s not random. :) Maybe I’ll write about it.

    I agree with everyones comments about the top ten lists. These seem to be copied from blogs all over and pasted in.

  30. Yes, I agree that we need to hear the story. But not the full story. The story needs to be truncated, or else the audience will bail after a while.

    It’s a complex situation. Yes, you need to tell the story, but you need to know the truncation point. If you repeat the entire story, I can guarantee you’ll lose most of the audience.

    Songs are different kettle of fish. :) It’s not the same as reading. We expect a song to play out as a pattern. We rarely expect stories to repeat themselves. No matter how exciting, would you want to read yesterday’s top stories on the news?

    But when it comes to fictional stories (especially with an epic or moral tone) people like hearing the same ones over and over. Like songs and poetry, they become a part of our shared identity and branding for our culture, especially stories written stylistically, rhythmically, or poetically. This is doubly true for stories with fantastic imagery, relatable characters, or truths that we like to be reminded of.

    In the case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears hearing “This porridge was too hot! This porridge was too cold! This porridge was just right” pleases… in part because we expect it. It is familiar.

  31. Of course that’s true blogging is not as easy as we may think it takes time and thinking. We must recognize we are dealing with people otherwise we spoil everything in our self confidence

  32. Lists frustrate me, especially the top ten lists. I also hate seeing writers assume people have no idea how to do basic steps.

  33. This really helps me to give in more quality articles to readers. Thank you, Sean!

  34. I am guilty your honor!

    Thanks for the insight. Indeed, you do not want readers to tune out.

  35. When websites are presented as brochure-ware Flash, slowly revealing bullet points about world-class quality and excellence in customer satisfaction.

    And the images that accompany the story? Stock photos that you’ve seen a jillion times before…