As humans, we have a tricky relationship with ambiguity.
Used effectively, ambiguity (messages with more than one interpretation) can create clever, insightful, and amusing communication — making it a staple of advertising and comedy.
Used ineffectively, however, ambiguity’s multiple meanings can create confusing and misleading language that prevents readers from understanding what you mean.
And when it comes to plain language practitioners, ambiguity is especially tricky. After all, we’re here to ensure that our intended audiences can understand and act on a message’s true meaning in their first reading.
To control ambiguity, you need to analyze and manage your message’s context.
With clear context, readers can make sense out of otherwise confusing details. Without it, they’re unable to untangle a message, triggering a powerful physiological response because our brains crave certainty.
As ambiguity increases, the amygdala (the grey matter deep inside the brain’s cerebral hemispheres) begins responding to a perceived threat. Anxiety and fear rise, while the ventral striatum (which helps respond to rewards) simply stops functioning.
In other words, too much ambiguity makes us feel nervous, uncomfortable, and out of control.
These chemical imbalances cause our minds to seek meaning and understanding, so we strive to find certainty even when no clear answer is in sight. Ultimately, if we hear only limited or ambiguous details about something we hold dear — such as job stability, national security, or legislative developments — then our brain chemicals force us to search for clarity no matter how muddy the source. When you think about this innate reaction, the current “fake news” phenomenon and fights over what constitutes a fact make more sense.
Surprisingly, ambiguity is not a shortcoming in language and isn’t always an enemy of clarity. An MIT study demonstrated that it can actually be beneficial to speakers and listeners, alike.
When used effectively, ambiguity’s multiple meanings allow us to convey as much as possible with fewer words while helping the audience to understand more deeply and quickly. By recycling words, ambiguity can support efficiency and enhance understanding.
Ambiguity only works, however, when the author and audience both know the message’s context.
Creating this relationship — and ensuring readers understand your messages’ context —is your responsibility. By freeing your audiences from our chemically induced quest for meaning, you help them avoid a frantic search for connections and understanding. In the process, you protect yourself, your messages, and your audiences from unintended consequences.
By choosing to create context that gives your audiences clear messages with digestible information, you share thoughts and information that is easy to act on. In short, you uphold your audiences’ right to understand what they read.
About the author: As Principal of Zuula, Meghan Codd Walker helps clients understand — and unleash — the power of plain language. She brings more than a decade of experience as a writer, editor, and content strategist, with a focus in the financial services industry.