A strong main idea or takeaway is crucial, of course, but our audience often needs more information to think, feel or do something. That's where details come in, those vital tidbits of support that create sufficient context to move the audience.
And though I've been teaching about the 3 E's (evidence, explanation and examples) for two decades, it only dawned on me last week, as I was prepping for a presentation on blending data and prose in environmental writing that there's a golden ratio for details:
Two parts exposition to one part evidence
How do I know?
Two of the three kinds of support are exposition. Explanations and examples provide important definitions and descriptions that help our audience locate themselves in the content or create some other kind of connection. And connection is what moves us. That's why I've long said that examples and explanations are most effective when we're trying to reach people with low information, low experience or low trust.
The remaining kind of support is evidentiary. Data provide validation for people who are ready to decide. While it can be an effective attention-getter, making us go "wow!", data alone doesn't move us. If you've ever been to one of my workshops, you've heard me say that if data did motivate us to think, feel or do differently, I'd weigh a lot less. Data by itself only moves our audience when they are ready to be moved. Now, for high-information audiences, data is required because it establishes us as an authority who's done the work and provides that crucial "see, i was right." feeling. We can safely use more of it with these folks. But for a general audience, or those who are low trust and low information, data is more important as support for exposition. Less is more for these people.
Are you relying too much on data?
The inconvenient truth about all this is that most of us content creators rely too much on data. It's not even something we do consciously in most cases -- and it doesn't usually get flagged by our reviewers, either. Wanna guess how come? Because we have a ton of background information on the topic. We've got so much context that we're focussed on sniffing out validation -- so we feel really satisfied when we find all those data points that justify our thinking. It's like a confirmation bias almost.
Again, if your audience possesses a similar level of knowledge and context as you (or more), let the data have the spotlight and use examples and explanations to back it up.
Note: Sometimes examples can be evidence. Like a quote from an expert or an excerpt from a research monograph or something.
How can we operationalize this?
The good news is, it's easy to put this golden ratio into practice. First, as I've said a zillion times, describe your audience in terms beyond easy labels and demographics. Think about what they know and have experienced. This tells us whether they need more exposition or more evidence. When in doubt, more exposition is the safest posture. (You can always build an infographic or data set as a separate asset for any evidence-hungry audience members.)
Then sketch out your support in each of the categories to make sure you have the right ratio for your target audience. I usually do it by hand like this:
While my scribbles here indicate a lot of support, you don't always need that much. Jotting down all the details you think you need to share helps you choose the ones that are most relevant to your audience and that provide the most back-up for your main idea and goals for the piece.
Check out my slide deck for examples of how to blend data and prose (yeah, it's focused on environmental writing, but it applies to all kinds of content).
You know I have a worksheet for this. It's called the Position-Rationale-ProofTM and it's a great way to think through all this before you start writing. Download your better details worksheet here.
Give it a try on your next content project and let me know how it goes.