The Goldilocks Effect: The Communication Principle That Will Make or Break Your Writing

Andy Cook
June 26, 2020
goldilocks effect

You may not realize it at first, but adults, surprisingly, share a few traits with Goldilocks, the protagonist from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Along with our lack of resolve when fighting a food coma, we also both prefer things that are just right, especially when it comes to consuming information. This phenomenon is fittingly called the Goldilocks Effect.

Read on to learn exactly what the Goldilocks Effect is and how you can tap into it to write articles and documents that your audience or team will devour faster than Goldilocks can gobble down Baby Bear’s porridge.

What Is the Goldilocks Effect?

The Goldilocks Effect is our tendency to consume information that’s not too long, detailed, and complex, yet not too short, simple, and watered down. In other words, we prefer writing that zips us across the page but also teaches us something novel and interesting. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes at an eighth-grade level, yet his ideas are so stimulating that five of his six books have landed on The New York Times Best Seller list.

Tapping into the Goldilocks Effect pushes you to write simply enough for a five-year-old to understand but also profoundly enough for a CEO to shout its praises.

So how do you do that?

10 Ways to Tap into the Goldilocks Effect While You Write

To get your writing just right, like Goldilocks and your audience or team prefers, check out these 10 fundamental tips for writing digestible yet insightful articles or internal wiki posts.

1. Break up your writing into digestible chunks

Walls of text are daunting to even look at, let alone read, like the example below.

wall of text
Image Credit: Hananiah Wilson

Remember, white space is your friend. However, if you don’t know exactly how to break up your writing into digestible chunks, consider following the rule of thumb that one paragraph should cover only one idea — regardless if it’s one sentence or five.

Some other ways you can chop up your writing are by using subheads, which are headers within headers, like this current section, and numbered or bulleted lists.

2. Lead with the most important takeaway

Due to the instant dopamine hits that our devices provide, we’re more impatient than ever before. In fact, according to research from Nielson, 79% of online readers strictly skim their content, and the overwhelming majority of websites only have 10-20 seconds to grab a user’s attention.

Put simply, we crave writing that gets to the point and gets to it early. So, it’s crucial to start with the most important takeaway. Then, from there, you can support it with layers of evidence that flow in a logical order.

This writing technique is called the Minto Pyramid Principle, which we wrote about in a previous blog post. Click here to learn exactly how to follow it.

3. Support your takeaways with credible evidence

Your takeaway is only as strong as the evidence behind it. Not only does it validate your takeaway, but it also builds trust with your audience.

The most credible sources to rely on are subject matter experts, reputable media outlets, and academic studies that follow the scientific method. These sources might be harder to find than the first result that pops up on Google, but the brand integrity and trust they build is definitely worth the extra effort.

4. Write in active voice instead of passive voice

Writing in the active voice trims the fat that the passive voice naturally packs on to your sentences. For example, this sentence that’s written in the passive voice, “The football was thrown by Tom Brady,” is more wordy and less direct than its counterpart, “Tom Brady threw the football.” Active voice also clarifies your sentence’s subject better than passive voice.

5. Use vivid verbs instead of adverbs

Concrete verbs that appeal to the five senses, like “snarl,” are more lean, specific, and expressive than adverbs, like “yell rudely.” As a result, they paint a clear picture in people’s minds. Vivid words do this because they activate the brain’s sensory cortex, which is responsible for perceiving texture through touch.

In fact, researchers at Emory University found that vivid, concrete metaphors, like “He had leathery hands,” light up people’s sensory cortex, while similar phrases, like “he had strong hands,” don’t.

6. Avoid prepositional phrases

Sentences with prepositional phrases, like “The dog of my friend loves to interrupt our Zoom calls,” meander unnecessarily. To clean up that sentence, you can snip the preposition between the two nouns, “dog” and “friend,” to get, “My friend’s dog loves to interrupt our Zoom calls.”

7. Avoid noun strings

However, you also don’t want to smush too many nouns next to each other. Your sentence will read choppy and staccato. Sprinkle a preposition or two into your sentence to smooth things out. For example, a single preposition can buff the sentence, “We have an employee tuition reimbursement program,” to “We have a tuition reimbursement program for our employees.”

8. Cut down on linking verbs

Linking verbs, like “Nelson was writing a blog post,” give your sentences a passive effect. “Nelson wrote a blog post” reads much tighter.

9. Vary sentence length and structure

Whether it’s in life or writing, humans crave variety. That’s why diversifying the length and structure of your sentences grips your readers. It also creates a rhythm and flow that’s enjoyable to follow, just like this example from the iconic writer Gary Provost.

vary sentence structure and length

10. Lose the clichés

Clichés are so dull and pedestrian that they literally can’t trigger an emotional response in your brain. In fact, common figures of speech, like “Avoid like the plague,” can’t activate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for experiencing emotions. To detect and cut any cliches from your writing, run it through a cliché finder tool.

Getting Your Writing Just Right

Writing something that your audience or team will consistently engage with is a tall task for anyone. But if you can tap into the Goldilocks Effect while you write, you’ll be able to craft articles that aren’t too hot or too cold or too hard or too soft. They’ll be just right.