Blind Certainty vs Informed Certainty

What kind of certainty has the most business value?

Not all certainties are alike.

In his This is Water commencement speech at Kenyon College, long-haired, Gen-X author David Foster Wallace talks about two young fish swimming in a tank. They meet an older fish who greets them.

“How’s the water?”, asks the older fish. 

Confused by the question, the young fish continue swimming with nonplussed, fishlike expressions. Then one asks the other, “What the hell is water?”.

The point of Wallace’s little parable is that we don’t really see or think about what’s all around us all the time, even if it’s important. Especially when life gets tedious, stressful, and dull. University educations don’t teach us “how to think” when we’re stuck in rush hour traffic for the 4th time this week.

He later unfolds that point into a larger takeaway, which he tacks on to a short story featuring an atheist vs a religionist. The villain of that story is a trait they share: blind certainty, which Doer describes as a mental prison.

But Wallace offers an alternative:

To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

There’s a transition here from holding blind certainties to questioning one’s own certainties as a default mode of thinking. You might call the latter, “cultivating informed certainties”.

My attempt at an informed certainty

Not long ago, I was certain that the homepage of your B2B expertise business should have one, single call-to-action (CTA) oriented toward lead generation. I could cite several well-known books that back up that theory. A year ago, in fact, I offered 18 pieces of marketing advice for the “above-the-fold” area of your homepage on an email to this list.

Three pieces of advice had to do with CTAs:

    • The most prominent thing to click on by far should be the lead capture call-to-action (CTA)
    • Always include this CTA twice – in the (sitewide) header on the far right and in the main above-the-fold area 
    • Do not ever have more than one CTA above-the-fold; the header’s CTA and the main CTA should be identical – use the exact same words for both

Now in my defense, there’s some good advice in that article, in case you’re looking for ideas on how to put together your business’s homepage. And in some cases, what I say about CTAs is an excellent, replicable formula.

But now I disagree with my former self. I generally think there should be one “direct marketing” style CTA and one “trust-based marketing”-style CTA. I think that’s even more true for product or service pages than for the home page.

In other words, always offer a CTA choice:

  1. transact right now
  2. learn more by reading, listening, or watching

I discussed this recently in contrasting Direct Marketing with Non-Direct Marketing.

E voilà – certainty disavowed. 

Generating informed certainty

The larger takeaway is that your job as a transformation-oriented consultant isn’t to provide certainty, ultimately. It’s to provide your clients with the ability to make less risky, more profitable decisions. You teach them how to think about a certain, limited set of business problems about which you have expertise.

Ahh, but there’s a catch: we have to start somewhere. So you have to bring your own wheels to the conversation so they don’t have to be reinvented. So you don’t have to A/B test Nonsense vs Nonsense. You have to bring informed certainties – and let them be challenged.

These could be enclosed in templates, questionnaires, briefs, or best practices.

But the best-informed certainties are what you instinctively repeat on almost every client call especially when you publish your thoughts on them – publicly.

You can think of these informed certainties as “strategy prompts”. I have a point-of-view on this subject. Here’s how it might help your business.

That’s a much better starting place than going in blind – or blindly certain.

Warm regards,

PS This Storygrid podcast will take you deeper into the subject of Certainty vs Wisdom through publishing