Have you ever found yourself on a website reading one of the pages, only to look up from it and say to yourself…
“what the hell did that even mean?”
You’re not alone.
I can’t tell you the amount of copy I’ve read in the last year that leaves me with just as many questions as I started with…
“Sooooo, I’m not following. Why do people need this?”
“Okaaaay, but I still don’t know what that means, how does it actually work?”
“Sorry, I’m still confused. You’ve told me a lot about what you don’t do, but I still don’t know what you do.”
As I notice this recurring theme, I’m left with a deeply important question:
Why won’t everyone just say what they mean?
On Aug 27th, I published: How To Build a Brand without “Brand Words” and Platitudes
I took aim at the abundance of brand copy that uses empty, hollow platitudes, or that stuffs jargon into every crevice in order to appear more knowledgeable.
One thing I failed to adequately call out in that post is how all of this “brand copy” dances around actually saying something understandable and specific.
Today, I’m going to explore why this trend exists, why it continues, and what we can do about it.
Why do products go on sale?
In 1979, Daniel Kahneman and his associate Amos Tversky coined the term “Loss Aversion.” It described a phenomenon whereby people were more likely to be driven to action by fear of losing something than by desire for gain.
“The response to losses is stronger than the response to corresponding gains”
In 1984, Robert Cialdini released Influence, the book he’s most well known for. In this book, he described in great detail, the six weapons of influence. One of the levers of human psychology that drives action, is scarcity. Scarcity, is closely related to loss aversion. When something is limited, it arouses a fear that you will miss your opportunity to have it. This can increase prices and drive people toward action.
These two ideas — loss aversion and scarcity — spurred an entire movement in advertising, marketing, and sales, to leverage messaging focused on the scarcity of products and services, and aimed at triggering the fear of loss — or in modern terms, the fear of missing out (FOMO). Everywhere you look, you will notice one day sales, offers that are “expiring soon,” and limited capacity for an online course that’s closing soon.
These tactics do still work, but as more and more people create artificial scarcity, the more that the prospective customer catches on to the manufactured sales pressure. As more people use the tactic, the less people believe the claims of scarcity or succumb to the pressure of loss.
This however has not stopped the creation of artificial scarcity…and so, the trend continues.
Why don’t Politicans answer questions?
I recently finished reading Propaganda (1928) by Edward Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations.” I see this book as: a staunch defense of mass persuasion by the exceptional few, for the benefit of all mankind. While I find this idea nauseating, the case was so convincing that it was partly responsible for launching the entire Public Relations industry that we all know and accept today.
The widespread adoption of public relations, advertising, and the other various methods used to influence and persuade the masses, has lead to substantive changes in our culture most notably in how we communicate, as well as our relationship to the concept of truth.
Over the years, practitioners of public relations and advertising have influenced how businesses interface with the public, how politicians interface with the public, or how governments interface with the citizenry.
If one were to believe the originators of these industries, there was no malicious intent, nor willful deception intended while developing the strategies and tactics for effective public relations. Yet, media training, and press relations are often used to disguise true intentions, obfuscate meaning, or avoid uncomfortable issues.
Politicians and their press secretaries have become adept at sidestepping tough questions or saying a great many words while still saying almost nothing with those words.
Businesses, scared of taking bold stances on an issue for fear of limiting their market, or accepting accountability for fear of hurting their stock price, have become experts in issuing press releases that dance around taking a position or that use a hopeful and positive tone to mask the catastrophic consequences of their actions.
As a public, we now see that everything is filtered through the lens of someone else’s interests — even when the interests are supposedly for the public. We’ve lost trust and continue to do so with each subsequent interview and press release.
While people routinely complain about politicians not telling the truth, talking a lot without saying anything, and not answering questions or answering different questions than they were asked, it all continues to happen. Even though trust in advertising continues to fall, and no one reads press releases, businesses are still pumping them out and paying hefty PR retainers in pursuit of positive press…and so, these trends continue.
Who Invented the Status Quo?
One way to think about the status quo, is the copying of previous patterns of thinking, behavior, and language.
In this way, the status quo isn’t a thing…it’s actually just a copy of a thing.
Businesses, politicians, and people working jobs everywhere do things because they’ve been trained that way, most likely by people who were trained that way.
This can either mean that they were literally trained as in the case of a Junior PR Account Executive who has been coached on how to do media training for Politicians or CEOs, or it can be the de facto training of observation and mimicry.
We are social creatures programmed at birth to copy the behavior of others. So, in the absence of a different way of thinking about something, we resort to how we’ve seen others do it.
What Happens When Someone Decides To Think Different?
In 1997, a little computer company named Apple made a commercial with the tagline “Think Different.”
- There were no computers in this commercial.
- There were no computer specifications.
- There was no call to action.
This same little computer company introduced the Macintosh in 1984 with another commercial that only mentioned the word computer in the final 10 seconds of the commercial by referencing the company name: Apple Computer.
These commercials were groundbreaking. They’ve become iconic. Across the world people saw these commercials and said:
We should do something like THAT!
Copies of Copies of Copies of…
So, to come full circle…
Why won’t everyone just say what they mean?
I think that there are two primary reasons why we see so much nonsensical copy on the web and in mission statements, and why we hear so many convoluted sales pitches.
- We are unconsciously copying copies (ironically) because we aren’t sure how to be original.
- It is actually much easier (and safer) to say a lot of nothing than it is to say a little of something.
Though we don’t realize it, we are following the established patterns of “how to [do something].”
Businesses write mission statements. Businesses write website copy. Businesses attempt to communicate about themselves to the world.
We do all this because it’s what we’re supposed to do. These are the tools we have to guide our teams, and to generate interest in our products and services so that we can generate sales and put food on the table.
In writing a mission statement, too many people are trying to be “Patagonia meets Ghandi, but written for our industry…and make it on-brand.”
In writing website copy, too many brands are trying to be “Everything for Everyone All The Time Change The World Innovation Growth Future Expert”
We imitate others because it’s familiar and expected. We say what we think we’re supposed to, speaking in generalities, and copying the patterns of those who came before us.
Sadly, we do this even if it’s not who we really are.
Those that write around the specifics are either knowingly or unknowingly operating from a state of fear. They are scared of deviating from the status quo, of being called out, of taking a stand for something outside of what’s expected.
Saying something specific requires you to clearly define what you say no to, while being vague leaves your options open. Saying something specific opens the door to scrutiny, where saying something broad and open to interpretation allows you to ebb and flow against attacks.
It’s easier and less risky to talk a lot but say nothing. After all, our politicians, and brands do it, right?
So, how do we fix it?
Resolution: Stand Tall, Speak Clearly
We can fix everything wrong with website copy today. We can fix sales pitches by this afternoon. We can do both of these things and be original while doing it.
All we have to do is stop pretending to be something we’re not.
Authenticity is not a tactic, it’s a descriptor.
- You are not for every customer.
- You are probably not changing someone’s life.
- You are probably not changing the world.
If you are doing those things, great. If not, stop pretending that you are and start telling people exactly what you believe, who you serve, and how it works.
While you’re doing it, drop the over-the-top language.
We can stop the specificity crisis in its tracks.
Speak plainly. Say words that communicate information, value, and emotion. Say only what is true, nothing more. When you use words that don’t fit, you not only diminish your brand, you dilute the meaning of words.
Like the polar ice caps, the effectiveness of bullshit is getting dangerously thin.
Just because propaganda worked in the early days of public relations, doesn’t mean it still works as well, or that it was ever right to begin with. Just because there are levers of influence that affect all people, doesn’t mean you should pull them. Just because you like a word doesn’t mean it belongs on your website.
I think we’re all getting a little tired of wasting our time on shit that doesn’t make any sense written by people just going through the motions making copies of copy and copy from copies.
Today, commit to being specific and honest. Together, we can turn the tides.
Maybe don’t be this specific though:
Originally published at Jeff Gibbard.