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Plain Language is The Antidote to Grandiosity

By Rod Sweet (a real, live editor!).

Editors get a special kind of headache when reading a press release infected by grandiosity. They have to read it because there may be a story in there, but it hurts, and at the earliest opportunity they spike it and rest their eyes by reading the phone book. Editors get paid to try, but customers don’t.

My thesaurus offers the following for “grandiose”: affected, extravagant, highfalutin, ostentatious, pretentious. I would add: “fatal for reader connection.”

Here’s an example:

“Projects selected for the Good Design is Good Business award clearly demonstrate how thoughtful architecture, cohesive collaborations, and sustainable resource management benefit a client’s bottom line, productivity levels, and preparedness for the future. EYP’s commitment to design excellence and understanding real-world challenges is abundantly evident in the GE Headquarters project. The firm’s close collaboration with the client resulted in a successful business enterprise that enhances productivity, facilitates sustainable operations, and that provides an aspiring work environment for GE employees.”

Nobody talks like this!

For some reason, businesses that sell to other businesses are more prone to grandiosity in their written content. Businesses that sell to end users, like Google, Facebook, Netflix and big online retailers, make sure what they write connects. Even their corporate news releases are easy to understand.

The cure for grandiosity is to stop transmitting and start communicating. Companies trapped in transmit mode are beguiled by what they have to say about themselves and write for an audience comprising, chiefly:

– Their own product development people.

– Their own marketing boss.

– Their own CEO.

– Their competitors’ marketing people.

– The ghosts of their primary school teachers.

Companies who’ve learned how to communicate write for an audience comprising, chiefly:

– Their customers.

If you want to announce something, avoid the connection-killer of grandiosity by doing these things.

– Look your audience straight in the eye, metaphorically, and start talking to them, sensibly.

– Make your sentences so short, naked and plain that it hurts.

– Wherever possible change big words to smaller ones: “within” to in, “utilize” to use, etc.

– Strip out all tortured positioning statements, like “Avanuvva, the business technology solutions and managed services provider driving value-add for the drinks industry…”

– Read the text to a language innocent, like a 13-year-old, and highlight every word they don’t understand. Don’t cheat: quiz them on words like “leverage,” “optimize,” “seamlessly,” “facilitate,” “underpin,” and “streamline.” If they don’t know what these words mean, try and explain. If that fails take the words out and replace them with ones you can explain.

– Work out why customers would care about what you have to say. Not why they “should” care. “Should” is very different. Anyone can come up with a “should” regarding what other people do with their attention. “Would” care is either true or not. You may need to ask customers to get some ideas.

– Don’t rely on “you will save money.” We’re conditioned to disbelieving this claim, to suspecting that there are strings attached or that there’s hassle involved. Also it puts you in the position of hammering them with logic, of winning an argument, which puts people off.

– If there isn’t any reason why your customers would care all that much, don’t try and make something up, just chat to them. Be an interesting conversationalist.

– Show, don’t tell. Telling allows you to haul down labels from the buzzosphere. Find a way of showing how you “drive value-add” that makes sense to a 13-year-old.

It takes many expensive minutes to write and get approval for a press release. If it’s a dud, it’s a waste of expensive minutes, and there is also the opportunity cost of a missed connection.

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