Sunday, May 24, 2009

Salesman uses mantra, risks blowing sale

Many Americans seem to be addicted to mantras. They speak and write as if they had a minimum daily requirement of mantras. Like drug addicts, they will risk or sacrifice almost anything to get that minimum.

Certainly they will sacrifice clarity. For example, some PR people are perfectly willing to impair their own press releases – even press releases on weighty topics such as corporate mergers. Just so long as they can sneak in a mantra or two.

Today I have another example, a first-person anecdote.

I was shopping for a backup electric generator that would allow my wife and me to continue running our businesses during winter power outages. The salesman showed me a water-cooled, 800-pound monster that our electrician had suggested. It had a working capacity of 83 amps, which was enough to meet our immediate needs.

But I had a question. What would happen if we installed additional office equipment, and the demand began to exceed 83 amps? When the salesman heard this question, a funny expression came over his face. It was that effete giddiness that often precedes the delivery of a mantra.

SALESMAN: “It would bring the generator to its knees!” (GIGGLE)

ME: “What does that mean, in physical reality?”

SALESMAN: “I don’t know.”

ME: “Does it mean the windings would burn out?”

SALESMAN: “I don’t know.”

ME: “But surely an $8,000 generator has a circuit breaker for overload protection. What’s the rating of the breaker?”

SALESMAN: “It doesn’t have a breaker.”

ME: “That’s ridiculous! Even small appliances have internal fuses or circuit breakers.”

I insisted that he call in an engineer who could discuss overload protection. The engineer quickly confirmed that there was a circuit breaker in the generator. He said it was rated at 100 amps.

Here was a heavy-equipment salesman who was willing to risk blowing a sale, just so he could use a precious, trendy expression that he couldn’t even define.

The Takeaway: Whenever you think of a word or phrase that strikes you as especially clever, stop. It’s probably a mantra. This is how every fad, every fashion, and all propaganda works: an idea enters your mind without your conscious awareness that it has entered; once inside your mind, the idea pretends to be an original thought – until you think about it consciously. And that’s what I am urging you to do: think consciously about the words you utter and write. Especially when writing, keep asking yourself, “What do I mean?” Your writing will become increasingly precise and accurate.

Good Resources: Read Less Than Words Can Say, by Richard Mitchell, and Simple & Direct, by Jacques Barzun. You will treat words more carefully for the rest of your life.

Update, Sunday, May 24, 2009, 2:48 PM: While editing my first draft of this post, my wife spotted a mantra that I had unconsciously used.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I'm new to your site, but that is good advice. I think I write too much and say too little.