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.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Good readability where it is especially desired



The vulnerabilities of Microsoft Internet Explorer finally turned me off for good.

I installed Mozilla Firefox. The installation was quick and easy.

And I couldn't help but notice the good readability of the installation instructions. Curious, I ran a Flesch Reading Ease test:

Words per sentence: 11.1 (very short)
Characters per word: 4.8 (very short)
Flesch Reading Ease: 54.6 (as easy to read as Time magazine)

People who write for software companies rarely achieve scores in the 50s. My hat is off to Mozilla.

The Takeaway: Use short words and short sentences. You will greatly increase the readability of your copy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

First, second and third person (2)


In a previous post, I discussed grammatical person (first, second and third person). In that post, I quoted a book publisher’s statement that is difficult to understand because the publisher confuses second person with third person.

Today we have a piece of copy in which the writer confuses first person with second person with third person.

The writer has a friend who once worked as a torturer's gofer, hunting “for People of Interest, to then be turned over to torturers…” The writer and other friends of the torturer’s gofer are reluctant to talk about torture, both in and out of the gofer's presence:

“Silence seems to be the answer … at least to everyone [third person] in my circle. That’s how we [first person] handle it. You [second person] ignore it.”

The writer uses first person, second person and third person to refer to one group of people. This abuse of grammatical person is confusing to the reader. The writer would have made his point more clearly if he had written something like this:

Silence seems to be the answer … at least for us [first person]. That’s how we [first person] handle torture. We [first person] ignore it.

It makes the same point, with the same (or more) emotional impact and with more clarity.

The Takeaway: Don’t confuse your reader: don’t start a discussion in one grammatical person and then switch to another. The more you switch, the more you confuse. Review the pronoun section in your grammar book; learn first person, second person and third person so thoroughly that you will jar yourself awake whenever you accidentally switch person.

First, second and third person (1)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Don't make your readers work too hard


In an article entitled, “You Are What You Measure,” Ryan Rasmussen of the Z√≥calo Group discusses impressions – a widely used marketing measurement.

Unfortunately for the reader, the article is constructed so sloppily as to be almost indecipherable. I’ll discuss only the opening paragraph:

“There is an ever-present metric that looms over meaningful engagement. It is an artifact from the industry that long ago accepted its flaws, but continues to sell campaigns and drive efforts to make brand messages measurable.”

At this point, the reader has read the title and the opening paragraph but still does not know what topic the writer is talking about. The writer discourteously holds the reader in suspense until three paragraphs later, when he finally discloses that the topic is impressions.

And even then, he discloses it indirectly – not in the main clause but in a prepositional phrase: “Trust is not a factor in calculating impressions.” The reader could be forgiven for concluding that the writer is toying with him.

Furthermore, the reader cannot be certain that impressions is the mysterious “ever-present metric” mentioned in the first sentence. And, because the reader does not know what Mr. Rasmussen means by “looms over” or by “meaningful engagement,” that sentence appears to be nonsense.

And what is an “artifact” in the sense used here? The only dictionary definition that could possibly fit the context is: “An inaccurate observation, effect, or result, especially one resulting from the technology used in scientific investigation or from experimental error: The apparent pattern in the data was an artifact of the collection method.”

If that is the definition the writer intends, then we must ask: What was the inaccuracy? What was it, specifically, about “the industry” that caused the inaccuracy? What industry is it (the context of the home page suggests marketing or public relations)?

Is “that” used in a restrictive sense, as it appears to be? If so, then the writer is saying that the industry(ies) that did not accept “its flaws” somehow did not take part in creating the artifact. What could that mean?

What is the subject of the verb “continues”? Is it “the industry” or is it the “ever-present metric”?

Mr. Rasmussen makes a valid and useful point in his article, but he buries it so deep that the reader must work very hard to unearth it.

The Takeaway: Anyone can write nonsense. To write sense, you need to learn a lot about words: What they mean. What they can and cannot do. How they can and cannot be combined. Some of this knowledge is subtle. To acquire this knowledge, you must read a lot – especially from the work of careful writers. We learn how to combine words by watching careful writers combine words.

A Good Resource: In my opinion, the best book on the subtleties involved in combining words is Simple & Direct by Jacques Barzun. It will inspire you to write more carefully and considerately.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An inconvenient gaffe on 60 Minutes -- an editorial



Government is the greatest enemy of clear writing. Government employees strive every day to avoid writing or speaking clearly. That’s because government, as the Father of His Country warned us, is force.* Therefore, government must constantly deceive its subjects about its true intentions and methods.

Government also urges its indirect employees (e.g., lawyers, accountants and other licensed professionals) and its various cheerleaders (e.g., most academics, journalists and entertainers) to avoid clear writing and clear speaking.

This arrangement generally runs smoothly. But once in a great while, some doofus gives the game away by uttering or writing a clear sentence or two. There was a striking example last Sunday (May 3) on 60 Minutes, the weekly news program on CBS.

In a segment called “Amazon Crude,” correspondent Scott Pelley interviewed Steven Donziger (photo above), a New York lawyer who is helping a group of Indians in remote northeastern Ecuador sue Chevron for allegedly polluting the part of the jungle where the Indians live. They are seeking US$27 billion in damages.

Mr. Pelley asked Mr. Donziger, “Texaco [which is now part of Chevron] spent $40 million cleaning up some of these sites. In return for that the Ecuadorian government signed off and said, ‘You’re released of liability.’ How can you have a lawsuit now?”

Mr. Donziger replied, “Well, our clients never released Texaco. And that’s a critical distinction. That was an agreement between the government and Texaco. We were not part of that agreement, and we’re not bound by that agreement.”

Uh-oh. If Mr. Donziger’s “critical distinction” is valid, then laws, regulations and treaties are binding only on the people who sign them.

For example, in the United States, only the people who signed the laws prohibiting possession of marijuana were prohibited from possessing marijuana, and all of those people are now dead. And only the people who signed the Sixteenth Amendment were required to pay individual income tax, and all of them are now dead. And so on.

Needless to say, the U.S. Government will have to quash this lawsuit, or at least tell the press not to cover it, in order to prevent more subjects from thinking these forbidden thoughts.

Many thanks to Stefan Molyneux for spotting Mr. Donziger’s gaffe. Mr. Molyneux is a Canadian philosopher, novelist and blogger, and host of the internationally popular Freedomain Radio podcasts. See his amusing video, “Mainstream Anarchism.”

The Takeaway: If you work directly or indirectly for government, or if you are a cheerleader for government, you must always be wary of clarity. Before you publicly express any clear thought – even a statement of obvious fact – try to anticipate how the subjects may use it against you or your colleagues. As you gain more experience, you will realize that it is safer to avoid all clear expression and to favor murky statements and outright nonsense. Don’t worry about fluency – you’ll become more fluent with practice. And eventually the clear thoughts will plague you less frequently, if at all.

*“Government is not reason. It is not eloquence. Government is force; like fire it is a dangerous servant – and a fearful master.” —George Washington, 1797

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Simple software, not-so-simple marketing copy


Salesforce.com is a well-known provider of software as a service (SaaS). The company’s software is widely used by nontechnical people. Not surprisingly, the company touts the software’s simplicity:

“say goodbye to complexity”
“easily assemble applications”
“point-and-click simplicity”
“easy-to-use development model”
“ ‘no programming’ point-and-click wizards”


But the company does not seem to strive for simplicity in writing; that is to say, in writing its marketing copy. Here, for example, is the company’s motherhood statement* as used in a May 1 press release:

“Salesforce.com is the enterprise cloud computing company. The company’s portfolio of SaaS applications, including its award-winning CRM, available at http://www.salesforce.com/products/, has revolutionized the ways that customers manage and share business information over the Internet. The company’s Force.com PaaS enables customers, developers and partners to build powerful on-demand applications that deliver the benefits of multi-tenancy across the enterprise. Applications built on the Force.com platform, available at http://www.force.com, can be easily shared, exchanged and installed with a few simple clicks via salesforce.com’s Force.com AppExchange marketplace available at http://www.salesforce.com/appexchange/.

“As of January 31, 2009, salesforce.com manages customer information for approximately 55,400 customers including Allianz Commercial, Dell, Dow Jones Newswires, Japan Post, Kaiser Permanente, KONE, and SunTrust Banks. Any unreleased services or features referenced in this or other press releases or public statements are not currently available and may not be delivered on time or at all. Customers who purchase salesforce.com applications should make their purchase decisions based upon features that are currently available. Salesforce.com has headquarters in San Francisco, with offices in Europe and Asia, and trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol ‘CRM’. For more information please visit http://www.salesforce.com/uk”

Let us apply the widely used Flesch Reading Ease test. Average sentence length is 23.8 words. This is unusually long. Average word length is 6.1 characters. This also is unusually long. Readability is 5.4. This is a very low score for marketing copy, even in the software industry, which is known for difficult-to-read marketing copy.

For comparison purposes, consider these ranges of readability scores:

60s Reader’s Digest
50s Time magazine
40s The Wall Street Journal
30s Harvard Law Review; white papers
20s IRS forms; academic papers

So, Salesforce.com’s description of itself is much harder to read than IRS forms and academic papers. (Keep in mind that IRS forms and academic papers are deliberately confusing.)

In short, Salesforce.com has provided an instructive example of how not to write marketing copy.

The Takeaway: If you write marketing copy aimed at nontechnical people, always strive for a readability score above 50. Settle for 30 to 50 if the names of products or product categories are long. But never go below 30. Never. Below 30 is too hard to read. Many readers will give up. And that certainly can’t boost your marketing results. (If you want to know how many people are actually reading your marketing copy, try some Starch Tests.)

*A motherhood statement is a company description placed at the end of a press release.