The Press, June 2008

Marketing is too often seen as being all about dazzling people with superlatives, endless adjectives and impressive jargon. Puffery, purple prose, hype, buzz, PR spin supposedly all contribute to a bigger and better brand that people will want to buy.

"Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon,” advertising guru David Ogilivy once said. "The consumer isn't a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything.”

A key part of effective marketing is conveying simply and clearly what value you offer to a customer. No hype or nonsense needed. Puffing up your product can actually have the opposite effect to the intended.

There is academic evidence that the use of long, complicated words in communicating typically results in the audience thinking you are less clever than if you use simple, clear copy. Princeton University professor Daniel Oppenheimer undertook a series of tests where he got people to rate the intelligence of different authors.

In an article published in the journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology he found that people rated the intelligence of authors who wrote in simpler language higher than those who used more complex language. "Anything that makes a text hard to read and understand . . . will lower readers' evaluations of the text and its author."

The classic mistake companies make is underestimating the intelligence of their customers. Thinking they will be impressed by jargon, extensive adjectives and exaggerated promises. What customers actually get excited about is something that will benefit them. You can say things as simply as you want if you are telling a customer what is in it for them.

For example, you could talk about inventing a highly advanced, fully integrated transportation unit that utilises highly compressed H20 as its principal source of fuel. Or you could promote a car that costs nothing to run and doesn’t pollute the atmosphere.

Customers typically see through the nonsense and, as the research shows, they can actually think less of the person or company communicating it. By crediting the customer with some intelligence you can be better off.

Being overly complicated or patronising can actually annoy and turn them off your message. Government departments are particularly adept at this, managing to hide valuable policy initiatives behind meaningless language.

The Ministry of Education and the new curriculum for schools is a good example. Instead of explaining simply how a new structure for our school subjects will be beneficial for students and schools alike, they dress it all up with “visions”, “values” and “key competencies”. Kids no longer get an education, they must be “confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.”

They no longer learn stuff but “develop key competencies” such as “thinking; using language, symbols, and texts; managing self; relating to others; and participating and contributing.”

There will be immense depth and value in the curriculum information, but by dressing it up in this dross they make it harder for the average teacher to make the most of it. The goal should not be to impress but to share understanding.

‘Sharing understanding’ with a bit a character can also help reach people.

Recently I received two letters advising me that the company who takes away my sensitive documents for shredding had been sold. One I read through, the other I almost binned without looking at it.

Letter one started with something like “With a dodgy ticker, a nagging wife and old age upon me I needed to get out of this business etc etc . . .”. It was humorous, simple and straight to point. It told me exactly what I needed to know with no need to impress.

The supplier taking over the contract sent me the standard corporate text “It is with pleasure we announce the inclusion of the aforementioned business into our own etc etc ....”. I was left with a much better impression of the former service provider.

So how can you sound intelligent while communicating your company’s message simply? The easy answer is the advice your mother would give when asked how to be popular. Listen carefully to others and don’t always talk about yourself.

Stick to what matters to the customer. Talk to people about their problems and make a connection with that. Focus on telling a story about your customers’ world and how you help contribute positively to it. If you understand this well you don’t have to talk much about yourself at all.

Be sensitive enough to credit customers with some intelligence, be brave enough to speak simply, clearly and with a bit of character. Then you’ll have a story people want to hear.

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