On Writing Wrong


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Imagine yourself nestled in first class aboard a flight leaving Washington, DC. You’re enjoying a cup of coffee and halfheartedly riffling through The Wall Street Journal. As the jet accelerates on its takeoff roll, you’re oblivious to the rattling, but your thoughts meander from the headlines. “Did I remember to buy yogurt? Will my seat mate annoy me with conversation about a personal health issue?” But in the cockpit, there’s tension:

Co-pilot: God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right.
Pilot: Yes it is, there’s eighty.
Co-pilot: I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
Pilot: Hundred and twenty.
Co-Pilot: I don’t know . . .

That conversation happened aboard Air Florida flight 90 on January 13, 1982. About 60 seconds later, the Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River, within sight of the US capitol. Ice on the wings prevented the aircraft from staying aloft, and seventy-eight people died, including four motorists caught beneath the plane. You don’t have to be a linguist to pinpoint one culprit leading to the accident: unclear communications between the crew members piloting the aircraft.

It took more incidents attributed to the same cause before airline executives found an effective fix. “Crashes at U.S. airlines resulting from hierarchical cockpits and poor, stunted communication between crew members led to an entire science of crew resource management, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2008. Crew Resource Management reminds us that communication demands clarity. A need that many marketing and sales writers too often ignore.

I understand how it happens. What’s marketing without zingy words? What’s sales without distortions? What’s thought leadership without authoritarian-sounding superlatives? In 2015, I commented online about a writer’s recommendations to “Capture the whole buying decision equation,” to “Identify all parties within a customer account with the power to kill a buying decision,” and to “Integrate Influencers’ Inputs to Paint an Accurate Picture.” My objection was that the extremity of her terms – whole, all, kill, and accurate – made her recommendations unachievable. In marketing scenarios, these terms are not generally found on the spectrum of outcomes. I also believe that a corporate buying decision is less an equation than a convoluted process subject to random events – a reality that defies symbolic expression.

“First, plenty of writers make broad statements that use phrasing such as ‘whole, all, accurate’, etc.,” she replied. “These words are not necessarily meant to be taken absolutely literally, Rather, one could see them as the writer intended: more whole, complete, or accurate than in current practice.”

Point taken. Readers have many foibles. They could see things as the writer intended. But should they? Let’s put aside metaphors, idioms, and figures of speech for a moment. When people read operational recommendations, they expect exactitude. Therefore, writers should anticipate literal interpretations. Placing the onus on the reader to interpolate seems unfair and risky. And while I agree that many bloggers commonly indulge imprecise words and phrases, I learned more than once in the principal’s office that just because plenty of people do a certain thing doesn’t make it acceptable.

The writer’s expectation – that words are not meant to be taken absolutely literally – worries me because “a colossal advantage of our species is the ability to communicate complex nuances and to receive confirmation of our accuracy, or information of our folly from other people,” according to GrapplingIgnorance, a forum that discusses rhetorical logic. As writers, abdicating our obligation to communicate clearly forfeits a powerful ability. Good revenue results depend on semantic clarity. Word choices matter. And when writers are lackadaisical, argumentation and understanding suffer, as these egregious misappropriations illustrate:

-phobic, -phobe, and -phobia. I start here because I have used this term in my writing – incorrectly, I have recently learned. Phobia is a mental health condition that carries meaning for diagnosis and treatment, namely, “an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.”

But for writers, -Phobia and its derivatives offer powerful efficiency. A two-for-one word punch that combines what is feared (foreigners, Islam, homosexuals . . .) and typecasting the fearer as deviant. Hence, calling someone a xenophobe accomplishes quite a bit if your rhetorical goal is to convince people that you are right, and someone else is wrong.

There is phonophobia (fear of loud sounds), not to be confused with phone phobia (fear of making or taking phone calls). Both are documented psychological disorders. But marketers regularly misappropriate the term. According to an article, B2B Telemarketing – Phone Phobia in a Recession, “It is no surprise that what we have found (both internally and externally) is that during a down economy, cold calling efforts plunge. In fact, studies have shown that during economic rough times, cold calling efforts decrease by up to 38%.”

The fallacy is that by saying “it’s no surprise,” the writer isn’t discussing a phobia, but a correlation that has nothing to do with an irrational fear. A person clinically diagnosed as phone phobic would be unlikely to ever get a job in a call center, let alone bother to apply for one.

Alternative suggestion: reluctance.

Genocide. Genocide means the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation. When I think of genocide, I think of the Holocaust. Pol Pot. Rwanda. Bosnia. Not, as I saw in a blog title, Lead Generation or Lead Genocide: What Companies Do to Kill Their Leads . Using genocide in this context trivializes an abhorrence.

Alternative suggestions: Reduction, undermining.

Terrorism. Terrorism, the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims, should be reserved for atrocities such as the one committed in Brussels on March 22, 2016 – the day I sat down to write this article. That act of terrorism killed 30 people and maimed many others. But an article, The Importance of Keeping Consumer Power in Balance, uses terrorism frivolously, describing consumers who abuse business ratings as Tripadvisor Terrorism. What some customers do on Tripadvisor might be reprehensible, but it’s not terrorism.

Alternative suggestions: If alliteration turns you on, try Buyer Bullying, or Rating Ransom.

Brutal honesty, or brutally honest. Brutal means savagely violent. Invoking the visage of, say, Rodney King seems a bizarre approach for selling a product or service. But marketers nonetheless gravitate to this expression, believing it commands respect and trust by dint of its superficial no-nonsense toughness. Author and poet Maya Angelou eloquently exposed the hypocrisy in this expression. “Some people pride themselves on being brutally honest with their friends – but you should never be brutal with those you love. Be direct and kind instead,” she said in a radio interview. Angelou had a much different sense of the word’s meaning. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, she experienced brutality firsthand.

I’ll go further: we should never be brutal with those we like, or who we want to like us. One article crows, How Brutally Honest Blogging Will Skyrocket Your Business to the Top of Your Industry. Why not just blog honestly, without brutality?

Alternative suggestions: Honesty.

Violent execution. General George S. Patton said, “A good plan violently executed is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Given the context, I understand: warfare, tank battles, fighting Fascism. But Gareth Joyce, Mercedes Benz USA’s Vice President of Customer Services brought an altered version into biz-dev vernacular: “The difference is leadership. It is all about inspiring people toward violent execution.” Huh? What does he even mean? When I search online for this term in quotes, the results are so disturbing, I can’t look at them.

Alternative suggestions: effective, purposeful, determined.

Obsessed or obsess. Obsess means, “preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.” But ever since Jeff Bezos of Amazon said, “We’re not competitor obsessed, we’re customer obsessed,” marketers have been all over obsession like flies on poop. But I’ve worked with people who are obsessed. They are miserable, and miserable to be around.

With obsess, Bezos singlehandedly established a new standard for customer-centric intensity. Goodbye, dedication! Adios, loyalty! Sayonara, commitment! Rationality? That’s so passé. As a customer-loving service provider, you must be obsessed, or you are nothing! Frighteningly, with customer obsession, we’re at penultimate level of fervor. Customer idolatry stands at the pinnacle. Don’t laugh – it’s coming.

Alternatives: dedication, loyalty, commitment, focus

Why have bellicose words such as genocide, terrorism, brutal, and violent infiltrated and stained our marketing conversations? I cannot provide an answer. Maybe it’s an artifact of a society that values polarizing language and vitriol as way to “cut through the noise.” Or, it gives marketers a way to express bravado, righteous anger, or indignation.

Why have some expressions failed to generate scrutiny, even we painstakingly dissect and debate the meanings of terms such as -centricity, experience, relationships, and love as they relate to customers? Again, I don’t know.

But without scrutiny and circumspection, the costs are insidious. What pathway do we travel toward a solution when we slap people with labels like phone-phobic? What operational targets do we choose when unachievable superlatives dominate business parlance? And how do we develop ethical and valuable business plans when the edicts are customer obsession and violent execution?

The words add pizazz to PowerPoint, but try visualizing an individual or team tasked with the unfortunate drudgery of translating these ridiculous, misappropriated terms into specifications for building processes, establishing HR policies, or writing software. “When I said, ‘hire obsessed people,’ I meant Jeff Bezos obsessed, not Donald Trump obsessed . . .” Thanks. Clear as mud.

Unclear communications plague all industries, even one of the most rules-bound of all: sports. As Jason Gay wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the NFL’s new rule for deciding what makes a catch a catch, “the receiver must now establish himself as a ‘runner.’ This is a significant change in nomenclature from the prior rules, which stated that a receiver merely had to commit to a ‘football move.’ That language was terrible, because nobody knew what a football move was, not even the people playing football.”

If we fail to be diligent about word choices, we’re headed for trouble. Unclear semantics won’t abort a problematic takeoff, and they won’t advance our core mission – persuasion – either.


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