Three reasons your writing still sounds like marketing

If content marketing had 10 commandments, the first one would be, ‘Don’t sound like a marketer.’

It’s pretty intuitive, right?
Sound authentic: gain credibility and trust.
Sound inauthentic: lose credibility and trust.

But every now and then, even the best of us manage to fall back into old habits – and most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Now, before I go any further, let’s acknowledge that falling back into old habits isn’t always our fault. Sometimes our work gets shoehorned into tight-ass brand guidelines. Sometimes we have to please a crowd of stakeholders with clashing preferences and it makes us sound unnatural. Sometimes we just have a bad day and end up sounding fluffier than we mean to (cue self-inflicted wrist slap).

But what’s interesting is that no matter the topic or format, we always seem to give ourselves away for the same three reasons:

  1. Too many clichéd compound adjectives
  2. Too much positivity
  3. Shameless exaggeration

You can think of them as the three biggest ‘tells’ of a marketer. Or the three quickest ways to lose an audience…

But what’s important is that we marketers learn how to hide these tells, so we can get on with doing what we do best: creating content our customers and prospects believe in and relate to. Stuff that makes them think, “those guys get me.”

Stuff that ‘marketingy’ marketing will never achieve.

So let’s dig a little deeper into the three reasons why your writing still sounds marketingy:

1. Too many of the dreaded compound clichés

Compound adjectives are single adjectives (describing words) made up of more than one word. They’re usually joined by a hyphen. Think ‘free-range’ egg or ‘sweet-ass’ post’ (if you weren’t already).

Sometimes, you really need them (with hyphens though):

But most of the time, you don’t.

Which is why it bugs me that so much of today’s content is riddled with compound adjectives.

There must be some horrible copywriting self-help book I don’t know about that once said “stick as many flattering words as you can together with hyphens” and after that things just got way out of hand.

Here are five of the worst offenders:

  • Best-in-class
    UGH. There should be a special place in hell for people who come up with ‘best’ when they’ve had at least 30 seconds to think of an adjective.
  • World-leading
    KILL IT WITH FIRE. Very few (if any) brands can get away with calling themselves ‘world-leading’, and even they don’t, because they know how gross it sounds.
  • Gold-standard
    Is it though? IS IT THOUGH…
  • Top-of-the-range
    Sounds like something Gordon Ramsay yells at customers in Best Buy when there’s a new JML cooker on sale…
  • Near-real-time
    So…not-real-time. Good to know. Points for honesty though.

What do they all have in common? Well, they’re cliché, braggy and company-out, for starters. That’s three B2B marketing offenses committed already. But they’re also things no one would ever say in real life…

***

Michael proposes to Mary
A screenplay

 

Michael and Mary have been dating for three years. Michael has taken Mary to the place where they first met. It’s twilight. Birds are singing. Michael takes Mary by the hand and gets down on one knee. Mary gasps.

[Michael] Mary…

[Mary] Yes Michael!

[Michael] Mary I…

[Mary] Oh Michael!

[Michael] Mary I think you’re the best-in-class woman I’ve ever met.

[Mary] …What?

[Michael] Let me finish. The moment I saw your top-of-the-range face I knew we were at the beginning of a gold-standard relationship.

Mary’s top-of-the-range face drops. She leaves in near-real-time and is never seen again.

***

If these stock compound adjectives are a ‘tell’ of yours, the solution is simple: use fewer of them. There’s always a more concise, compelling, natural way to express the virtues of a product or service without reaching for the hyphenated cliché.

And you don’t really want your customers going around calling you the “best-in-class guys,” do you?

2. Too much positivity

One of the quickest ways to lose credibility with a stranger is to say, “You know that thing you’re doing brilliantly? Well, even though you’re doing it brilliantly, we think you should give us money so you can do it brilliantly.”

That kind of positive-only content lacks a frame of reference for readers to distinguish between ‘problems’ and ‘solutions.’ And as a result, it only ever leaves them feeling one of two ways: sceptical, or confused.

Remember the ‘Life is Short, Have a Diet Coke’ ad that came out a few months back? Unfortunately, I do. And I get flashbacks of it as soon as I start veering towards the happy-clappy end of the spectrum:

The like-to-dislike YouTube ratio speaks for itself.

The moral of the story? People know ‘if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.’ And if you paint an unrealistically positive view of a prospect or customer’s world, you’ll lose their respect in a heartbeat.

That doesn’t mean B2B marketers have to paint gloomy pictures of the world or push out condescending content that says, “The world is going to hell and you’re terrible at your job, lucky no one’s fired you yet, sucker!” in order to sound compelling. But there’s definitely a happy (scuse the pun) medium between gushing positivity and abject misery.

You may be thinking, “That’s great, Emma, but how do I achieve that medium when I’ve got a stakeholder who insists on unrelenting positivity?” And, well, I wish I had a fail-proof answer to that question. The only advice I can offer is to push back and argue against positive-only content as much as you can without jeopardizing your relationship.

But don’t do nothing. Trust me – you’ll always regret doing nothing.

Not to be negative or anything.

3. Shameless exaggeration

I was guilty of this one when first I started writing. I think a lot of writers default to exaggeration and hyperbole in the beginning. Overclaiming feels a lot less dangerous than underclaiming when you’re a newbie. You want to please your boss, not your client’s readers: ‘So what if I pumped things up a little? At least my copy wasn’t dull!’

Thing is, most B2B writers aren’t still working through their probation periods. So the exaggerated claims I keep coming across in B2B content can’t all be rookie errors.

Let’s look at a few examples:

HP: everywhere you do business.


I mean, for starters this conjures an image of a dog fouling and its owner yelling “come on, do your business!” But I digress…HP, try harder – that’s just a silly promise to make.

American City Business Journals: ‘Five Biggest Benefits of Moving to the Cloud’


Camaaaan.

William Bratton and Zachary Tumin: Collaborate or Perish


WHAT!?!?!!!!??!?!

Okay so sometimes it’s funny when marketers exaggerate to the point of nonsense. But if exaggerated claims continue to flood the B2B marketing space, content marketing itself will become a pretty hypocritical enterprise. So let’s put a stop to it.

How do you hide the ‘tell’ of shameless exaggeration? Simple: stop exaggerating.

Or do the opposite: be insanely honest.

And if both of those are easier said than done, try asking questions at the earliest possible stages of content creation like, ‘What’s the most impressive point I can make about the data alone, client claims and demands aside?’ Or, ‘What one thing can my reader get out of this that could realistically be turned into a KPI?’ The answers to those questions should reveal just how much you’ll need to exaggerate (if at all) to meet the expectations of your client. Then it’s over to you to manage the disparity.

Right.

The point of this post was to show you why writers who sound like marketers don’t get anywhere in B2B – and how to stop sounding like one. I should make the point that the three reasons cited in this post aren’t the only reasons why your writing might sound like marketing (in fact, I might make that point in a future post). But for the time being, I’d love to know whether you’d add a fourth, fifth or maybe even a sixth reason to this post based on your experience. If so, do leave a comment below.

Comments

Love this.
What she said.

I’d like to emphasize one of your point that too much positivity, many of the marketers always unknowingly praising themselves, I guess in B2C it may effect but for God sake It won’t work in B2B. We have this objective that “how can we convince our prospect” but in the end the outcome is sounds like “how can we prove that we have the advantage compare to our prospect” and that is the different thing. If we want to convince your prospect to try to put yourself in your targeted prospects and ask question, “what is the value of having your service/product in our business?” and in order to avoid being too much positive try to tap the advantage and disadvantage of having your service/product in your prospect’s business.

    My thoughts exactly.

Amazing post, Emma. Honestly, I think most of us have used clichés in our writing at least once. It is important to come up with original ideas in order to draw the reader’s attention. Exaggeration can be easily avoided by keeping the content honest and simple.

    Thanks Martin. And I totally agree. Simplicity and honesty ftw!

f’ck me sideways, what a great post AND email from Doug that got me here, I like the rebellious approach to the words you guys supply – 100% connection in my brain to your content. Love it!

    Brian, your comment has made my day. Thanks. (Not that I can take credit for Doug’s badass emails.)

So true! I’d add ‘Jumping on the buzzword bandwagon’, TLAs (that old chestnut) and, my current favourite, turning nouns/adjectives into verbs.

    Yes, yes, and abso-bloomin-lutely yes. Watch this space Maria, looks like we’ve got an outline for the next rant!

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