Here are some thoughts on the marketing and communications business that I hope may provide some inspiration.

Many marketing and advertising campaigns miss the mark because they’re answering the wrong questions. What are the right ones? Einstein – it’s always him – once said:
If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask.
You can find many ways to increase the ‘likes’ you get for your social media posts or boost the ‘dwell time’ on your website. That’s great if those are your goals. But what if your goal is to win more business and make more money? Isn’t that the reason you do marketing in the first place? Like anywhere else, the value of the answers you get depends on the value of the questions you ask. If you want better answers, you need to ask better questions. Compare these:
How do I improve the ‘like’ rate on my social media posts?
Why do I do social media posts?
How do I increase the ‘dwell time’ of visitors to my website?
How do I increase the amount of money my website earns me?
How can I reduce my marketing spend?
How can I justify my marketing spend?

Techniques that have been proven to work for B2C marketing do not necessarily work for B2B, and vice versa. Why?

Where B2B communications fail, it is often because they try to copy the techniques of B2C communications. We see a TV ad that makes us laugh or think is highly creative and want the same for our B2B product or service. But there’s a basic difference between the two sectors that means the techniques that work for one will not necessarily work for the other.

In general terms:

B2C is concerned with selling people things they desire but don’t need. B2B is concerned with selling people things they need but don’t desire.

No one desires 100 tonnes of plasticiser. Every business engaged in the manufacture of plastic products needs plasticiser.

No one needs a BMW. Many millions of people desire a BMW.

What’s the joke?

Think of the B2C ads that made you laugh and then the products they were selling. A mass-market beer, maybe. The reason they set out to make you laugh is that they have nothing else to sell you on. One mass-market beer is the same as the next.

The humour you enjoy is fake value where no intrinsic value exists. You can see this in the fantasies used to sell things perceived as high-value too. By showing a BMW cruising through deserted streets – a complete fantasy – you suggest that buying that BMW will somehow free you from the tedious reality that infects all other drivers. The intrinsic value is in the car as a technology, not in the BMW as an expression of that.

In contrast, virtually all B2B products and services are full of tangible value. Without dull, boring, humourless plasticisers, there would be no plastics industry. There would be none of the jobs, tax revenues, mortgage payments, holidays or material comforts the industry generates. Nor any of the related industries that feed off it. Without industrial fixings, there would be no way of securing wings to planes or car seats to car chassis. Without accountants, people like me couldn’t run our businesses.

Explain the tangible value in your B2B product or service and you won’t need to entertain your audience or lead them into a world of fantasy. You will convince them by the demonstrable value of what you are offering.

By the way, as someone who spent years selling high-ticket items face to face, I can tell you I never closed a single deal with a joke. Much as I love humour and am said to be humorous, I know I lost deals by trying to inject humour. People don’t buy serious products and services from clowns. If you can be pleasant and charming as you sell, great. But you can sell effectively without those characteristics. Save the jokes for the bar.

The goal of all advertising and marketing activities is to increase response rates that increase revenues. What can you do to achieve that?

We have hundreds of ways of getting our messages in front of our audiences. But if anything, it has become even harder to get them read, let alone acted upon. As delivery channels have evolved, so has our ability to ignore the messages we are sent.

You can hit me with your message at the precise time of day that Google tells you I make 87% of my purchase decisions. I see such perfectly targeted ads all the time. So do you. And you and I still ignore them. Even when they concern products or services we would in principle like to buy.

The truth is that you have zero control over whether or not I interact with your message, let alone whether I end up buying from you. There are too many human variables that the most precise metrics, artificial intelligence and machine learning cannot account for. Even something as simple and as complex as my mood when I see your message, let alone whether I’ve just poured hot coffee in my lap.

The only thing you can really control is what I see or read if I do choose to accept the message you’ve sent me. You can only control the content.

No amount of smart targeting or slick presentation will get a weak message read. But even if it’s scribbled on a post-it note, no powerful message will ever be ignored. “That lump in your abdomen may be cancer. Go and get it checked.” You’re already mentally pulling on your coat.

You are passionate about your product or service and want to convey that passion to your customer. Good idea?

What you want to say can be very different from what your customer needs to hear. And what your customer needs to hear is the key to getting the response you want.

You are not writing your marketing materials to make yourself feel better about your own product or service. You are writing to sell.

However you do it, put yourself in your prospective customer’s shoes and try to imagine what she or he needs from you and how you can supply that. This can be difficult to do for your own business so try imagining yourself being sold to.

Think about a service that someone is trying to sell you – something non-sexy but that you are at least interested in buying – and write down the selling arguments that would influence you.

What approach could an IT systems vendor use to convince you? What would a phone company need to say to you? How would a management consultancy win your business?

Imagining yourself in the buyer role, playing out the possible sales pitches on paper, can make it easier for you to spot the strengths and weaknesses in your own pitch.

Making a successful sales pitch in your advertising and marketing initiatives relies on perspective. Which perspective and why?

Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver gives a perspective on marketing communications. If you’re not talking to your target audience, you’re talking at your target audience. The first one will get you heard, the second one won’t.

What’s the difference between “to” and “at”?

Talking to your target audience is all about your reader (what she or he needs to hear). Talking at your target audience is all about you (what you want to say). These two things can be very different.

You (singular)

Whatever you say in your marketing communications, you are only ever talking to one person. Even if your campaign is aimed at every customer across the EMEA and Asia-Pacific regions, you’re only ever talking to one person: the person who receives your message.

No company or market segment ever reads anything. Your message will be read by one individual at a time. The more that person feels individually addressed and understood, the greater the likelihood of achieving the response you want.

Make every effort to empathise with the person you are addressing. Imagine yourself in his or her place. What concerns do you have? What are you hoping to achieve? What other work, life and family issues may influence your choice?

Create a detailed picture of the individual: not just her or his work environment and needs, but hopes and aspirations, lifestyle, family situation. None of us ever makes any purchase decision in isolation, even at work. There are always multiple factors at play.

Even something as apparently banal as ordering five tonnes of plasticiser can be an emotional decision. Maybe there’s a promotion riding on the outcome. Maybe there’s a boss in the background who has a different opinion. Maybe it’s the first major purchase decision the buyer has made.

Give your subject as many tangible reasons as possible to say “yes” to your offer. And always imagine that you will have to read aloud what you write, face to face with your prospect.

The business of marketing and advertising is almost entirely seen, talked about and treated as a battle. What if it wasn’t?

Your customer wants to buy from you. Actively wants what you are selling. In over 20 years in the trade, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard this point made. But it’s fundamental.

The whole marketing and advertising business is wrapped up in the language of conflict: the “battle” or “fight” for attention or market share, the latest “campaign”. It’s as if no one wants or needs what you’re selling and they won’t buy from you unless you beat them into submission.

The reality is that everyone wants every product or service that is being made or provided. If they didn’t, not a single producer of anything would have a market. This is especially true within the B2B sector, where other businesses are relying on your business to make or provide the products and services they need to be able to do whatever it is they are doing.

True, much of the B2C sector is characterised by constructed demand. Products and services that are created to muscle in on an established sector or to open up a new market. Does anyone really need the 27th different cola drink? Or 46 varieties of fluoride toothpaste? Probably not.

But every automotive manufacturer needs steel, aluminium, bolts, wires, seat coverings, tyres, oil filters, seals and a hundred other things that are easier, better or more economical to buy from someone else than to make themselves. That’s before you even start on professional services, from recycling or garbage disposal to external training providers.

Shifting perspective

Think of it the other way round. If you believe effective marketing and advertising relies on tremendous creativity or fantastic strategy or ground-breaking delivery channels or funky tricks to grab attention, imagine those things being applied to something you don’t want and never will. I don’t care how fabulous your robots are, I’m not in the market.

All that the B2B marketing and advertising function involves is to convince the people who do need your product or service that yours is better – however you define that – than the product or service offered by your competitors. I say “all”, and this is easier said than done. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t have a business either.

Still, if you approach your new “campaign” from the perspective that your customer does indeed want your product or service, it fundamentally changes your attitude when you sit down to plan and write your marketing.

Instead of trying to win your customer with the creativity of your layout or the humorous way you construct your argument, why not just set out a convincing, fact-based argument? And if you can’t do that, maybe it’s your product or service you should be working on, not your marketing.

We like being sold to

The thing is, we like being sold to. I will happily (and do) pay a premium for a jacket bought from a store where I am sold to with flair and imagination and consideration, and a bit of respect. When I was looking around for someone to design and build this website, I really enjoyed talking to Ernst and experiencing how he set out his pitch.

It starts with respect: understanding that your customer wants what you are selling and doing him or her the courtesy of taking the time to find out precisely what is required. Then clearly explaining why you believe you can provide that and under what terms. Knowing all the time that your customer really does want to be convinced: won over by the power of your argument. Because, as in my case with this website, that is a problem solved and a further step in the direction I want to take my business.

Have faith in what you are selling and find the most respectful way you can to sell it. Set out your arguments and explain clearly how you will meet your customer’s need or solve his or her problem. If you can do that with a bit of style and finesse, great. But all you really need is a clear argument based on the realisation that I want what you are selling.

The minute you have anything to do with advertising and marketing, you’ll hear the word “creativity”. What might that mean?

Look in any dictionary and you’ll find “creativity” defined as some variant of “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something.”

Something, what? Am I being creative if I create a unique new umbrella with an innovative fabric that lets the rain through?

Sir Ken Robinson ( defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.”

“…that have value” is the bit the dictionaries seem to be missing.

I remember my financial advisor explaining to me one time why he loves his job: “I like the creativity of finding a solution that makes something possible for my clients that they couldn’t see a way to make happen for themselves.” I currently live in the proof of his creativity.

On the other hand, we are surrounded by endless examples of “creative” marketing activity that has no value at all: social media posts and ads that never get read, videos that never get watched, links that never get clicked on by a person. Zero value.

Think of any major company and go to its YouTube channel. How many views does its corporate video have? My son got more views for his muffin-baking video than the one I just checked, and in one-tenth the time. And he has more followers.

No value, no creativity

In the world of advertising and marketing, “value” means revenue. Cash into the company. Money that you would not have earned if you weren’t doing advertising and marketing.

You could argue that advertising and marketing can be about less tangible things too: brand building, profiling, positioning. But what’s the endgame of all those things? Cash. What’s the point of building a brand that doesn’t earn you anything? What’s the point of marketing activity that doesn’t earn you anything?

What isn’t creativity?

What creativity is not is having original ideas that don’t have value. You can be as funky and wild as you like with your marketing communications, but you can only call them “creative” if they have value – and they only have value if they earn you money. Otherwise, the best thing you can call them is “entertaining”. Is that what you’re paying for?


Digital apps, tools and channels are making it ever faster, easier and more efficient to create and distribute content. Why is that desirable?

Efficiency describes the smoothness with which a process runs. Effectiveness describes the value that a process creates.

Making a process more efficient does not necessarily mean making it more effective. If the process is broken, making it more efficient means making it better at doing the wrong thing. This makes it less effective – less capable of creating value.

Recognising the difference comes down to understanding the goal.

Taiichi Ohno, Father of the Toyota Production System and thus of Lean Manufacturing, saw the ineffectiveness of US auto manufacturing efficiency: pumping out millions of unsold parts that they then had to spend millions storing and millions more discounting to clear inventories.

Ohno’s killer insight was that the goal of mass production is not to make things as fast as possible; it is to get from the raw material to the cash in the bank as fast as possible. Maximum effectiveness means only making what you have already sold – and then doing so as efficiently as possible. At its peak, Toyota became the most profitable car manufacturer by a factor of 20 compared to the next most profitable, which at the time was Porsche.

What is the goal of marketing?

The goal of marketing is not to produce marketing materials as efficiently as possible. The goal of marketing is to increase the profitability of the company. Any marketing activity that does not measurably contribute to achieving that goal is not effective.

As with Lean, making your marketing activities more effective involves identifying and eliminating waste. Waste is anything that is not adding value to the activity. How do you identify and eliminate waste in marketing and communications?

Questioning assumptions

There’s an old saying in the industry, sometimes attributed to US department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838-1922). He is said to have observed: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

It sounds smart, but it’s not helpful. In those days, as now, it was very easy to measure the effectiveness of an advert. You ‘keyed’ it in some way: added some code or response mechanism that enabled you to record the sales, or lack of them. Put a call-to-action at the end of the corporate video you just posted on YouTube and see how much reaction you get.

What Wanamaker meant was that he wasn’t sure whether his non-keyed activity was earning him any money: full-page newspaper ads with no response mechanism, billboards, sponsorships, that sort of thing. But even then, he had a way of maximising the chances that they did: ask his top salesperson for an honest appraisal of the appeal they presented.

Getting forensic

The many digital tools available today make it easier than ever to measure the return on marketing and advertising activities. Assuming we trust how the clicks are generated (a huge assumption) and can link them directly to sales or any other desired response.

But one thing we can certainly measure in terms of effectiveness is what we are saying. What – precisely – are we offering, to whom and on what basis? How strong is the appeal we are making? How is each element of our communication actively working to make the sale? What can or should we change and why? To maximise effectiveness, those questions must be asked and answered before you post or publish anything.

Concentrating on the goal of your marketing activities – increasing your company’s sales – and only saying what will have the biggest chance of increasing sales is the single biggest thing you can do to increase the effectiveness of your marketing communications. And if you’re not sure what you should be saying, ask your top salesperson.

Like every area of life, marketing and advertising has its truths that we all know and take for granted. How real are they?

Myth: No one reads long texts
Reality: No one reads boring texts

In this age of allegedly micro attention spans, there is an orthodoxy in the marketing business that if you haven’t got your message across in three seconds, you never will.

There may be a grain of truth in this for trivial, comparatively low-price products and services. And it is true that you need to say something in your headline that will attract your reader’s attention, for the right reasons. But in terms of how much we are prepared to read, the minute we have any serious cash involved, we will read as much as it takes to make us commit to a purchase decision.

Examine your own behaviour
Imagine you are considering attending an expensive conference, choosing a new IT provider, buying a company car, searching for a holiday destination… You will invest many hours in reading, researching, asking peers, checking user reviews, etc. What you won’t spend a minute doing is reading boring, irrelevant content. As long as you stay interesting and relevant, people will keep reading.

Myth: You have to grab attention
Reality: You have to grab meaningful attention

Another myth of the information age is the 100% essential need to grab attention. But grabbing attention is easy. Put a picture of a naked penis on your homepage. You’ve grabbed attention.

What you want is to grab meaningful attention. You want your audience to notice you for the compelling power of your offer. Doing that means going back to first principles: understanding precisely what you are offering and precisely how and why that will appeal to your audience.

Myth: You have to be entertaining
Reality: You have to be relevant

Related to the attention fetish is the belief that the job of marketing is to entertain. If you don’t, you will be seen as boring and non-innovative. But the effort to entertain too often gets in the way of the need to inform and convince. If you can entertain while informing and convincing at the same time, great: but above all you need to be relevant – present an argument that your target audience cannot ignore.

As tools and channels continue to expand, advertising and marketing are demanding ever higher levels of activity. What if you just stopped?

This is the ultimate test. If you say it’s impossible to precisely measure the effectiveness of a campaign or marketing action, then precisely measure its ineffectiveness. Stop actively marketing altogether and see what happens to your sales figures. By “actively marketing”, I mean all those activities you do on an ongoing basis: social media posts, LinkedIn updates, videos, new brochures, banner ads, whatever.

Here I’m talking specifically about B2B and about products or services that cannot be sold by just swamping your customers with images and messages. The only way to sell Coke over Fanta or Nike over Adidas is through saturation marketing exposure, since those products have no distinctive value. Do you want this fizzy drink or that fizzy drink? These pants or those pants? That’s why those companies are such huge marketing spenders.

Understanding your market

B2B is way different. Very often, you’re selling an un-sexy, functional product or service that no one desires in the way they might desire a new car or a trendy handbag. And you’re selling to tiny numbers of people in very specific jobs and life situations. Everyone from the queen to a beggar will fancy a fizzy drink from time to time. Only a handful of people worldwide will ever be in the market for 10,000 cabin air filters.

In B2B, you know that you’re not going to get anywhere through saturation marketing and you won’t have the budget anyway. On the other hand, this is luxury position to be in. You know specifically who you need to talk to and specifically what they need from you. You also know how to find out whether what you are saying and how you are sending your message works for you or not.

Find the hard evidence

Pick a product or service or even an area of your business and stop actively marketing it for six months. Completely. Nothing. No new videos, social media posts, ads, brochures, nothing. Review your sales figures after six months and you’ll have your answer.

If sales have remained static, you can probably cut 90% of your ongoing marketing activity. If sales have gone down, then your marketing was having a positive impact. You’ll even know by what percentage. If sales have gone up…?

You may not need six months, but you’ll need more than a week. We could all guess that a spell of hot weather will boost demand for fizzy drinks. B2B is slow burn. It takes longer for the effects of your marketing activities to show up (or not). But the “What happens if I do no active marketing at all?” test is failsafe. You’ll know and you’ll know for sure.

Although it sounds risky, my guess is that your business won’t collapse in that time. At worst, you may be measuring any downturn in low single figure percentages, which you can offset head-to-head against the money you save on marketing. Money you have to earn in the first place.

Look at your own experience

As a tiny example, I followed the trend that said I needed a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Xing to function in my market. If I didn’t have a presence, I wouldn’t exist. So I maintained a profile on those channels for as much as 10 years.

Even though I never received a single new business lead that I could trace back to any of that activity (“I saw you on Xing”), I assumed I needed to be there. Until I just stopped posting and nothing happened to my revenues. Well, that’s not quite true. They went up, because I had more time to concentrate on my business.

I’m in what you could call the professional services sector. As an estimate, I reckon 65% of my current business came to me unsolicited via my website and the rest by word of mouth. I never earned one traceable cent from ten years of social media activity.

This is just an anecdotal example, but I suspect it may contain a wider truth for B2B marketing. There will be chunks of marketing activity you are doing that are not earning you any money and never will. But they will always be costing you money. You just need to find out what they are.

I mean, if they can bear to look at the evidence, how many companies could justify the time and effort and money that went into producing videos that harvest sub-100 views, four years after posting them to their YouTube channels? Think of a company you know, go to their YouTube channel and see for yourself.

I’m not saying B2B marketing is pointless – it’s my business after all, and I love it – but it can be wasteful and you need to identify and eliminate that waste. Bear in mind that if your EBIT is 10%, your marketing budget has to directly generate ten times its value in increased revenues, which wouldn’t have come from any other activity, just to cover costs.

What really works?

Find out what works for you and do that better. If, like me, your website is your prime source of new business, make it even better. If, like me, you find that no one buys more (or any) of your products or services as a result of your social media activity, stop wasting time and money on it.

You never know for sure what any of your B2B marketing activity is going to earn you, but you know for certain what it is costing you. If you’re not seeing evidence of increased revenues – or a drop in revenues if you stop actively marketing a product or service altogether – why are you spending time and hard-earned money on it?


In an environment so dominated by the image, advertising and marketing is a great place to test this belief. What does the test show?

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words. Find a picture that illustrates these six words:

To be, or not to be.

There are pictures that can trigger a lifetime of emotional responses. There are ideas that no picture can get close to expressing.

In B2B, words matter

In B2C, where there is often barely a message at all, the power of the image is enormous. In B2B, where the message is often complex, the power of the image is somewhere between minimal and zero. Even negative.

The simpler the message, the more power an image can have:

Very simple message: “Children are dying of starvation”
Very powerful image.

Very simple message: “Refreshing drink for hot weather”
Very powerful image.

Very simple message: “BMWs are good to drive”
Very powerful image.

Very simple message: “Buy this suit and you’ll get laid”
Very powerful image.

The more complex the message becomes, the more the power of the image delines and the more the power of the word increases.

More complex message:

“Choose our air filters for your hospital’s HVAC system and you will reduce the risk of patients getting hospital acquired infections by 93%. This is because…”

The limit of the image

There is no image – even collection of images – that can meaningfully express the complexity and implications of that proposition. The best you can do is insert a few stock hospital images around your text: patient surrounded by smiling family, medical staff looking caring.

Images like these are wallpaper: a bit of colour to brighten up the layout. But they are making no active contribution to the communication of your message. If anything, their effect weakens the power of your message. Here’s why.

As readers, we know these images are posed and are trying to sell us an idea of a perfection we instinctively know can’t exist. If they are having an effect at all, even the blandest stock images are weakening the power of your message. The fewer you use, the stronger your message will be and the less you will spend on image rights.

The power of the word

In contrast, the power of words in making a complex pitch of this nature is enormous. Ask your top salesperson how much time and effort s/he puts into getting a complex pitch right – perfecting the appeal, anticipating and preparing for the objections.

In B2B, the idea – and the words you use to express it – is everything. No images can compensate for a weak pitch. And no strong pitch needs to be clothed in a single image. If your message is sufficiently compelling, you could deliver it naked and still win the sale. Try it one time.

There is plenty of debate in the marketing business about who reads how much and in what situation. So how much should you be saying?

Say twice as much as half of what’s interesting. If you’re selling a simple product or service – a plastic beverage bottle, perhaps – you may not need to say much to explain its benefits. If your product or service is complex, you will need to say more.

You hear all the time that no one reads long texts any more or no one reads more than a four-word headline or watches more than five seconds of a 90-second video. The evidence says otherwise.

I don’t know about you, but I have never watched a single ad – however short or entertaining or beautifully filmed, even for a product I may want to buy – when it interrupts me watching a YouTube video that interests me. And if no one is reading long texts any more, why are long-read news magazines selling so strongly? If no one has an attention span longer than it takes to pop the cap off a beer bottle, how come there are so many YouTube videos lasting an hour or more that get millions of views?

The evidence is that we have any amount of time for what interests us. As long as you are interesting about your product or service, your potential customer will read or listen to what you have to say. And remember: they do need what you’re selling, otherwise they wouldn’t even glance at your marketing in the first place. I don’t care how good that tampon ad is. I’m not going to read it.

The more complex the marketing environment becomes, the harder it is to track down your target. What happens when you do?
One shot, Mikey.
In The Deerhunter, that was the definition of making the perfect kill. It comes back as a macabre echo in the Russian roulette scene at the end of the movie, and it tells you a lot about constructing a killer pitch. When you’re selling or pitching a proposition face to face, you can correct any mistakes you make. You sense that what you just said isn’t getting the reaction you hoped for so you try something else. When you communicate in writing, you don’t have that luxury. You have one shot, so it better be accurate. If you miss, your intended target has already run off and it may take you a long time to find him or her again. That doesn’t mean you have one shot to gain the attention of your target audience. It means you have one shot to close the deal, whether that means an actual sale or getting your prospect to pick up the phone. “Gaining attention” – that thing we’re told is so important – is the equivalent of firing your hunting rifle into the air. Gaining meaningful attention and then winning your argument is the equivalent of making the one-shot kill. If you mess up the sales pitch or fail to present a convincing argument, you not only fail in your goal – you also give your target audience advance warning next time you approach them. Whether it’s you personally or the company you represent, a failed approach one time means you are less likely to get listened to next time, making your job harder. On the other hand, even if you don’t close a deal, gain a new contact or secure a meeting this time around, a well-constructed, respectful pitch will get you listened to next time. Making you job easier.

The current trend for “content marketing” provides a useful insight into making your communications more effective. What is it?

According to the Content Marketing Institute:

Content marketing is a marketing technique of creating and distributing valuable, relevant and consistent content to attract and acquire a clearly defined audience – with the objective of driving profitable customer action.

Or to put in another way, content marketing is about saying something that will convince your customers to buy from you. The trade press at the moment is not short of articles on “content marketing” (works) compared to “traditional marketing” (doesn’t work).

But to interrogate that definition a bit: Since when was marketing ever about

distributing valueless, irrelevant and inconsistent content to repel and lose a vaguely defined audience – with the objective of driving unprofitable customer action


If, as is implied here, marketing somehow lost sight of the need to tell an engaging story, involve the prospect, and sell him or her on the specific product or service, that is not “traditional marketing”. That is failed marketing. “Traditional marketing” – the traditional business of distance selling, which is what marketing is – always understood that its job was to convince and sell. That is what it was invented to do.

There is no need to add “content” to “marketing”. If you want to be effective, content – saying something meaningful and persuasive – has been the first principle of marketing forever, and always will be.

It goes back to attitude. If your attitude when you sit down to write is to inform and convince, you will always be creating “content marketing”. If it is anything else, you will always be creating failed marketing. Why would you want to do that?


For whatever reason, a lot of B2B messaging in particular seeks a sort of neutral tonality. What is the consequence of this?

There is no such thing as neutral language. Everything you say or write is either working for you or working against you. If it is not actively adding value, it is actively removing value. Take a simple example.

Thousands of companies talk about offering “innovative solutions”. It is such an over-used phrase that you hardly notice it any more. If it ever had any impact, that time has long passed.

When you read the phrase “innovative solutions”, what does it make you feel? Although we may think we don’t even register the words, this is not the case. You will have a reaction and that reaction could be any or all of:

  • What bullshit.
  • Oh, so they’re just like us.
  • Last time I heard that, people were about to get fired.
  • Right – like I really want a non-innovative solution.
  • Solutions? Do you mean products?
  • What’s innovative about a plastic bag?
  • And so on…

Pretending that there is such a thing as neutral language – words that are just sitting there not doing much – is to ignore our instinctive response to language. We are always looking for meaning. When we don’t find it, we get annoyed. Like a hundred other business clichés, “innovative solutions” has no meaning and will annoy your readers.

Interrogate everything you say in your marketing communications and make sure that it is saying something that positively contributes to your argument. If you’re not sure, cut it. Clearing away the words that are not adding value makes it far easier for the words that are adding value to do their job.

When you’ve been in the business world for a while, you may find yourself using all sorts of jargon terms. What’s wrong with that?

The business world is rammed full of jargon. Like slang used on the streets or dialect used in different national regions, the job of jargon is to define a select group and to exclude outsiders.

Like users of slang or dialect, users of business jargon are concerned to mark out and defend a territory for themselves. The less you understand, the better it suits them. This is all fine but it has nothing to do with communication. If anything, it is anti-communication in that it seeks to exclude people from the conversation.

Why talk about “unlocking synergies to leverage value” when you mean “finding ways to work more effectively”? The clearer your thinking has been, the clearer (and more effective) your language can be.

Learn to recognise business jargon and avoid using it in your marketing communications. There are two practical reasons for this:

  1.  The more simply and directly you can express an idea, the more likely more people will be to understand it. As the function of communication is to convey meaning, this is a good thing.
  2. Because so many of us strongly dislike business jargon, you will create a valuable point of difference for yourself by not using it. Even if your target audience is not consciously aware of why, they will sense something in the directness and simplicity of your appeal that they warm to: “Whatever else they may be, these people are not bullshitters.”
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