Show, don't tell.
How many times have you heard this rule? For most writers (and any humans who took sophomore English), it’s as rhetorical as the five-paragraph essay. However, the value of this celebrated axiom often appears taken for granted in marketing communications, which begs the question...
If everyone has heard it, why do so many ignore it?
My best guess? Folks who spend a lot of time writing spend very little of it contemplating "Show, don’t tell" because they assume it’s a reflexively ingrained concept, the sort of mental muscle memory that just works when pen meets paper. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Like, at all. If it were, there’d be no need for editors, and I’d probably be unemployed.
Exceptional copywriting operates in the same rarified airspace as deftly crafted poetry, distilling complex ideas into singular jolts. Insipid copywriting languishes in the same rank bin as overwrought poetry, festooning simple ideas with superfluous gunk in an attempt to make them seem more complex. The dividing line between the exceptional and the insipid almost always lies in a writer’s ability to push past what is obvious or expected.
So, what’s a conscientious copywriter to do? Well, you could start by reading more poetry.
<pause for laughter>
Or, if you don’t see yourself reaching for the collected works of Adrienne Rich any time soon, another, more direct approach you could take is to purge your copy of the following meaningless filler terms. They’re bad words for lazy writers, and you’re better than that.
(But, seriously, check out Adrienne Rich. She was a f’n national treasure, y’all.)
Bad Word #1: BEST
Here’s a product description you will never see: “Our widget is great, but it’s probably not the best.”
Why will you never see it? Because, like any proud parent doting on a decidedly unspectacular child, no company with an inferior product would ever admit it. That’s not how capitalism works. If you’re marketing anything, a potential customer is already going to assume you think it’s the best. The trick is convincing him or her to agree with you.
Instead of pronouncing your product “best,” a smarter approach is to let a compelling data point do the talking for you.
- “Our widget is the best in the industry.” ← But why?
- “Our widget works 20% faster than the average widget.” ← That’s impressive!
Bad Word #2: UNIQUE
First, ugggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… Second, this is one of those words that makes people involuntarily roll their eyes, and its use should be confined exclusively to social media bios written by tweens.
Here’s the definition of unique: “existing as the only one or as the sole example… having no like or equal; unparalleled; incomparable…” Ironically, unique has been incessantly slapped on so many lackluster things, the word itself has lost its, ahem, unique meaning. It’s become shorthand for, “I want you to think I’m special, but I lack the ability to tell you why.”
Instead of using unique as a crutch, devote some time to figuring out what actually makes your product or service stand out. Then, write it down.
- “Our product has a unique formula.” ← Good for you, I guess?
- “Our formula is bursting with fresh botanicals.” ← I guess it’s time for a trip to Sephora!
Bad Word #3: INTERESTING
Know what’s interesting? Literally anything and everything, depending on who you ask. One person’s source of unending fascination is another person’s snoozeville (see Nascar). That’s why “interesting” is a poor word to use when trying to communicate the value of a product or service.
So, instead of calling a product “interesting,” talk about a remarkable trait it possesses that’s worthy of holding a potential buyer’s interest.
- “The new model has an interesting design.” ← *yawn*
- “The new model was designed by a NASA engineer.” ← Holy crap, I LOVE SPACE STUFF!
Bad Word #4: NICE
Has a friend ever tried to fix you up with someone by describing him or her as “nice?” How well did that work out for you? I’m going to venture a guess: you enjoyed a positively scintillating evening of awkward small talk, feverishly counting down the precious seconds until it was socially acceptable to bail. In marketing, much like life, “nice” is a word you use when you have nothing substantive or persuasive to offer. Putting “nice” on a business card, for example, is the equivalent of casually waving at strangers: you come across as friendly, inoffensive and utterly forgettable. If you want to make a lasting impression, you have to start a conversation.
Unless bland is your preferred brand voice, try substituting “nice” with a phrase that demonstrates the potential benefit of what you’re peddling.
- “We have a nice staff.” ← Cool story, bro...
- “Our staff treats every guest like family.” ← Now, that’s a place I wanna stay.
(A related bit of trivia for etymology enthusiasts: the word “nice” originally meant “ignorant, foolish or silly.” Just saying...)
Bad Word #5: QUALITY
THIS IS THE BIG KAHUNA OF WORTHLESS WORDS, the most overused, completely exhausted term in the marketing communications lexicon. I throw up in my mouth a little each time I hear anyone refer to anything as “high quality.” That description isn’t low-hanging fruit--it’s straight up rotting on the ground.
If the only thing you can think to say about your product is that it’s “quality,” then you fundamentally do not understand what you’re selling. Do more research. Conduct some interviews with key stakeholders. Use the damn product yourself. Do whatever you have to do to find an angle.
- “Quality. Service. Support.” ← Could literally be the tagline for any company, ever.
- “HR is hard. We get it.” ← Clearly identifies the service being offered, establishes a sympathetic tone and immediately aligns with the audience. Boom.
Is all of this starting to sound familiar yet?
You just read a 1,000-word essay about Show, don’t tell, and I’m resisting the urge to say something about irony. (Dangit! Too late...) In reality, there are no “good” or “bad” words because you can’t apply moralistic value judgments to intangible concepts. *pushes glasses up nose* However, there are precise words and imprecise ones, distinct and indistinct. The job of a writer is to know the difference and select accordingly.
After all, the best approach to writing badass copy is finding a unique quality about what you’re selling that makes it seem interesting to nice people, right? ;)