Category Archives: Mess out of Messaging

Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 4)

This is part 4 of the series. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In this part, I’ll take a look at whether the industry can get out of the mess it’s in.

Looking back

Before looking forward, let’s take a look back at some ads from a couple of decades ago.

Click each image to enlarge.

Notice something about these ads? They all look rather similar. Pictures of (similar looking) computers and lots of text! Check out those headlines. “A new way of personal-professional computation”???? What’s that all about? Is it a personal computer or a professional compute? Well it’s both (and neither)! Ouch.

And that’s one fine looking set of muttonchops on Issac Asimov in the Radio Shack ad!

Even Apple was not immune to kind of advertising.  Here’s the original Macintosh print ad. A double-page spread! Click images to enlarge.

Cool. Did you catch the specs on the Mac? 64K ROM, 128K RAM, 32bit MC68000 processor, and even a clock/calendar chip!

Comparing these ads to advertising today, it’s  clear that things have changed for the better in 25 years. Apple certainly leads most other technology companies in their sophistication, but then, they’ve been at it much longer than most other technology companies!

As every industry matures, so does the audience for it’s products. Forty or fifty years ago, a lot of advertising for cars talked about engine horsepower, size (in cubic inches), acceleration, top speed etc. The only metrics that are frequently mentioned today are mileage or fuel consumption (and sometimes number of cup holders!). But that’s because those are important to us.

In personal technology, few consumers, truly care about the processor in their device. Quick, what kind of of CPU does you iPod have? What about a Blackberry? What about an iPhone? The Palm Pre? The Motorola Razr? The MacBook Air?

If you know any or (even worse) all of the CPUs in those device, you’re a serious geek. 🙂

But for the vast, vast majority of people, it doesn’t really matter one bit. Those days are behind us. We have matured and so has the industry. Of course, there are still many companies that talk in “speeds and feeds” or mumbo-jumbo, but in a maturing industry, they pay a price. The segment of the market that listens to the “tech-speak” is shrinking steadily.

Looking forward

If we try and look 25 years into the future, how will things have changed? Technology will have become much more embedded and ubiquitous in our environment.

The days of the big desktop computer will be gone. We will carry, wear and perhaps even embed devices within our bodies.

A second full generation of people will have reached adulthood living in an Web-enabled world. The word “offline” will be an anachronism. Augmented reality will be our reality.

In a world like that, how will people relate to technology? How will companies need to communicate with the market about their products?

The current “craze” known as social-media will be old news, and will just be part of the communication process vendors have with their customers. Consumers, particularly younger ones, will likely give up a lot of what is now considered “personal” information to companies, in exchange for individualized products and services.

In the context of the digital world, “Give me what I want, when I want and how I want” will simply be a common state of affairs.

Remember the phrase “personal computer”? That of course was shortened to PC, which is still used today, but few people think about the “personal” part explicitly anymore. Messaging and advertising will become “personal” in the future as well.

And of course there will be those that do it well, and those that do not.

So getting back to the original question – Can we get out of this mess? – the answer is yes, but it will take time. But for those of us who are at the forefront of this change, let’s see if we can’t make that change happen just a little bit faster and easier and ensure we don’t get emails that promise to help do things like  “Design a Monetization Strategy to Enhance Strategic Goals while Protecting Core Assets” any more.



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Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 3)

Continuing this series (click the links for part 1 and part 2), let’s look at the following question:

  • How can we get out of this mess?

Given the problems cited in part 2 – laziness, review committees, truthiness – it’s not easy. There are many other reasons of course, and the combination of them makes it difficult to change the behaviour of an entire industry.

Differentiate yourself

It takes effort, skill and planning to create great messaging. Like many other things, it’s difficult to describe what makes great messaging, but you know it when you see it (or read it, or hear it)!

Messaging should be a weapon of differentiation for companies. Tied very closely to positioning, messaging can impact audiences in ways that no technical achievement can. The now famous 1000 songs in your pocket message for the original iPod was simply brilliant.

Why? It was completely focused on the value to the customer. It spoke directly to them, was conscise, appealing and spoke about the iPod in a way completely different from any of it’s competitors.

Watch the video, and observe the story it tells.

The “dude” is sitting behind his Macintosh, listening to his music and clearly enjoying it. He then transfers it to his iPod, puts on the earphones, selects a song on the iPod with the thumbwheel, and within seconds is enjoying the song again. He then tucks the iPod in his pocket and dances out the door. The voiceover comes on and in only 6 brief words, speaks volumes to the audience:

iPod. 1000 songs in your pocket.

In 1 minute, Apple demonstrated how easy it was to enjoy music on their portable player, and focused the audience on the 1 thing they wanted the audience to remember. It worked amazingly.

Now, someone else — not as savvy as Apple and their advertising agency — would probably have promoted the iPod as follows:

  • Comes in 2 models with 5 GB and 10 GB hard drives
  • Capable of holding 1000 or 2000 songs respectively (in 160Kbps MP3 format)
  • Patented thumbwheel interface
  • 2-in backlit LCD display
  • 60-mW high output amplifier
  • Battery life of 10 hours (your mileage may vary)
  • Firewire port with 400 Mbs transfer speed
  • 3.5 mm headphone jack

In fact, if you looked at how other competing music players were advertised, they actually were marketing technical specs. Instead of benefits, they actually spoke about things like the amount of RAM they provided or the audio formats they supported.

It amazes me that in the 25 years (yes it’s been about that long) since the original commercial that introduced the Macintosh to the world, very few technology companies have been able to match the simplicity, clarity and effectiveness of Apple’s messaging.

And the obvious question is, yet again, why?

Rules for getting it right

It takes culture, commitment and command in the craft of communication for a company to create consistently compelling commuiques like those of Apple.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we can try something a little more mundane to mend our messages. 🙂

For whatever reason, people seem to think that in business writing, all the rules they learned in school are no longer needed. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Follow these rules (created by none other than George Orwell himself) and see what a difference they make:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

If you want more detail on any of these, check out this article.

And here’s the original essay where he first wrote these rules (way back in 1946).

For business writing, one other rule is needed.

Apply the “So what?” test to everything you write. If what you’ve written doesn’t provide a good answer the question “So what?”, rewrite it, and ask the question again.

I’ll stop there. 🙂

In the next part, I’ll discuss whether the industry can ever fix the messaging problem for good.



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Taking the “mess” out of messaging (part 2)

truthinessIn Part 1, I provided a couple of examples of very poor messaging. The first was from an email that I received that contained lines like:

“Design a Monetization Strategy to Enhance Strategic Goals While Protecting Core Assets”.

The second was from Cisco’s corporate overview page where they described themselves in such information-free language that it could have been virtually any company.

I then asked the following open questions.

  1. How did we get into this mess?
  2. What can we do to try and get out of it?
  3. Is it even possible to get out of this mess?

There were some good reader comments related to these questions. Here’s question 1.

How did we get into this mess?

1. Laziness

Aaron had a response to this question.

Could it be that, as a company’s product lines and # of target markets increase and diverge, it simply gets too difficult to be more specific, so we fall back on generalities that appeal to almost everybody? Many, many, company web sites have this problem.

Who is the audience for the message, particularly on something like a website? It’s not “everybody”. To me, “falling back on the general” as Aaron states, is a form of laziness. Many companies don’t put effort into understanding who their target audience is, and specifically communicating to them, so they generalize.

The main people any technology company should be thinking about when writing for their website are prospects and customers.

Provide clear, straight forward language that is easy to understand and your prospects will actually give you credit for it. Why? Because you’ve made their life easier.

Prospects are looking for information about you and your products. The easier you make it for them, the more likely they’ll contact you or click on one of your calls to action. And believe me, a clearly messaged website will almost immediately differentiate you from most of your competitors.

The next group that you need to pay attention to is customers. You’ve already sold them something. In theory they are using and like your product or service. Help them when they come back to your site by making it easy for them to find what they need. Maybe they are looking for add-on products. Maybe they need something to help them sell your product internally in their company.  Regardless, they are your allies, so make their life easy as well.

For everybody else – analysts, investors. shareholders etc. – they can and will get the information they need through other means of communication.

2. Review Committees

Linda believes one source of the problem are review committees:

I’ve seen lots of companies fall into the committee editing trap. A good writer presents some tight, well-crafted copy, and then everybody swaps in their favorite buzzwords and sound bites. What you get is blather.

Unfortunately this is quite common. Everyone has an opinion on what should be said or what one word implies vs. another or not wanting to leave any “stakeholder” out of the wordsmithing process, and you get mumbo-jumbo. Everyone can write, but only a few people write really well. Unfortunately good writing is not something you can measure explicitly, and is subject to a lot of (poor) interpretation.

3. Truthiness

The issue of “truthiness” also comes to mind as a reason for messaging problems. This is not the Stephen Colbert truthiness — about knowing (or believing to know things in one’s gut) — but truthiness as messaging that has some truth in it, but also contains a lot of implied meaning that is left to the interpretation of the audience.

Often, “wiggle-words” are used so that the company can appear to make claims about the merits of their products, or can hide gaps and deficiencies they know exist.

The word “support” is a common wiggle-word. Many companies claim support for 3rd party products such as operating systems, databases etc. But for those of us who’ve worked on the product-side of the house know that the details matter.

Another wiggle-word is “enables”. What does “enables” actually mean? Two sticks (used properly) enable someone to create fire, but it’s not a great way of doing so.

There are lots of example of ambiguous or meaningless language (e.g. create customer value) that can be placed under the banner of truthiness.  But truth be told (pun intended), companies are doing themselves and their customers a disservice by not speaking clearly and concisely.

BTW, I’ll cover questions 2 and 3 (listed at the top of this article) in future posts.



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Taking the “mess” out of Messaging (part 1)

An email arrived in my Inbox not too long ago with the following subject line:

Design a Monetization Strategy to Enhance Strategic Goals While Protecting Core Assets

Hmmm…a strategy to enhance strategic goals. Alrighty.

The body of the email had more gems. It was an announcement email for a small conference. Here’s part of the header graphic.


Untapped Reserves of Intangible Assets“???

Who speaks like that?

Perhaps patent lawyers or accountants speak that way. I don’t honestly know, but most people I know certainly do not.

What’s interesting about this conference is that I think I understand what they are trying to say, but the language they are using is so abstract that it’s rather funny.

One other funny line from the email, that has nothing to do with the conference topic,  but which indicates a marketing writer running amok is this one:

Cutting Edge Sessions that Provide Comprehensive and Relevant Information!

As opposed to what? Dull sessions that provide incomplete and irrelevant information?

Now I’m not picking on this email specifically, but it’s a great example of what ails a significant part of B2B marketing.

For those of us who spend (at least part of) our time thinking about things like messaging and positioning, reading industry press releases, announcements and collateral (as well as that produced by our own companies), this kind of language is problematic to say the least.

Ever tried reading a company’s website to understand what they do?  Here’s some text from a well known company’s website. Read it and see if you can guess who it is. The text is taken verbatim from their corporate overview page, with the only difference being that I’ve changed the name of the company to MegaCorp.

At MegaCorp customers come first and an integral part of our DNA is creating long-lasting customer partnerships and working with them to identify their needs and provide solutions that support their success. The concept of solutions being driven to address specific customer challenges has been with MegaCorp since its inception.

Wow, customers come first at this company. How unique. They identify customer needs and provide solutions that support customer success. And this is something they’ve done from day 1. Well, isn’t that special. OK…narrowed it down yet? Figured out who they are? No? I don’t blame you.  Here’s another sentence from the same page:

Since then MegaCorp has shaped the future of the Internet by creating unprecedented value and opportunity for our customers, employees, investors and ecosystem partners and has become the worldwide leader in networking – transforming how people connect, communicate and collaborate.

A little better, we know they are focused on the Internet and are a leader in networking. You could probably make an educated guess by now. But what’s this about “creating unprecedented value and opportunity for our customers, employees” etc. More mumbo-jumbo. They might as well be talking about this company!

So the company is Cisco. Click here to see the page. Surprised? I picked Cisco to illustrate that even a well known, successful and focused company can also speak about itself in abstract terms and generalities. But if you look around, you’ll find this kind of language all over the place.  David Meerman Scott calls it “gobbledygook“. I simply call it bad messaging.

So here’s a couple of open questions.

  1. How did we get into this mess?
  2. What can we do to try and get out of it?
  3. Is it even possible to get out of this mess?

I’ll explore these questions in future posts, but before I do, I’d like to hear your thoughts on these questions and the issues you see in product and corporate messaging.


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