One Billion or 1B? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

I found myself eavesdropping at a cafe. Two coworkers from a nearby marketing communications firm came in for coffee and sat on the couches near me. One was an account director, the other a copywriter. They talked about content for a client’s social media campaign. The account director wanted to tout the client’s impact by citing important statistics.

One of those statistics involved the phrase “One Billion.”

It’s rare to see creative and sales departments work harmoniously, so I was impressed, but it was time to stop listening and get back to my own work.

Then this happened:

“Let’s shorten ‘billion.’ Just make it 1B,” the director said.

“You don’t want ‘billion’ spelled out? I think it’s an attention grabber,” said the copywriter.

“You do? I feel like it’s too basic. I’m not sure it’s an attention grabber for our audience.”

I’ve been in similar conversations for as long as I’ve been writing. Who do you think was right?

My opinion is that neither of them knows. At that level of detail, it’s difficult to predict which version will perform more effectively without research.

Now let’s say you have the time and money to conduct a survey or an A/B test, where everything about the posts are identical except for ‘1B’ versus ‘1 Billion.’ Let’s say your metric is ‘Likes,’ and there is a noteworthy difference in response.

I ask, what good is that knowledge? What does it matter if you go from 100 to 150 “Likes,” when you might have had 1,000 with a better message?

In other words, if you’re going to test something, make sure it matters. Start with potential key messages, then refine your copy by tinkering with details.

And finally, if you’re still not sure, trust your copywriter. MW

There’s More to Thought Leadership Than Aphorism

Aphorisms are short statements, usually in the form of observations or instructions, that express a general truth. The best aphorisms are effective attention-getters, and they’re easy to memorize.

Two of my favorite examples are “Measure twice, cut once” and “Make do, or do without.” There is a point, however, where aphorisms become clichés.

The business world is full of aphorism-clichés. You see them all the time in articles about marketing and communications. I recently did a Google search for “tips for content marketing.”

The first result was a Forbes article titled “9 Actionable Content Marketing Tips From Top Industry Experts.”

What followed was a list of ‘aphorisms’ that don’t really say anything. For instance:

Tip #1: “Be a better writer; tell better stories.”
Tip #2: “Answer the questions your prospects and customers ask.”

Whatever the merits of an article like this, it cannot be considered ‘thought leadership.’

A better example of thought leadership would be to dive deep into Tip #1. Instead of the unhelpful “Be a Better Writer,” why not walk an audience through the process of becoming better storytellers? It could be through a whitepaper, book, webinar, podcast or series of in-person workshops.

But even that is stretching the concept of thought leadership. I think that real thought leadership happens when organizations pose big-picture questions and provide big-picture answers. Think strategy, trends, research, analysis, policy solutions and so on.

More importantly, real thought leadership implies a certain objectivity. To be a successful thought leader is to put naked self-interest aside. Associations and nonprofits can be effective as thought leaders because they represent the interests of a market, cause or profession rather than an individual organization.

The last thing I want to say about thought leadership is that it involves writing. There’s no way around that. So good thought leadership and good writing go hand-in-hand. MW

Should Every Marketer Demo Coffee at Costco?

I knew this guy—let’s call him John. We occasionally worked together sampling coffee at Costco for a regional coffee roaster. Every weekend, the roaster sent teams of two-to-three people to Costcos all over the region. People came to our booth, asked for samples, we served them, answered questions and hoped they bought some bags of coffee.

Or I should say, most of us hoped. John didn’t believe hope was reliable enough. He was a divorced single father, and we were on commission. The more bags we sold as a team, the more money we made. For more than a year, I spent my weekends working the demo stands as a way to make money. It was one of three part-time jobs I’d patched together, along with a full-time publishing job that frequently required extra hours. When the doors opened and the shoppers rushed in, I was already tired.

Any Costco on a weekend is like going to a fair. The aisles are crowded with people and carts. Demo stations are set up around the store, with long lines of customers waiting to get a free spoonful of ice cream or a pinch of trail mix. We served shot-glass-sized containers of coffee (six different kinds). The coffee was delicious. It was so good that we were busy nonstop for eight hours at most Costcos. If we hadn’t been to a particular location for awhile, people would plan their shopping around our schedule.

Being busy was great. The more coffee we sampled, the more likely we would sell bags of it, and the more commission we would make. We made good money with little effort, and that was enough for most of us at the time.

John was different. He didn’t want good money. He wanted as much money as possible. So he did something the rest of us didn’t—he actually sold the coffee.

While we spent most of our time brewing, pouring and grinding coffee for customers, John would zero in on one or two people at a time and spend between 5 to 10 minutes talking with them. He would pour each kind of coffee, ask them what they thought, explain the differences, and make recommendations. While most of us were trying to serve as many people as fast as possible, John ignored anyone in line who he wasn’t talking to directly.

Another friend of mine—let’s call her Jane—disliked working with John. When the three of us worked together, she’d pressured him to hurry up, interact with more customers, and admonish him for letting the line get too long.

As a marketing professional and former advertising salesperson, I look back and see both approaches as metaphors for how companies could conduct themselves. Both are valid strategies depending on the organization’s culture and business goals.

But I also won’t forget my paycheck. Of the people John talked to, I can’t say exactly how many bought bags of coffee, but it was most. And when they bought the coffee, they always bought more than one bag. When John was on our team, I made more money. And I guess I also learned some pretty good lessons.

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A Writing Lesson in Sentence Length

Maybe you never knew this, or maybe you learned it a long time ago and forgot:

Good writers are good at varying the lengths of their sentences.

Sentence length contributes to style, which contributes to meaning and also makes writing more interesting to read.

Here’s a quick example. Which is more interesting to read?

John left the house. He walked to his car. He turned the car on. He drove down the street. He got on the highway. He cruised at 60 mph. He arrived at work. It was 20 minutes later.

John left the house. He walked to the car, turned it on and drove down the street to the highway. He cruised at 60 mph all the way to work. He arrived 20 minutes later.

The content of the sentences is almost exactly the same, but the latter bookends two longer sentences with two shorter sentences, illustrating a simple concept:

Variety in sentence-length helps move writing along (even if the content is bleh).

What I love about this or any example is that the combinations are nearly infinite. Here’s a different version:

John left the house. He walked to his car and, after turning it on, drove down the street to the highway, on which he cruised at 60mph all the way to work. He arrived 20 minutes later.

Now there are only three sentences instead of four, and the long one is still bookended by two shorter ones.

Also, combining all the ‘driving’ action into the same sentence has an interesting effect, in that the sentence structure now mimics the movement of the scene. It makes more “sense” to start a new sentence at the same time the driving action ends and a new action begins — John arrives at work.

(If you ever wonder what writers do, this is it. We spend a lot of time playing with different combinations to get just the right effect.)

You can do this too

I want you to start mixing long and short sentences in your writing. To do it well, you’ll need to master two fundamental skills:

  • Writing short sentences
  • Writing long sentences

To help, I recommend reading these two books:

  • Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark illustrates how to generate powerful rhetoric in as few words as possible.
  • Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon is a great introduction to the benefits and techniques behind writing long sentences.

Both are filled with really good, practical tips, exercises and rationales for writing different kinds of sentences. Even if you only spend a short time each week practicing these techniques, the rewards vastly outweigh the investment. You’ll be on your way to developing a unique voice, rooted in the development of a personal style, whose writing projects real authority, vastly superior to the bland, fake-positive, message-driven, inauthentic style that is the default of less talented copywriters, content marketers and bloggers (they know who they are).

In other words, keep at it. Before long, you’ll be a pro.

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What Is a Sentence Anyway?

One of my favorite books about writing is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Tufte surveys the many forms that sentences can take and illustrates all those possibilities with choice examples. The book itself is a testament to the flexibility of what we call sentences.

But let’s step back. What is a sentence? What does it mean that series of words can be arranged in so many various ways and all of them be called sentences? Tufte’s book implies something that Jan Mieszkowski’s Crises of the Sentence makes explicit: There are so many different ways of writing sentences, so what are we talking about when we talk about sentences?

I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you before, and I still can’t tell you after having read Crises of the Sentence. But I have a much better grasp of what it means to ask the question.

Mieszkowski does a brilliant job of sketching the pragmatic and philosophic issues at stake. In effect, he says that if we’re to take the question seriously, here are the very real ramifications for our political and social realities.

Maybe I loved reading this book because I’m a writer for whom the sentence was already an unsettled, unstable yet extraordinarily resilient ‘unit’ of communication.

I use quotes around ‘unit’ because Mieszkowski has convinced me that a trouble with sentences is how we think of them in the first place. Unit-as-a-concept doesn’t describe sentences enough. They’re more than that, but it’s hard to say precisely what we could mean by more.

Imprecisely, it could mean that a sentence is what it is and everything that it could have been. In other words, the sentence you’re reading right now could have been written differently. The same words could have been arranged in different order. Or I could have chosen different words altogether in my attempt to impart the same information.

(I wrote ‘communicate the same information,’ then changed it. I’m not sure why. It’s either because ‘impart’ is fewer syllables or because I wanted to sound smarter or both).

Every sentence that I could have written exists as an unrealized possibility. Mieszkowski says this is a key reason why sentences should be taken seriously:

“Etymologically a verdict or judgement, a sentence invariably presents itself as complete, but it is never reducible to a mere equation or definition. Far from a docile medium for a content that is indifferently related to it, a sentence is both creative and destructive in its own right. We want our sentences to have an air of consequentiality, and we aspire to finish each and every one of them with a flourish. Sentences are powerful, however, because they are by nature sites of ongoing reflection and analysis and are thus permanently marked by an air of the provisional. As definitive as it may claim to be, a sentence cannot help but confirm that there is more to say or do, if only about the way in which it is saying and doing things.” (241)

The conflation of sentences and absolute claims comes under particular scrutiny. In the chapter “Slogans and One-Liners,” Mieszkowski examines the relationship of sentences to propositional logic. It’s a complicated relationship, overtly manifest in the form of slogans and one-liners. His analysis centers on revolutionary political slogans, but I think his insights apply to my peers in the marketing profession as well:

“… every sentence is partisan because it has an inherent tendency – call it aphoristic or sloganistic – to assert its independence from any and every other linguistic formation. At the same time, every rallying cry is its own worst enemy, inevitably prompting the question of whether it offers a reduced or debased version of an idea or argument” (83)

Perhaps more than other mode, it is poetry that calls into question the stability of a unit called ‘sentence.’ Mieszkowski expresses as much in a chapter called “The Poetic Line.” He says:

“Poetry tests the authority of the sentence in unique ways By foregrounding rhythms and other cyclical or repetitive patterns that are less obvious in – although by no means absent from – prose, it highlights organizational parameters that coexist or may even be at odds with syntactic ones.” (84)

What follows is a discerning look at how sentences figure in the poetics of two canonical poets – Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Readers who aren’t familiar with these poets will be surprised (and enlightened) by the number of drafts and revisions each poet made to their work. 

Lines are revised. Lines are lifted wholesale from one section and stuck in another. Lines (and sentences) are malleable, open to revision, easily rearranged if the mood strikes. It’s a lesson all writers should take to heart.

There’s more: A discussion of Flaubert. Other writers make appearances: Hemingway, Stein, Woolf. There’s an especially insightful compare-contrast between Stephen Pinker’ and Eric Hayot’s views on writing style. 

If you’re interested in the intersection of writing, language and philosphy, then I highly recommend this book. MW