This Is What Writing Looks Like


Readers have asked me to demonstrate how I write and edit. So I’m starting a new series where I take examples of really bad business writing and point out some flaws. Then I’ll show a new, revised version that communicates a similar message, only this time the words won’t hurt your eyes.

Our first guinea pig comes from the Atlantic online. (Oh, the Atlantic, how the mighty have fallen!) “Customer Analytics: the New Source of Value Creation” is a piece of sponsored content provided by IBM. Here are a few sentences I’ve pulled:

The successful CMOs will be the ones who will drive change across the enterprise to ensure that every touch point is building brand equity instead of diluting it.

Companies will also need to start paying attention to a whole new set of metrics in this new world. They need to understand who their brand advocates and detractors are, and what shapes their attitudes and drives their behavior. They need to keep track of near-advocates, and what type of interactions will turn them into advocates.

Similarly they need to keep a close eye on near-detractors, and what type of actions can reduce the probability of them turning into active and vocal detractors. 

Let’s take a look at some problems with this prose.

successful CMOs — Why focus on the Chief Marketing Officer? Why not talk to the rest of us? Surely the author doesn’t expect only CMOs will read his post. He must know that lots of people could see this piece, people with lots of different job titles. It looks like a cheap ploy to stroke his reader’s ego.

Also, notice that both words begin with that dreaded s- sound. Repeating sibilants is the worst kind of alliteration.

will be the ones who will — Why the future tense? Better to keep it in the here and now. This is what marketing people do. Also, note the needless repetition of the word will.

drive change — How many times have you heard this phrase this week? And while we’re at it, let’s stop driving results, driving metrics, driving retention. No more driving anything but automobiles, period.

across the enterprise — A fancy way of saying “everywhere.” Which is just another example of words so vague as to be meaningless.

touch point — Another cliché. This seems to be the current favorite catchall term for every time a customer sees or hears about your company.

building brand equity — There is very little that one person, even a mighty CMO, can do to build brand equity. Equity works the same way for houses and brands. You know what really builds equity? Longevity. If you want to build equity in your house, hold on to it for a really long time. Likewise, companies that have been around the longest tend to be the ones with great name recognition. Don’t believe me? Coca-Cola.

companies will also need — Again with the future tense. Why not do it now?

a whole new set of metrics — Bad writers hide behind nominalizations like “metrics” when what they really mean is a verb, like “to measure.” Besides, what are these metrics supposed to measure?

this new world — Can we quit it with the whole new world stuff? Every ad, every blog post, every white paper makes it sound like the French Revolution happened last week. I’ll make you a deal. You invent a machine to teleport me and my luggage to Hawaii and back. Now that would be revolutionary. Then I’ll give my permission to call it a new world.

advocates — So many companies are desperately seeking brand advocates, the word has already become a cliché. When a company uses the word advocate, what they really mean is “customers who love what we do so much that tell their friends about it.”

near-advocates and near-detractors — Ugh, such unpleasant sounds. When you conjoin two words with a hyphen, not only do you add an extra layer of clunk, you push your reader’s comprehension. To do so twice in as many sentences is unforgivable.

What caused the author to write this way (assuming he wrote it himself, and not one of the “content providers” working for the Atlantic)? My hunch is that he doesn’t really know what he wants to say. So he reaches for any phrases that sound businessy in the hopes that readers will think, “Wow, he uses so many words, he must really know what he’s talking about.”

Instead of that vacuous business prose, IBM could have published something like this:

Great marketing isn’t about creating a great brand. Think about it – how many brands do you love? Exactly. Nobody falls in love with a brand.

No, real marketing genius means creating a product that people will love.

But how much do your customers love what you sell? It’s hard to measure how people feel. But you’ve got to try. Go outside, find out who is talking about you, what influences their thinking, what makes them tick. Do they love your product, or do they hate it? Chances are, you’ll find a lot of people on the fence, or totally apathetic.

Your job is to convert them.

Better? I’d love your feedback. Leave me a comment and tell me what you think.

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