Writing is easy. 
All you have to do is
cross out the wrong words.
-Mark Twain

Why is so much advertising agency-speak filled with unnecessary words and generalizations?

I’m always urging my ad agency clients to eliminate unnecessary words in their writing for new business and marketing. As Mark Twain noted, it’s an easy exercise that requires little effort and has a big impact.

But wordiness may be a symptom more than a diagnosis. The real diagnosis may be what Chip and Dan Heath call the “Curse of Knowledge” in their book, Made to Stick. The Heaths use an acronym, SUCCESs, to define what makes an idea compelling:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories

It’s the first “C” that I want to dwell on today. As the Heaths say, “language is abstract but life is not.” For example, “V8 engine" is concrete; “high-performance” is abstract and prone to interpretation based on our personal experiences.

Abstract language is the domain of experts: doctors, academics, attorneys… and the majority of advertising professionals. It’s exclusionary because it forces the audience to work harder than they need to.

And why would you do that if you’re trying to persuade your audience that you are the best at what you do?

Concrete language is the domain of everyone – including the experts! That’s not to say that concrete language is dumbed down for the masses. You can still write in a professional way using concrete language. Plus, you have a much better chance of drawing in your reader and persuading them to your side of the argument.

Here’s an example that we often use in our workshop, Persuasive Writing for New Business. Read the sentence below, which was written by someone at a well-known digital agency. As an advertising expert, can you easily understand it?

 “We also launched targeted CPA-driven display buys across endemic and behaviorally targeted ad networks.”

You might know what the terms mean, but what is the sentence actually saying??

It’s a sentence suffocating from abstraction. Instead of “behaviorally targeted ad networks,” why not tell the reader who the target was? Why not give some examples of the types of ad networks included in the buy?

Instead of “CPA-driven display buys,” why not do your reader the favor of ditching the acronym and telling them what that cost per acquisition was?

Chip and Dan Heath are right – abstract language is the trap that experts fall into all the time. Complicating matters, advertising itself is a discipline of largely abstract ideas and processes. (Think about how hard it is to describe your creative or strategic process in concrete terms.)

To solve the problem, take a step back and assume the role of the novice. How would you need to package the information to get your ideas across? What kind of terms would you use if you were describing the situation in a conversation?

(Hint: think V8 engine, not high-performance.)