This columnist, author of Writing Copy for Dummies (Wiley), recently joined forces with Jon Warshawsky, coauthor (with Brian Fugere and Chelsea Hardaway) of the newly published Why Business People Speak Like Idiots (Free Press).
Together, the "dummy" and the "idiot" attacked their archenemy, Corporate Bull. What follows are five practical suggestions for shoveling your way out of the doublespeak and successfully into the embrace of colleagues and customers.
1. Put your audience first
A few months ago, Warshawsky met an agent to get a quote on homeowner's insurance. Pretty straightforward request, right?
Wrong. "Fifty minutes later, after enduring the usual hard-sell, I finally got one," Warshawsky says. "I was just after the basics—coverage, deductibles, exclusions. He didn't seem to understand that I don't necessarily want to hang out with my insurance agent."
Unfortunately, too many salespeople and other corporate communicators fail to understand the needs and wants of their audience. Instead of addressing audience concerns, they squander precious goodwill with self-serving monologues ("Let me tell you why Monolith, Inc. is the proactive answer for needs you didn't know you had!"), excessive self-praise ("We offer best-of-class solutions, worldwide") and irrelevant puffery (refer to just about any mission or "philosophy" statement).
The bull-free alternative? As Warshawsky and his colleagues say in Idiots, "Put your audience first, and inform them instead of trying to impress them; make a strong, specific commitment instead of resorting to the usual business...[vagueness]; and embrace what you do instead of romanticizing it."
2. Learn from Bugs Bunny
In one of their more memorable cartoons, Bugs and Daffy compete for the affection of the same vaudeville audience—in fact, they use the same music, the same dance steps and the same routine. But while Bugs' performance is greeted with wild applause, Daffy's gets resounding silence—we can even hear the chirping of crickets.
Why the difference? Daffy works too hard and is overly infatuated with himself. Bugs is humble and presents his efforts modestly. The audience members give Bugs their applause because they like him.
The truth is, your personal "likeability" has much greater impact on your persuasive power than the iron-like construction of your arguments. Before all else, establish your likeability: Demonstrate your understanding of audience concerns and your willingness to respect them; be modest in your claims, humble in your presentation; where there are mistakes, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, own up to them—they make you more human, and therefore more likeable.
"Our perspective is to help professionals keep their real, non-corporate voices," Warshawsky says. "The real voice wins attention—you have to like someone before you'll listen to them."
3. Acknowledge the counterargument
Deep down, we know there's an "other side" to the story we're telling, whether it's a sales pitch or a boardroom presentation. Most of the time, we plow forward regardless, pretending that the other side doesn't exist. Bad idea. The better one is to not only acknowledge the other side but also argue it as passionately as your own.
Why? Because you want to demonstrate to the other side that they have made their point. "People don't listen well until they feel they have nothing to say," Warshawsky and his coauthors insist in Idiots. "If the option B team sees that you've listened to their point of view, and argued it as though it were your view, they're less likely to cross their arms and shake their heads during your otherwise riveting presentation."
For marketers (as opposed to presenters), our challenge is to anticipate the objections of prospects we cannot see. If your prices are higher than your competitors', hiding that fact won't help; building a case for your superior value (with practical, real-world benefits) will. If your service is new and unconventional, why pretend otherwise? Acknowledge your novel status, then show your prospects why it's a better alternative for them.
4. Be an artfully artless seducer
Despite declarations to the contrary, many people enjoy being seduced—but they don't like the awkward, inept or pushy seducer. So too in sales. The same people who "hate" aggressive 30-second commercials will often willingly endure (and respond to) 30-minute infomercials.
Much of the difference can be attributed to the "art" of the sale, and one of the key ingredients of artful salesmanship is the appearance of artlessness.
"When you go ahead with the hard-sell," Warshawsky says, "people put up their defensive shields." Our job is to lower those shields.
When Warshawsky went shopping for a sports car recently, he found a salesman who eschewed the usual litany of car talk: speed, power, the "what can I do to get you behind the wheel?" kind of stuff. Instead, the salesman talked about his personal experiences with the car and his history as an enthusiast—including "negative" things such as his occasional struggle to find replacement parts. His conversation was open, personal and artless, and it successfully built a bond with his customer.
Says Warshawsky, "I left feeling, 'He has the same interests I do.'" Guess where Warshawsky's going to buy his next car?
5. Fight the bull
From "action items" to "win-win scenarios," there's an entire corporate language of bull that fools no one—except the people who insist on using it.
You can fight back. And you don't have to fight alone. Warshawsky and his coauthors offer a free add-on to Microsoft Word that highlights unnecessary jargon as you write. It's called Bullfighter, and it's available for free from www.fightthebull.com.