What you say isn’t as nearly as important as how you say it

Are you doing the right thing? Are you paying your fair share? Some have suggested that Starbucks isn’t. Amazon has also come under scrutiny for filtering revenue through low-tax countries. And when I rented a film using the Windows 8 store (you’ve got to try it) the other day, I noticed the payment went to Microsoft Luxembourg. Are they doing the right thing? Or the wrong thing? And is the wrong thing an objective or a subjective standard? In law, the wrong thing is illegal. It’s punishable by either a fine, or a custodial sentence. Either you break the law, or you don’t. But these companies are not breaking the law. The spirit, maybe. But the letter, no.

Less is more

What they’re doing is minimising their tax. The sort of thing you or I would do by opening an ISA (Individual Savings Account) or by putting all our money into our house, doing it up, selling it, buying another one, doing it up, selling it, and so on until we’re in a des res in Mayfair. Or buying dozens of second-class stamps before the price goes up, or filling up at the petrol station before midnight on Budget Day. There’s a clear distinction between tax evasion (illegal) and tax avoidance (stamps, petrol, ISAs and declaring revenue in Luxembourg – and perfectly legal). But in the world of Twitterstorms, blog rage and 24-hour rolling news, it doesn’t much matter. What does matter is the language used to describe it. Right. Wrong. Moral. Deception. Fair share. Pulling together. Doing your bit. Making a contribution. Frame the story in language that serves your purpose, and it becomes unanswerable. It’s something that the anti-abortion lobby understands perfectly. They’re not anti-anything. Instead, they’re pro-life. Which makes their opponents what, exactly? Yes, that’s right: by implication, they’re either anti-life or pro-death. Chillingly effective, as you can see. Those in favour of abortion call themselves pro-choice, which sounds good, but gives the other side the obvious riposte: they’re choosing death.

A word of difference

But enough heavy stuff. Let’s return to marketing messages and how you get them across through your copy. The takeaway here is really simple: language matters. Especially when it’s written language, as there are no facial gestures or tone of voice to give that language meaning. So how do you make sure your words hit the mark? Well here are some ideas you could try:
  • Use positive language: people won’t get or obtain a discount. They’ll enjoy or benefit from a discount. They may even grab a discount while it lasts, and get a great deal into the bargain. Convey enthusiasm, and your readers will pick up on it. Convey energy through your language, and you become unstoppable.
  • Exaggerate, but without going over the top. One easy way is simply to take a belt-and-braces approach to getting your point across. Absolutely free and completely free are exactly the same as free. The same in everything but effect, that is. And if you add capitalisation and an exclamation mark, it’s even more effective: Absolutely FREE!
  • Simplify, so that your point is crystal-clear. Avoid confusing language, long words, foreign words or jargon. Short beats long. Anglo-Saxon words (put, get, make) beat Latin ones (place, obtain, create) every time, making you seem like a no-nonsense person. Drop the formality, and connect with readers.
  • Talk the walk, by making your words match your deeds. If you say you’re making people’s lives easier, then show them you mean what you say (get to the point fast, break up your copy, remind people what to do next, make your offer clear, give them easy choices). Your prospects and customers will subliminally notice these things, and get the feeling of a good, consistent story.
  • Use emotional shorthand. Fair share, right thing, doing your bit, pro-life. All of these expressions short-circuit analysis. They don’t need interpretation or filtering. People know what they mean as soon as you say them. But what about clichés? I hear you ask. Aren’t they to be avoided (like the plague)? Well yes, and no. The downside of clichés is that they’re clichéd. The upside is that they have the advantage of instant recognition – so don’t be afraid to use them now and then.
When it comes to getting your message across, language really does matter. Use the right words (simple, straightforward, universally recognised) and you can’t go wrong. Get in first, set the terms of the debate, and tell people what to think (believe it or not, they’ll thank you for it). Make your point fast, and make it clearly. Then sit back, have a skinny mocha frappé and know that you’re doing the right thing – and setting a good example for our bean-roasting friends from Seattle. Now doesn’t that feel good? Find out more: