Find your voice and get your story straight

Competence is a hard language to learn

(Superfluous superlatives and the perils of verbal Botox.)

Almost as good as winning a new client is finding out soon afterwards that they’re really good at what they do. Brand strategy is fun and good for the soul when you’re working to do justice to a worthy enterprise.

You can just tell, can’t you, when someone is really good at what they do? You can tell without them having to tell you. In fact it’s partly because they don’t tell you. They don’t have to. Competence is oozed rather than spoken. You know competence when you see it.

But how do you know competence when you read it?

I’ve worked with many highly competent clients who were humble and understated in person, but who struggled to stay understated in writing. The convention in b2b writing is to puff and gush. And there’s a strong temptation to jump in and follow suit. There’s an irresistible urge to try harder in writing. And that usually means trying too hard.

Puff and gush is a hard habit to break.

The tell-tale signs are superfluous superlatives and what I call verbal Botox. Verbal Botox uses terms like ‘highly experienced’, ‘world class’, and ‘dedicated’. Verbal Botox uses ‘expert’ as an adjective, as in ‘our expert team’. Verbal Botox loves the word ‘drive’. Our expert team will drive change, drive value, drive growth. Our highly experienced, dedicated staff are in drive overdrive.

In my agency days I lost count of the times I cut this kind of language out of RFP responses. Puff and gush is a hard habit to break. Competence is a hard language to learn.

Botox language has the opposite of the intended effect. It’s puffed up in a way that makes it feel like it’s compensating for some kind of insecurity. It actually undermines the perception of competence. It’s worth remembering that Botox is a toxin and that its results can look artificial and unconvincing. Not what you want from b2b copywriting.

White text on a light green background, which says, "Competence is a hard language to learn."

Written competence is a hard language to learn. Understatement is counterintuitive for marketing copy. Written competence is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. And it’s similar to English in that it has contradictory rules depending on context – i before e, except after c, except in words like science. Less is more for written competence, except when it isn’t. Sometimes longhand works better than shorthand. Using more words to be specific and precise can be a better way to show that you know what you’re doing than using pleasing but woolly shorthand.

Showing is always better than telling. I might tell you than my firm is committed to work/life balance. Yeah, right. Or I can show you (in words) by saying that 73% of full time staff have some kind of flexible working arrangement written into their contracts. A longhand statement, written in matter of fact language and substantiated with hard evidence, is much more convincing than a pithy but empty-sounding claim.

Comb out the wool. Cut out the fluff. Lose the Botox.

Understate, substantiate, exemplify.

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Tone of voice: a very important waste of time

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