Don’t Say That…

Herschell-Gordon-Lewis-200A major direct marketer sent me (and, I assume, you and a couple of million others) an unsolicited email. In the classic Big Brother tradition, it says, “We invite you to apply for….”

If this were a student entry in a classroom assignment, I’d give it a “C.” As a professional transmission, at best it’s worth an “F.” Sheesh! Somebody got paid for that wording. And it typifies the kind of thoughtless non-psychology we see too often when “writers” – not “communicators” – assume the mantle of force-communication.

From these intruders we see non-motivational words masquerading as schlocky surrogates for words that might nudge us in the desired direction. (Of course you know the singular purpose of a direct response message: to convince the recipient to perform a specific positive act as the direct result of exposure to that message.)

Just before I decided to write this diatribe, I was online. A marketer whose intention was more worthy than his/her talent offered me an opportunity to “Take a survey and earn up to 50 points.” Earn? Earn? And if a point has any value, that should be the point. Hey, I’m not your employee, and the suggestion that you regard yourself to be in a superior position establishes about as much rapport as an unflushable toilet.

Some words just don’t have any motivational power. Who decided to begin either an email pitch or an “expert” speech with the dead phrase “There is” or “There are”? More significantly within our mini-industry, who approved it? Who, unaware of the singular purpose of a direct response message, stuck the inert word “offer” into a subject line? Did the motivational education of whoever tied an “offer” to “You’ve been elected to receive…” exist at all, beyond an offer to clean the classroom blackboard while occupying student space in the eighth grade?

How about “It”? As the first word of a sales message, it has all the impact of a wet noodle.

And, oh, yes, if your creative team consistently comes up with ghastly second-level phrasing such as “You’ll be among the first to…” then not to worry. The team won’t be there long, if that typifies their persuasive talents. And if you form a communicative partnership with that member-of-the-mob word, you’ll probably lose enough market share so you won’t be there long either. (Even “one of the first” is light-years beyond “among” in conferring superior position to the recipient.)

Accentuate the positive? Says who?

Want to add octane to your wordsmithy? Sure, why not? Just dump “conditional” phraseology and replace it with unconditional phraseology. Simple example: Instead of “We would like to…” use “We want to….” Nuclear science it ain’t.

Positive usually outpulls negative. We all know that, as a generalization. This blah is an “Oops” because the core of a generalization is “usually” … which means not always.

You may have explored and benefited from the capability of a negative to outpull a positive. For example, why is it that the word “lose” has greater acknowledgment-power than the word “win”? Scouting around for a scholarly answer can drag us deeper into a psychological whirligig than our time is worth.

So settling for – get this! – the positive effect of negative shock-value is sufficient. “Win” has competition from other word-users all over the place. “Lose” doesn’t. So uniqueness contributes to competitive superiority.

Does that same syndrome apply to questions? We all know what a wonderful crutch a relevant question can be. On that day when the muse isn’t resting comfortably on your shoulder, reversing a weak positive into a question can add an attention factor that just wasn’t there before.

Careful, though. Don’t word a question to imply that your target-individual isn’t informed. Building resentment is oh-so-easy when your question arrogantly thumps your own chest and pounds against his or hers.

A chrestomathy of scattershot

Which of these questions is more likely to generate a positive response?

  1. Wouldn’t you like to join…?
  2. Would you like to join…?
  3. Want to be…?
  4. Ready?

The answer? Yes. Testing will outprove any speculation. I’d automatically vote for the fourth option, because it more positively places the target-individual in a decision-making posture. But, as learned as I may claim to be, I’d be pitting a guess against an evaluator.

Plenty of grist exists for the dedicated wordsmith, who chuckles mildly at the pomposity of “utilize” and “however” and guffaws at “Indeed,” but at a dinner party is careful to avoid sitting next to someone who verbalizes those words.

Then we have the “commit-before-knowing-what-it is-to-which I’m-committing” words such as “attend” and “join” and “subscribe.”

Maybe (not “perhaps”) this whole concept is on the abstruse side. (Not “Maybe this concept is too abstruse for you.”)

Hold it for just a moment. Do you see the difference, both in relationship and in convictional impact, not just between “Maybe” and “Perhaps” but between an inclusional approach (“…is on the abstruse side”) and an exclusional approach (“…is too abstruse for you”)? The difference between being an arm-around-the-shoulder sharing buddy and being a remote self-proclaimed Olympian pedagogue separates the natural convincer from the struggling debater.

Did you ignore that candidate for deletion?

That’s about it, except for two danglers.

Dangler number one: Immediately, you probably recognized (not “should have recognized”) the benefit in that last subhead – “Did you ignore” instead of the down-the-nose alternative “Did you miss.”

Dangler number two: Where did that word “Chrestomathy” come from?

Ah! You speak our language. Dig around the synonym cemetery and you’ll find that word, and plenty of others, to prove what a massive intellect you have and the objects of your communication don’t have.

A mild caution, though: If you need that type of rhetorical buttress, then please, please, don’t sit next to me at a dinner party.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises, Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books, including the recently-published Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics; Catalog Copy That Sizzles;On the Art of Writing Copy (fourth edition recently published); Asinine Advertising; and Creative Rules for the 21st Century, he writes copy for and consults with clients worldwide. Web address is