The Myth of High-Falutin Copy

I have dealt with this complaint before, but it comes up every now and then. I recently heard it from a new client who wanted to sell Web services to marketing managers at Fortune 500 and middle-market corporations.

“This copy is too simple,” the client said. “This sounds as if you are talking to small business owners. Our audience is senior managers at Fortune 500 companies. The tone needs to be much more professional and sophisticated.”

Really? Says who?

One of the biggest misconceptions about writing to CEOs, chief financial officers and other senior executives is that they speak some alien language that has only a passing resemblance to the conversational or written English you and I use every day, and that, to sell to this special audience, you have to emulate or copy this special language.

The reality is that C-level executives put their pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else. They read the same newspapers you do, go to the same movies, listen to the same radio stations and watch the same TV shows.

Yes, it’s smart marketing to understand your audience and write copy that speaks to its specific needs, fears, concerns, problems and desires. And you want to tailor the tone and style of your language to your audience to a reasonable degree. For instance, you wouldn’t use off-color language when writing to ministers or use equations in differential calculus when writing to factory workers.

But ministers, chemists, accountants, engineers and computer programmers – while they all may speak the specialized language of their trade – also speak a common language: the English language. And that’s the language you should use when writing your copy.

How do I know I am right? The same way we know anything about direct marketing: through testing. I have tested “plain English” copy against “high-falutin” copy numerous times over my quarter-century in direct marketing. And 99 times out of 100, the same language that works for “ordinary folks” sells just as effectively to CEOs, Ph.D.s and, yes, even rocket scientists.

It is easy to see this for yourself. Study the controls in any market, for any kind of product. Collect as many DM packages as you can that you know to be strong controls because they have been mailed repeatedly. Divide them into two piles: those written in plain English versus those written in jargon, big words or high-falutin language. If you collect a dozen samples, I guarantee that the number in the “plain English” pile will be 12 or 11 – no fewer than that – proving my point.

I recently interviewed more than 100 CEOs, including those at many Fortune 500 companies, to ghostwrite a book, “Leadership Secrets of the World’s Most Successful CEOs” (Dearborn). Without exception, they were plain-speaking men and women, using direct, straightforward, conversational language in their written and oral communication.

The world’s most respected writing authorities all agree that good writing is clear, simple and direct.

“Clutter is the disease of American writing,” William Zinsser writes in “On Writing Well” (HarperCollins, 2001, p. 7). “We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills, and meaningless jargon.”

And what about my claim that good writing is “conversational”?

“You can’t actually write the way you talk,” Rudolph Flesch writes in “The Art of Readable Writing” (Harper & Row, 1949, p. 82). “You can, however, put a reasonable facsimile of your ordinary talking self on paper. You can purposely put into your writing certain things that will make it sound like talk.” He cites contractions as one example.

One other point: I have written copy aimed at engineers, scientists, mathematicians, systems analysts and other “techies” for 25 years. In all that time, I’ve never been told that my simple, plain English copy was “too easy to read.”

Of course, you can always test my claim that plain English outpulls high-falutin language for yourself. Here’s how. The next time a marketing manager says of your conversational copy, “It’s not professional enough,” offer to do a split test: your version against his. Then you’ll know definitely what works best for your audience, rather than relying on his (or yours, or my) opinion.

Make sense? Of course. Doing an A/B split test always does, right?

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