What's bad, boring and barely read at all? Most business writing. If you could taste words, most corporate websites, brochures, and sales materials would remind you of stale, soggy rice cakes: nearly calorie free, devoid of nutrition, taste and completely unsatisfying.
A favorite phrase in the business world is full-service solutions provider. A quick search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using that one. That's full-service generic. There's more. Cost effective end-to-end solutions brings you about 95,000 results. Provider of value-added services nets you more than 600,000 matches. Exactly which services are sold that do not add value? Best-kept secret store generates 211 million matches. I suspect they are not so secret if they're 211 million of them.
Who writes this stuff? Worse, what does it say when millions of companies are use the same words to describe themselves?
When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products and services are like everyone else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why do so many businesses say the same things at the biggest party on the planet -- the marketplace?
If you care about your showroom and your brand, you should care just as much about how you describe it. In nearly all cases, a showroom makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words -- whether they're on a website, in sales materials, emails or letters. A snappy design might catch their attention, but it's the words that make the real connection. Your company's story, product descriptions, history, personality -- these are the things that go to battle for you every day. Your words are your frontline. Are they strong enough?
Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into empty vessels optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler -- "stuff" that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you'll agree.
Luckily, there are exceptions. Wonderful exceptions. These are companies with a personality and a point of view. They care enough to have their own voice. They want to communicate, not just say something. They have a story to tell, and they want to tell it well. They write to be read.
Woot is one of those companies. Woot is a Dallas-based business that originally sold one item a day at a deep discount before being acquired by Amazon. Here is how the company describes one of its offerings:
Bags of Crap!
That's right, Bags of Crap (or BOCs, as we call 'em). Seriously, we'll sell anything. A BOC is a random collection of stuff that we shove into a box and sell to you. Wooters have received brand-new laptops, a single shoe, expired batteries, and more. You'll never know when they'll appear, or what you'll get!
Don't you just love that or maybe you dislike that. Either way, I'm pretty sure you have an opinion about Woot based on this paragraph. With just a few sentences, Woot instantly set itself apart from the liquidation crowd and was a primary reason the company was acquired by Amazon in 2010.
Another favorite is Saddleback Leather in San Antonio. Dave Munson, the company's founder, clearly loves his products and his words. Here's how he sets the scene when describing the quality of the company's bags:
You know how when a magician exposes to the world how other magicians trick people, all of the other magicians get mad at him for spilling the beans? Well, I'm about to spill the beans and ruin it for all of those companies trying to trick you into buying their not so high-quality leather...You're about to learn what to look for and what to look out for as you shop for your next leather piece. By the way, if I soon die by a chopstick to the neck, you'll know why. I'm a marked man.
He then dives into great detail about what makes a great leather bag great. From the type of leather and where it comes from to how it's tanned to breakable versus nonbreakable parts ("How much is a billion-dollar submarine with a plastic hatch worth?") to the number of seams, and so on. It's compelling and interesting. It holds your attention.
And check out how he explains his guarantee:
All of our products are fully warranted against all defects in materials and workmanship for 100 years. If you or one of your descendants should have a problem, send it back to me or one of my descendants and we'll repair or replace it for free or we'll give you a credit on the website (be sure to mention the warranty in your will).
Consider his choice of words. A 100-year warranty that his descendants will honor if one of your descendants needs a repair. And then he reminds you to include the warranty in your will. Who wouldn't want to do business with this guy? And it's all backed up with the Saddleback tag line: "They'll Fight Over It When You're Dead." Beautiful.
When you're done reading this article, hit Google and search for leather bags. Then read through some of the sites you find. I bet you'll be bored to death pretty quickly. Then visit Saddleback's site. I bet you'll be smiling just as fast.
Here's one more example of writing done right: Polyface farm in Swoope, Virginia. Polyface is run by Joel Salatin, a pioneering farmer, author, and prophet of clarity. The Polyface Guiding Principles page is a study in straightforward language with a healthy hint of attitude:
Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health....We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home...This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.
Don’t you love this take on what it means to be a farmer?
We're really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food.
Joel knows where he stands. When you read his site, you do, too. Even though Joel is a "full-service end-to-end" farmer, he'd never say it like that. He'd consider that description disrespectful to his customers, employees, plants, and animals.
The quality of the writing on sites like Woot's, Saddleback Leather's, and Polyface's gives me the chills. It's not how they look; it's how they read. These are businesses that care about what they say and how they say it. They don't write to fill up space on a page. They write to fill up your head. There is nothing inherently interesting about liquidators, leather, or farmers. They can make themselves boring, or they can make themselves interesting. Words do that job. Woot, Saddleback, and Polyface have all chosen to be interesting and engaging. They don't hide behind jargon. They aren't insecure. They aren't afraid to tell you who they are.
I can already hear some of you saying, "Sounds great. But I can't write." So, hire a writer. But make sure that writer truly understands your business. Remember: It's not only about telling a story. It's about telling a true story well.
Of course, words alone won't do it. Words are two dimensional. Your products and services provide the third dimension -- depth. But when it all comes together, you've got a package that's hard to ignore.