Life. Then Strategy

The word traps planners plan themselves into

On the way to work today, I listened to a couple from The Bronx compare weekends. The guy played Monday Morning Hero about how much dope he had smoked. The girl, frustrated in her search for a cheap two-bedroom apartment, found a backdoor into the topic. “I remember this last place we lived in, we had no furniture except a television,” she said. “One day, my sister and I were playing video games on the floor, and these guys we knew was in there with the window shut, smoking and smoking and smoking.” The guy nodded his forehead through his grin. “Did you catch contact?” he encouraged. “Oh yeah, they was smoking so much that we caught contact. We started giggling crazy and shit, and telling stories about our uncle. It was so funny.”

Three things struck me. First, let’s get it out of the way: I’m getting old. My weekend included ‘Guess Who?’ and a Dora memory card game, writing a story with my son about moon monsters after his soccer practice, and a family dinner with the kids rolling around the restaurant because 8pm is usually bedtime. I would have understood the Bronx conversation when I was younger. Second, life in New York is tough. Between healthcare, crazy rent prices, food and other basics, people need money for drugs. No wonder many lack furniture (although I bet wall-antlers are everywhere). And, finally, I didn’t realize a television was a piece of furniture. I can’t wait for IKEA to release a make-it-yourself plasma screen. It will sit alongside their Williamsburg-inspired taxidermy and antlers collection.

All morning I wondered about the telepathic powers of her uncle, a man she needed only to mention to get a laugh. I wondered harder about the phrase “we caught contact”. You see, after I looked it up online, I realized that I have spent the past 5 months in the States trying to catch contact. I have sat in meetings feeling stupid. I have run brainstorms and left feeling stupid. Daily, words I have avoided for years marinate meeting minutes and follow-up emails. They overshadow interesting ideas. They jam the system.

You know the words I’m talking about: words made for diagrams, textbooks and teenage English essays – words made for undoing, not making. Unfortunately, many are born from MBA degrees and the corporate cultures they intend to help, as if an education is only worth the long words a person graduates with, and a word with more syllables is worth more than a word that most people understand. It isn’t – it’s the opposite.

So, I have given up trying to catch contact. I can’t learn this way of speaking by sitting in a room with others hoping to breathe it in. If a planner’s currency is ideas and our denomination is words then planners owe it to themselves to spend their words better – marketers, too. Just imagine how much time and money everyone would save: shorter emails, faster meetings, no revisiting what everyone is trying to say… we just say it. In easy words.

Here are the most common word traps that I have come across and stepped in. These days, they cause herpes on my brain.

Eight common word traps

1. You speak like God

God-complexes run rampant in advertising and marketing. It makes sense: while we’re not rolling out the Six Days of Creation every week, what we do affects the world for the better and the worse. Further, survival in the game requires Alpha behavior: sometimes you need to send in plagues to scare pharaohs. But this doesn’t excuse the use of words like ’empowerment’ and ‘permission’.

Most used in discussions that patronize women, ’empowerment’ doesn’t really mean anything. Say it to someone who doesn’t share your cocoon. Then tell her that your apples empower women to eat healthy. All she will hear is that apples are healthy. She’ll think you’re intelligent for using a big word so she’ll nod that she understands. But, seriously, it’s hollow – like ‘permission’, a word that smart people love to use when they are discussing behavior change. The alcohol industry loves it. “We need to give men permission to drink vodka at the start of the night instead of when the party’s kicking on if we’re to sell more.” At best, your communications will model behavior but you’re hardly giving permission. Only God can do that when it comes to men drinking vodka early.

2. You speak like Freud or, worse, you Jung like Maslow

If you’re a strategist, your job is to understand people. Academic frameworks are useful. But knowing these frameworks does not make you Maslow. Knowing these frameworks should make you less dependent on hiding slippery thinking in them. If you catch yourself saying, “This strategy is about self-actualization,” close your eyes, visually backtrack then say, “Sorry. Let me start again. This strategy is about empowering women to self-actualize their healthy selves in the act of eating an apple.” As the room draws its breath, add: “Just like Eve.” Boom! You just God-Maslow’d them.

Unfortunately, this stuff works because it makes everyone feel smarter. It also appeals to the logic-wins-every-time attitude that higher education endows on the over-educated. It works brilliantly for brand design agencies trying to justify big budgets for packaging redesign. If this is your denomination, good luck to you. Frameworks are useful but please don’t exaggerate your role in them.

3. You speak Wallflower

Perhaps you learned Wallflower growing up. Key to this language is finding the safest thing to say, and then saying something safer. If Getty Images had Getty Strategies, this is where you’d license your strategy from. You’d take a safety harness and build a strategy around it being safe – not safer, not the safest, and certainly nothing unorthodox. You go straight down the line – the line where the wall meets the floor – and you succeed: nobody notices you.

4. You speak modern Latin (or old French)

I’ve never let etymological fact get in the way of a good whinge: putting -ize and -ate at the end of a noun does not make what you say strategic. It’s a great way to distract people – add syllables to the back of a simple word and people will spend a few seconds trying to work out what you said as you slide past them having said nothing. Say it short, say it simple.

5. You speak like Fox News

The Fox News language is a triad of Folksy, Faux-Intellect and Political Rhetoric. They’re all incredibly difficult languages. To speak Fox News in strategy, you are truly brilliant. You’ll drop in a large bit of jargon – and repeat it through the meeting. You’ll try to re-frame all discussion back into your jargon. But you’ll end with a cute, inoffensive Down-South cliche to make it feel all better. It sucks when this works; deep down I’m just jealous.

6. You speak cliché – it’s a French dialect

Clichés are useful. They summarize conventional wisdom, often throwing in a word twist. But they are useful as stimulus. They are not output.

7. You speak ecstasy

A few things have amazed me about TV ads in America. First, drug ads are rampant. No wonder everyone thinks they’re sick (it’s not the quality of the ads alone making them sick). Second, everyone is selling happiness and joy. Clients like this because it makes them feel good about their products: feel-good food, good-mood food, joyful jelly, happy driving. It’s a great ploy to get through pretesting too. Few people will say they don’t want to feel happy. Thing is, it’s becoming cliché and is too convenient. Dig harder. Make people happy (if you must) but promising it is tricky.

8. You speak Globlish

My long-time favorite player of the Globlish card is the Korean tourism industry. Their taglines must start as bets: “Let’s see who can take the few English words we [Korean tourism marketers] understand and mix them together in a way that makes sense to nobody else.” The Koreans are good at brinkmanship, so it’s a bet I would not place against them. A lot of Asian technology companies do this too. CNN is rife with it. Save the Globlish for the meetings, not the communications.

What’s a planner to do?

1. Re-write the badness out of the strategy

If you want to improve at strategy, please make ‘On Writing Well‘ by William Zinsser your next read. I’m halfway through it and it is the first book I will now recommend to new and aspiring strategists. Words are critical to ideas so being able to write well is mandatory. His main point is that the “essence of writing is rewriting”. I believe it.

So, start bad. Then rewrite. Aim for ten different versions of what you started with – twenty if you’re bold. Do this when your energy is highest. Set a time limit to hack your way to brilliance. Then leave your alternatives and come back a day later. If you’re not happy, do it again. Fast flurries followed by time for your brain to let things tick over works. Share them early with other people. Park your ego next to the taco truck and receive all feedback like a sponge. You’ll squeeze something better out. See if you can get your strategy down to a handful of words with one or two syllables each.

2. Call bullshit

I try my hardest not to fall into the traps above. It happens. But it helps if your team shares an outlook about words and keeps each other in check – with a smile. Push each other to say things more vividly and more concisely. Invest time in word games.

3. Make your words pictures

It can be hard in a room of clients to call bullshit politely. Instead of saying a strategy sounds hollow, I’ll catch myself saying it doesn’t sound concrete: “I can’t see it.” You can see great strategies if you say them right. So, challenge yourself to say things more simply and more instantly visible.

Did you catch contact?

Getting high off someone else’s dope is one way to be kind to your budget. But if your currency is ideas, make sure you know your denomination. Words matter. Catch contact off better writers. They’re in books all over the place. Start with ‘On Writing Well‘ by William Zinsser then explore Stephen Kings’ ‘On Writing‘ and William Strunk’s ‘The Elements of Style‘.

What traps have you floundered in and how did you work your way out of them?

For more on self-expression in strategy, try How to explain an idea and How to do account planning – a simple approach.

Photo courtesy Koisny.

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