When I was a little girl, every newspaper and TV channel sounded exactly the same. That’s because they were! I was born in the USSR where the political agenda dictated not only what the media could talk about, but how it should be said.
Imagine the shock when after two degrees in communication and five years as a journalist, I started noticing — once again — that in the modern world of social media, most company blogs or influencer accounts sounded the same. Have you observed this? The startup crowd has its lingo. Life coaches have their lingo. Investors have their lingo. I’m sure you can continue the list with examples from your own industry. Ever played buzzword bingo? The existence of this game alone is a testiment to how cliches are taking over our communication in many areas. Who’s dictating how hundreds of thousands of independent bloggers and corporate marketers spill their thoughts on the screen? Is everyone taking the same course? Or are most courses the same?
In a world where 300 hours of fresh Youtube content is uploaded every minute, we can’t avoid some repetitive ideas. Yet, we all know that one blogger or one company that got our attention because they speak differently. Sometimes they speak about similar ideas as others in the industry. But their words make something click. For me, Mark Manson’s long reads are an outstanding example.
Have you ever been listening to a keynote and taking notes in a burst of inspiration, only to come home, look through the notes, and realize that you already knew everything the speaker said? Often, it’s not WHAT great speakers (and writers) talk about. It’s HOW they choose to convey their thoughts.
When you let your industry lingo spill into your marketing, you are only talking to people who are already in the industry. And you’re competing with every other business owner who is out to turn these people into customers. Attracting new audiences requires learning a new language, or unlearning the one you’ve been using.
4 steps to becoming your own critical editor
Brian Fugere, the author of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, explains how technology and outsourcing blend many unique voices of an industry into a robot-like choir:
…technology makes it all too convenient to automate the one part of business that should never be outsourced: our voice. Whether it’s using someone else’s jargon, a generic template, or even a speechwriter, too many business people give away their biggest chip in the influence game without a thought.
Even if you are the writer behind your own social media, chances are, you fall into the industry slang trap. It’s not your fault. Linguists and social psychologists explain language to be one of the tools of identity construction. By speaking in the same way as your tribe, you signify that you belong. Yet, the tribal slang might be your worst enemy when you’re trying to attract people not yet in the tribe.
Here are four tips to help you to stop sounding like a robot.
Tip 1: Watch out for those empty calories
Just as an exercise, offer a copywriter $1 for every word he manages to cut from your article, post or email, whilw retaining its meaning. Then sit down and write that text. Moving from print to digital removed word count limits, and let’s just say it did not make us better writers. Every industry has its own way of being wordy. Respect your reader’s time. Find those empty calories and cut them relentlessly.
Tip 2: Swap cliche tips for personal experiences
I could tell you to “use the power of storytelling,” but you’ve probably already heard that from everyone on the internet. By the 100th time you heard this idea behind the “power of storytelling, it probably completely lost its meaning to you.
So, to follow my own advice, I’ll cut the talk and provide two examples:
Post #1: “Just be yourself, believe in who you are, no matters what others think.”
Post #2: “When I first moved to Spain, my Spanish level wasn’t so good. I used to pretend to laugh when everyone was laughing, until one day they noticed and laughed at me instead. I should have just been myself.”
This, really, is the easiest way to stop preaching to converts. Tell your readers what’s going on. We are all humans, and some will almost certainly relate.
Tip 3: Cool metaphor vs. empty cliche
Cliches are the metaphors that become victims of their own success. The challenge is that you won’t find “a complete list of cliches and other awful things to say, 2020 edition.” The list is unique to every industry. Startup founders used to be obsessed with “pivoting” and every other life coach I know has gone through a “dark night of the soul.”
You should not stop talking about important aspects of your experience as a leader! Just start looking for those cliches only understood by industry insiders.
Tip 4: Specificity is easy and catchy
Which one of these sparks your interest more?
1. “Many women in the UK have experienced loneliness.”
2. “We asked 186 women, both single and happily married, and 112 of them said they felt lonely.”
Being specific does so much for your text. It shows you know your facts, portraying you as an expert. Fresh bold facts are enough to stop the scroll. It helps you to paint a picture in the reader’s head. Go over your posts and try to look for any quantitative statements. Can you spend extra five minutes to find a cool study to illustrate your point?
There is a curious exercise I like to use in offline training. I ask a group to draw a house in 10 seconds. 90% of the people sketch out a classic “kids drawing” house: square foundation, square window, triangle roof. Then I ask them to repeat it nine more times and draw nine DIFFERENT houses. The creativity explodes after number four: there are ant houses, birdhouses, tipis, banana shaped houses. I love this exercise because it clearly demonstrates that it’s not that people are not creative enough, but often too lazy to search beyond the most obvious idea that occurs to them first. It’s the same with your content. You might be used to thinking and communicating in industry cliches, but give yourself a challenge and brainstorm for a few extra minutes. There are many fresh and creative ways to express the same thought.