The Einstein 9: The Secret to Better Corporate Writing?

July 21, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Copywriting,Corporate Messaging,Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   17 Comments»

Of all the tips, tricks and secrets I’ve learned through the years to become a better corporate writer, leave it to Albert Einstein to have the winner. In nine words, he sums up what has driven my corporate writing since 1979:

“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

Plenty of us try to make corporate writing harder than it already is, using synonyms when the simple word is better. Or worse, employing the dreaded ‘flowery language’ or ‘corporate speak’ to make the subject sound more important.  Several weeks ago, I wrote about this in “Is Corporate Writing Getting Dumber?” On Linked In, I asked copywriters and editors to answer the question. Some were pithy–some just downright funny. If you’re interested, do check out the article.

Okay, so most of us would agree that simple is good. But what’s Einstein really driving at?

In the context of corporate writing, I think it’s this: You need to think a marketing problem through all the way to the end. Do the hard work that few corporate writers are willing to do. Find the simple answer that has been there all along, waiting to be discovered. But once you’ve found it, don’t embellish it. If you’ve truly found the simple answer, it will stand on its own–unless you get in the way.

It’s hard to be simple. Even harder not to tinker with the simple answer, once you’ve found it.

Once you start embellishing, you’re adding complexity, not removing it. Flowery language, corporate speak, weasel words–it goes by a lot of names (some of which we won’t repeat here). Some of us can’t help but do it (unconsciously in many cases–because it’s institutionalized, learned behavior).

Whether we do it intentionally or not, the result is generally the same: In the quest to make things ‘simpler,’ we only blur an idea that was otherwise in focus before we started.

So how can we rebel against the very human desire to make things ‘simpler’? Try following these three rules:

1. Know What’s Important: Find the ONLY Statement: What is the ONE advantage you can claim that no competitor can touch? When you truly get to the end of a marketing problem, the ONLY Statement will be there. If it isn’t, you have to dig deeper.

2. Know Why It Matters: You may find an ONLY Statement that is highly differentiated (after all, we’re talking about ‘ONLY’). But, to truly be the simple answer, it also has to be relevant. Ask yourself, “Is this differentiated statement of any value to my audience?” If the answer’s yes, then you’re in the crosshairs of both differentiation and relevance. And you’ve made your way to the very end of the marketing problem–and to the simple answer.

3. Know How to Say It: Resist the temptation to elaborate on simple. You don’t need to wrap it in corporate speak. Just have a conversation. The subject may be complex, but your story doesn’t have to be.

Einstein said it better than I ever will:  “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.” To truly understand a marketing problem, you have to work through it to the very end. Explore every angle. Test every assumption. And keep digging until you find the simple answer.

When you do, you’ll have made the corporate writer’s job look easy. Which is, of course, the blessing and the curse of our work.

If non-writers only knew: If it sounds simple, some corporate writer somewhere has done a lot of hard work.

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15 Comments for this entry

  • Donnie Bryant

    July 22nd, 2010 on 1:09 am

    In today’s increasingly complex world, simplicity sticks out like a sore thumb. Which is, of course, what we really want our writing to do.

    Clarity + simplicity + relevance = one compelling message.

    Dick Benson taught us that “You cannot sell two things at once.” You can’t SAY two things at once either. At least not effectively.

    P.T. Barnum said that “a constant hammering on one nail will… drive it home at last.” Trying to hammer several nails at the same time will not get you anywhere.

    Thanks for this great (and simple) article, Andy.

  • Andy Bartling

    July 22nd, 2010 on 8:40 am

    Corporate Writer Insider Note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s Copywriter’s Guild group:

    “Wonderful article Andy. Thanks for posting this. It is tough, sometimes, to really keep things at a simple level.”

  • Colin Whyte

    July 22nd, 2010 on 9:59 am

    Excellent piece. As a writer and editor I’m often handed web sites and brochures that “fill the hole” but say nothing (to the tune of 3000 words). People often come to me for punch-up and/or to clean up their copy and, after a few reads, I still have no idea what it is they’re trying to say. With most of my clients the culprit seems to be that marketing fondness for buzzwords….just dropped every three or four words like bread crumbs, leading Nowhere. And, no matter where the project ends up, my conversations with the marketing mgrs. etc. often end up being the most valuable part of the equation because they realize that too many buzzwords just create a vuvuzela-like drone that doesn’t sell so well….

    You nailed it with this: “If non-writers only knew: If it sounds simple, some corporate writer somewhere has done a lot of hard work.” Thanks for reminding us what’s important: The Important Stuff!

  • Andy Bartling

    July 22nd, 2010 on 11:26 am

    Colin,

    It’s a victory every time we can convince a marketing manager that ‘buzz words’ really do get in the way.

    One down, 10,000+ marketing managers to go.

    Andy

  • Andy Bartling

    July 22nd, 2010 on 1:16 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider Note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s group, Copywriter International:

    “I agree that the hardest (and best) thing is to keep it simple. And then to keep a smile on your face when your client puts the buzz words back in.”

  • Mary Harvey

    July 22nd, 2010 on 2:34 pm

    Well said. In writing for an engineering firm I always considered myself the designated idiot and asked questions until I understood. Only then could I write the marketing material – or edit the instruction manual.
    Joseph Pulitzer said,”Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it, and above all, accurately, so they will guided by its light.”

    I like Mr. Einstein’s statement!

  • Andy Bartling

    July 22nd, 2010 on 3:22 pm

    Pulitzer and Einstein: pretty good models for keeping complex ideas simple.

    Thanks for your comments, Mary.

  • Rick Davis

    July 23rd, 2010 on 11:24 am

    Andy, this is true inspiration for me. I am a strategist and write for corporate attorneys. You’re right…we get in our own way and most of it is ingrained by the culture.

    Your thoughts also remind me of Ogilvy, who said: “You cannot bore your audience into buying, you can only interest them in buying.” (paraphrase)

    This is refreshing to read. All the best.

  • Andy Bartling

    July 23rd, 2010 on 11:54 am

    Rick,

    Thanks very much for your insights. I agree: It’s far easier to get in our own way than not. Culture is often the culprit, and recognizing that is the first step to driving toward ‘simple.’

    Best wishes.

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    July 25th, 2010 on 9:08 pm

    Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  • Diwa Gacosta

    July 26th, 2010 on 12:10 am

    Thanks for sharing this article, Andy. Writing “simple” is a challenge but your article offers a refreshing view.

    Great read and very useful information. Please post more!

  • Andy Bartling

    July 28th, 2010 on 6:18 am

    Hello,

    Thanks for reading Corporate Writer Insider. You may quote anything you see here in your blog. All I ask is that you mention Corporate Writer Insider as the source and add a link back to my website.

    And yes, I have a Twitter account as well: @writerinsider.

    Regards,
    Andy

  • Mint Kang

    July 31st, 2010 on 5:45 am

    Ha! This puts me in mind of a PR gaffe the biggest ISP – and TV service provider – here committed a while back. A number of angry subscribers complained that they were suffering poor connectivity during the World Cup, and the ISP responded with a statement about how their “world-class service” created a “dynamic” platform where users could experience “vibrant content”. Or something similarly trite and irrelevant.

    I bet their PR people don’t read Einstein.

    (Shameless self-promotion – I actually just finished writing a long post about corporate bullshit on my own blog, then dropped by here and saw this!)

  • Andy Bartling

    August 2nd, 2010 on 12:28 pm

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s the latest comment from the Copywriters International group on Linked In:

    “Right on target…and thank you for including the last fact…that if you’ve done your job well, it looks easy to non-writers.”

  • Andy Bartling

    August 23rd, 2010 on 8:28 am

    Corporate Writer Insider note: Here’s a comment from Linked In’s Copywriters International group:

    “For the most part, I agree. The challenge comes in being simple without leaving what’s written open to ambiguous interpretation. A fellow co-worker, a tech writer, in a previous life lived by the creed, ‘Clarity shall prevail.’ Sometimes embellishments are required to achieve clarity.”

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks for this entry

  • The #1 Way to Win More Corporate Writing Clients | Corporate Writer Insider, July 26th, 2010 on 6:04 pm

    […] If you don’t have a strong message, then your copy will add only obscurity, instead of clarity.  (For more on this, please see my article, “The Einstein 9: The Secret to Better Corporate Writing?”.)” […]

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    […] Beware, though. Once inside an organization, it’s easy for a corporate writer to become institutionalized. You’ll start to lose objectivity. That’s when it’s more important than ever to rely on the process and discipline of starting every effort with a messaging strategy. Doing so will help you resist the urge to work too fast, make too many assumptions—and not work a problem all the way through to the end. Where the simple answer always is. […]