Epistemic Status: Opinions stated without justification
I’ve been getting a bunch of advice and help at LRI from a marketing/strategy expert, and it’s been an education. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way. Basically, she takes my writing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back together again, optimized to make the organization look better. Every kind of writing, from professional emails to website copy to grant proposals, gets a makeover. I’m thinking of the experience as something of an introduction to the conventions of business/promotional communication, which are very different from the kinds of writing norms I’m used to.
Here are some of the general patterns I’ve been learning about, stated in my own words (and maybe mangled a little in translation).
“People hate reading,” she tells me.
Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?
Yes. Yes we are.
She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager. I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.
Hence: tables. Headers. Bolding key phrases. Bullet points. Pictures and graphs. Logos. And, of course, slide decks.
Layout matters. If you cross your eyes until the page turns blurry and don’t read anything, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.
The principle of discretization is things should be broken up into separate, distinctive, consistently labeled parts.
What things? Everything.
Your website has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value proposition has parts.
LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in companies that sell a product, your product has parts called “features.” Even when the “product” is sort of an abstract, general thing like “we produce written reports”, in order to make them legible as products, you have to have a list of distinct parts that each report contains.
Once you have parts, you need to get obsessive about matching and parallelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name everywhere. If your organization has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-synonyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t interchangeably talk about “single focus” or “narrow mission”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase everywhere. Matchy-matchy.
You match your website navigation links to your page headers. You match your website to your grant proposals, your slide decks, your email phrasing, everything. You put your logo on every-fucking-thing. It feels repetitious to you, but it just looks appropriately consistent to an outside observer.
When I was a child, I was into American Girl dolls. My favorite thing was the parallelism. Each doll had five books, with matching titles and themes — “Changes for Felicity”, “Changes for Samantha”, etc. Each book came with its own outfit and accessories. The accessories were even parallel-but-unique — each doll had her own historically-accurate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked actually playing with my doll, I liked reading through the catalog and noticing all the parallels. Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.
Anyhow, marketing is full of that stuff. Separating things into parallel-but-unique, hyper-matchy parts. Same principle as tables of correspondences.
I suspect that what you’re doing is reifying your ideas into “existence.” (In something like Heidegger’s sense). You translate a general sort of concept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make animals live longer”) into something with a bunch of proper nouns and internal structure, and I think the result is the overall impression that now your organization exists, as a…thing, or a place, or a personage. Like, the difference between an idea (e.g. the general concept of lifespan studies) and an agent (LRI). It activates the “animist” part of your brain, the same part that believes that Facebook is a place or Russia is an agent, the part that feels differently about proper nouns from improper nouns.
(Proper nouns, btw, are another big thing in themselves, because of social proof. Just naming people or institutions in connection with your work — whether they be advisors or partners or employees or customers or collaborators or whatever — is legitimizing. And proper nouns are, themselves, “discrete parts.” )
All this discretization imparts a sense of legitimacy. After discretizing my writing, it feels much more like “LRI exists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is proposing an idea” or “Sarah is doing some projects.” Yeah, that’s a spooky and subjective distinction, but I think it’s probably a very basic marketing phenomenon that permeates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.) I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.
Confidence + Pleasantries = Business Etiquette
One thing that came as a big surprise to me is how confident language you can get away with in a professional, non-academic context.
For example, not phrasing requests as questions. “I look forward to hearing back.” My instinct would be to worry that this was overly forward or rude; you’re essentially assuming the ask; but people don’t seem to mind.
Or removing all uncertain language. All the may’s, mights, and coulds. How can you do that without making overstated or misleading claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can generally finagle it with clever rephrasing.
I’m used to assuming that the way you show respect is through reticence and reluctance to ask for too much. Especially when communicating with someone higher status than you. To my surprise, really assertive wording seems to get better results with business types than my previous, more “humble” email style (which works great for professors.)
So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests? A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc). Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.
I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.
Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning. But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses. People respond really well to fluency. Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next. Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.
I was trained on writing style guides from literary or journalistic contexts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be relentless in removing cliches and using simple short Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible. Business language constantly violates those rules: it’s full of cliches and unnecessary Latinate locutions. But I suspect there may actually be a function to that, in making you sound smoother, or setting the scene with comfortable and familiar wording before introducing new ideas. “Good writing” is original and vivid; a good (i.e. effective) business email may not be.