., WoW

Avoiding Hyperbole

In school, most of us read about Paul Bunyan and other larger-than-life figures, and there is a long tradition of "tall tales" in America and elsewhere. Using hyperbole, also known as exaggeration, has a venerable place, but it should have little place in business.

Avoiding Hyperbole
Exaggeration Is Always With Us 
Sometimes exaggeration is used to make people feel better or more important, and sometimes the purpose borders on deception. Many years ago, janitors became superintendents and later maintenance engineers. And secretaries all became administrative assistants or simply administrators. Such usages are generally harmless.

Similarly, all bankers now seem to be vice presidents. If I bank at an institution with 15,000 vice presidents, however, it makes me wonder just how special "my" vice president is.

And how often have you eaten in a cafeteria that claims to have the "world's best coffee?"

Selling Books and Widgets
Hyperbole, apparently, is now an accepted way of selling books. A quick scan of my bookshelf reveals books with the following subtitles: 

"The Book That Changed the World"
"The Man Who Changed Everything"  
"The Speck That Changed the World"
"The Road That Made America" 

There is some truth in all of these, but taking them together with the countless other similar titles negates the effect and makes me want to roll my eyes.

And how many companies advertise their product as the biggest, best, lowest priced? The practice is so common that we don't even notice any more, any more than we believe we've just drunk the world's best coffee.

How to Sound Important
Superintendents, administrators and bankers did not invent their titles, but now, if you don't feel appreciated, you can come up with your own. Perhaps the most egregious example recently is Content Curator, which some people think makes them sound important. Most people, including those who have adopted the title, don't know what it means, so they must be big players, right? A content curator is someone we used to refer to as an editor. If you're an editor, why not just say so? Here, of course, the intention is to impress, not communicate. 

My wife recently saw a TV show in which a designer had been brought in to decorate a room for a party. One of the things the woman did was create a Tablescape. Doesn't that sound so much more important (and more expensive) than just setting the table?

Ditto with the current use of impact as a verb. It's so much more impressive, some people think, if you impact something, rather than affect it.

A (Very) Unique Solution
A related practice is to overuse intensifiers like very and really, which just clutter your prose and usually add little. "It was devastating" communicates your meaning just as well as "It was really devastating," and the added word is unnecessary. The first sentence is also easier to read. My favorite, of course, is "very unique." Unique means one of a kind. How much more unique do you need to be? 

The solution is to remember why you're writing. Your primary purpose is to communicate, and you should avoid anything that interferes with getting your message across. The reason so much business prose is stilted and hard to read is because many people think that an overly formal style makes their message sound more important. It doesn't. I'm much more impressed with someone who can tell me what I need to know as simply as possible.

All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at http://www.holton.cc/archive.html.