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My father-in-law, who works in real estate, is fond of quoting something he’s often heard from people he’s worked with during his 40+ years in the business (Imagine a thick Italian accent):
“Don’t worry. Just order the concrete.”
I’m led to think of this statement when I think of an e-mail I’ve received a few times recently. I only realized that it was junk mail after reading through the whole thing because – unlike most such messages – it used simple and correct spelling and grammar, spoke to me, flowed well, and had no strange or distracting formatting. In other words, a decently-written, positive-sounding note.
I didn’t recognize the sender, but that isn’t always a barrier, since I do after all hope to hear from interested new clients from time to time.
But it became clear once I had that this was a “boilerplate” broadcast message. Why? It was its abstract, unspecific nature of the message that tipped me off that this was a form letter destined for a huge group of people…and which intended to flatter us into responding.
Read for yourself and see what you think:
“Hello%%FirstName%%, (Yes, they even forgot to insert my name!)
I’d love the opportunity to talk to you about your resume! Your credentials are very impressive, your background and track record closely resemble some other highly successful individuals. We have worked with many such professionals and helped them realize their dreams to become successful entrepreneurs. Based on your resume, I can see that you are quite accomplished in your field and may welcome the chance to apply your expertise in a more entrepreneurial setting.
Recession has touched us all, but some industries have turned it into a business growth opportunity. Franchising is one industry where success, profitability and economic stability have actually made incremental strides. My role is to carefully select and personally invite qualified individuals to explore franchising in all its potential and you fit the profile.
With your background in management and leadership positions adding weight to your credentials, I am confident that you are likely a great fit.”
Do you see why I call it ‘abstract’ and ‘unspecific’?
There’s nothing here that says what I’ve specifically done, or what my “field” is. And there are no concrete examples, numbers or other details to back up their claim about the success of the franchising industry or their stake in it: just a stack of conceptual puffery in the holy trinity of “success, profitability and economic stability.”
In other words, the message could really benefit from an order of concrete.
The writer might indeed be from a legitimate business and be writing for the the reasons they say…or they could be aiming to scam me or phish my information, using flattery to lure me in. Either way, I won’t be taking the time to find out.
Since I became a mom, I’ve become more keenly aware of the inadequacies of product labels. Once you find yourself a direct consumer of something, you pay more attention!
In a previous blog, I wrote about how children were branded – not unlike cattle sometimes – by the products their parents chose to buy them (myself included): high-end diapers carrying Disney characters, socks with the clothing store’s name in rubber along the foot, a zillion kinds of toys sporting the mugs of the latest movie hero/ines…it’s endless!
The other bugaboo I’ve met with is the contradictions in the labels that tell you whether something is safe for your child’s age group. Here’s an example:
What do you make of this? I’m thinking that it’s intended for kids 18-months-old and older…but when I see the pictorial symbol to the left, I really think now that it’s only for kids over 3. So really, if I cannot read or choose to ignore the English words and just follow the pictures, I’ll very likely be safer with the toy.
Why be so contradictory with something so important? At first I thought it was because the rest of the toy ‘s box bore no actual brand name. So the product itself was already suspect. But this is not the first time I’ve seen both of these labels on the same toy, even brand-name ones.
Reminds me of the other example: in cheap, plastic food and drink containers for babies and toddlers, which come five-to-a-pack and sell for way cheap. The idea is that you don’t plan to keep them for long, since they’re so cheap, so you can use them on-the-go and not worried about their getting lost. In large letters on every container’s lid are the words:
Take & Toss
Then, the subtitle in much tinier type:
reuse and recycle
Okay, so which is it? Do you want me to trash ’em after one use? Or, in keeping with the reuse and recycle spirit, should I toss ’em after five or ten uses? Exactly how long should I be reusing and recycling these? (And, in fact, are these containers and lids even recyclable?)
You can see why I – and other consumers who think less cynically than I about these things – might be a bit confused.
In his books Doublespeak and The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore, Professor William Lutz uncovers both the blatant and the subtle in deceptive product labelling. Since those books came out, we’ve all seen countless examples that could be added to his inventory. I’ll likely have more such examples in future posts.
My bottom line: if there’s something that doesn’t sit right with you after you’ve read the labelling on a package, you should question the credibility of the product and its maker.
‘Care to share any examples you’ve come across?
Recently in a post for the Editors and Writers group I’m part of via LinkedIn, a poster asked for what annoys us most when we’re editing other people’s writing.
I wrote that it was noun strings (also called ‘noun stacks’), those wonderful series of words that people tend to tie together into one long descriptor. To illustrate, witness these three examples:
- We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
- Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
- Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.
You may notice that many of these nouns function as adjectives in the string, and that overall the writing has quite a passive tone.
And if you’ve seen these kinds of constructions in writing you encounter (or create yourself), you may also see them turned into lettered acronym, as in the first example. No surprise given that trying to say them out-loud requires you to take a few breaths so that you can finish!
You may think this kind of writing is mostly a corporate or technical phenomenon. But, as in the third example, they can crop up just as often in health care and not-for-profit environments.
Some writers attribute this kind of writing as laziness, but I would venture that it takes some thought to put together such a long construction (though through long-term exposure to them, I actually made up the above examples in a couple minutes).
But I would add that it’s an effort better spent creating clearer alternatives, such as the following:
From: We have installed a workplace activity monitoring software application (WAMSA) to survey telecommuting employee activity.
To: To get a better handle on how employees who telecommute are using their time, we have installed software that monitors their activity while at home.
From: Employees can achieve resolution of these issues through the application of the Human Resource employee dispute resolution policy.
To: You can resolve these issues by following Human Resources’ Policy for Resolving Disputes.
From: Proper usage of this ointment will result in hand skin condition improvement.
To: If you use this ointment properly, the condition of your hands’ skin will improve.
Next time you find yourself about to create a noun string, try pulling those words apart into a clearer phrase. Your readers will thank you.
I heard CFRB radio news refer to the increased Internet surveillance being introduced Thursday, saying that it was ‘high time to modernize Internet laws.’
Hmmm…”Modernizing Internet laws” = (choose one)
– another way of making the many pay for the sins of the few, via higher ISP costs?
– a necessary evil if it protects children from abuse?
– a serious threat to privacy and other civil liberties?
No matter which of these you agree with – if any – the chosen ‘official’ term sure is flattering language for something that many have already said they are very worried about. > Read more on CBC