Crawl Out From Under those [Rules of] Thumb
by Michael Waite, Bonefrog Creative
We love those rules of thumb; buy into ‘em by the case lot. It’s not hard to understand why...they make our too-complicated lives seem easier: rule of thumb says so. Good enough. Stop thinking. They’re short, they’re sweet, the wisdom validated by the horde who abide their direction.
The problem with anointing rules of thumb and conventional wisdom as the de facto right answer is that it’s rarely that simple, especially in business communications. A typical rule of thumb was coined to stand true for a specific set of circumstances, but continued use—and abuse—can stretch it beyond capacity.
Take this one, for example. “Nobody wants to/has time to read, so keep written business communications short. Distill everything to bullet points.”
Such a rule of thumb has merit in terms of a printed ad running in a newspaper or magazine or other publication. In those situations, you’re competing for the eye and a moment of dedicated attention, so you must be short and punchy with what you say. And there are inherent limitations (imposed by the communication vehicle itself) to how much can be said. Same with a radio spot or TV commerical—you have no time to go on and on. But why be stingy with your information in a brochure or sales sheet? And you most certainly do not need to be tight-lipped with your website copy.
Know this: the business communications game has shifted. Consumers are no longer limited to the tidy packages of information (and spin) served up by the corporate machine. They now help themselves, tapping into the vast buffet of informational resources available on the internet. They can find reviews and critiques on just about any product or service. Bloggers tirelessly shovel out opinions, keeping the buzz burning hot. If consumers can’t get the breadth and depth of information they want about a product or service from official sources, they’ll get it from somewhere else. And the misinformation out there is staggering. You simply can’t afford to be silent or stingy with the information they want. Get it out there. Leave it to the reader to decide how much they want to read.
Those who hit your site, eye your headline and subheads, then decide they aren’t interested in what follows will move on then and there. A string of bullet points isn’t going to affect that decision. People read your stuff because they’re interested, not because it’s short.
Like I said, there are inherent limitations to how much can be said with some business communication vehicles—ads, radio spots, and, to a greater extent, brochures and sell sheets. You gotta go with what fits. But on the web, everything fits, so Sing It, Brother! Give the information-seekers what they want. (What that is, exactly, is a topic all by itself).
Yes, that information must be tightly written, focused and most of all, relevant, but pour it on. They’ll only read as much as they want to read, but they can’t read what isn’t there.
Here is another one: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” The adage has merit, since visuals have a powerful way of making a point and sticking in the mind. But a picture may say the wrong 1000 words to some. It may say nothing of interest to others. And it may well confuse still others. Understand that not everyone will hear the intended thousand words...if they hear anything at all. What seems obvious to you and those closest to your product or service may go completely over those who don’t know what you know, see what you see.
You must choose an image wisely, study the angles of approach, consider carefully what kinds of misunderstandings could rear an ugly head. Give serious thought to reinforcing the message (without getting heavy-handed) using a carefully-crafted line or paragraph of copy.
And this: “Homely (as in not slick; plain) is okay. It’s folksy. Real. People connect with common and homemade.” Sometimes. In select circumstances. But what you’re doing when you push aside the established expectations of business communications is tempting perception—especially dangerous when it’s someone’s first contact with your business.
When someone hands you an ink-jetted business card with those fuzzy perfed edges, what do you think? Cheap? Newbie? Clueless? Maybe uncommitted, like they’ll be working for someone else selling something else next week? What do you think when the furnace repairman shows up wearing a nasty teeshirt from the local bar instead of a clean uniform with "Larry" stitched over the pocket? Initial impressions are so important...both personally and for the business communications you send out into the marketplace. You want to look professional-grade, not homemade.
When tempted to employ a convenient rule of thumb, an adage, a proverb, remember: it depends. Circumstances multiply, targets shift, needs deepen, motivations change. Examine all of the situational facets and angles. It’s not about blowing up one rule and replacing it with another. It’s about selecting the right solution for the right set of circumstances. Rules of thumb are not worthless, it’s just that too many throw a shadow grown too large and too long.
phone: (208) 776-5210
© Michael Waite • (May be reprinted as long as contact information is included)