Snake oil salesman with his awesome product

A Surfeit of Superlatives

Even if you think a product, invention or idea is the best thing since sliced bread, it pays to stay low-key when writing about it. In this killer article I’ll grab your attention like a boss and tell you exactly why my assertion is a total game changer for persuasive writing. If that last sentence hasn’t put you off entirely, that is. 

This morning I received an email from a nice cheery fellow—let’s call him Mr Happy–offering to tell me how to “Create Awesome Content”. A generous proposition, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet even though I almost always learn a little something from reading such articles, I found myself reflexively deleting Mr Happy’s epistle. You may be wondering why.

Well, as I said before, it was a reflex. My knee-jerk response is an example of what I call the ‘no offence’ effect, and it’s all because of the word ‘awesome’. Just as prefacing a remark or observation with the phrase, “No offence” alerts all and sundry to the fact that you’re about to deliver an insult, the presence of a superlative like awesome automatically implies that your product or concept will in fact turn out to be a load of crap.

Polite notice? You're having a laugh
Is this really a polite notice? An example of the ‘no offence’ effect in action

This isn’t a reaction peculiar to me, although my reflex is probably especially strong because I write and edit a lot of direct marketing copy. It’s a response I came across all the time when I worked in telesales. I think of it as a hard-wired survival mechanism, a defence against the ruthless purveyor of snake-oil. This being the case, claims of, ‘solid-gold tips’ or ‘brilliant value for money’ will as a minimum elicit a mood of, “Let me be the judge of that” in your reader.

Just as Henry I famously died from eating a surfeit of lampreys, a surfeit of superlatives will kill your power to persuade.

So if you want to convince, keep your copy low-key. Be tangential when you highlight the benefits of accepting your message. Show breathtaking pictures of your product (you’ve seen Apple’s iPhone ads, right?) rely on social proof (“Peter Andre thinks this widget is indispensible”) or conspicuously embody the values you’re trying to promote. This last suggestion is what Aristotle called the moral argument, and it’s the most powerful persuader of all.

There’s a lot more to be said on this subject, but there’s no way I can fit it all into one article. Keep coming back to this blog over the next weeks and months for my further thoughts on the art of making your argument in writing, and explanations of psychological principles which can enhance your ability to convince.

As today’s parting gift to you, here’s a lovely little video which illustrates just how irritating it can be when someone else insists that everything is awesome. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Lynn is the founder and quality-maven-in-chief of Lexis Writing, a collective of expert writers creating high quality content and copy for businesses in the UK and beyond.

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