Specificity: A weapon of mass effectiveness

My single best advice about writing — whether for marketing copy, blogging, a sales pitch, an investor pitch, or even humor, is:

BE SPECIFIC

All done, you can stop reading now. (As if I have the power to decide when you stop reading.)

Writer’s Workshop

Sometimes it’s easier to demonstrate than to preach, so let’s take a simple statement and see how being specific makes it more powerful, more interesting, and even funny.

Here’s our starting point:

Experts say Twitter usage is increasing, but in many industries your marketing efforts are better spent in other channels.

No generic words

The first and easiest step is to swap generic words for specific ones. By “generic” I mean words that span broad concepts instead of conjuring a specific image. In our example, these include:

  • usage
  • many
  • effort
  • better

Generic words are a sure sign of lazy writing. You can’t be bothered to describe what people are doing on Twitter so you say “usage.” You can’t quantify the number of industries so you say “many.”

Besides being boring and uninspiring, generic words are interpreted differently by different people, so it’s not clear what message will be received on the other end of the Internet connection.

Here’s a stab at converting generics into specifics; see how much clearer the point becomes:

Experts say people increasingly base buying decisions on Twitter conversations, but in non-technical industries Twitter penetration is still low, so other marketing channels have a higher return on your time investment.

From truth to accuracy

After disposing with the obviously-useless generic words we’re still left with words which, while technically correct, are still not contributing enough to the meaning and persuasiveness of your writing.

Take the word “expert.” Yes “experts” talk about Twitter, but what sort of expert? When I think of Twitter experts I think of Chris Brogan and Tony Hsieh. But they’re not merely “experts” in the sense that they have a deep knowledge of Twitter, they also actively promote Twitter and teach others how to become experts themselves.

This is an important distinction, because experts in other fields are often not as evangelical; an expert classical guitarist might not, in fact, be a teacher or care about convincing millions of people to pick up a 12-string.

In our workshopped example we’re making the point that Twitter experts tend to promote Twitter without qualification; using the word “evangelist” instead of “expert” is more specifically what we mean to say.

Replacing “expert” and a few other words (e.g. “higher return” → “profitable” and “people” → “consumers”), see how much more evocative the statement becomes:

Twitter evangelists encourage consumers to base buying decisions on Twitter conversations. But Twitter hasn’t made inroads in non-technical industries, so traditional marketing channels might still be more profitable.

Concrete examples

If your primary goal is brevity, examples are bloat. Otherwise, examples improve persuasive writing in several ways:

  • Examples clarify abstract arguments.
  • Examples make arguments more believable.
  • Examples make arguments more difficult to counter.
  • Examples make it easier for readers to apply your points.
  • Examples make it easier for readers to do their own research.

Consider how much more abstract this article would be without the workshopped sentence! Speaking of which, let’s update our Twitter statement:

Evangelists like Chris Brogan and Mike Volpe say consumers increasingly base buying decisions on Twitter conversations. But Twitter hasn’t made inroads in non-technical industries like agriculture, construction, and retail, so in those cases it’s more profitable to stick with traditional marketing channels like direct mail and resellers.

See how much more evocative it is to put a name to the evangelists; even if you’ve never heard of those guys, knowing their names makes it tangible.

The easiest way to be funny

It’s odd but true that almost any statement can be made funny merely by being specific, and there’s so many ways to do it.

In the following examples, note how the individual nouns, verbs, and adjectives are specific.

Exaggerate to extreme
Instead of: “Evangelists enjoy pointing out how consumers use Twitter.”
Write: ”Evangelists wet their pants every time someone uses Twitter to find a coffeeshop.”

Exaggerate to banality
Instead of: “Evangelists enjoy pointing out how consumers use Twitter.”
Write: ”Evangelists proudly point to Twitter’s popularity, enabling people of every creed, color, persuasion and nationality to join the global conversation on what they had for lunch.”

Invent an example
Instead of: “… hasn’t made inroads in non-technical industries.”
Write: ”Farmers looking for a deal on a new tractor aren’t peeling iPhones from the pockets of their right Wranglers and thumbing out tweets through work gloves.”

Highlight the absurd thing
Instead of: “Evangelists enjoy pointing out how consumers use Twitter.”
Write: ”Evangelists are proud of consumers for using Twitter to gather ‘advice’ culled from the stray comments of millions of strangers.”

Blow something out of proportion
Instead of: “Evangelists enjoy pointing out how customers use Twitter.”
Write: ”Evangelists say your customers are on Twitter, but mostly they’re twittering about how to twitter, and about how everyone else is twittering, and about how all those non-twitters are missing out on this valuable exchange of knowledge.”

Transfer the concept to another context
This is the principle behind my satirical post on the “rules” of social media. (In fact that post demonstrates all these techniques!)

Putting it all together

Here’s some lovely examples of other writers using the above techniques for humor and effectiveness:

More tips in the comments

Click to continue the fun in the comments! Leave your own advice and examples and let’s make this a more complete guide.

  • http://twitter.com/kumibradshaw Kumi Bradshaw

    Solid post Jason.

    I’d be interested in your follow-up thoughts / perspective about specificity as it relates to subject matter – i.e. keeping blog posts etc. clustered around a singular theme vs. scattered around a number of disparate topics.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      It seems like personal blogs can be more scattered because readers are interested in the person, whereas if you’re trying to educate it can be distracting. Then again I’ve experimented with slightly (or completely) off-topic posts and people said they liked it, but only if they are rare.

  • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

    I tend to relate ideas to my own experience to make them specific. It might be more powerful to relate them to the audience’s experience, but that seems presumptuous to me. Do you think one approach is better than the other, Jason?

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Right personal stories are more specific than general statements.

      It’s probably impossible to relate them to the audience’s experience because each person has different experience! I think all you can do is be detailed about your own feelings and situations and hope that it’s at least entertaining and at best relatable.

      • http://pfoley.com Patrick Foley

        Thanks!

  • http://www.ppcsoft.com/blog Atle Iversen

    And don’t forget – you can always use funny pictures/illustrations (but not cute pictures like kittens etc).

    This may be inappropriate – feel free to delete/block this image, but we have just released an update of our product, and this image was just *too* good to let go to waste (guess which high-profile, popular application/service we are having some gentle fun with :-) ).

    You know you’re popular when even the *fashion industry* is inspired by you…hollywood next (oh wait, Facebook has already done that)

  • http://www.brekiri.com/ Greg4

    Ugh, those examples of funny make me cringe. I know people need help with writing, and I think the specificity point is a great one. But I’m going to rupture an optic nerve rolling my eyes the next time I see these randomly tossed into the average post. In contrast, I think your rules post works because it has a theme that lends itself to the humor and gets people to really imagine the scenario.

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Fair enough! Agreed when sprinkled randomly it’s just noise and not art.

      Then again you said “rupture an optic nerve rolling my eyes,” so… :-)

  • http://www.enterthegroup.com Sal Pellettieri

    Great points. I think you are bang on. People like to hear specific examples and stats are always great. The trick is to integrate those ideas but not make your writing too long or people will get bored. Our attention span is so … bye

  • http://ontechies.com Ricardo

    Thanks for the tips, I’ll try to remember and use some of these tips on my next post. Usually I just start a cycle of writing/reading/editing until I get tired and then I just hit the “Publish” button… the rest is history.

    I like writing because it stimulates the creative side of my brain and at the same time it helps me by relaxing my mind and make the train commute more enjoyable! I am not sure if I follow any rules, but what I do seems to work for me :)

  • Brooks Moses

    There’s only one piece of writing advice that I remember from my 12th-grade English teacher, and that is to make sure that when I write “it” and “that” that it’s very clear and specific what I’m referring to — and, if it isn’t, to make it so.

    “Be specific” was also the critical part of the senior-level “technical writing for mechanical engineers” class I took that changing my writing abilities forever. The crucial piece there was that, if a sentence in your writing is not doing something specific, cut it. “There are several things that…” — no. It’s obvious from the list that you’re about to write that there are several things. “It is easy to…” –no. You don’t need to tell people it’s easy; show them with details. And so on. Much technical writing is full of things like this that pad wordcount without conveying anything at all that the reader cares about.

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  • http://www.GettingMoreAwesome.com Rishi Shah

    this blog post was awesome. My favorite so far!

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Thanks.
    Unless you’ve spent significant time analyzing well written material to understand why it’s good, writing appears like black magic. As a hyper enthusiastic daily blogger who can’t write enough opinion pieces on web tech, startups, design, and coding, these writing tips are much appreciated.

  • http://eight-acres.blogspot.com/ Liz Beavis

    This is a great post. The annoying part is that most media is now dumbed down to the point where they write very generally. I get so frustrated when I see reports that “experts say this” or “scientists say that” with no attempt to give the credentials of the experts/scientists to say anything that I should take notice of!

    • http://blog.asmartbear.com Jason Cohen

      Right. In fact wikipedia forbids such language for that reason. Sometimes bloggers should adhere to similar principals…

    • http://www.joycegrace.ca Vancouver marketing girl

      Did you see the Yahoo article about “sources” that said Steve Jobs was going to die in four weeks? ….did that ever come true? I didn’t follow up. They lost me at “sources”.

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  • http://www.joycegrace.ca Vancouver marketing girl

    I love this post! I love it, love it, love it! It’s so funny cause me and my brother have this thing we learned from Eban Pagan about not falling into “ambiguity for non-specificity” and we joke about it all the time. Now I read this, I had to share it with him. :)

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