Epistemic Status: Opinions stated without justification
I’ve been getting a bunch of advice and help at LRI from a marketing/strategy expert, and it’s been an education. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way. Basically, she takes my writing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back together again, optimized to make the organization look better. Every kind of writing, from professional emails to website copy to grant proposals, gets a makeover. I’m thinking of the experience as something of an introduction to the conventions of business/promotional communication, which are very different from the kinds of writing norms I’m used to.
Here are some of the general patterns I’ve been learning about, stated in my own words (and maybe mangled a little in translation).
“People hate reading,” she tells me.
Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?
Yes. Yes we are.
She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager. I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.
Hence: tables. Headers. Bolding key phrases. Bullet points. Pictures and graphs. Logos. And, of course, slide decks.
Layout matters. If you cross your eyes until the page turns blurry and don’t read anything, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.
The principle of discretization is things should be broken up into separate, distinctive, consistently labeled parts.
What things? Everything.
Your website has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value proposition has parts.
LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in companies that sell a product, your product has parts called “features.” Even when the “product” is sort of an abstract, general thing like “we produce written reports”, in order to make them legible as products, you have to have a list of distinct parts that each report contains.
Once you have parts, you need to get obsessive about matching and parallelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name everywhere. If your organization has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-synonyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t interchangeably talk about “single focus” or “narrow mission”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase everywhere. Matchy-matchy.
You match your website navigation links to your page headers. You match your website to your grant proposals, your slide decks, your email phrasing, everything. You put your logo on every-fucking-thing. It feels repetitious to you, but it just looks appropriately consistent to an outside observer.
When I was a child, I was into American Girl dolls. My favorite thing was the parallelism. Each doll had five books, with matching titles and themes — “Changes for Felicity”, “Changes for Samantha”, etc. Each book came with its own outfit and accessories. The accessories were even parallel-but-unique — each doll had her own historically-accurate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked actually playing with my doll, I liked reading through the catalog and noticing all the parallels. Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.
Anyhow, marketing is full of that stuff. Separating things into parallel-but-unique, hyper-matchy parts. Same principle as tables of correspondences.
I suspect that what you’re doing is reifying your ideas into “existence.” (In something like Heidegger’s sense). You translate a general sort of concept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make animals live longer”) into something with a bunch of proper nouns and internal structure, and I think the result is the overall impression that now your organization exists, as a…thing, or a place, or a personage. Like, the difference between an idea (e.g. the general concept of lifespan studies) and an agent (LRI). It activates the “animist” part of your brain, the same part that believes that Facebook is a place or Russia is an agent, the part that feels differently about proper nouns from improper nouns.
(Proper nouns, btw, are another big thing in themselves, because of social proof. Just naming people or institutions in connection with your work — whether they be advisors or partners or employees or customers or collaborators or whatever — is legitimizing. And proper nouns are, themselves, “discrete parts.” )
All this discretization imparts a sense of legitimacy. After discretizing my writing, it feels much more like “LRI exists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is proposing an idea” or “Sarah is doing some projects.” Yeah, that’s a spooky and subjective distinction, but I think it’s probably a very basic marketing phenomenon that permeates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.) I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.
Confidence + Pleasantries = Business Etiquette
One thing that came as a big surprise to me is how confident language you can get away with in a professional, non-academic context.
For example, not phrasing requests as questions. “I look forward to hearing back.” My instinct would be to worry that this was overly forward or rude; you’re essentially assuming the ask; but people don’t seem to mind.
Or removing all uncertain language. All the may’s, mights, and coulds. How can you do that without making overstated or misleading claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can generally finagle it with clever rephrasing.
I’m used to assuming that the way you show respect is through reticence and reluctance to ask for too much. Especially when communicating with someone higher status than you. To my surprise, really assertive wording seems to get better results with business types than my previous, more “humble” email style (which works great for professors.)
So, how do you keep from sounding like a jerk when you’re essentially bragging and making big requests? A lot of pleasantries. A lot of framing phrases (“as we talked about in our last conversation”, “circling back”, “moving forward”, etc). Wishing them a good weekend/holiday/etc, hoping they’re doing well, etc.
I’d previously noticed in office contexts how vital it is to just keep your mouth making words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of information density to what you’re saying.
Business “jargon” and “buzzwords” are unfairly maligned by people who aren’t used to corporate culture. First of all, a lot of them originally referred to specific important concepts, and then got overused as generic applause lights — e.g. “disruptive innovation” is actually a really useful idea in its original meaning. But, second of all, it’s honestly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talking fluently without awkward pauses. People respond really well to fluency. Palantir’s first exercise for all new employees is to give a software demo, which taught me that it is really hard to speak in public for five minutes without pausing to think of what to say next. Stock phrases help you reach for something to say without appearing hesitant or afraid.
I was trained on writing style guides from literary or journalistic contexts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be relentless in removing cliches and using simple short Anglo-Saxon words wherever possible. Business language constantly violates those rules: it’s full of cliches and unnecessary Latinate locutions. But I suspect there may actually be a function to that, in making you sound smoother, or setting the scene with comfortable and familiar wording before introducing new ideas. “Good writing” is original and vivid; a good (i.e. effective) business email may not be.
I think it's completely fair to malign corporate culture for prioritizing fluency over clarity or accuracy.
Many people respond well to it, but smooth-sounding-emptiness is a corruption. Having overlap between your set of really-useful-idea words and your stock-phrase-for-fluency words seems like it has the potential to be really bad for your long-term ability to think clearly.
That doesn't seem like an unfair maligning of jargon and buzzwords. That seems like the completely fair maligning of jargon and buzzwords as phrases which once had distinct meanings but now don't mean anything other than, "You should feel good about what I'm just about to say."
Also, I wonder how much a reputation for individual brilliance can overcome an inability to speak fluently. Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have a public speaking style that is cringe-inducing to watch, because of their lack of fluency and the awkward pauses that result as they stop midsentence to gather their thoughts. However, that same awkwardness seems to cement their reputation as geniuses who worry more about results than polished marketing.
At the very least, these considerations (jargon originally meant something important, jargon serves as valuable filler) point in opposite directions and the latter negates the former.
How does that follow? At one point jargon (words like "synergy", "core competency", "disruption", etc.) all had distinct meanings. However, at this moment in time, those words have become overused and have lost their original meaning, to the point where no one is quite sure what they mean any more. How how does the latter negate the former?
If I say something like, "This merger will unlock synergies, allow us to focus on our core competencies, and render us less vulnerable to disruption due to paradigm shifts, going forward," am I really saying that the proposed merger will cause our organizations to cooperate better, focus more on our comparative advantages, and render us less vulnerable to competitive surprises in the future? Or am I stringing together a bunch of applause lights in an attempt to get you to go along with whatever I say?
Scott Adams’s description of a business writing course describes something much more like the Strunk and White style:
It seems like either something big has changed between then and now, or you’re working in a very different subset of “business” than that course was for. In conspicuously competitive companies like Amazon, there’s a strong presumption of literacy, the opposite of the thing you’re describing, at least at the highest levels.
I notice that your example of a "business" is Palantir, a company that makes money on relationships with the government and other quasi-monopoly firms, not by competing in anything like a market. Palantir and Amazon are fundamentally not engaged in the same kind of activity, and covering both activities under the heading “business” obscures more than it reveals here.
Low epistemic confidence, but I'm wondering if the difference in style is due to marketing being anti-inductive (and the time since Adams learned to write).
It seems like sarahconstantin and Adams are talking about two completely different things. Adams is talking about writing internal reports or memos for efficient transfer of information. saraconstantin is talking about writing public-facing marketing materials. The incentives and aims of the two types of writing are completely different.
Similarly, "Business email" is not one thing. Writing an email to a client or prospective client, or writing an email to a coworker, or for that matter to a boss or a subordinate, will all have different requirements and look totally different.
The problem with the term "disruptive innovation" is that it's easy for people who don't understand it to assume they understand it and then use it all all kinds of innovation.
I like the term "expertise-destroying innovation" because it's not as easily misunderstood.
I like the word 'synergy' for this, because people literally use it as a generic example of a meaningless business word, but -- when not being abused -- it actually has a very precise meaning. (Value created by combination; the part of the whole which exceeds the sum of the parts. You could almost translate it as "binding energy." Or perhaps by analogy "binding value.")
I didn't really fully grasp the importance of the concept until I was spending some time thinking about the question: Why merge or spin off companies? Doesn't a free-market merger or spinoff transaction result in trading a business for an amount of cash worth the same amount as the business? Synergy (or, I suppose, anti-synergy, though I've never heard the word used) -- binding energy, positive or negative -- is the answer.
To me the word synergy means something very different.
The term "disruptive innovation" was coined by Clayton Christensen to have a specific meaning.
What does synergy mean to you?
I am stealing this term because it does a good job of articulating specific effects and communicating magnitude at the same time.
How do you disentangle something like this from something that keeps the relevant expertise but heavily impacts scale, like a drop in cost below some critical threshold?
If the old expertise still matters it's likely that the established companies will be able to outcompete newcomers.
Intel for example develops microprocessors where there's a lot of price drop from year to year but that doesn't mean that there's disruption.
Yep. Let's be wary of hubris. Let's not dismiss things we don't fully understand.
but from the text it seems you believe that acting according to the described opinions is useful and that many of them are true. I don't like this, I think you should clarify epistemic status.
There's a difference between not explaining the reasons for your beliefs, and believing things for no reason.
The first half of this reminded me of the first section from Scott's Nonfiction Writing Advice (which I think about often when doing my own writing).
The core point:
This is an interesting point, but I strongly suspect the motivation is completely different here. Scott's goal is to allow people to progress from the beginning to the end in digestible chunks, so as to avoid blockers. By contrast, the marketing discretization strategy assumes most of the audience won't read the whole thing, so they try to make the parts more or less independent so different levels of attention still get some kind of message.
I'm curious about the limits of the discretization strategy. How does this interact with communicating a complex conclusion? How does it sustain a narrative?
From reading regular marketing copy it feels like the strategy is very self-reinforcing; once adopted, there isn't even any point in reading the whole thing because it communicates little-to-nothing. So these days it is more like not reading regular marketing copy; when I see name-dropping and bold words I bail unless I have a pressing reason to continue.