A few weeks ago, dear friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Leslie Fisher, asked me two thorny questions – how I do what I do, and why I do what I do. The how is straightforward. You can see my process précised right here on my website. My personal “why” is an easy one; I love doing it. Underpinning the “how” is a deeper “why.”
This “why” is a mission statement of sorts: I don’t want to dump even more crap into our collective Niagara of Words.
The “Niagara of Words” is a figure of speech coined by master semanticist and U.S. Senator Samuel I. Hayakawa (1906-1992) in his masterwork Language In Thought and Action. He explains it better than I do:
“From the moment he [one] switches on an early-morning news broadcast until he falls asleep at night over a novel or a magazine, he is, like all other people living in modern civilized conditions, swimming in words. Newspaper editors, politicians, salesmen, disc jockeys, columnists, luncheon club speakers, and clergymen; colleagues at work, friends, relatives, wife and children; market reports, direct-mail advertising, books, and billboards -- all are assailing him with words all day long.”
Replace “early-morning news broadcast” with "websites" and “social media” and the Niagara of Words spills over into an entire Atlantic of Words. This Atlantic of Words is swirling and bumping us about with crap – sense data masquerading as useful information. I take “words on a screen” as sense data, something we read. I take “useful information” as something we can use to create value for ourselves, in whichever way we see fit. “I sell words because my words sell” is an attempt to signal value to other people.
How do we parse through these vast tons of noise to glean useful signal? We must hone our crap detectors, as the great media ecologist Neil Postman (1931-2003) called it. Mr. Postman described “crap” (or bullshit) as speech or text that’s pompous, fanatical, inane or superstitious. His law on bullshit is “language that treats people in ways you do not approve of.”
I feel it’s my job as a website content writer or copywriter to sweep away crap and present facts honestly and in a simple to understand way. In my view, it leads to better decisions. It engenders trust between seller and customer.
So, my ultimate “why” is this: I add language to the market that doesn’t treat readers or a customer like dupes, marks or imbeciles. Naked appeals to pomposity, fanaticism, inanity, or superstition more often than not, alerts readers to bullshit. It’s definitely the reason why I call myself a “copywriter,” not a “word wizard” or “verb herder.” (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it over and again.)
This comes back to another General Semantics principle called the Logical Fate diagram, invented by the semanticist Cassius Keyser (1862-1947). This inspired in part the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy “A-B-C” principle, in which assumptions might determine our consequences. For example:
A: A website oversells or overstates a product’s effectiveness.
C: This language trips a reader's “crap” detector. They move along to another product.
Inherent biases aside, the activating incident “A” should be as error free as a human can make it. When I engage a client, I want to get to know the product or service honestly, so I can communicate that without resorting to “bullshit.” I rearrange the logical fate diagram thus:
A: A website states the aims and uses of a product honestly and in an engaging way.
B: The customer feels he or she can trust this product, that it will create value for both sides in this transaction.
C: The customer purchases the product.
This doesn’t happen in 100% of cases (although we all wish it did!) but it does improve one’s chances bobbing up and down the Atlantic of Words. It’s why I took web designer and public speaker Brad Frost’s “death to bullshit” pledge before I even read it. Our Atlantic of Words ought not to be a foul-smelling muck in which we flail about.
Mr. Postman sums up – “there is no more precious environment than our language environment. Even if you know you will be dead soon, that’s worth protecting.”