Peashooters vs. sledgehammers (sizing up the emotional wallop of your messaging)

When I was first starting in business, I was torn. I was convinced that passionate, emotional messaging was crucial to win the hearts of prospects. At the same time, I was worried about being taken seriously by clients of my firm that were quick to discount anything they couldn't easily quantify and put into a spreadsheet. At that time, I was a writer at an advertising agency. It was a job that I thought was very important to help businesses turn the wheels of commerce. As I said, not all the clients I worked for felt that way. I had one who all but told me he thought what I did was trivial at best. Needless to say, he didn’t much appreciate my toiling to bring an emotional punch to his company’s offering. Which, by the way, was a natural gas utility. I don’t know if you know anything about utilities, but they’re highly regulated. And at that time (late 1980’s) they were populated with humorless bureaucrats. These were middle-aged, career middle managers who really didn’t feel at all comfortable talking about things like people‘s feelings.

The funny thing is that his success was measured by very squishy, emotional factors. Like customer satisfaction. And public perception. It was those factors that allowed them to do things like ask for rate increases.

I pointed this out once in what I thought was quite a diplomatic manner. This is the only time in my career that I’ve had a client yell at me. I have to admit, I was probably naïve about the dynamic between us. Was I right? Yes. I knew it. He knew it. But he didn’t need some young punk lecturing him about the workings of his industry. Still, I don’t think I deserved the verbal thrashing I got.

The thing is that his emotional outburst kind of proved my point. He could have simply dismissed my comments. Or even completely ignored me. But he got emotional to make his point.

What happened to messaging?

In those days, there was much more planning that surrounded our messaging. It was critical to get it right because it was going to be printed on expensive billboards or brought to life in even more expensive TV commercials and such. We obsessed over the language.

Today, much of that craft has gone away. In our digital world, messages come and go at a frenetic pace. Nothing much sustains. To keep pace, we settle for adequate language.

That's not all. The words are easier than ever to change on the fly in our digital world. If a message isn't resonating, we can change it without the expense of reprinting billboards or remaking TV commercials. It's fast and inexpensive. This has had an unintended impact on the quality of the writing. We don't worry about getting the language right because we're going to iterate it as we go anyway. The trouble is that the iteration process doesn't necessarily improve the impact of the language. It may make it more relevant. But that doesn't mean it will pack the emotional wallop that makes a message magical.

It's easy to get caught up in the process. I find myself fighting it all the time. It's easy to succumb to the rationale to dash something off because that's just the way things are today. But if we do, we miss a massive opportunity to help people feel something meaningful and purposeful. We have all been moved by thoughtful and well-crafted language. A few carefully selected words have been known to spark a movement. Inspire a generation. Language is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

It's up to us to decide whether we let the times we live in turn our language into an inconsequential peashooter or, we turn it into the emotional sledgehammer that it could be.