I have a pet peeve that is at the crux of being able to sell something (or not). It’s loudly apparent at trade shows. Picture this: You’re walking through a conference, and for a second, your head turns from side to side, capturing a glimpse of booths, and you either continue moving or stop.
What keeps you going? What intrigues you enough to halt?
This is the journey of the consumer, which happens every second all over the world, for every type of product and in every buying environment. You do it when you’re scrolling on Instagram, at a networking event giving an elevator speech to someone you’ve met or deciding which snack to grab from a city sidewalk bodega.
I think many of these opportunities are a result of what I call “banal language,” and it makes me wonder how many sales are missed out as a result. As such, I have a bone to pick with marketers who create trade show booths and, indeed, with marketers in general. It’s this: Will you please just say what “it” is?
Bland language (especially industry jargon) is the marketing kiss-of-death, the biggest examples of which include this particularly non-descriptive word: solution.
Other words that I constantly hear and see that are chock-full of little or no meaning include platform, innovation, services, support, infrastructure and wellness. When I see these words blaring from above a trade show booth, my mind unengages, I get zero understanding of what they make/why they’re interesting and I keep walking.
There are three parts of any business, which I call The P.O.M. Principle: “p” for product, “o” for operations and “m” for marketing. Marketing is the activity that is done to get a product into the hands of the customer, who not only wants it but will quickly pay for it. This could be through a trade show, publicity, SEO, pay-per-click, influencer marketing, etc.—there is a long list of marketing activities one might choose based on who their customer is.
Over the last 30 years spent launching startups, I have noticed a proclivity to slick over the actual “thing” and the founding stories—both usually unique and interesting—in favor of genericizing everything to the point of cliché and making it plain unmemorable.
Why does this happen? Here is my hypothesis: Every parent has winced when children blurted out what we consider to be unedited communication. As kids mature, they learn to tamp down and mentally edit communication in favor of being socially acceptable. This is not a bad thing in parenting, but in the world of business, when you’re trying to find new customers, you need to say what you mean.
If you’re looking for a new customer to buy your product, tamping down its essence—the marrow of what it intrinsically does—is like shooting yourself in the foot. To wit, your product may indeed be a platform. But a platform can be a wooden deck, an evened-out piece of dirt, a speaking subject or a place online. Will those descriptors sell weatherproof decking?
Marketers need to start by saying what it is in very simple “baby language” that provides an instant mental picture.
Here’s an example that makes my point: The Wikipedia entry for Google does a great job of describing what the company does. While it could simply say, “Google provides technology solutions,” it says, “Google LLC is an American multinational technology company that focuses on search engine technology, online advertising, cloud computing, computer software, quantum computing, e-commerce, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.” This says exactly what the company does. See the difference?
Here is a four-step formula to do this correctly. These are the questions marketers must ask themselves when writing the “About” page for their website, deciding what copy goes above the fold, creating a boilerplate for press releases, making the headers for their website and, yes, when designing a trade show booth.
1. What is my product/service?
2. Will a 6th grader understand my description?
3. Once a sentence is structured, highlight each word in three colors.
• Primary words are the words where if they don’t exist, you cannot convey what the product or service is.
• Secondary words are nice to have and provide context.
• Tertiary words are words that connect and elevate.
4. Use the primary words only and add anything needed to meet grammatical rules.
Take this to someone who is not in your business and ask them: What do you think this is? Find someone as diametrically opposed as possible. For example, if you’re in the tech business, ask your hairdresser. If you’re in the food industry, ask your dog walker. Better yet, ask your kids.
Is it crystal clear?
Once you have the basic description, you can play around with words that make it more soul-shaking, stylized or tantalizing, but the basic “what it is” cannot be lost—or else your sales will.