How to fight vacuous superlatives (ask Dr. Wobs)

superlatives
Photo: motoracereports via Wikimedia Commons

In today’s “Ask Dr. Wobs” question, I address what’s wrong with meaningless-but-true superlatives and how to talk people out of them.

Dear Dr. Wobs:

My boss wants to promote in a news release that one of our products is the fastest-growing product in its category in our industry. I really think it’s empty corporate speak that adds nothing but a boost to our ego. What’s a better way of communicating that message as I don’t think I’m going to be able to convince him to drop it altogether?

— Fighting the Fight Against Corporate Speak

Dear Fighting:

You’re not alone. Lots of people are doing battle with bosses with stupid ideas. I’ll start with the logical arguments about why you’re right, and them move on the practical question of what to do when your boss is wrong.

What’s wrong with meaningless superlatives

Superlatives are like grade inflation — when everybody gets an “A”, an “A” doesn’t mean much. We’re all used to reading press releases filled with adjectives like “great,” “best,” “radically,” and so on — we don’t even notice them, except subliminally. Perhaps it is this subliminal effect that your boss is seeking.

But “fastest-growing” is particularly empty. As an analyst, I got frequent briefings in which startups bragged about growth rates. If you had 10 customers last year and 50 this year, you’re growing at 400%. But you still only have 50 customers. So unless a growth rate comes with a base (400% growth on a million customers is impressive), I immediately dismiss it as meaningless hype.

Forget this individual press release. Have a philosophical discussion with your boss about superlatives in general. And, as rationally as possible, make these points:

  • The smart people in our audience know that “fastest-growing” is bullshit. This claim only impresses people who don’t think much. Is that worth annoying the smart ones? It certainly won’t impress journalists and analysts, who have heard the “fastest-growing” claim too many times to give it any credence.
  • Growth claims soon become out of date. At some point we’ll get more customers and the growth rate will diminish. Some other upstart will be able to claim they’re the fastest-growing, because they’re calculating it on a base of 10 customers. Why include a claim we’ll just have to delete later?
  • Growth claims don’t sell. Customers care more about features and longevity. They care about market share, because that’s an indication of staying power. Fast-growing products don’t necessarily last.
  • Use the space for something better. People’s patience for press-release content is measured in seconds. We’ll attract more attention with claims about security, cost-effectiveness, conversion rate, or something substantive. If you only can say a few things, say something that matters.

Dealing with the superlative-smitten

“Fighting,” you said that you expect to lose this battle. Don’t give up. Here are some ways you can push back and make things better, both on this release and in the long-term.

  • Find a better superlative. If the boss insists on superlatives, which ones might be better than “fastest-growing?” Does your product have the fastest response time? Is it the most secure? Is it the only one that works with all major cloud vendors? These are claims that will matter to customers. To get the boss to give up a superlative, you’ll have to find a juicier one.
  • Try an email A/B test. Send out two emails about your product — one that focuses on “fastest-growing,” and another that focuses on some other aspect. See which one gets the best response rate. It’s hard to argue with actual evidence from an A/B test with customers.
  • Focus on brevity. Instead of fighting this superfluous claim, fight all extra words. If you can convince the boss that releases should be 200 words, then every word gets extra scrutiny. If “fastest-growing” isn’t carrying its weight, it will end up on the cutting-room floor.

Got a question? Get a book.

Dr. Wobs would like to help you. Send me a question and if I choose to answer it here, I’ll send you pre-release copy of my book Writing Without Bullshit, which you can’t get anywhere else until September.

2 responses to “How to fight vacuous superlatives (ask Dr. Wobs)

  1. Great advice, Josh. I’d also recommend that “Fighting the Fight Against Corporate Speak” find a similarly bullshit-laden press release. See what his/her boss thinks about that one. Is it believable or not?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.