Why Every Content Marketer Needs to Read Steven Pinker’s (Anti) Style Guide
By Nicola Brown on August 17, 2018
Steven Pinker is the kind of creator I wholeheartedly admire and resent. Not because he is a brilliant writer but because he's not a writer at all; he's a cognitive scientist. Understanding how different people's brains respond to certain styles of communications means that Pinker is able to approach writing from a logical perspective.
Thus, his most recent volume of wordsmithery is an anti-style guide for real writing in the 21st century. It's called The Sense of Style, a nod to his characteristically unfussy and economical prose. It's unlike any traditional style guide I've ever come across, and is orders of magnitude, more practical for everyday applications from strategizing content to proofreading copy.
The book itself is a masterful example of a strong communication style to which we can all aspire. Even if you're not a professional writer, the examples of effective and ineffective snippets of writing he provides can help you better grasp what it means to shape language in a way that offers a meaningful impact. For marketers and brand storytellers alike, confidence in your own use of language earns peoples' trust. Being precise, intentional, and creative in your language is what will lead you to beautiful communication.
If you've ever struggled with communicating your ideas to your audience or even to your own internal team, here's how you can apply Pinker's words of wisdom.
What Content Marketers Can Learn From Pinker's Advice on Writing Style
Image attribution: Rebecca Goldstein
First off, you need to know what is your communication style and how can you shape it for your audience?
Pinker provides this science-meets-poetry definition. "Style is the effective use of words to engage the human mind." He believes having a distinguishable style matters for three reasons: it ensures writers get their message across, it earns readers' trust, and it adds beauty to the world. All three of these directives are useful ways to guide a content marketing strategy. You want an audience to understand your brand's purpose, believe in what you're offering, and of course, do it in a way that provides something unique and valuable to the conversation.
Pinker also makes one very important assumption from the beginning: his readers already know how to write. This is one of the most important takeaways for content marketers. We've all heard it before but it bears repeating: Don't patronize your audience. The modern reader is well-educated. Treat them with respect. It's easy to lose sight of this when you're in the throes of trying to convey particularly weedy subject matter, which is often one of the biggest challenges for content marketing teams.
Pinker is a proponent of "classic style," a form of writing where prose is used as a window onto the world. He describes this style as the strongest cure for academic, bureaucratic, and corporate prose. It's the perfect attitude for marketers and content creators whose job it is to transform their organization's approach to content and branch out from reaching a narrow segment of audience to an ever-growing, future usership.
How to Master Classic Style
Image attribution: Jazmin Quaynor
Imagine that the writer and reader are equals, but the writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed. The writer then presents that thing with clarity, simplicity, and confidence, explaining abstract ideas as if they were concrete objects and forces. This is classic style.
Pinker explains that classic style isn't easy to master because of the "curse of knowledge" in which we're more likely to overestimate a reader's familiarity with our little world than to underestimate it. The key is learning how to achieve clarity without condescension. It takes practice. It also takes other sets of eyes on your content, which is why professional writers and content marketing teams should always have editors. It's also why marketing managers and CMOs need to get their hands dirty with the nitty-gritty of their brand's content creation process.
Adopting classic style can help alleviate some of the biggest faux pas in content strategy and execution. I quickly realized many of these tendencies are easily perpetrated even by experienced writers and content marketers. Here are eight content faux pas to avoid if you want to be a better brand storyteller:
Signposting is a holdover tendency from the days of academic essays where we were taught to say what you're about to say, say it, then repeat what you've just said. We have a tendency to want to do this when we strategize our multi-channel marketing content, but we mustn't assume the clearest way to communicate our messages is through aggressive content hand-holding. Audiences today are accustomed to jumping across multiple platforms and making leaps in narrative backwards, forwards, and sideways.
What to do instead: Having a logical sequence and a cohesive narrative arc to your content will guide your reader smoothly through, eliminating the need for this kind of overly pedantic navigation. When dealing with content that's fragmented over several digital channels, use writing style and tone to build cohesion instead of literally spelling out all the connections between your content.
2. Shudder Quotes
Overly self-conscious writing is often marked by shudder quotes that a prissy writer uses to distance themselves from a statement or description: "We must try to 'think outside the box' but note when 'enough is enough' on this". I see this all the time in internal marketing communications. When we're in a hurry and trying to explain what we're after from our teams, we fall back into using terms we don't like or aren't comfortable with for the sake of speed.
What to do instead: Be confident in your writing. If you feel tempted to put something in quotes because you wouldn't use that word or phrase yourself, reword it. Confidence in your own brand is essential for your audience to feel confident too. This also applies to the way you talk with your marketing teams. Try putting thoughts and ideas you've pulled from elsewhere into your own words. Take the time to describe high-level strategy with language that reflects your unique perspective on the approach. It will encourage your team to think differently and more creatively too, resulting in a more successful application and outcome of your vision.
3. Compulsive Hedging
Compulsive hedging is adding words to avoid taking responsibility for saying something. These are words like: almost, apparently, in part, so to speak, somewhat, partially, presumably, relatively. The fear of making unfounded claims has been drilled into marketing teams everywhere, particularly for those in high-stakes industries. So the tendency to want to cover our anatomy, as Pinker says, is understandable.
What to do instead: Hedging is okay when chosen carefully and sparingly, not overused for its own sake. Again, be confident in your writing and write with conviction. It's fine to have an opinion on something. Not everything you say needs to be exhaustively qualified and backed up. Watch for excessive hedging in your teams' marketing content, and work to clarify whether it needs to be there at each step of the content creation process. You can also make sure that original sources are available in a globally-accessible document for your projects. Doing so will enable all team members to refer to the original material and make educated decisions about the language they use, rather than relying on hedging because they're unsure.
4. Overuse of Intensifiers
Intensifiers include words like very, highly, extremely. Paradoxically they can actually weaken your writing when they turn dichotomies into graduated scales, lessening the power of the adjective or noun being modified. You can see this in the difference between "Not Jones, he's an honest man" and "Not Jones, he's a very honest man." The second statement is weakened by the addition of "very" because it changes the honest-or-not dichotomy into a graduated scale, placing Jones lower on that scale than if he were just honest.
What to do instead: This is a growing problem for digital content as we all vie for increasingly distracted and overwhelmed eyeballs. We want our content to sound significant. The problem is, this frenetic desire to exaggerate and emphasize tends to have the opposite effect. This is why brands today must do more than simply tell their audience that their product is the greatest solution ever to drive real engagement. Staying calm and taking the time to think specifically and creatively about the most accurate and unusual words to use is a better strategy.
5. Clichés and Stale Idioms
Clichés and idioms are phrases that have become trite with overuse. They litter poor marketing copy. While they may once have been thought-provoking and catchy, that time has passed. There is no good reason to use a cliché when an alternative description can be found. Why would you want your content to sound exactly like every other competitor in the industry?
What to do instead: Avoiding clichés starts at the very beginning of your content marketing strategy. They pop into mind easily when we deal with slogans and snippets that need to convey big ideas in few words. As soon as they enter the process they box up creative ideas and can hem in your marketing team early on. Search for fresh similes and metaphors that reference common ideas in new ways, or vary the words of a cliché or idiom to surprise both your marketing teams and your audience.
Metaconcepts are concepts about concepts and involve words like assumption, condition, framework, issue, model, process, range, strategy. These are particularly difficult to avoid in content marketing from high-level direction to execution.
What to do instead: Remove the verbal packaging and refer to the actual objects of discussion. The "editorial process" thus becomes "editing" and common jargon like "marketing strategy" (we're all guilty of overusing this one) can be refreshed by referring to the actual substance of what you are talking about and planning to do, for example: "what we're going to say, and when, where and how we'll reach our audience". Making things tangible will help your teams remember what it is they're literally doing, keeping sights focused on the end goal.
Nominalization is making something into a noun via suffixes like -ment, -ation, and -ing as in "affirmation" and "postponement" (rather than "affirming" and "postponing"). They've been nicknamed zombie nouns for the way they remove a conscious agent from the scene.
What to do instead: Check your writing to see if any of your nouns could serve you better as verbs. If there is a shorter and more lively way to say something, do it! Speaking in verbs is an easy way to motivate your teams and your audience to action.
8. Overuse of Passive Voice
While the passive voice isn't always bad, it is often overused. The passive voice shifts the focus from the person doing a thing in a sentence to the person or object to which the thing is done. It should only be used intentionally as a way to shift the focus where you want it: "Anna hit Oliver with the ball" focuses on Anna, while "Oliver was hit by Anna with the ball" focuses on Oliver.
What to do instead: Most of the time, aim for active subjects in your sentences to enliven your writing. Remember that the purpose of passive voice is to intentionally shift the focus. If you don't need to or shouldn't be doing that, stick to active. For a marketer, this often means placing the attention on the customer or reader first, getting to know their pains and passion points, rather than leading with your product as a solution.
If classic style could be summed up with an overarching mantra it would be this: Omit needless words.
From the scientific perspective, clarity and simplicity impose the least amount of cognitive load on your team or your audience. This allows you to get your message across efficiently and effectively.
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Featured image attribution: Chris Benson