You're Killing Your Message with These Words. Here's How to Fix it.
By Liz Murphy
Earlier this week, Jessie-Lee, Marcella, and I got together to record an episode of the Creator's Block podcast, during which we talked about the word "expert." More specifically, Jessie-Lee's personal beef with the word.
(Don't worry. I'm not spoiling the episode, which you can listen to here. But it has inspired the related rant that follows.)
Our conversation on Tuesday afternoon was deep and honest and full of insight, but it has also been gnawing at my brain ever since.
The way sticky-sweet pop songs -- à la "Friday" by Rebecca Black -- worm their way into your head when you're not looking and then play on a mental loop forever and ever... until you go insane.
Here's my issue: The word "expert" bothers me. A lot. But it's not just that particular word. There are a lot of buzzwords and phrases out there that are used, overused, and (ultimately) abused by entrepreneurs -- particularly of the marketing or technology variety.
Thought leader. Ninja. Guru. Rockstar. Influencer. Innovator. Hacker. Disruptor. Visionary.
As someone who firmly believes in the power of words to persuade, inspire, and move people to action, I cringe when I come across those labels being used in the wild, especially as part of a brand messaging strategy -- and you should, too.
What You're Saying vs. What You're Communicating
Back in September, I spoke at INBOUND about how to create a content style guide for your business.
However, before I explained the process of how the proverbial content style guide bill becomes a law, I talked about the disconnect that often exists between what a brand is explicitly saying about themselves vs. what they are actually communicating through their presentation.
(This is the core of understanding the purpose of a content style guide -- it's not just what you say, it's how you say it.)
For example, I could walk up to someone on the street who has never met me and say, "By the way, you've never worked with me, but trust me, I'm a content expert."
Even though I'm explicitly telling you I'm an expert, you're not going to suddenly fall over and say, "I have no idea who you are, but tell me more. Obviously, you're an expert."
You'd probably think I was being pushy, with a dash of, "Who is this crazy lady? She can't tell me what to think about her."
Yet, this is what entrepreneurs and wannabe marketing leaders do constantly online, in website copy, in Twitter bios, on LinkedIn...
"I'm an SEO expert. I'm a content marketing ninja. I'm a sales thought leader. I'm disrupting inbound as we know it."
They boss their followers around, using these labels to tell people what they should think of them. They do this even though we, as humans, know no one likes being told what to do, think, or like.
In fact, for many obstinate people like myself, telling me what to think is a sure way to make me an instant skeptic. My opinion of you will start from a defensive crouch, where it's much harder to get me to trust what you're saying.
Everyone Is Taking the Same Shortcut
Leaving aside the fact that no one likes to be told what to do, tons of people are using the exact same words to describe themselves.
Everyone is an expert, a ninja, a disruptor, an innovator.
As a result, these words have lost their meaning. Because if everyone is disrupting and innovating and waxing moronic about their thought leadership, how can anyone differentiate themselves?
You can -- and should -- aspire to establish yourself as an expert, visionary, or influencer, of course, but your audience needs to come to these conclusions on their own.
You need to earn them through your insights, actions, and demonstrated depth-of-knowledge.
Look, I know this is a lot of tough love, but please understand I rant because I care.
You're too smart, too great, too full of potential to rely on cheap, lazy words that will do nothing to get your message across.
That said, I understand the urge to use them as a crutch.
It's very hard to explain what you're good at and to have someone believe you, so it's tempting to reach into your copywriting toolbox for one of these common expressions.
They're a shortcut. Secret doorways that will position you side-by-side as an equal with the thought leaders and experts you admire and look up to.
By putting it out there in the universe, that "visionary" or "innovator" as what someone should think of you, you believe the reality will follow.
That's not how real life works, though.
You will never persuade someone you're the next Seth Godin just by telling them that you're on his level. Your reputation must be earned; proven.
Don't be fooled by these useless labels, which are very good at whispering alluring promises of success in your ear. You can do better.
Start by Answering These 4 Questions
Now that we've officially set all of those terrible, toxic, credibility-killing words to the side, here's what I -- and others -- really want to hear from you:
- What are you obsessed with and why?
- What challenges keep you up at night?
- What big, scary problems do you strive to solve for others?
- What are you a student of?
People don't only buy from people they like; they buy from people they like and trust -- whether we're talking about actual products and services, or buy-in for your ideas and your vision of what could be.
That's why I love these questions. When real industry envelope-pushers challenge themselves to answer them honestly, something magical happens.
They don't sound like everyone else. They become a likeable, relatable, unique human being. They build a foundation of trust by being vulnerable enough to be unabashedly passionate about what they love.
I'll use myself as an example:
1. I'm obsessed with words, in case you couldn't tell. You can change minds, create visions of tomorrow, spark deep emotions, extend your hand and invite someone on a journey of discovery simply by using your words.
2. But so many people are careless with their words and don't understand how thoughtless copywriting can undermine or totally obfuscate their carefully crafted messages and ideas. (This is what keeps me up at night.)
3. That's why I wake up each morning ready to help others understand how to say what they want to say to make them -- and their message -- irresistible to the people they're trying to reach.
4. And I push myself every day to do this better.
The difference between what I shared above (as hokey as it probably sounds) versus simply stating that, "I'm like totally a content expert," is that I'm not patting myself on the back and telling you what to think about me.
Instead, I opened the door to show you a glimpse of my inner, overly-excited word nerd; Of what inspires me, why I love what I do, and what problems I solve.
You can take it or leave it -- I know I'm not everyone's cup of tea -- but it's a sincere representation of me.
Demonstrating that level of passion to the right audience can be utterly infectious, and being vulnerable enough to share your vision can draw people to you.
It Doesn't Matter Who You Are
Whether you're developing your own personal brand or you're looking to put your organization on a course toward industry domination, this is what you need to do.
I'm not saying don't brag when you have killer testimonials and rockstar success stories that prove how great you are. (You absolutely should.)
All I'm asking is for you to be careful.
Don't squander opportunities to tell a sincere story of who you are and the value you provide -- in blog articles, interviews, mission statements, micro-copy on Twitter and Facebook -- by taking shortcuts with fluffy, useless buzzwords.
Those are the moments when you want to stand out from the pack, right? So, don't send the signal that you're just like every other "expert" out there.
Be yourself. Unapologetically. That's what people really want.
Wondering where to begin?