Monday, March 29, 2010

It’s Not about You

“I know and you know people who blunder through life trying to wigwag other people into becoming interested in them,” wrote Dale Carnegie in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Of course, it doesn’t work. People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves—morning, noon and after dinner.”

It’s amazing how many intelligent entrepreneurs never learn this. Every other sentence in their press releases starts with “we.” Their Web sites read like transcribed employee manuals, and their advertisements resemble research and development reports. They never consider that most consumers, struggling to keep up with existing responsibilities, might not care that some company they’ve never heard of makes orange widgets or won an award from the Fourth Annual Business Committee of Nowheresville.

Even worse are the direct appeals that come across as “Give me what I want because I want it.” Carnegie’s book includes one such letter as an example of how not to win cooperation: “We desire to retain our position in industry leadership… Will you put us on your preferred list for regular updates and send a prompt acknowledgment of this letter, giving us your latest ‘doings.’” The typical reader’s reaction is likely to be something along the lines of “Why should I care about what you want or how important you are; I have problems of my own to worry about. Who do you think you are, anyway, ordering me to drop everything and write a detailed response right now?” Not exactly conducive to good public relations.

If you wonder whether your own promotional writings may be too self-centered, here are nine red flags to watch for:
1. You can’t describe the typical person who can be expected to read the text.
2. The text is full of company-specific jargon. (If you’re not certain, ask a trusted friend outside your business to read a hard-copy sample and highlight anything s/he needs you to define. If the papers come back looking gold-plated, it’s time to consider hiring an outside writing expert.)
3. The text of an item intended for the general public is full of industry-specific jargon.
4. The text includes large numbers of statistics. (Unless you can present those statistics in an exceptionally intriguing or humorous manner, no one who wasn’t directly involved in producing them will be interested.)
5. The text brags too much. (Non-stakeholders couldn’t care less about the awards you win unless those awards are for something exceptionally intriguing; everyone has a “Top Sales” or “Citizen of the Year” award. And even readers who rejoice in your triumphs will get bored if the “how great we are” text runs beyond a few paragraphs.)
6. The text contains the phrase, “I/we want.” (Only your personal friends and loved ones will do anything for you simply because you want it.)
7. The text includes any requests that fail to say “please” (and preferably “thank you” as well).
8. The text contains far more “we’s” and “I’s” than “you’s.”
9. The text talks extensively about what you can do, but never mentions what you can do for the reader.

That last point will be covered further in next week’s scheduled topic, “Features vs. Benefits.”

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