Puffery -- The 'Magic' Dragging Down Your Content Effectiveness

An image of an echidna falling asleep while another echidna rambles on.

Puffery may be behind your magic slogan, but tricking your audience is a recipe for failure. And while being a fan of yourself may be great, too-frequent use of hyperbolic statements only serves to render your words ineffective.

That's if you're lucky. The worst case scenario is that your customers will simply stop believing what you say all together -- you don't want to be the boy or girl who cried wolf. After all, in business you won't be eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. Instead you'll be consumed by something far worse -- your potential customer's apathy.

I first learned the term "puffery" in my journalism days during a seminar on libel. Essentially, it's exaggerated praise or commendations designed with promotional intent. The legal argument in favour of puffery revolves around the fact that no reasonable person would read that statement attribute any actual veracity to it.

So why, then, would you use it in your business communications?

Some words fall into the business lexicon and spread like an invasive species. Like clover, sure they can appear pretty, but they're really just choking the life out of your honesty and credibility.

Here are some terms that I wouldn't mind seeing exorcised from the business lexicon:

"Game changer"

If you look at things from a broad perspective, few things (certainly far fewer things than what are declared game changer) actually redefine an industry. In a sporting motif, most of these changes are still in the same ball park.

Again, puffery loves to rear its head in marketing -- especially with technological innovation. The introduction of the TV or the personal computer? Game changers. Anything since is just updating the stadium, painting the bleachers, or modernizing a uniform for the most part.

"Epic"

Once the domain of poetry and narration, it's now ubiquitous in our language. But epic is so overused that it's become commonplace. It's been neutered of its meeting.

If everything's epic, we devalue the meaning of the word. "Really good" works, you know...

"Innovative"

Another marketing buzz-word favourite. Any slight change, update, or adjustment to an existing design is hailed as an innovation. "New," "revised," "updated" -- they all work just as well. Innovative should be reserved for those solutions and ideas that truly merit it.

"Groundbreaking"

See "Innovative."

"Unique"

This one always takes me back to the Life of Brian sketch. We're so desperate to separate ourselves from the masses that we frequently assert our uniqueness in text. But, from a business perspective, there's probably very little separating your widget from a competitor's widget. Maybe it's a different colour or material, but that's hardly unique.

And what does that really mean, anyway? We're all unique just by our very existence. Even identical twins have idiosyncrasies that set them apart.

The uniqueness of your product likely isn't going to differentiate you -- but the experience you provide your customers, from initial intake through customer service interactions through fulfillment, will. Focus on what sets you apart.

It's not about unique. Chances are others are doing exactly what you're doing. It's about better -- providing your clients with an experience that's better than the rest.

"Revolutionary"

Your product is likely not overthrowing any government. So, short of advertising for a junta, keep the 'revolutionary' talk under wraps.

Of course, we love to pepper our descriptive language with military statements. "We're going to battle for you..." "It's a war on high prices..." So the revolutionary talk is just a natural extension of that. But few things, even in the most broad interpretation of the word 'revolutionary' live up to that.

"Best"

I'm not going to lie -- I've seen dozens of places offering the "best" smoked meat (and they're wrong -- Snowdon Deli owns that crown), the "best" shawarma, the best this, the best that.

It's rendered the word null and void. After all, not everyone can be the best... And who determines that?

"Best" is puffery at its finest. No one actually believes that you're objectively the best, but then what's the point of making that statement? Why waste a word or valuable visual real estate on something that has absolutely new value.

So I Have to Be Boring?

No. But you have to be judicious.

You know who I blame? High school English teachers! Remember back in the day where you were asked to write essays? What was the sole qualifying factor? Quality? Nope. A logical and well argued statement? Think again.

It was word count.

That's it. A totally arbitrary number that someone decided to implement to get kids to write to a certain count. Yes, as we get older, we find that brevity is actually the most valuable asset when it can be combined with persuasiveness.

If you can make your point, clearly and effectively, in 300 words, why pad it to 1,000 just to hit an arbitrary number?

And that's when the thesaurus would come out. And that's when superfluous adverbs and adjectives would be included. And that's why our biz speak is riddled with empty hyperbole.

Good isn't good enough. But it should be. And that will make those legitimately great moments even better.

Totally playing amateur psychologist here, but the social media revolution has made everything an event for some people. The party you went to last night? It wasn't just good -- it was epic. That hamburger you ate served on a ramen-noodle bun? That's a game-changer.

Likely that party wasn't epic; nor will the burger industry change. Good is good enough for most -- and when you oversell something too much, you tend to underwhelm your audience. Think about those clickbait article titles that you find in your social media feeds -- you know the ones, "He took a bite out of a peanut butter sandwich and YOU WON'T BELIEVE what happened next...

Yes, you will believe it. You'll likely be underwhelmed. And you'll probably be way more hesitant to ever click on a link like that again.

Be open, honest, and effectively descriptive in your content. That way, when you do have something to say -- and it truly merits a little bit of hyperbole -- then it's going to have an impact. In the interim, find creative ways to describe your product. Or, instead of wasting space with unnecessary adjectives, why not use that time to put the focus on what's in it for your customer.

Volume doesn't mean people are going to listen. And if all you do is shout, then your audience is going to tune you out rather quickly.

And the worst thing for your message is that it becomes nothing more than white noise -- no matter what volume it's at.

Questions Answered

What is puffery?

Do I need to use hyperbole in my content?

What common business terms are overused?

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