A bold headline and difficult to achieve, but hear me out. Words like is, always and never can be considered to be absolutist terms; words that assume things are black and white and that no further inquiry need be made because the speaker already knows all. But how many things in life can be seen as truly definite?
Fewer than you’d think. If you have a photo of a chainsaw, it would not only be acceptable, but expected to caption it something like, “This is a chainsaw.” Technically, you’d be wrong, because it’s not a chainsaw. It’s a picture of what appears to be a chainsaw. I’m not suggesting you label it that way. That would come across as rather weird, to be honest. In those cases, using ‘is’ would be the best paradigm.
Now comes the head-exploding part.
Absolutism vs. Relativism
A sentence like: “Travis is angry,” can be seen as an absolutist statement. How can you know for certain that he is upset? What if a physical ailment is making him frown (migraines, for example)? What if something awful like an accident caused his face to appear permanently angry? Don’t think that to be a ridiculous stretch. I made a “I’d love to see you smile more!” statement to a coworker who always seemed to be scowling, only to find out she’d suffered a stroke that left her face in a permanent grimace. Awkward.
A better approach, would be to say, “appears to be angry” or “seemed to me to be angry.” Now you are using relativistic terms, which are more accurate and leave room for interpretation and options. More political correctness? Not really. Leaving room for grey areas? Yes, please.
How does this apply to marketing?
Glad you asked. Go back and reread previous materials you have written, in particular, persona documents, target audience descriptions, usability audits, even competitive reviews. How many absolutist statements did you make? Pick one you’re proud of and make a copy of it. Now rewrite the copy to use relativist statements. Compare the two. How much more fair, accurate and balanced does the new version seem? How much more presumptuous and arrogant does the previous one seem? As if the writer is a know-it-all with unshakable proof.
With personas and audience descriptions, this becomes troubling. Personas should not be absolutist, yet marketers frequently use statements like, “Jim is Type A and hates to fill out long forms” or “Mary is a total Reality TV addict.” Really? Let’s try those sentences with relativistic terms. “Jim appears frustrated when he is presented with long forms.” “Mary appears to watch more reality TV than other shows.”
My clients won’t accept it
Some of you may be thinking, “But Dave. we need to smack our clients in the face to get them to understand our audience descriptions.” I hear you. I’ve had those clients, too. I tend to disagree. Because the same clients that you say need a good smack are likely the same clients who may benefit most from avoiding an absolutist mindset.
Remember the last time a campaign went south and your client conjured up your own words to haunt you? “But you said they love this and always do this. Why aren’t they buying it?” Had you used relativist terms, you could have replied, “Well, our data suggested that, but we may have read too much into it. Now we have new learnings to amend our theory. We should course correct.” Clients appreciate honesty.
Do you have any examples of absolutist statements that could be changed? How about times when you should be absolutist? Let us know in the comments!
Extra Credit: Did I use any absolutist language outside of my examples? Let me know.