Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor

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Epistemic Sta­tus: Opinions stated with­out justification

I’ve been get­ting a bunch of ad­vice and help at LRI from a mar­ket­ing/​strat­egy ex­pert, and it’s been an ed­u­ca­tion. She’s been great to work with — she kicks my ass, in a good way. Ba­si­cally, she takes my writ­ing, rips it apart, and helps me put it back to­gether again, op­ti­mized to make the or­ga­ni­za­tion look bet­ter. Every kind of writ­ing, from pro­fes­sional emails to web­site copy to grant pro­pos­als, gets a makeover. I’m think­ing of the ex­pe­rience as some­thing of an in­tro­duc­tion to the con­ven­tions of busi­ness/​pro­mo­tional com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which are very differ­ent from the kinds of writ­ing norms I’m used to.

Here are some of the gen­eral pat­terns I’ve been learn­ing about, stated in my own words (and maybe man­gled a lit­tle in trans­la­tion).


“Peo­ple hate read­ing,” she tells me.

Se­ri­ously? You’re go­ing to rip up my nice, fluent, care­fully-writ­ten es­say ex­plain­ing my ra­tio­nale and re­place it with a table?

Yes. Yes we are.

She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the ex­pe­rience of meet­ing with ex­ec­u­tives af­ter send­ing them a two-page doc­u­ment, wor­ry­ing that I should have writ­ten some­thing more com­pre­hen­sive, and find­ing they didn’t even read the two-pager. I learn best through text, but clearly not ev­ery­one does. So pro­mo­tional con­tent needs to make al­lowances for the skim­mers, the glancers, the read­ing-avoidant.

Hence: ta­bles. Head­ers. Bold­ing key phrases. Bul­let points. Pic­tures and graphs. Lo­gos. And, of course, slide decks.

Lay­out mat­ters. If you cross your eyes un­til the page turns blurry and don’t read any­thing, how does it look? Is it a wall of text? If so, you need to break it up.

The prin­ci­ple of dis­cretiza­tion is things should be bro­ken up into sep­a­rate, dis­tinc­tive, con­sis­tently la­beled parts.

What things? Every­thing.

Your web­site has parts. Your five-year plan has parts. Your value propo­si­tion has parts.

LRI doesn’t have a “product”, but in com­pa­nies that sell a product, your product has parts called “fea­tures.” Even when the “product” is sort of an ab­stract, gen­eral thing like “we pro­duce writ­ten re­ports”, in or­der to make them leg­ible as prod­ucts, you have to have a list of dis­tinct parts that each re­port con­tains.

Once you have parts, you need to get ob­ses­sive about match­ing and par­allelism. Each part needs to have one, and only one, name, and you have to use the same name ev­ery­where. If your or­ga­ni­za­tion has Five Core Values, you don’t use near-syn­onyms to talk about them — you wouldn’t in­ter­change­ably talk about “sin­gle fo­cus” or “nar­row mis­sion”, you’d pick one phrase, and use that phrase ev­ery­where. Matchy-matchy.

You match your web­site nav­i­ga­tion links to your page head­ers. You match your web­site to your grant pro­pos­als, your slide decks, your email phras­ing, ev­ery­thing. You put your logo on ev­ery-fuck­ing-thing. It feels rep­e­ti­tious to you, but it just looks ap­pro­pri­ately con­sis­tent to an out­side ob­server.

When I was a child, I was into Amer­i­can Girl dolls. My fa­vorite thing was the par­allelism. Each doll had five books, with match­ing ti­tles and themes — “Changes for Felic­ity”, “Changes for Sa­man­tha”, etc. Each book came with its own out­fit and ac­ces­sories. The ac­ces­sories were even par­allel-but-unique — each doll had her own his­tor­i­cally-ac­cu­rate school lunch, her own toys, and so on. Even more than I liked ac­tu­ally play­ing with my doll, I liked read­ing through the cat­a­log and notic­ing all the par­allels. Ok, maybe I was a weird kid.

Any­how, mar­ket­ing is full of that stuff. Separat­ing things into par­allel-but-unique, hy­per-matchy parts. Same prin­ci­ple as ta­bles of cor­re­spon­dences.

I sus­pect that what you’re do­ing is reify­ing your ideas into “ex­is­tence.” (In some­thing like Hei­deg­ger’s sense). You trans­late a gen­eral sort of con­cept (“I think we should test drugs to see which ones make an­i­mals live longer”) into some­thing with a bunch of proper nouns and in­ter­nal struc­ture, and I think the re­sult is the over­all im­pres­sion that now your or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­ists, as a…thing, or a place, or a per­son­age. Like, the differ­ence be­tween an idea (e.g. the gen­eral con­cept of lifes­pan stud­ies) and an agent (LRI). It ac­ti­vates the “an­i­mist” part of your brain, the same part that be­lieves that Face­book is a place or Rus­sia is an agent, the part that feels differ­ently about proper nouns from im­proper nouns.

(Proper nouns, btw, are an­other big thing in them­selves, be­cause of so­cial proof. Just nam­ing peo­ple or in­sti­tu­tions in con­nec­tion with your work — whether they be ad­vi­sors or part­ners or em­ploy­ees or cus­tomers or col­lab­o­ra­tors or what­ever — is le­gi­t­imiz­ing. And proper nouns are, them­selves, “dis­crete parts.” )

All this dis­cretiza­tion im­parts a sense of le­gi­t­i­macy. After dis­cretiz­ing my writ­ing, it feels much more like “LRI ex­ists as a thing” rather than “Sarah is propos­ing an idea” or “Sarah is do­ing some pro­jects.” Yeah, that’s a spooky and sub­jec­tive dis­tinc­tion, but I think it’s prob­a­bly a very ba­sic mar­ket­ing phe­nomenon that per­me­ates the world around us. (Maybe it has a name I don’t know.) I feel slightly weird about it, but it’s a thing.

Con­fi­dence + Pleas­antries = Busi­ness Etiquette

One thing that came as a big sur­prise to me is how con­fi­dent lan­guage you can get away with in a pro­fes­sional, non-aca­demic con­text.

For ex­am­ple, not phras­ing re­quests as ques­tions. “I look for­ward to hear­ing back.” My in­stinct would be to worry that this was overly for­ward or rude; you’re es­sen­tially as­sum­ing the ask; but peo­ple don’t seem to mind.

Or re­mov­ing all un­cer­tain lan­guage. All the may’s, mights, and coulds. How can you do that with­out mak­ing over­stated or mis­lead­ing claims? Well, it’s tricky, but you can gen­er­ally fi­na­gle it with clever rephras­ing.

I’m used to as­sum­ing that the way you show re­spect is through ret­i­cence and re­luc­tance to ask for too much. Espe­cially when com­mu­ni­cat­ing with some­one higher sta­tus than you. To my sur­prise, re­ally as­sertive word­ing seems to get bet­ter re­sults with busi­ness types than my pre­vi­ous, more “hum­ble” email style (which works great for pro­fes­sors.)

So, how do you keep from sound­ing like a jerk when you’re es­sen­tially brag­ging and mak­ing big re­quests? A lot of pleas­antries. A lot of fram­ing phrases (“as we talked about in our last con­ver­sa­tion”, “cir­cling back”, “mov­ing for­ward”, etc). Wish­ing them a good week­end/​holi­day/​etc, hop­ing they’re do­ing well, etc.

I’d pre­vi­ously no­ticed in office con­texts how vi­tal it is to just keep your mouth mak­ing words smoothly even when there’s not a lot of in­for­ma­tion den­sity to what you’re say­ing.

Busi­ness “jar­gon” and “buz­zwords” are un­fairly ma­ligned by peo­ple who aren’t used to cor­po­rate cul­ture. First of all, a lot of them origi­nally referred to spe­cific im­por­tant con­cepts, and then got overused as generic ap­plause lights — e.g. “dis­rup­tive in­no­va­tion” is ac­tu­ally a re­ally use­ful idea in its origi­nal mean­ing. But, sec­ond of all, it’s hon­estly just handy to have stock phrases if you need to keep talk­ing fluently with­out awk­ward pauses. Peo­ple re­spond re­ally well to fluency. Palan­tir’s first ex­er­cise for all new em­ploy­ees is to give a soft­ware demo, which taught me that it is re­ally hard to speak in pub­lic for five min­utes with­out paus­ing to think of what to say next. Stock phrases help you reach for some­thing to say with­out ap­pear­ing hes­i­tant or afraid.

I was trained on writ­ing style guides from liter­ary or jour­nal­is­tic con­texts, like Strunk & White, which teach you to be re­lentless in re­mov­ing cliches and us­ing sim­ple short An­glo-Saxon words wher­ever pos­si­ble. Busi­ness lan­guage con­stantly vi­o­lates those rules: it’s full of cliches and un­nec­es­sary Lati­nate lo­cu­tions. But I sus­pect there may ac­tu­ally be a func­tion to that, in mak­ing you sound smoother, or set­ting the scene with com­fortable and fa­mil­iar word­ing be­fore in­tro­duc­ing new ideas. “Good writ­ing” is origi­nal and vivid; a good (i.e. effec­tive) busi­ness email may not be.