The Ignoble Art of Circumlocution

Some years back, a semi-literate day helper inadvertently made a comment entitling her to the kind of immortality someone can get only through exposure in immortal columns such as this one.

As best I remember, she had just one name: Tooden.

words cloudEditor’s note: This is our final post from Herschel Gordon Lewis. We are sorry to report that Herschel has passed away, and this was the last blog post he sent us. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with him.

Some years back, a semi-literate day helper inadvertently made a comment entitling her to the kind of immortality someone can get only through exposure in immortal columns such as this one.

As best I remember, she had just one name: Tooden.

Tooden had a habit, which sometimes was hilarious and sometimes was frustrating. She would pick up a word and use it, whether her use had any relationship with reality or not.

What comes to mind every time my mind shoots back to those kinder, gentler times was a circumstance in which a family discussion centered on a comment that came to me from an editor at a publication whose concrete walls I had tried to breach. The note complimented my writing style but never came close enough to include acceptance. Somebody pointed out that praise without purpose and praise without acceptance was the type of circumlocution too many editors employed, to get rid of the detritus clogging their mailboxes. (This was in the primitive pre-Internet era.)

Tooden wandered by, picking up the dinner dishes, just as the word “circumlocution” was uttered and repeated. As was her wont, she added her quaint touch of irrelevance: “My mama say that’s dangerous and can make it impossible to have kids.”

Tooden said that a relative of hers had had a baby son, and a handyman “fixed” the child with a box-cutter. “He just circum-wha? Circumlocuted that kid. He’s my cousin but he ain’t worth much.” And on Tooden toddled, unaware that she had added a word to the sticksionary of words gone wrong. Our noble global word-dissection was pilloried on Tooden’s grammar-hammer.

The Negative Principle Survives

With or without Tooden, we as communicators can and should be accused of cheating if instead of adhering to the Clarity Commandment we lapse or jump into the noncommunicative puddle of circumlocution.

(Just in case you’ve read this far and haven’t had the benefit of a Tooden or a thesaurus, circumlocution means talking around a point without penetrating to its totality. And as a second just in case, the Clarity Commandment is — or certainly should be — the overlord of every communication we hatch: When you choose words and phrases for force-communication, clarity is paramount and reigns supreme. Don’t let any other component of the communications mix interfere with it.)

Rather Test or Guess?

“Make me a deal on a split run.” Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

TM0810_searchglobe copy“Make me a deal on a split run.”

Of all the negotiating ploys we as marketers might consider, this simple sentence has more success-seeds than any of the fustian and fury we could force out of our bargaining-parleying fingertips. And a “Yes” answer from an understanding medium, which costs zilch, has to result in information far more profitable than even our top-of-the-line brainpower can match.

One assumption we certainly have enough professional knowledge to lean on: the circulation of the medium has at least a tenuous match with a logical buyer. Our prospects won’t think we’re approaching from the planet Mars.

For print media, a split run is easier to mount today than it ever has been since, some hundreds of years ago, we as marketers invaded the nooks and crannies of publishing. For direct mail, it’s a bonanza whose luster dimmed when direct radio and then direct television mussed up the turf. For online, it’s too natural and obvious to be regarded as an innovation.

The overriding interpretation of what we’re discussing is a single word: test.

If the notion of testing a direct appeal is foreign to you, call me or any of about fifty thousand other self-proclaimed marketing experts, and we’ll be glad to take advantage of your naiveté.

Or, if you’d rather, make one decision that has to be profitable: what to test.

The most common test element is price. What price represents the best addition to the bottom line? $19.99 may bring more orders, but $24.99 is more profitable. And in today’s wild marketplace, where 99 cents has almost universally replaced the venerable 95 cents, $24.99 just might bring in more responses than $19.99. What if we glamorize the offer? $29.99 versus $19.99? We can test to give us an answer.

(Sample example: a recent three-way test for a collectible priced the item at $15.49, $15.99, and $17.99. Which brought the highest total number of responses, not just dollars? Right. $17.99. I suspect because the product has a tie to tradition, $17.95 would have left $17.99 in the shade, but the testing impulse didn’t extend that far. Maybe next time.)

And easy? What test could be easier? Just be sure that each addressee gets just one distinct offer and the response code differs for each price.

“Seat of the pants” guesswork is old-fashioned and amateurish, and depending on the deal you can make with media or a lettershop, not an optimal investment in marketing.

Hmmm. Here’s a unisex jacket. Here’s a tablet computer. Here’s a DVD whose content dwarfs any approach to the business problem its content solves. Here’s an extraordinary assortment of dessert-goodies.

A true split is just one split-test: When an offer appears on our monitor, we can’t tell if it’s unique or part of a split run … that is, if the code doesn’t betray the technique.

What does that mean? Well, suppose you get an online offer from “Firearms.” Does that, emotionally and in your mind factually, differ from “Guns” or for that matter the singular, “Firearm”? What if the sender had split the subject line, sending to one group “Look out. This gun fires in both directions” and to a parallel group “Gigantic 75% discount, today only.” Even from this example, any of us can predict that response will be skewed by the difference in appeals. What we have is a message test, even though only the subject lines may differ.