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Cargo cult copy

Jargon and buzzwords may give off the right appearance, says Credit Strategy’s consulting editor Fred Crawley - but they’re not going to summon in any business

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Fred Crawley, consulting editor at Credit Strategy
Fred Crawley, consulting editor at Credit Strategy

If you haven’t heard of cargo cults, prepare to have your mind moderately blown.

 

Back during World War II, some Pacific island cultures were profoundly affected by contact with Japanese and allied forces.

 

People would arrive on their islands, go about building airstrips, radio masts and control towers, and then planes would arrive, laden with valuable cargo.

 

Following reasonable logic, the islanders took it that all this - the building of the airstrips, the waving of the signal sticks, the operation of the radios - was a complex ritual designed to summon planes and wealth.

 

When the war ended and the US Navy packed up and went home, a number of cults sprang up among island populations, aimed at bringing more cargo. Wooden control towers were built, and people sat in them with wooden headphones and coconut husk radios, waiting for the planes to come. They even built fake planes, in the hopes they might attract others of their kind.

 

You might laugh at that, but I think many of us in business-to-business comms are guilty of the exact same sort of thinking.

 

For example, why do people say “individuals” rather than “people”? “Myself” instead of “me”? “Going forward” instead of “from now on”? Because they’re not words you’d use with your friends or family. They’re business words - the linguistic equivalent of a pinstripe suit.

 

Similarly, chief executives in press releases never react to anything with emotions apart from delight. They are always delighted to announce things. Why? Because that’s how chief executives react to things in press releases, of course. It’s like marketing copy saying businesses are “passionate” - at some point it became the convention, and it stuck.

 

By using these conventions, we signify that we are being professional; we are doing business. Much like the man with the wooden headphones, we hope that if we don the right gear and perform the right gestures, the cargo - or the business - will come in.

 

But of course, coconut husk radios aren’t great at actually contacting planes. And business words - if we’re honest - aren’t great for communicating. When it comes down to it, efficient communication means plain language, and straight answers.

 

This month, I spent some time shortlisting our F5 Awards (December 13, Hilton London Bankside - you’re welcome). The awards scheme is for fintech businesses, and some of their websites were about as easy to understand as the name of their sector.

 

My favourite bits were the “about us” and FAQ sections, since they never actually made it clear what the companies in question did. They were full of aspirational waft about “a new way to X” and “a revolution in Y”, but constantly meandered around the actual product on offer.

 

Last year, looking at the technology categories for the Credit Awards, I was even more bewildered. More than once I read through thousands of words of copy from a software company (sorry, solutions provider), only to have to call them up and beg them to explain what their product was.

 

I’m sure the copywriters - like the cargo cultists - were merely adopting a certain style to present the requisite amount of cutting-edge fintech/solutions provider attitude. And in that regard they made themselves unmistakable. But that’s not the same as good communication.

 

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps there are people who read cargo cult copy and rush to action, blown away by how professional it all sounds. But to me, there’s nothing that grabs attention faster than a concept explained simply, plainly and directly.

 

If, as the old saying goes, people do business with people, then doesn’t it make sense to talk like a person, rather than a business?

 

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