Defining new products challenges the status quo. Crafting a mission statement requires deep thought. Making a cohesive argument demands confidence. Excellence in these areas can only be achieved if you stay away from wishy-washy words and phrases. Crisp product, mission and arguments require crisp prose, thoughts and ideas. Muddling your prose with safe, boring or ambiguous words reduces your impact.
Down In The Dirt. Shoot For The Stars
Roy Peter Clark’s book “Writing Tools” has a wonderful explanation of the Ladder Of Abstraction (Tool #22). Climbing up and down the Ladder Of Abstraction relates to showing (the bottom) and telling (the top) your story in a way that mixes the two into a fluid idea. Clear, fluid prose has the most impact.
The bottom of the ladder relates to the nitty-gritty. The rich details that describe the action. The concrete words that everyone understands: black cats, palm trees, baseball cards, meek managers or quarterbacks. Being at the bottom is about examples. Show the reader what you mean.
The top is the big idea that appeals to the intellect: “the only thing we have to fear is, fear itself”, “all men are created equal”, “I have a dream”, or “the buck stops here.” Even though the top is intellectual, the concepts are easily digested. The meaning is clear but abstract. The reader needs to think — not about what the words mean but rather the meaning behind the words. Being at the top is about meaning. Tell the reader what you mean.
Squeeze Out The Middle
All ladders have an ugly place. That place is the middle. The middle is where ideas and prose muddle around, trying to find meaning. It’s the land of politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats not taking a position, defining a term or vaguely refining policies to perpetuate their existence. The middle confuses and distracts. It’s a safe place because the risk of being wrong is nonexistent. Phrases like: “irrational exuberance”, “paradigm shifting event”, “aligning core values” or “system wide integration.” They don’t communicate anything of value. They confuse the reader. They are not accountable.
Application To Product Development
Product development can learn from the ladder. Too often, product requirements hang out in the middle. Marketing can’t make a decision, so they add every feature. Engineering wants all those cool options. Management just wants it done. In prose, the middle breeds mediocrity. For products, it breeds something else — poor performance, lackluster sales and disgruntled customers.
Defining requirements should be bottom activities with the form, fit and function being top activities. The core needs to be crisp while the vision needs to inspire customers to buy. This is hard work. It takes time and effort to really understand the pain you are curing. Without doing the work, you end up with muddled requirements that are hard to implement, harder to understand and hardest on the customer. Strive for clear show me features with thrilling tell me descriptions.
Some Great Examples
Some great examples of what I am talking about are over at Copyblogger in the post Why You’re Too Qualified and Respectful to Product Great Content. Her qualified examples live in the muddled middle. The bold ones near the bottom. The wet dishrag version is a perfect example of the middle.
More great examples from Copyblogger: Vampire Words. Her examples of Vampire Words, like sometimes, fairly and often, are precursors to muddled prose. Those words add no value. Like the other example above, they are wishy-washy words that breed mediocre thoughts that show the authors uncertainty with the subject.
Okay, I am now officially stalking Copyblogger. What can I say but yet another great post about fine turning your posts and making them clutter free (which includes getting rid muddling words). How to Write with a Knife is well written and points 3 and 4 are exactly right on. Over done words and useless words make your prose muddled. Cut them out!
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