The Ignoble Art of Circumlocution
Editor'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.)
For those of us who hack away in the rhetorical jungles, “circumlocution” is easy to identify: it’s the overuse of words, the total rejection of a rhetorical technique known as Occam’s Razor. William of Occam, a fourteenth-century philosopher, defined it as choosing the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions. Shorter is sweeter. Windbags can’t compete on equal terms.
A 21st century way of telling direct response writers what to do and what to don’t is to warn against “diarrhea of the fingertips,” losing impact with each succeeding overuse of adjectives, adverbs, and unjustified opinions. Circumlocution? You’d be right in the middle of it.
Flesh hangs loose, and impact gets squished. Would you write, “an unmarried single bachelor without a wife”? That’s beyond even total ineptness.
Ah, but how about repetitions that do little damage verbally but betray ineptness in print?
How about repeating a word because stronger support doesn’t come to mind? “This is very very good” isn’t as good as “This is very good” which in turn isn’t on a par with a specific -- “This is tasty” or “This offers a prime fit” or “Superlative? Yes.” Want a quickie definition? Circumlocution is description that beats around the bush.
Combining Methods Adds Excitement, Avoids Circumlocution
Obviously, order-filling capability can be a major factor in attracting business volume. For some marketers, exploiting three-way availability builds the buying impulse:
- Come in and grab yours now, including daily unadvertised specials.
- Order here, online, and we’ll deliver. Free shipping.
- Order right now to be sure we’ll have what you want ready for you. Then stop by and pick up your order, any day XX:XX a.m. to XX:XX p.m.
As a “goosing” mechanism, offer something extra for what you can show as an extra buyer-effort — such as a bonus gift.
Here’s an online offer. In giant type: “A New Survey is Available”
Reaction? Blah. Truth (or at least ostensible truth) is a factor but seldom the key to conviction or motivation. Without a motivator, availability is less than weak because it denies uniqueness rather than suggesting uniqueness. A direct response version would have had a “You” implication, if only because in a selling circumstance, description is a thin competitor against salesmanship.
The first two sentences that follow the heading: “The latest Harris Panel survey is now open and we want your opinion! Complete the survey to earn points and trade them in for items in our catalog.”
Yes, that’s an instruction, and instructions qualify as motivators. But “Complete the survey,” without identification, is circumlocution. Want to maximize instead of wandering around the availability? Jump to the payoff. Completing the survey is a method, not a goal.
Repeating, so messages whose intent is to establish, cement, or make profitable a relationship with the individual or business at whom it’s aimed will hit closer to the bulls-eye: Jump to the payoff.
The result: Response will go up. Isn’t that why we make the contact?
So the sales logic, with a nod to the Clarity Commandment: Why circumlocute when you’re at point-blank range? If you want verification, just ask Tooden.
Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises in Pompano Beach, Florida. Author of 32 books including “On the Art of Writing Copy” (now in its fourth edition), “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” and “How to Write Powerful Catalog Copy,” he is a member of the Direct Marketing Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at 954.782.1750 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Cell is 954.600.7073.