ARE YOU FOLLOWING the Gwyneth Paltrow / Chris Martin divorce news? If so, you know that when Gwyneth announced the split Tuesday, she stoked a gossip firestorm. And you also know that the breakup itself isn’t the real controversy. Instead, her euphemistic term conscious uncoupling set the Internet abuzz. (The term was lifted from self-help writer/therapist Katharine Woodward.)
Gwyneth has often been derided for out-of-touch antics, like naming her website Goop (because she can) and selling $350 white micro-shorts and $85 tubes of hand cream. Now the New Age better-than-thouness of her divorce announcement has provoked massive negative press coverage. Maybe bad press doesn’t exist, as the truism goes, but I doubt she really wanted hostile reactions at a sensitive time.
Just two inappropriate words wielded huge power here. What message-crafting principles can you and I derive from this media mess? I think it pays to be direct. But it also pays to be indirect. The trick is knowing which approach to take.
BE INDIRECT — SOMETIMES IT’S GENIUS
If you’re from the U.S. South, as I am, the art of indirectness won’t be new to you. I remember a southern woman cooing that my skirt was “jus’ thuh kewtist thang,” all the while her tone and body language conveying her real message: “Ugh, I hate you.”
West Coasters have their own approach to saying anything BUT what they mean. Did you know “I’ll email you next week” probably means “I never want to talk to you again”?
That kind of indirectness pisses me off. It’s weasel-y.
Still, sometimes indirect language is the ONLY thing that will do. Sometimes the plain facts can’t communicate why and how your brand matters. This morning I told my husband, Peter, on marketing his law practice: “You need a metaphor.” We thought of things like “Don’t burn down your house,” or “Don’t leave all your money on the sidewalk,” or “Don’t hand your children to a stranger.” Those imaginary scenes portray what happens if you don’t protect your family before you die. Whereas spewing legalese at potential clients — like why they need a Flip NIMCRUT or how GRITs, GRATs, and GRUTs differ — won’t help them learn how estate planning helps them.
BE DIRECT — OR RISK LOSING RESPECT
Here on the East Coast, no one has time for indirect. You’ll lose someone’s attention — fast. And you might lose respect. Want a morning beverage? It’s “Coffee, light and sweet.” Want something at the deli counter? Just say, “Pound of ham, sliced thin.” No “pleases” needed. Directness is efficient. The people lined up behind you get their turn sooner.
Being direct also helps ensure you’ll be understood clearly. That’s a kind of efficiency, too. Gwyneth’s word choices leave us wondering what she meant. Maybe she wanted to seem strong. Maybe she wanted to seem positive. Maybe she thinks she knows better than you how to “do” divorce. Her trail of superior-sounding statements has made her the “most hated celebrity” out there.
Details of phrasing matter. I credit a publisher client for first making me confront this issue years ago. He wanted his architecture books to sound strong, direct, and real. A house was a house, no matter how big or fancy — it was never a mansion. No puffery. A person died or was dead — he didn’t pass away. No talk-arounds.
Death is fearsome, so we try to minimize its verbal impact. Divorce, too. No matter how amicably a split proceeds, it’s the end of a dream and a headlong plunge into the icy unknown. Words can’t airbrush out normal emotions like bitterness and anger and grief.
TAKE-AWAY: BRANDING MEANS BRAVERY
If the facts of what you do are technical and difficult for laypeople to follow, don’t be afraid of drawing them in with compelling metaphors. This may feel wrong at first if your training or education emphasized precision. Remember that clients deserve a frame of reference that will help them relate something new to something already known. Showing the information’s emotional relevance will make them more receptive.
If the topic is sensitive and you’re worried about offending people, it’s best to be clear and concrete. Soft-pedaling is tempting, but fight that impulse. Plain, precise, and honest statements will show other people you respect them. They know it takes strength to use unflinching words.