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Go for the Sizzle but Avoid the Smoke

During a conversation on writing copy and self-promotional materials, a friend mentioned loving a political pundit who is well-known for her caustic denigration of anyone who disagrees with her positions. He told me, “She really says what she means.” I differ. My response to him was, “I don’t believe she says what she means. I believe she says what she thinks will serve her and her handlers.

I’m all for emphasizing the sizzle on the steak, but when it starts to become smoke that obscures rather than clarifies, I don’t endorse it or want to practice it myself.”

PowerPhrases are about clarity. I endorse putting your best foot forward, not putting a false front forward.

I watched The Smartest Guys in the Room about the Enron debacle. The documentary illustrates how so many can buy into smoke and mirrors and stop asking questions. Colin Whitehead, a former Enron trader said, “I didn’t ask questions because I didn’t want answers.” Former Enron VP Sharon Watson said, “I couldn’t believe so many people were going along.” They went along because, like Rod Stewart in his hit song, they were looking for a “Reason to Believe.”

I advocate persuasion based on clarity. Political wordsmith Frank Luntz author of the book Words That Work is good at what he does but has a different definition of what it means for words to work than I do. Some define words that work as whatever gets people to do what you want, even when your words mislead. Enron’s Jeffrey Skilling found words that worked when he encouraged employees to keep their Enron stock while he was dumping his. Skilling’s words do not qualify as PowerPhrases.

Go ahead and point out how the steak sizzles. But stop short of smoke and mirrors. The truth has more lasting value, and you get to keep your soul when you tell it.

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