White papers and… George Carlin?
George Carlin was the last person you’d expect to have anything to say about white papers.
The trail-blazing American comic was better known for his profane and cutting social criticism.
But I’ve discovered a strong link between one of the comic’s lifelong preoccupations and B2B content writing.
Who was George Carlin?
Any Baby Boomer likely remembers George Carlin as the original counterculture comedian.
He was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where one of his classic characters was The Hippy Dippy Weatherman.
He created more than 20 comedy albums, did 14 HBO TV specials, and gave many stand-up shows, especially on college campuses.
He hosted the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975.
Probably Carlin’s best-known piece is his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” which he used to skewer the TV network censors of the day.
Carlin continued to create new material and give shows until a week before he died in 2008 from heart failure. His website and Twitter feed are still going strong.
Carlin’s fellow comics idolized him
For example, here’s some of what comedian Jerry Seinfeld wrote in The New York Times on June 24, 2008 a few days after Carlin died:
“George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy… He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light… Everything he did just had this gleaming wonderful precision and originality.”
Here’s what author/satirist Tony Hendra said about Carlin in The Huffington Post:
“His mature pieces were essays, broadsides, jazz-like solos, based on omnivorous reading and a steely logic… He had a genius for distilling a lot of information and complex issues into a few succinct and hilarious sentences.”
His ongoing influence
Many see Carlin, especially in his golden years, as a philosopher/poet who was unflinchingly honest in his critiques of late 20th-century American culture.
Carlin’s brilliance was sometimes clouded by his profanity. But more often than not, I find myself agreeing with his sentiments.
For example: “Don’t just teach your children to read. Also teach your children to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”
(There’s some debate about his exact phrasing, but he did put forth this idea.)
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Carlin also wrote four books that together sold close to a million copies.
His final book, although he started it first, is a quasi-autobiography called Last Words.
You can listen to a multi-part audio extract starting here.
Carlin on language
Here’s the point: Carlin cared passionately about words.
And he cared about the way language is abused for political or commercial purposes.
Most of all, he hated political correctness and euphemistic language.
“Not all euphemisms are alike, but they have one thing in common; they obscure meaning rather than enhance it; they shade the truth,” he wrote in his hilarious book When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (page 6)
By the way, he noted that this title managed to offend three of the world’s major religions, plus vegetarians!
“There is no part of American life that hasn’t been soiled by the new, softer, artificial language. It’s everywhere,” Carlin complained. (page 102)
And he correctly analyzed, I think, why this trend has grown until we hear a constant stream of euphemisms in most B2B marketing today.
The following table shows the six rationales for using euphemisms that Carlin listed, along with a modern example from me.
|Carlin's reason||My modern-day example|
|To avoid unpleasant realities||Not a problem, but an issue|
|To make things sound more important||Not a product, but a solution|
|To meet the demands of marketers||Your client insists you insert a phrase like “seamless integration with legacy IT infrastructure“|
|Pretentiousness||Not processing a return, but reverse fulfilment|
|To boost employee|
|Most employees are managers,
even if no one reports to them
|To be politically correct||Not disabled, but differently-abled|
What writers can learn from Carlin
The job of any writer is to avoid using flabby, generic, inoffensive, cuddly terms.
Our job—as Strunk & White surely agree—is to use crisp, clear and direct language to illuminate the truth, rather than obscure it.
This applies directly to B2B content and copywriting, and above all to white papers.
No one downloads a white paper hoping to find pretentious euphemisms and marketing-speak.
Survey after survey shows that’s what business readers hate the most: getting a sales pitch instead of solid, helpful information.
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So here’s what copywriters can learn from George Carlin:
- Tell the truth
- Use clear, direct language, not marketing-speak
- Don’t throw in tired buzzwords just because everyone else does
- Write the way normal business people talk at lunch
- As much as possible, avoid political correctness
No one should ever criticize you for writing too clearly, too simply, or too directly.
If they do, sic George on them!
Originally published January 12, 2016
Last updated: May 15, 2022
What do you think? Does George Carlin have anything to say to white paper writers? Or is this just a crazy idea? Leave your comments below.
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Gordon – I agree. And his advice is good for anyone who ever has to mess with PowerPoint. It seems that tool just invites words that end in “ize” strategize, prioritize, etc. . . And, whereas Carlin chose his words wisely in order to make a point, corporate presentations love to cloud points behind tired buzzwords as well as just too many words. – Rick
I don’t think anyone else could have linked George Carlin with whitepaper copywriting but it’s a brilliant connection and one that really sticks in the imagination. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be revisiting this one. Having the fun and controversial elements really brings the subject alive. Thank you.
original and highly practical article! I’m maybe stating the obvious but that’s strongly reminiscent of Orwell’s POLITICS AND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE (https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/politics-and-the-english-language/)