White papers and…George Carlin?

George Carlin is 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 nattering and unforgiving social criticism. 

But I’ve discovered a strong link between one of the comic’s lifelong preoccupations and B2B copywriting.

photo of George Carlin

 

Who was George Carlin?

Any Baby Boomer likely remembers George Carlin as the original counterculture comedian.

He was a frequent guest and replacement host 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 and 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… but without a whiff of pretension. 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. That’s not the most important thing. Also teach your children to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”

(There’s debate about his exact phrasing, but he certainly put forth this idea.)

cover of George Carlin book Last WordsSo imagine my surprise when I discovered that Carlin 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 an multi-part audio extract starting here.

Carlin on language

Here’s the point: Carlin cared deeply and passionately about words. He cared about their connotations. 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?*

“There is no part of American life that hasn’t been soiled by the new, softer, artificial language. It’s everywhere,” Carlin complained.**

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.

RATIONALE FROM CARLIN MODERN EXAMPLE
To avoid unpleasant realities Not a problem, but an issue
To make things sound
more important
Not buying, but funding
Not a product, but a solution
To meet marketing
demands
When your client says you must insert a phrase like
seamless integration with legacy IT infrastructure
Pretentiousness Not processing a return,
but reverse fulfilment
To boost employee
self-esteem
Many people at Google are managers, although no one reports to them
Plain, old political correctness Not disabled, but
differently-abled

What copywriters can learn from Carlin

The job of any writer is to avoid using flabby, generic, inoffensive, cuddly terms.

Our job—as Strunk & White would surely agree—is to use crisp, clear and direct language to illuminate the truth, rather than obscure it.

This applies directly to B2B copywriting, and above all to white papers.

No one downloads a white paper hoping to find pretentious euphemisms and marketing-speak.

Survey after survey show 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. As much as possible, avoid political correctness.

No one will ever criticize you for writing too clearly, or too simply. If they do, sic George on them!

 

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.


* When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? page 6.
By the way, Carlin noted that his title managed to offend all three of the world’s major religions, plus vegetarians! 
** When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? page 102

 

 

 

 

About Gordon Graham

Author of 275 white papers on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients everywhere from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, for everyone from tiny startups to 3M, Google and Verizon. Also wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50 5-star ratings on Amazon. Reviewers call it "a must-read... fantastic... outstanding... terrific... phenomenal... the best book of its kind."

1 Comment

  1. rick maurer on January 13, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    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

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