Skip to content

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.)

cover of George Carlin book Last Words

 

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 reasonMy modern-day example
To avoid unpleasant realitiesNot a problem, but an issue
To make things sound more importantNot a product, but a solution
To meet the demands of marketersYour client insists you insert a phrase like “seamless integration with legacy IT infrastructure“
PretentiousnessNot processing a return, but reverse fulfilment
To boost employee
self-esteem
Most employees are managers,
even if no one reports to them
To be politically correctNot 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.

[Tweet "What copywriters can learn from George Carlin."]

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.


Want to hear whenever there’s a fresh article on this site? Subscribe here to stay in the know on long-form content. From time to time, we’ll also send you word about some great new resource or training. And you can unsubscribe any time.  

 

 

 

About Gordon Graham

Worked on 300+ white papers for clients from Silicon Valley to Switzerland, on everything from choosing enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for clients from tiny startups to 3M, Google, and Verizon. Wrote White Papers for Dummies which earned 50+ 5-star ratings on Amazon. Won 16 awards from the Society for Technical Communication. And named AWAI 2019 Copywriter of the Year.

If you liked this post...

hand tools on wooden table

Tools of the trade

We all need tools, and writers are no exception. Here's a roundup of all the...
great numbered list from Robert Reich in The Guardian

A great example of a numbered list

I recently came across an excellent example of a numbered list. You know, strawberry? It...
my bookself 9-nov-2022

Recommended books on white papers (and everything else)

Here are the books I highly recommend for any B2B writer or marketer. My favorite books...

3 Comments

  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

  2. Matthew on November 2, 2021 at 3:54 am

    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.

  3. Alexandre Laprise on July 12, 2022 at 11:22 pm

    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/)

Leave a Comment





This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.