I come from a family of engineers and mathematicians. I’ve worked with self-described geeks and nerds and edited words for accountants and “muddy boots” guys. What do all of these people have in common? A focus on the facts and a deep aversion to lying. Is that bad? Of course not! It’s great! But is that inconvenient when trying to put together a business proposal or a cover letter? Oh yes. Yes yes yes.
In my experience, everyone knows that sales writing is about “saying what they want to hear,” regardless of what kind of sales writing you’re doing. Unfortunately, the phrase is unfairly often conflated with lying, to the point where suggesting it brings up shudders and declarations that the listener would never, ever do something so awful because they have integrity and pride and aren’t a filthy, slimy marketer. But is that really how it works? Let’s take a look at some examples.
Scenario: You’re applying for a job. They ask why you want to work for Spork Industries.
Truth: You need money in order to live and this job will pay you money.
What they want to hear: That you’ve done your research and determined that Spork Industries is a leading company in your field of eating-implement design and you admire their past work with the Soft Rock Café Green Initiative.
Are you lying if you say that instead of the “truth”?: Operating under the assumption that you do indeed think they did a good job on at least something involving the Green Initiative and they aren’t a two-bit industry player, no. You are telling the truth. It is okay to skip the obvious point here, which is that you want money. They know that and don’t need or want you to say something so obvious. What they want to hear is why you’re applying for this specific job, not why you want a job in general. Get over your need to tell the biggest truth and dig a little deeper into the other reasons you’re applying. These will be the ones that separate you from the other applicants.
What would be lying?: If you say you’ve always wanted to work at Spork Industries, ever since you were a little girl, and you think they’re so great you’d do it for free if you had to. Unless you are the most dedicated utensil designer ever and have a family happy to support you monetarily, this is clearly a lie and will probably get you tossed from consideration.
Scenario: You’re advertising your new mini-series on Youtube. Potential viewers want to know why they should watch it.
Truth: It’s a mini-series because you maxed out the credit cards and couldn’t afford to shoot more than six episodes. If you get a lot of viewers, you’ll pull in enough ad revenue to pursue your film dream a little longer.
What they want to hear: The show has great characters and a twisting plot. Plus, at only six episodes it’s not a big time commitment to watch.
Are you lying if you say that instead of the “truth”?: Did you make a show with great characters and a twisting plot? Then no! You don’t need to tell viewers you’re in desperate financial straits or that you really couldn’t care less if they watch because you know they can’t understand your brilliant symbolism. You don’t have to explain the choice to make it only six episodes long. It’s okay. The viewers don’t actually care about your problems. What they want to hear is why the show is good for them, so just be truthful about that and you’re good to go.
What would be lying?: If you say the show is a complete package when you deliberately left plot threads dangling to set up a sequel, now you’re lying. Or if you say you were inspired to make it in memory of your dead grandmother when in fact you never even liked her. Not only will you be lying, but you’ll get called out in reviews and by angered family members.
Scenario: You’re making small talk with your boyfriend’s parents before going out to a movie. They ask why you’re interested in their progeny.
Truth: Said progeny is pretty cute and you enjoy snogging with them at the back of the dark theater.
What they want to hear: That their son is a really interesting person and you could talk to him for days without ever getting bored.
Are you lying if you say that instead of the “truth”?: Do you like talking to your boyfriend? Then no! Everyone in this scenario knows you’re probably interested in your boyfriend sexually. It’s not lying to omit that fact and focus on the other reasons you enjoy seeing him. What they want to hear is pretty much anything that communicates you see their son as a real person with real feelings, so just say what else you like about him.
What would be lying?: If you say you could talk to them for days but you really are only interested sexually. Not cool at all, and likely to damage the relationship if it hasn’t been already.
Looked at like this, the pattern is pretty easy to see. “What they want to hear” is the truth, but they want the truth that relates to them. When you respond appropriately, you’re simply looking at things from their point of view, taking a number of true facts and editing them down to the ones that are important to your audience. Just because the set of facts you present to yourself is different from the set of facts you present to others does not make them lies.
The Only-One-Right-Answer Exception
If “what they want to hear” is “profits went up this month” and in reality profits went down, then yes, you’d completely and totally be lying if you said profits went up. If there’s only one possible answer they want to hear and that answer isn’t true, “saying what they want to hear” does indeed become lying. Fortunately, it’s rare that there’s only one right answer, and there’s usually layers of what they want to hear going on in a situation like this. Yes, what they want to hear is profits went up, but they also want to hear truthful numbers so they can properly set a course of action for the following month. It is almost always the case that what they want to hear the most is the truth, no lying required.
So the next time you complain that you can’t possibly write that personal essay or claim there’s no value in marketing meetings because it’s all about saying what they want to hear and you don’t do lies, stop and take a step back. Is there really nothing true that you can say that your audience wants to hear? If you say no, you’re probably lying.