Everyone will love this article: The case for cutting absolutes from your writing

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

Using absolute terms in your headlines is hardly ever good writing. Maybe never. LOL. For example: “Everyone is listening to audiobooks.” While we may have seen an increase in listens it certainly can’t be every single person. I discussed this on the Business Storytelling Podcast.

Now this is not a new concept and one of the first few things you learn as a rookie journalist. Don’t come back from a festival and submit a sentence like this:

Fun was had by all.

Certainly we don’t know that because we didn’t ask every single person and who knows some parent was probably dealing with a sick child in the bathroom where the reporter didn’t go and wasn’t having that much fun. Or somebody else’s wallet was stolen. I bet they didn’t have fun.

You get the point. Absolute terms are typically not good writing and even undermine the credibility of the message. What terms usually do fit into this category? Here’s a sampling:

    No one

The use of these words certainly can happen because we want to live in absolutes. Something was either great or it wasn’t great. We should be upset about something or we should be happy about something.

In marketing copy it’s even more prevalent because our job is to promote the company. Of course everyone loves it.  That’s probably also the reason why we tie everything back to our products which is something I recently discussed.

The whole talking in absolutes is especially funny when you see both ends of the spectrum about the same company in your feed – as happened here with Ryan Airlines.

Overstating our accomplishments or impact on the industry is not a new thing and many companies call themselves “the leading whatever” on their websites-which I also would not recommend unless you have an external source.

I’ve had this exchange:

Exec: “We are No. 1 in the market.”

Me: “Congrats. How do you know?”

And the answer can’t be that’s according to our marketing team.

Some of this kind of writing in corporate marketing can also come back to internal politics and barriers that the content team hasn’t overcome.

Michael Brenner discusses the topic of internal barriers in his new book Mean People Suck as well.

Some new ways of doing things and driving results – like not using absolute terms in some cases-just can’t be implemented when a company is stuck in a truly command and control system – which can lead to what Michael calls mean people driving people crazy.

Be open to new language and words that help you drive the content performance culture forward. 

Related: Why editing for preference is a waste of time

How can you move away from using absolute terms that undermine your writing and credibility?

  • Be aware that there can be a tendency to use those terms and edit them out and pick better terms. Sounds simple enough but takes some time to remember.
  • In the example of the festival where “everyone had fun” why can’t you instead tell a story of somebody who did actually have fun.

    Another headline could be: 10,000 people attended. Then compare that to previous years. Or put it into context: 10,000 people attended which is the equivalent of 10% of the entire city.

    That shows the popularity and impact and is much stronger than saying that everyone had fun. Absolutes aren’t just overly positive or overly negative but they also don’t tell a story. What’s the definition of fun? The answer most likely depends on each person.

    Especially in the case of events there are many perspectives from them. At some conference talks I ask the audience if they have attended an event that was covered by the media and the media’s playback of the event was very different from how they experienced it. People typically highly agree with that that has happened.

    It’s a natural thing that happens and it’s OK that it does. We can’t cover and address every possible angle in every story. But we can use the words that aren’t over-the-top and overly promotional.

    In the long run I do believe that will make our content more credible and more authoritative because it doesn’t read like slanted and unverified copy. Please never use absolutes. ??‍♀️