Semantic Recovery – How to repair our trust in words and spark action with 7 principles
By disingenuous use, we have deflated the semantic charge of quite a number of words, with subtle but dramatic consequences. In your communication today, what can you do differently in order to spark the action that's required?
October 17, 2023
Merlin Eric Bola
Strategy & Content Direction
Marketers and advertisers reached for the top shelf of words for a while now.
We’ve seen ‘sustainable’, ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’ plastered on things that simply weren’t – a useful crutch for all those who prefer adjusting words over adjusting reality.
Expect this to come to an end in due time.
A healthy amount of resentment is brewing.
The pile of disappointments has grown too large. For a little while, people paid intense attention to the hottest of air. Not anymore, they’re starting to tune out – but not without threatening the future of a whole planet populated by all kinds of miraculous species, humans included. An evolutionary impulse is slowly taking over, recognizing that if we can’t trust, we can’t collaborate.
If we can’t collaborate, we can’t continue our story.
It’s either the end of this, or the end of us.
Enter a different game
People recover their senses, and regulators are people too.
The Green Claims Directive sets out to regulate claims of sustainability, and for a reason – over time, the situation turned really bad, as we’ll see further down in the article. While there are reasons to stay cautious and not buy any regulation that only sounds green on the surface, it comes as a logical next step to the recent corporate ‘best practices’ around communicating sustainability: Straight-up, pure-bred, no-fillers, laboratory-grade … lies.
The old marketing game consists of a nasty, self-perpetuating cycle that leads to empty words, a demoralized collective and tired minds … that then allows for the cycle to continue:
Crooks in suits traded short-term gains against long-term losses, and the proof is in the puddle.
They made a mess by investing in words over actions, simply because language is more readily adjusted than infrastructure. The lingering abysmal reputation of advertisers and marketers only mirrors our collective loss of trust.
Well, potty time is over.
We’re growing tired with more talk than walk, it’s time to switch lanes and enter an upward spiral instead. There’s a way of communicating your vision, mission and offers that reflects the paradigm shift ahead already in today’s communication:
From this loop, we can draw deduct principles of communication that are ethical and effective in equal measure.
One last thing before we jump in: On a compass, what's North?
Don't just poke the monkey, salute the angel
It won’t urge you to refuse to use and leverage your psychological and marketing acumen.
Quite the contrary. Rather that ignoring what you know about the human psyche, the call is to level up: To communicate effectively in the 21st century means to not anymore simply poke our biological reflexes, pinch evolutionary fears and push the buttons on healing fantasties in hurt people.
More than at any time in the last decades, people respond with disgust to coercive communication. They instead yearn to be understood and respected in their intrinsic and indiscussable value as a human being, and prefer to not anymore be adressed as an accidentally sentient piece of flesh to sell clutter to and extract money from.
We’re developing an itch to have our potential seen, acknowledged and supported.
»There is an angel within the monkey struggling to get free, and this is what the historical crisis is all about.«
– Terence McKenna, American enthnobotanist, philosopher and psychedelic explorer
Let’s talk about some first principles of marketing to help the angel break free.
First, let's turn what essentially comes down to 'bareknuckle-punch people's pains points' into …
1. Show that you understood
People resonate with words that capture how they experience the world.
Conventional copywriting advice can lose its sense of measure and recommend to twist a white-hot knife with salt coating: Figure out the pain and unleash your sadist.
In fact, there’s a copywriting framework made of those three steps: Problem-Agitation-Solution. Depending on how you use it, that’s a full 66,7% of the framework calling to stab people with their own problems and then claw into the wound with greedy little fingers. Checking in with human psychology, that actually makes sense. We don’t really get moving without a problem, and pain motivates us to make a change – it works.
So what does this framework get right that you can do too – without the knife twist?
You can’t have a story without a villain
People long to feel understood, and what they struggle with are problems
Sure, the villain needs to be introduced, but if a movie mostly consists of zooming-in on his crooked, warty nose, it would probably fail its premiere. All we have to do is to bring back a sense of measure and balance. Zooming in on the problem for a moment is meant to show people that you have understood their predicament.
You have mapped and digested their problem and made sense of it – not for shits and giggles and a sadistic streak, but to help them conquer it.
»A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.«
– Charles Kettering, Head of Research at General Motors from 1920 to 1947
If someone signals to have fully understood your situation, whatever comes next can’t be so far off. What’s next up is designed for them, and in order to signal this, it’s not required to bareknuckle-punch pain points. Alex Hormozi – who you could easily mistake for an exploitative high-performance marketer at first glance – put it this way:
»The point of good writing is for the reader to understand. The point of good persuasion is for the prospect to feel understood.«
This is how you can foreshadow a new paradigm made of dignity, decency, and grace in your communication today. Important: Providing the solution in the next step is straightforward and simple – not fancy.
Next, we turn to the impulse to try to sell immediately into …
2. Provide valuable guidance first
There’s a type of hyperactive buyer that just hits the buy button on … anything, really.
This one is either very wealthy or deeply in debt. Itching to spend money for the sake of it, these peeps don’t need much of a warm-up. That’s not most people, tho. Most people come in (at best) seeking to understand what you do or (at worst) full-blown sceptics that will try to find clues that you’re the villain.
They first need to know why to trust you.
They seek to get educated on what you offer and are probably curious about free test rides to gain a crucial piece of insight: How will they feel as a customer or client? Do they have to spend a whole lot of money before you’re willing to provide any guidance, or are you willing to share your expertise to their benefit?
It comes down to: Do you care about them or only yourself?
So dare to give, not merely strategically, but from the heart. Find a way to deeply enjoy sharing your most valuable insights without seeing your business threatened. The law of reciprocity will wash opportunity back to you, and there are two more subtle laws here:
The more you can disconnect your giving impulse from an expectation of reciprocity, the better it works (it’s a little bit of a paradox)
The more something is typically tucked away behind a paywall, the more people will pay attention
Make no mistake about it, many people will surf on your free content – but many will also be intensely curious about your paid offers.
That’s pretty much what you would want people to feel about your business. When you then ultimately sell … sell! Be straightforward about distributing something that you have worked carefully on, believe in, and want to see applied in the world.
Next up, instead of barging into people's lifes, try to …
3. Magnetize your message
Let’s rate two exercises on a scale of 1-10:
Cold-call a hundred people and 'close’ … one of them
Share your expertise, infuse it with your personality, place calls to action, and have people call you
What's that? Ah yeah, rate these … on which scale?
One to ten, and pick anything:
Your sense of effectiveness
Your sense of joy and ease
Your sense of security
Your sense of dignity
Now, I am not here to shit on people capable of taking a boatload of rejection and keep their spirits up. The resilience of master cold callers is admirable. That doesn’t say that there aren’t any better ways, tho.
Think of how seduction works.
Do you feel particularly seduced when you’re:
Informed about the ‘limited supply’ (that you can tell is bogus)
Pressured to accept the offer today
Being followed up on every day
Or does seduction instead contain a respect of boundaries, a growing sense of trust and safety, and even occasional withdrawal?
If everyone wants something from you all the time … how do you respond to someone that gives insight, gives guidance, gives a clear call to action – and then let’s you be. I’ll make my point, make my offer, but you’re free to do what’s best for you. I’ll respect your boundaries, and you don’t even have to enforce and defend them.
How do you feel when everything about an offer says: It’s up to you.
Yeah, that’s how other people feel too.
Once that's settled, let's turn 'Greenwashing and overpromising' into …
4. Use Engineering as Marketing
Let's face it, we struggle to determine who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
That's why at some point, testimonials became the preferred signal of trust. Let me know what others say! It comes down to our tribal past and the pattern of social proof: When other people say that this is the good stuff, I can’t go wrong – right?
Well, today, even this mechanism got captured and capsized:
Are these five-star fireworks genuine or a paid-for social proof campaign?
Is this one-star shitstorm testimonial true, or a competitor campaign?
In this situation, there’s no better game to play than to disrupt this rotten status quo with inconquerable integrity and honesty. Regarding the truth of your work, that means to make it as transparent as you can. Not the pinky-promise politician style of ‘transparency’, but true transparency:
Sure, this could be mistaken as idealist fluff with no effective results or returns, but it isn’t. Let’s take a piece of evidence, a beacon of the Engineering as Marketing principle: Dyson.
They’re sharing their engineering process and insane iteration cycle count towards better (market-defining) products on Youtube. That’s a major part of their marketing and in fact, it’s pretty much all 'engineering cycles’ and ‘philosophy of work ethics’. They’re a masterclass in effectively communicating your passion and the truth of what you do.
There’s almost no hard sell on their products.
You would have trouble finding a more established keystone brand in the industry of vacuum cleaners. Of course, this requires excellence to be transparent about, but with this kind of momentum and transparency, you can then start to trust their raving testimonials again – they’re probably real.
So instead of a strategy to dazzle and overwhelm people with tricks and stunts, let's go with …
5. Tell a story
For about three years, I was looking for a formula.
I knew about the power of storytelling and how it connects of our campfire memories. I knew that I wanted to make this psychological superpower accessible to regenerative changemakers. But I just didn’t know how. A story here and there …
But not yet it, not quite what I was looking for.
Then I read Building A Storybrand by Donald Miller and found the missing piece: Guidance on how to turn your mission and business case into a story to be told. Someone else, Miller and his team, had thought long and hard about this, and they found a remarkable way of combining those two.
In essence, it’s laughably easy:
Your customer or client is the hero (not you!)
The problem they’re facing is the villain
The hero meets a guide that is calling them to action (that’s you)
You provide a plan to overcome the villain
Because you’re a wickedly competent guide helping an awesome hero …
Success is achieved and catastrophe averted!
The author asserted that »more businesses failed [on the back of] their own signal-to-noise ratio than from taxes, competition or economic crises.«
Their communication was all over the place, they had too much so say so that the signal got drowned in the noise.
Wrapping your whole business case in the cloth of a story reduces the clutter and aligns your whole mission along a central narrative. This narrative is then readily received by the brain, helping those heroes that come your way understand the essence of your mission, business and offer – and come to see you as a guide.
Try telling a story – if it solves our problem, we’ll almost have no choice but to listen.
PS: You have no idea how to turn your mission into a story? Here’s a free DIY guidance survey inspired by the original framework.
Having told your story, let's turn the sleazy ways of inventing artificial scarcity into …
6. Communicate true capacity limits
There’s a switch within us that flips as soon as there are only a few items left.
Hence, the economy that we know (and love … right?) is built around scarcity. It’s the big price driver, and as human nature goes, it’s certainly not outrageous to assume that some things we think to be scarce … aren’t.
They’re famously propped up in their value with a narrative of articificial scarcity. Being consequently revered a status symbol in society drives up the price even more. We even have a rule of thumb about which diamond ring price is reasonable to express your love with: A two month’s salary. Following this ‘winning’ pattern, there are now the eternal three items left in the warehouse, like a magic rabbit hat for spineless vendors.
The diamond case alone digs up a whole mine of problems with marketing – and you can go about it more ethically without losing your market edge.
So how to do it?
This is how: Simply communicate genuine capacity limits.
Make transparent when you actually only have seven pieces left in your warehouse, or when you can take on a maximum of 9 clients per year. This is not a call to ignore basic insights into human nature in the name of unhinged idealism. It’s a call to be smart about it, but also honest. When you know that scarcity is a thing, don’t forget to communicate and true capacity limits.
Unless you’re absolutely super-human, you surely have those – so let your humanity be a communication asset.
Humanity is also found in not coercing people into dependency, but instead to …
7. Empower & liberate
Propell people forward in elevation, not bogged down by coercive deals.
Sure, you want to sustain and grow your company and mission, especially if you’re having something worthwhile to offer. Yet that doesn’t mean that the ends justify the means – in fact, the ‘means’ almost always give away the ‘ends’ if you watch closely. If you’re bareknuckling people at every opportunity, you not only lose self-respect, you’ll also activate people’s psychological reactance patterns and damage your brand and reputation.
It’s just not sexy.
And it’s a delicate line to walk – what should you do and allow for?
Repeat clear and confident calls to action?
Make your content ‘fit’ and drive your business?
Have a sensible follow-up offer for those already sold on what you’re doing?
Accept money as a mission-enabler and grease in the system?
Close win-win deals and draw some money on your side?
Introduce shitty surprises only after sign-up?
Fool people into purchases with fake scarcity?
Overpromise and bait people into sticky deals?
Make it all about profit as if there’s nothing else to business (and life, for that matter)?
Try to sell at every single touchpoint?
Please … refuse.
The bright side of business finds a balance between ethical and effective. Unethical and ineffective doesn’t even register. Unethical and effective we’ve seen enough of. Ethical and ineffective … also doesn’t register.
We can’t anymore be ruthlessly effective, and neither can we be teethlessly ethical.
By empowering people and propelling them forward in elevation, you’ll create goodwill, form great relationships, invite reciprocity and essentially use a psychological form of biomimicry.
What flows out quickly flows back – you’re again a part of all that’s going on, instead of locked in fierce competition with everything that’s not your own bottom line.
I see, that was a lot.
Let’s recap these principles:
Show that you understood
Provide valuable guidance first
Magnetize your message
Use Engineering as Marketing
Tell a story
Communicate true capacity limits
Empower & liberate
If you’re applying these in your communication, you won’t miss any of the results that digital marketing is here to deliver. You’ll also cast your vote on a new way of doing and communicating things that’s fit for a world we would actually like to inhabit, while not skimping on the ‘effective’ part.
Because this is a summary, and it was so much fun the first time, let's take a look at this again:
The way the world goes, this might not look like it's right in reach – but it might be closer than we think it is.
It requires us to wake up to the fact that we're living our own story here, that we have to awaken out immense creative potential, and that we essentially have no other choice. Go forward as we have and we're doomed, so let's make up our minds and pursue this reality as if it could come true.
When it comes to language, tho, the revolution is in the nuances.
It’s also the nuances that are way harder to fake for those trying to simply instrumentalize language without respecting the 'truth' part. Work with the human brain, not against it – neither ignoring its rules, nor exploiting its vulnerability. Respect the human mind, both in its dignity and in its points of effortless resonance.
To me, that calls for communication that doesn't bite – but has teeth.
If you get this right, trust that people will notice.
They’ll be able to tell you apart.
PS: You wholeheartedly agree with the message but need help with this stuff? Let's have a chat.
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I am on a mission to find the sweetspot between effective and ethical digital communication in a time between worlds. Let's make true regenerative changemakers stand out and fan logical solutions some psychological tailwind.