Five rules to avoid the overuse of hyperbole and marketing speak

There is a terrible temptation for firm leaders and their spokespersons to get carried away by the organisation’s own self publicity and to make assertions that cannot be evidenced by facts or backed up by empirical data. Some expressions of course are readily seen as hyperbole – intended to create a strong impression, but not meant to be taken literally.
Phrases such as ‘leading firm’, ‘pre-eminent’ and even ‘client focused’ are in wide use, but can very rarely be proved evidentially, nor is anybody ever taken in by them. What is worse, the sophisticated client or external observer may at times think the worse of the speaker for delivering mere puff.
As a listener, I have myself experienced feelings of disengagement and even cynicism from misdirected boasting. As a regular judge in professional service firm awards, for example, I am not impressed by submissions unless they are supported by evidence of successful outcomes or compelling metrics.
I offer five rules to avoid deceptive boasting, braggadocio or the making of false representations.

1. Pick your audience
The first rule involves careful discrimination to know and ensure resonance with the audience. Clients need to see authority, honesty and passion; they quickly see through banalities and carefully-scripted elevator pitches.

Staff need to feel that they are respected and cared for. Partners need to perceive that the leadership team is communicating openly, with neither a hidden agenda nor manipulative politics.

Directories only take firms seriously if they can back up their ranking claims by providing details of work done, experience gained and clients served.

2. Present evidence rather than assertions
There is hardly anything more persuasive than the facts. The best leaders marshal a selection of critical success factors, metrics and results indicators to back up their claims.

Lawyers in particular ought to be good at presenting their ‘authority for the proposition’. But, whilst this may be the default option for client work, it often seems to be missed when promoting the firm. Care therefore needs to be taken to ensure that any promotional statement can be backed up by evidence.

3. Work on the corporate résumé
At the other extreme from unsupported boasting, parts of many firms can remain best-kept secrets. Some partners of professional service firms seem unaware of the authority or depth of their expertise and experience.

One problem is that the best work tends to be very difficult to describe as it is often intangible, immeasurable or idiosyncratic. Complexity and engagement size can help, but it is always tricky to illustrate compellingly the flashes of brilliance or insight that have led to success.

Firms are becoming better at drawing up their corporate résumés, but I am often surprised by how little partners seem to know about the details of the work being done and the expertise being deployed by their colleagues. The capture of all interesting work done can help to not only develop the firm’s intellectual capital, but also to illustrate the firm’s overall prowess.

4. Tell compelling stories
The potential power of telling stories has been well rehearsed throughout the management world, but is often ignored. It is of course vital to preserve client confidentiality, but anonymised case studies and well-told stories spark emotions and inspire engagement in ways that simply cannot be replicated by the use of corporate buzzwords.

Even the simplest of stories can be powerful, but all stories need thorough and careful crafting. Successful stories do not just happen; they are put together, word by word, from the experiences of the past.

5. Exercise humility, avoid cliché
Whilst it may be tempting to fall back on hyperbole and the use of glib phrases, the best leaders tend to gain much of their power and authority from a reflective mindset that enables them to see their firm in the context of the world about them.

Events and happenings become experiences when they are digested, reflected on and synthesised. Humility is a vital ingredient here and should not be confused with weakness. Humility blended with professional determination and commitment creates a cocktail of honesty, integrity and capability that compels, impresses and engages the listener.
It becomes obvious that careful preparation and reflection is needed for meetings, submissions and pitches to be persuasive, influential and authoritative. Whilst much of the preparatory work can be delegated to researchers and the marketing department, professional firm leaders should carry out their own reflections, command their own bases of knowledge and accumulate their personal repositories of compelling stories and facts.

This article first appeared in Managing Partner Volume 17 Issue 7 (April 2015) and is reproduced with their permission