The Problem of Voice: On Paul Graham, Press Releases, and More

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In a recent essay entitled, “The Submarine,” the always sharp Paul Graham expounds on the just below the waves/puppet master role that PR plays in a variety of industries, including technology. As with many of Graham’s writings, the piece got quite a bit of play in the blogging world (see here for comments from Marion, or here from Mike), because of the way that it explains something many of us knew, but didn’t articulate.

While I found the comments on PR reasonably interesting, however, I was actually more interested in how he builds the case based on issues of voice and authenticity. Here’s one example:

Why? I think the main reason is that the writing online is more honest. Imagine how incongruous the New York Times article about suits would sound if you read it in a blog:

“The urge to look corporate– sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve– is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.”

The problem with this article is not just that it originated in a PR firm. The whole tone is bogus. This is the tone of someone writing down to their audience.

The issue has a particular relevance for me because I’m growing more and more convinced that the problem, if it can be termed such, of “enforced voice,” is far more widespread that we realize.

For example, let’s take the good old press release. Long the primary communication channel for launches and other important announcements, it has in my view become next to useless – although some folks that I respect, such as Andy Lark, would likely disagree with me. The interesting thing is that it’s not a problem of channel, or technology, or process: it’s almost strictly a problem of voice. Press releases have become so sterile, so regimented, and so formalized that they are nearly unreadable to the average person. Is del.icio.us announcing its commercialization on an email list the harbinger of things to come? Probably not any time soon. But to the folks that would argue that I’m not the primary audience for press releases and thus am not in a position to judge them, I’d simply ask: who is? And do they find them valuable?

But as I mentioned earlier, I think the problem of enforced voice is far more widespread that we realize. While speaking with Claire Giordano the other day, she cited Unix man pages (man pages are like Unix’ version of help files, as they explain options, etc) as one example of the problem, and I couldn’t agree more. Most of the people I know would agree that the “house style” of man pages is at best opaque, and at worst unhelpful. And yet new man pages are continually churned out that adhere to the same, almost deliberately RTFM-style obscure format. Why? If it doesn’t work well, why not fix it?

Then there’s marketing copy writing. The O’Reilly folks had an interesting debate on that a little while back (Nat’s take is here, Tim’s response is here). It probably will come as no surprise that I’m far more aligned with Nat, who says:

This need for desirably vague prose leads to “Perl is a scripting language” becoming “Perl, the most widely adopted dynamic programming language, came to prominence in the hey-day of the web but now has devoted followers in every area of programming from systems administration to webmasters”. “This book covers security in PHP” becomes “No more need you fear for the security of your company’s data, for this experienced author’s magnificent prose guides you gently yet surely through the tenets and best practices of security to take you from an insecure amateur to a hardened professional programmer”.

It may well be that I’m simply innured or immune to certain forms of marketing, but I can’t for the life of me see how the “marketing copy” voice is any better than a simple, conversational description. When I was in school, I took a creative writing class from Deirdre McNamer, who taught me an important lesson on cliches. In telling us why we should at all costs avoid them in our writing, she asked “what do you do as a reader when you encounter a cliche?” No hands went up. “Skip over them,” she said. I agreed then, and I see much the same problem with marketing copy. As soon as I see the typical marketing speak “no more need you fear for the security of your company’s data blah blah blah,” I just shut off. I’d rather read the worst Amazon reviewer’s take than the marketing-speak. But maybe it’s just me.

On another front, we’ve all been told for years that adherence to a “house style” is a necessary component to journalism, but is it really? I can see the argument from a man page perspective, because if every help file was constructed differently it could be problematic (although some updating is in order), but to my way of thinking the immense popularity of blogs is an indication that, for many, house style is actually not preferable. Maybe it’s just that I have no background in journalism, but I don’t think people want an enforced voice, they want an individual voice (unless it’s El Reg – they can keep their house style).

As much as we crave that individual voice however – that sign that somewhere, somehow, someone human had a say in its production [1] – it’s equally clear that some conformity is not only appropriate, but required. Take company presentations as an example: if I received two different presentations from say, IBM, Microsoft, or Sun that looked completely and totally different, I might conclude that the firm was poorly organized and not at all consistent with their messaging. But how much consistency is too much? I’d be willing to bet that even if you stripped out branding, language, and readily identifiable graphics from a major vendor’s Powerpoint and showed it to me taste-test style, I’d be able to tell with a high degree of accuracy which firm produced it. This is consistent, but also drives firms towards becoming increasingly self-referential and isolated language-wise. It distances the vendor from outside parties, and that can’t be a good thing.

To take this all back to Graham, this quote from his piece pretty much sums up my thoughts on the problem of enforced voice: “I didn’t realize, till there was an alternative, just how artificial most of the writing in the mainstream media was.” And because there is an alternative – in blogs – rather than propose solutions to the individual problems I’ve called out, I’ll just take my attention – and my business – to the channels that don’t enforce voice, and have actual humans behind them. Meanwhile, you can keep the press releases.

[1] Flickr is tremendous at this. When reminding people not to upload pictures twice and to be patient, it doesn’t say “Do not upload pictures twice to avoid duplicates,” it says “Don’t upload pictures twice. That just makes Flickr angry.” Which do you prefer?


  1. I'm not certain if a "house style" detracts from a journal or blog. For instance the commercial blog, SFist http://sfist.com/ , has a "house style" that uses the "royal we" voice. At first I thought this was really odd for a blog, but it has since become one of my favorites.

    The Register is sort of same thing as you mention.

    Although I totally agree that the marketing droidisms do nothing for me.

  2. It's like any business process.

    There are good reasons to have processes and standard ways of doing things, for consistency's sake. After all, it's hard to aggregate information from multiple sources inside a company if everyone uses a different word processor, etc etc.

    The problem comes when processes get overcodified and inflexible in the face of the actual work that has to get done. That's when House Style runs amok.

    I bet you wouldn't actually notice if two IBM (or MS or Sun) presentations came in with slightly different fonts in their main bodies, as long as the presentations were consistent with themselves. That's the kind of consistency that's important.

  3. Hello Stephen.
    I thing PR documents are still important for many people, if nothing else, it's the oficial position of the company on some subject. It's not binary in one or the other, both have it's place and I give use to both.

    Second, I think consistency is important, inside an document and inside a company. It makes understanding a lot easier, expecially if you're not English speaking native.

    Finally, I sure expect you stoped receiving "Powerpoints" from Sun. I hope Sun only send PRESENTations to you πŸ™‚

    PS. Hope things are calmer now, after the move

  4. Christopher: i think in theory you're correct; a house style need not detract from the overall content quality. i think in many cases, however, they do – particularly when contrasted against the individuality of blogs. basically i think it comes down to the appeal of a particular house style. if it's like the Reg and people like it, knock yourself out. if it's like press releases or even AP stories, and distances the reader, i'm not sure how well it plays. either way, they're not going away.

    Fraxas: we're fully aligned on the some-consistency-is-good meme, i think. i think where we may differ a bit is in just how often the house style "runs amok." my contention is that it's really, really common.

    Jaime: nice use of the binary meme πŸ˜‰ on your second point, i'd push back a bit. granted, if everybody's all over the place you might have some trouble, but for those speaking english as a second language, are blogs really harder to read/digest than press releases? if so, i guess you're right, but i'd tend to think blogs are more readable. and as far as Sun PRESENTations go, they're actually all in PDF, b/c the folks forget i use OO.o πŸ˜‰

    thanks also for the words on the move; things are indeed much calmer now.

  5. Well, PR papers usually more formal so, they don't have a lot of cultural references.
    If you read Greg Papadopolous weblog, you'll find some reference do the Red Sox (for example) well, like most people in the world, I can imagine them being an baseball or football team and, I can take they won something when the odds were against them but, that was just interpretation of the example given, that example was not clear to me, blogs are full of stuff like that.
    Notice that I'm not saying blogs aren't usefull, they are, very but, I see no reason for droping everything else.

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