5 ways to keep bland fluff words out of your copy

Anna Gunning

Gunning Marketing

You’ve finessed your copy so it’s on brief and on message. It’s got an ideal readability score. Hemingway and would be proud.

And then the client comes back.

They love the structure and the clear messaging. You’ve written some great lines. But it needs “bolstering.” What will make it perfect, the client says, will be to sprinkle some revolutionary, market-leading innovation to reflect that they’re at the cutting edge and redefining the industry.

They want hollow words, bland fluff, meaningless puffspeak (although they’re not thinking of it in those terms).

This happens quite a bit in B2B (although B2C and non-profit have their own variations on the theme).

How can you steer clients away from the dark side of hyperbole?

Now, the client is ultimately the decision maker since they’re paying the bill. But as the copywriter, there are respectful ways to challenge this feedback before you go ahead and weaken your copy.

Based on my experiences as an agency copywriter and a freelancer, here are my top 5 strategies for discussing fluff requests with clients.

1. Ask why they want to add the bland fluff words

Usually it’s because they want to sound impressive, in order to establish authority and build trust.

Frame the discussion that way, and you can focus the conversation on the basis for that authority.

What makes them revolutionary, market leading and cutting edge?

They’re revolutionary because they have more patents than their competitors. Customers are 150% more productive since they started using the product/service. They’ve been growing their R&D tax credits year on year.

Then you can strengthen the copy by showing instead of weakening it by telling.

When you drill into specifics and get the juicy stories and facts, there are 2 benefits:

  • You address the client’s feedback effectively, so they’re happy
  • You make the copy more compelling, so the client’s happy and you’re happy.

2. Ask how they speak about the company/product/service

In an ideal world, this is part of your briefing process. Hopefully you’ve gotten to go beyond the brand guidelines and boilerplate and speak to actual salespeople or spokespeople. But it’s not always possible, which is why this approach is useful.

Good salespeople rarely crowd their pitches with fluff. You get the odd word in, but there’s context and it sounds natural.

Even getting the client to say the fluffed-up copy out loud can make a difference, because they realise they don’t actually speak the way they want you to write.

3. Refer to testimonials

“This technology revolutionises operations” has little impact.

“John Smith, Operations Director at ABC Ltd, said, ‘The solution has revolutionised our operations’” does.

Are there customer stories that use the language the client is asking you to include? If so, quote them.

Important note: You should also refer to customer stories to suggest better ways of communicating the message about being cutting edge and market leading. I flag it if customers aren’t using the words the client is suggesting. Given that you’re aiming to continue the conversation in the reader’s head, you need to speak the audience’s language – and flagging this is powerful ammunition.

4. Ask for a second opinion

I often use this approach when I have an established relationship and rapport with a client.

You may not have contact with other people in the organisation, and the copy may have already done the rounds internally before you received the feedback.

But if you know there’s a good sales guy, subject matter expert or friendly customer, ask if they can read both versions.

I usually say something like, “Before we go ahead with these changes, can we just check in with Jane first? She had a useful perspective on a previous project, and I want to make sure we keep the copy focused on what resonates with the customer.”

5. Test both versions

I debated putting testing higher up the list, but in my experience this depends a lot on the client and the project. Some clients don’t like to test, and some projects don’t lend themselves to short-term results (like a corporate brochure, for example). But if it relates to online copy or email, testing is usually very easy.

If you feel the amends will jeopardise the copy’s effectiveness, test to prove it. It’s not about digging your heels in, it’s about saying that customers are the best judges of what works.

This is liberating because the data takes the subjectivity out.

Finally, know when to let go

To paraphrase William Faulkner, part of writing is knowing when to kill your darlings. And the sentiment applies to this situation as well.

Copywriting is a craft, and as a copywriter you’re delivering a service fortified with skill and strategy. But you also need to have perspective.

Ultimately, it’s the client’s copy and the client’s money – and as long as you’re comfortable you’ve voiced your expert opinion respectfully, put the client at the cutting edge and move on to next project on your to-do list.

What’s your experience? Are there other strategies that work well for you?

Connect with me over at Gunning Marketing, on Twitter and on LinkedIn.


13th May 2016

John Espirian

Nice work, Anna. Points 1 and 2 are particularly useful. Perhaps it’s just me, but none of my clients ever want to try point 5 (A/B testing) – a shame, I think.

13th May 2016

Anna Gunning

Thanks, John! I know what you mean about testing – I find it varies loads across my clients. And I was actually astounded to learn that one big email service (I won’t name and shame) didn’t allow for subject line split tests on a paid version. And that’s pretty basic…

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