You might think that a slogan is a modern concept, but the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word back to the year 1513, referring to a battle cry of Scottish Highlanders. The Scottish clans liked their slogans so much they would often display them on their coats of arms. The Donnachaidh clan's slogan was "Fierce when roused." The Cameron clan: "Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh." Another clan: "Dammit, it's not a dress, it's a kilt." (Just kidding.)
Coats of arms are in short supply today, but slogans are everywhere. Politicians coin slogans ("Change you can believe in"; "Country first"), and every state has to have one, such as New Hampshire's "Live free or die." And a few hundred years after the birth of the word "slogan," the corporations raised their banners. The Alka-Seltzer clan's war cry? "Plop, plop, fizz, fizz." The Nike warriors yell, "Just do it." The Viagrans shout, "Fierce when roused."
Everyone likes a slogan. They're fun. But here's the catch: What happens if you have something really important to say, but when you open your mouth, what pops out is a snappy snippet, as though you were channeling a 1960s Mad Man? We've seen it, and it ain't pretty.
Recently, a task force of top execs at a large technology company was brainstorming about a new leadership initiative. It wanted the company's managers to spend more time developing their people and less on giving orders. To make this happen, the firm would have to change the way those managers were groomed, paid, and evaluated. Yet, facing these epic changes, the task force felt the need to hammer out a slogan. It was a doozy (mildly disguised for confidentiality): "360-Degree Leadership: Because we all matter." Just then, all the employees in the universe rolled their eyes.
Think about that for a second. These were smart, senior people, each with 20 to 30 years of experience, and they're debating whether "Because we all matter" or "Because we all matter" is crisper. If every actor secretly wants to direct, then every manager secretly wants to pen ad copy.
This type of slogan-virus also thrives in the nonprofit world. Civic Ventures is a social enterprise that promotes the idea of an "encore career," a second career beginning in one's fifties or sixties that's driven by the desire to give back. (It's a good idea: See page 114.) At an event that celebrated the Purpose Prize winners — people who had chosen an encore career — we gave the audience a challenge: how to persuade other seniors to do what they've done.
There are a variety of approaches to make the case. Tell a story about someone who has found a renewed sense of purpose via an encore career (such as Bill Gates). Appeal to the desire of older workers to leave their mark on the world. Draw distinctions between encore career people and their more conventional, boring peers — If you can't wait to retire so you can golf five times a week or catch up on your soaps, this ain't for you. But if you're willing to give something back, society really could use your talents.
Instead, a dozen groups of these award-winning citizens, independently, cooked up fizzy slogans. "Ready to rock the world!" "Don't trust anyone under 60!" "You can teach an old dog new tricks!" These people were not naive or poor communicators. Our assessment is that they were in the grips of a neurological compulsion.
Oliver Sacks, the famous writer-neurologist, has discussed the plight of patients who get stuck with "earworms," snippets of songs that play, unceasingly, in their heads. Could our sloganeering instinct be a "mouthworm"? Having been pelted by an endless barrage of slogans since birth, perhaps we simply can't imagine an important communication without one? The association is so deeply ingrained that it's irresistible.
If you have a $50 million ad budget for a consumer product that's pretty much the same as your competitor's, then please, keep writing those slogans (or "taglines," which are slogans written by people who have a moral objection to being the kind of people who write slogans). People need a reason to prefer Crest over Colgate. But the rest of us must fight the sloganeering instinct. People don't speak slogan-language today unless they're trying to put one over on you. So when you hear one, you immediately become cynical. (Just imagine your prickly reaction if your kids started minting slogans: "If you love somebody, get them Wii.")
So when the tech company announces its plan, and the first thing employees hear is "Because we all matter!", the initiative is over. You're the toothpaste salesman; they're the skeptical customers.
How do you know if you're inadvertently sloganeering? Here's a take-home test: If you can envision two exclamation points at the end of your idea, it's a slogan. If you can see it on a mug in Comic Sans font, it's a slogan. Toss it and start communicating.
When you have a big idea, make it come alive with a story. Make it real, color in some details, let it be something people can care about. Just don't make it snappy.
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Dan Heath and Chip Heath just re-released Made to Stick, featuring new content such as how to unstick an idea. Visit fastcompany.com/heaths for their primer on effective presentations.
A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.