Messaging advice from George Orwell

Being as clear as possible in your marketing gives you the chance to think clearly about the value your business creates

Did you read Animal Farm? Or the true story action-adventure epic it’s based on, Homage to Catalunya? If you read either, it perhaps affected you, even if you were “forced” to read it in school.

If so, that’s likely because the author carefully studied how language impacts us.

In part, his motivations were political. Or anti-political, in that they were a reaction to government propaganda, especially from the Soviet Union. But from anywhere. And later he’d extrapolate from government propaganda to news; newspeak (eg “collateral damage” for “killing of civilians”).

But the other reason his books and writings leave a lasting dent in readers’ minds is that Orwell considered how language impacts the author.

Not the reader, the author.

He believed that it was not possible to think clearly about anything complex without being able to write about it clearly. 

You hear people say things like, “I know exactly what I think about this, I just don’t have the words to get it down on paper”. That’s the kind of premise he disagreed with.

See, there’s a distinction between clear writing and artful writing – verse, lyrics. The latter is art.

Like news and politics, marketing is not art; it makes you more money when it’s clear. Or more impact, depending on your goals.

This distinction is important to your marketing and to your products and services themselves.

Show me one SaaS app that doesn’t have words. Or one website. Or, let’s go far afield, one consumer packaged goods. You can’t.

We have woven words into almost everything – and certainly into the digital products we create. If we aren’t clear on how we describe those products, we aren’t clear on what we think about them.

How to take action

So let’s say you agree with the premise – what to do? How to improve your own messaging? How to judge the copywriting skill of someone you may work with?

Judge by Orwell’s rules below:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These were originally published in Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language [1]. And numerous marketing consultants before me have turned to them for guidance and expounded on them. Drayton Bird, for example. They don’t need my color-commentary.

My primary observation is, “Wow, I break these rules a lot!”.

But in tech and in marketing we are almost all guilty doing so, especially rule #5. To be fair, think of rule #6 when evaluating tech jargon; sometimes jargon is useful because of brevity. For example, SEO for Search Engine Optimization.

But here’s an interesting thought experiment – try applying these rules to the sales and marketing collateral you most love: your proposal template, your website’s homepage, your best blog post, etc. Imagine Orwell

Then ask yourself, do you think about your business any differently? Or as Orwell puts it in the essay, do they “demand a deep change of attitude”?

I’m going to take a break from publishing this newsletter for Thanksgiving – and I hope you have a great one, whether this finds you in the US or not.

Grateful to have you as my subscriber!



[1] The Orwell Foundation, which manages his estate, provides this essay for free here

Funny side story – I copied and pasted this essay into Grammarly, removing the examples of writing “a little below the average” (not written by Orwell). Grammarly qualified the writing as follows:

Clarity: “Unclear”
Engagement: “a bit bland”
Delivery: “Slightly off”

So take Grammarly’s advice with a grain of AI-is-still-stupid salt 🙂