The power of being specific

John Foust
By John Foust, Advertising Trainer

Motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar used to ask, “Are you a meaningful specific or a wandering generality?” He related his comment to a number of areas: long and short-term goal setting, day-to-day activities, and dealings with family members, coworkers and customers.

On closer examination, it’s easy to see that his words could apply to just about any area of life or profession. Even advertising.

Why should we aim for “good” results for advertisers, when it’s much better to strive for x-percent increase in sales for their businesses? Why should salespeople accept vague answers to key questions, when it’s more useful to structure questions to get specifics? And why should we tell someone they did “nice work,” when it would mean a lot more to them to hear specific reasons why they did well? (Besides making them feel good, that kind of sincere praise encourages them to repeat the same successful behavior.)

It’s easy to be vague. It’s challenging to think – and communicate – in specifics. Yes, specifics are meaningful and generalities wander all over the place, without much significance at all. Generalities have no sticking power.

Let’s take a look at two areas that have a particular need for specificity:

  1. Sales presentations. It’s natural to open a sales conversation with a general question like, “How’s business?” The answer is usually a mundane “fine” or “could always be better.” The person asking the questions is in position to steer the dialogue, so it’s up to the salesperson to transition away from vague back-and-forth generalities. Get specifics by asking for specifics.

For example, “It’s great to hear that business is fine. What’s creating those results?” Or, “I understand wanting business to be better. What kinds of things do you think would help?”

See what’s happening? This type of response can move the discussion into areas that give the salesperson something to work with.

  1. Ad copy. Every salesperson should have antennae for good and bad copywriting. When an advertiser wants to say “save big” or “large residential lots,” alarms should go off. Neither “save big” nor “large residential lots” says anything of value to readers. Exactly how much can people save when they save big? And just how large is a large lot? We’ll never know unless the ads tell us.

Think of sports. Wouldn’t football fans rather know that their team won 33-32 than by “a narrow margin?” Isn’t a headline like “Jones hits three home runs to set conference record” more descriptive than “Jones has great game?”

Look for the specifics in these product statements: Save up to $300 on your new refrigerator. Reduce your heating and cooling costs by as much as 20 percent. Each home in Lakeside Village will be built on a one-acre lot. Place your order by this weekend and get free delivery and installation.

Vague generality or meaningful specific? When it comes to advertising, this can make the difference between a marketing campaign that works and one that falls flat.

(c) Copyright 2020 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information:

Other recent columns