In a culture of excess, companies are walking a linguistic tightrope between hyperbole and uncertainty, working to present the facts without exaggerating their meaning. Sometimes it’s tempting to say things that sound compelling, but aren’t true, or just amplified enough to raise eyebrows. But will it actually ruin your life? We could lie (hyperbolically, of course) and say, ‘Undeniably!’, but we know you’re not that gullible.
“An elegant surpassing of the truth”
Literally derived from the Greek word meaning ‘excess’, hyperbole is the extreme exaggeration used to make a point, or the opposite of an understatement. Working precisely to draw attention to itself, hyperbole highlights speaker opinions and emotions with the intention of having these heard and understood by the listener. It’s a tactic linguist Claudia Claridge calls “emotive persuasion.” Roman rhetorician, Quintilian holds a similar sympathetic view to the form of syntax, insisting that it isn’t a deceitful lie, but rather “an elegant surpassing of the truth”.
Finding the best way to describe a feeling, a place or a product is often difficult and words allow you to provide clearly discernable meanings. Exaggeration then serves to make that meaning more striking and therefore, unmistakable. An overexcited metaphor can devastate a statement and a too-literal analogy might bamboozle your argument, but a subtle hyperbole can work. Great examples are usually found in literature, and the key is usually taking it far enough. Don’t be shy of pushing hyperbole to the point of absurdity because that’s where it belongs. Take Paul Bunyan’s opening remarks in the American folktale Babe, the Blue Ox:
“Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”
When to avoid it…like the plague
While hyperbole’s home sits comfortably in the realm of literature and speech, there are instances where its use can leave you in awkward territory. When selling a product or service, there is a temptation for organisations to get carried away by their own self-publicity and to make proclamations that cannot be evidenced by facts. Every business wants to stand out and make an impression, but forcing readers to navigate through overstated adjectives and impassioned turns of phrase may have the opposite of your intended result. Take this advertisement for Shampoo that describes it as adding “…amazing lustre for infinite, mirror-like shine”. Well,knock me over with a feather (or something harder that may actually knock me over) – I’ll never need a mirror again! People are not as gullible as many advertisers would like them to be. Yes, you have a product to sell, and yes, it is a competitive market. But if your business is a good one and your product is one that you can stand by confidently, exaggeration should not be necessary to make a sale.
Here are a few tips on how to keep a handle on hyperbole:
1) Avoid absolutes, superlatives and clichés
Avoid words like ‘never’, ‘always’ and ‘best’. Or ‘most’, ‘ultimate’ ‘undisputed’ and ‘unsurpassed’. Savvy consumers can see right through the exaggeration. Instead, be honest, unassuming and straightforward. Best-ever claims are difficult to prove and if you set the bar too high, it’s easy to fall short. Hyperbolic clichés can also make you feel like a million dollars, but they’re also unreliable and, in some cases, laughable.
2) Use numbers and quantify
Expressions such as ‘numerous’, ‘several’ ‘various’ and ‘few’ are ambiguous and unclear. If you’re able to quantify, do it! And if you can’t quantify such expressions, try to provide a relative context.
3) Prove it!
Before you say it, make sure you can prove it. Be specific, always cite your source and offer up verification. If you’re the global leader in your industry, make sure you mention how you acquired this illustrious title. If you give specifics, you’ll inspire trust.
4) Let others sing your praises
Gather customer testimonials from satisfied customers convinced that your product or service really is the best. Organise your feedback and ask happy customers to provide glowing endorsements – here, hyperbole is fine. If your customer wants to say glowing things about you, that’s not propaganda – it’s a reliable source giving their informed opinion.
5) Remember your goal and your audience
Your goal is to provide a product or service to the right customer. If it does the job, let it stand on its own merits and be honest when describing its benefits. Write boldly and with enthusiasm, but carefully construct and craft your arguments guiding the reader to their own compelling conclusion.