Exaggeration is often harmless; telling a friend they look amazing when ok is more accurate never hurts. In the world of advertising, though, it’s different. Although it might be compelling to inflate your claims a little, amplified statements can raise eyebrows. Will hyperbole actually ruin your life? No. But it can damage your brand’s credibility beyond repair.
Literally derived from the Greek word meaning ‘excess’, hyperbole is extreme exaggeration used to make a point. It’s designed precisely to draw attention to itself and is a tactic linguist Claudia Claridge calls “emotive persuasion.” Roman rhetorician, Quintilian insisted 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 discernible meanings. Exaggeration makes the statement’s intention unmistakable and subtle hyperbole retains the relatability that over-ambitious metaphors and confusing analogies can lose.
Literature is where hyperbole is most at home, where it can be pushed to the point of absurdity for artistic effect. 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 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.”
While hyperbole thrives in literature and speech, there are instances where its use is off-putting. When selling a product or service, there is a temptation for organisations to go too far. If you force readers to navigate through overstated adjectives and impassioned turns of phrase, you might repel them instead of getting them onboard.
Yes, you have a product to sell, and yes, it is a competitive market. But if your business is one that you can stand by confidently, exaggeration shouldn’t be necessary to attract customers.
Here are a few tips on how to keep a handle on hyperbole:
Avoid words like ‘never’, ‘always’ and ‘best’. Or ‘most’, ‘ultimate’ ‘undisputed’ and ‘unsurpassed’. 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.
Expressions such as ‘numerous’, ‘several’ ‘various’ and ‘few’ are ambiguous and unclear. Quantify whenever you can or provide a relative context.
Be specific, always cite your source and offer up verification for anything you say. If you’re the global leader in your industry, mention how you acquired this illustrious title. If you give specifics, you’ll inspire trust.
Organise your feedback and ask happy customers to provide glowing endorsements – here, hyperbole is fine. If your customer wants to say that you really are the best, that’s not propaganda – it’s a reliable source giving their informed opinion.
If your products or services are great, let them stand on their own merits and be honest when describing their benefits. Write boldly and with enthusiasm, but carefully construct and craft your arguments guiding the reader to their own compelling conclusion.
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