Life-changing advice: Avoid hyperbole

You’re going to fall over when you read this, but this email will change your life.

I’m exaggerating, of course.

Hyperbole weakens writing. To quote William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” (yes, again), “These verbal high jinks can get just so high … before the reader feels an overpowering drowsiness. It’s like being trapped with a man who can’t stop reciting limericks.”

Exaggeration also diminishes your credibility. “When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement, as well as everything that follows it, will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise,” Strunk and White wrote in “The Elements of Style.” … “A single overstatement, wherever or however it occurs, diminishes the whole, and a single carefree superlative has the power to destroy, for readers, the object of your enthusiasm,” they warned.

Here are some examples of hyperbole, along with better alternatives:

Hyperbole: It took a million years for the software to start up.
This is a gross exaggeration, of course, but it’s even more problematic because we probably should be reporting specific test results in these instances.
Fix: It took 18 seconds for the software to start up on the Asus, compared with just 3 seconds on the Lenovo.

Hyperbole: This new smartphone feature will blow your mind.
Readers have become desensitized to these screams for attention. They also know that their heads will not literally explode when they read about a smartphone feature. As a result, our message becomes inauthentic, and we start to lose credibility.
Fix: Be more specific. For example, This new smartphone feature solves a key Android security problem. Or, This new smartphone feature lets you play VR games in your car.

Hyperbole: Elon Musk just came up with the best idea of all time.
Though his idea may be innovative, surely there have been better ideas in the history of the universe. (No, not sliced bread; avoid this cliché as well.)
Fix: Elon Musk revealed his futuristic concept for a superfast transportation system. Better yet, be more specific: Elon Musk revealed his concept for the Hyperloop, a futuristic transportation system that he says could send people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just 30 minutes.

I know, I know: This is the best advice you’ve ever received. 🙂


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