Steak vs. sizzle

You’ve probably heard this old sales advice: Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. Credit for that phrase goes to Elmer Wheeler, who ran the Tested Selling Institute in Manhattan during the Great Depression.

His point was that “steak” is just another word on a menu. But when a waiter carries a sizzling steak through a restaurant? People hear it, then they see it, then they smell it. Then they can’t wait to order one.

“Hidden in everything you sell in life is a sizzle,” Wheeler said. “The sizzle is the tang in the cheese, the crunch in the cracker, the whiff in the coffee and the pucker in the pickle.”

Even shaving cream can have sizzle when you claim it will cut your shaving time in half.

In your writing, your facts and ideas are the steak. How do you sell the sizzle?

First, hunt for words that create strong mental images, preferably tied to our senses. The tang, the crunch, the whiff, the pucker. Get to the point quickly and cleanly. “Cut your shaving time in half” tells me a specific advantage in plain language. “A new parenting process that can effectively displace established parenting norms” tries to impress me with abstract words without really saying much.

Now, I’m not impying that the article on rearing kids — yes, that line is from a real article — doesn’t have any good ideas. In fact, it has several. But the language obscures those points instead of pointing a spotlight on them.

Using clear, vivid language will force you to confront another common problem: Some people forget that they need to deliver a steak after they’ve sold the sizzle. If I try your shaving cream, I’m going to have my stopwatch handy.

Years ago, I was asked to review some advertising copy for a new shopping center. The owners started out strong, touting the convenient location and highlighting some of the stores. But within a few bullet points they had forgotten about the steak. One line tried to evoke “the magic of covered parking.” I’m glad I won’t have to stand in the rain while I put my packages in the car, but don’t try to fool me into thinking that your parking garage is a land of magic and wonder.

If your facts and ideas are meaty and well prepared, you won’t need inflated language to sell the sizzle. If clear language makes your facts and ideas look like lumps of cold tofu, maybe you need to head back into the kitchen and cook up something more appetizing.

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