What if We Stopped Filling Space with Empty Words?

By Jason Menard

Empty words plague sports and business writing alike, so when it comes to providing value to the audience, why do we prize who says something over what they say?

Earlier today Doug Smith, a Toronto Star sports writer/columnist, wrote an insightful blog post under the heading “Talk is cheap and sometimes not necessary,” in which he examines the value of canned quotes over author-penned insight. 

Smith, who I consider one of Canada’s finest sports writers, focuses on basketball, but he has been known to branch out – and that’s an understatement – on his blog to include not only other beats to which he’s assigned (baseball, the Olympics), but also popular culture. His blog is one of the most engaging, interesting, and accessible ones out there – not just inCanada, but the world. And that’s a testament to his style, writing abilities, and insight.

So what would you rather read? The thoughts and views of a talented writer analyzing a situation, or some canned quote by a player or coach that really does nothing to add to the story? I know which side I fall on.

Unfortunately, we’ve come to believe that a story’s only legitimate if it includes a quote. It doesn’t matter if the quote has little to no insight or is just a mindless regurgitation from a stockpile of clichés. That quote simply needs to be in there.

From my own experience with sports writing, I can attest that wringing out an interesting quote from a disinterested athlete is one of the most challenging things in putting together a piece for public consumption. And as a business writer, we often fall into the same trap.

Corporate press releases, interviews with various publications, and on-line speeches are often riddled with empty words Nature – and copy – abhors a vacuum, and these vacuous comments do nothing more than suck the life out of content that could be interesting. At the very least, they take up valuable space in an inversely proportionate rate to the overall value of the content.

So why do we accept with words what we refuse with images? In no newspaper worth its salt will you see a page-one photograph of a grip-and-grin staged corporate shot; we don’t see photos of the ceremonial puck drop in the sports pages. Instead, we demand that our images be dynamic and tell a story.

We should demand the same out of our words.

Copy is a limited and valuable resource. Sure, on the Internet, we could go on for page after page – space seemingly unlimited. But we’re beholden to the attention span of our readers. We know that if the reader stops being interested in what’s being said, we lose our opportunity. The message may be gold, but if it’s buried under a mountain of worthless crap, very few will sift through.

Do I need to read, “We take it one game at a time,” or “I’m just going to focus on my game and give it 100 per cent?” Do I get any value from a CEO explaining how the company “will realign its resources to better utilize its core competencies”? Would that space not be better allocated to a sentence or paragraph that has some real value?

Quotes are great if they’re used to allow the principal figures in the piece to tell their own story; they’re useless when used for an empty cliché or meaningless string of biz speak. Would you miss them if they were gone?

Unfortunately, until we accept that analysis and opinion are not the same thing – and that they can be differentiated by more than a simple empty quote, we’re stuck with the status quo. I know I’d rather read 500 words by a capable writer describing the key events or aspects of the story than slog through a forced comment that’s got no specific tie to the story at hand.

As readers and consumers, we need to demand more. Quotes should still be prized by writers, but only if they’re worthy of the space they’ll take up. If not, then stop using a quote for a quote’s sake. Imagine if a corporate press release actually got to the point right away, instead of being led down a winding path of empty words that only see print because the person who spoke them has a title.

Perhaps the best way to edit out this filler is to remove the name of the person speaking from the equation. If the same quote was provided by Joe Minimum Wage would it make the final cut? If the answer is no, then it should be cut – plain and simple.

After all, it’s not just space that’s valuable – so is our time. If we start demanding more, perhaps then we’ll start getting what we truly deserve.

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