When to Choose Vanilla Ice Cream over Rainbow Sherbet

I had lunch yesterday with Katie Wagner who owns Katie Wagner Social Media in Orange County, California. Our lively conversation over veggie burgers about posting content on social media turned to how creativity in writing can often get in the way of communicating a client’s message. We agreed that there are times when creativity works and other times when it’s better to just be straightforward – even when vanilla does not seem as exciting option.

To understand the advantages of straightforward writing, look no further than The Elements of Style, the “writer’s bible” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White that was originally published nearly 100 years ago. Strunk and White say:

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Note that in addition to making an argument for concise and straightforward writing, Strunk and White’s powerful words are themselves written in a concise and straightforward manner. Behind Strunk and White’s admonition is a powerful notion: that language should be used for the communication of ideas from the writer to the reader and that anything that facilitates that communication is desirable. By implication, anything that stands in the way of good communication is undesirable.

Public relations is fundamentally about optimizing communication. The Public Relations Society of America defines public relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

There are clearly going to be exceptions to the rule when straightforward is best. We would not have the poetry of Shakespeare or Whitman or the prose of Joyce or Faulkner if we were to limit them to straightforward language and short sentences. But most of us are not writing literature we are posting content to a website, blog or social media channel. We want to inform the media, and the wider public, about a courtroom win or a new practice group or an upcoming event. The best approach is the direct approach.

A PR professional may intentionally seek to be creative in her approach to a subject or in her words, often times when it’s imperative that a brand differentiates itself from the crowd. But even then, it’s best to return quickly to the straightforward.

“Plain vanilla” does not have to be negative, or simplistic; sometimes it is the perfect flavor.