Diagnose We-We Syndrome

You’re so vain, you probably think this proposal is about you

Diagnose We-We Syndrome

Avoid institutional narcissism Don’t go We, we, we all the way home — without the contract. Image by elycefeliz

Richard Roll, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies narcissism in CEOs. Turns out the more narcissistic executives are, the more likely they are to overrate their skills and make bad business moves.

In one study, Roll used a simple technique that’s been validated by psychologists to gauge executive narcissism (PDF): He counted the number of “I’s” they used in their communications.

The first-person pronoun — “the vertical pronoun,” as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski calls it — is bad enough. Its cousin, the first-person-plural “we,” is a symptom of another disorder: We-We Syndrome, or organization-focused, not reader-focused, writing.

Are you suffering from We-We Syndrome? Here are three techniques for diagnosing your copy:

1. Run the we-you test.

Use Microsoft Word’s “find” function to search for instances of company references versus reader references. Aim for a ratio of at least two reader references to one company reference.

Here are the results I got on one of my clients’ proposals:

We-you ratio

Our company name7Client company name4

It’s a good thing we had a chance to edit the proposal before it went out: We-We Syndrome can be fatal to business development.

As one of my clients says, “You’ll go ‘We, We, We’ all the way home — without the contract.”

2. See what you say.

One way to visualize We-We Syndrome is to create a tag cloud for your copy. Tag clouds display the words you use the most frequently in the largest type, those you use less often in smaller type.

You’re looking for your customer, the word “you” and benefits-oriented verbs to show up in large type and your own company and product names to be smaller. Here’s the tag cloud for a Sprint press release about its new smart phone, EVO:

IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU See what you're really saying with a tag cloud.

IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU See what you’re really saying with a tag cloud.

Remember, write about your readers, not your topic. If you find results like these, rewrite your copy to focus more on your customers and what they’ll be able to do with your product and less on the organization and the product itself.

3. Put the reader first.

Did these diagnostics reveal a bad case of Institutional Narcissism? One way to cure the disease is to lead with the reader, not with your company. Check out this before and after by Melanie Allen, Marketing & Public Relations manager at Inova.


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Spend less time in the car and in pain with Inova Loudoun Hospital’s three conveniently located emergency rooms.

Can’t use “you”? Use a placeholder instead. Start your headline, lead, paragraph or sentence with your target reader: “Asthma sufferers,” say, or “PR professionals.”

Take the cure

We-We Syndrome is contagious, so be careful out there. Don’t let We-We spread. The minute you’ve diagnosed the patient, apply the remedy: Rewrite your copy to focus on the reader, not the organization.

  • Think Like a Reader

    Move people to act

    It’s counterintuitive, but true: The product is never the topic. The program is never the topic. The plan is never the topic. The topic is never the topic. The reader is always the topic.

    Think Like a Reader in Dallas

    Indeed, the secret to reaching readers is to position your messages in your audience’s best interests. (Most communicators position their messages in their organization’s best interests. Which is fine, as long as you’re talking to yourself.)

    Move readers to act with a four-step process for giving people what they really want.

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on Oct. 2-3 in Dallas — you’ll learn a four-step process for moving readers to act by giving them what they really want. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Take advantage of the formula readers use to determine which messages to pay attention to (and which to toss).
    • Tap two rewards of reading you can use to boost audience interest in your message.
    • Answer the No. 1 question your reader is asking, regardless of your topic, medium or channel.
    • Make a two-minute perspective shift to focus your message on the value to readers — not on “us and our stuff.”
    • Use a three-letter word that magically makes your message more relevant to your readers.

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