The Power of Specificity – Learning From Stand-Up Commedians

In marketing there is often an inclination towards being general and unspecific not to exclude any potential customer. There are times, however, when being unspecific makes the message lose power. As I’m going to show you, being specific in your message accomplishes a number of things. I first became aware of the power of specificity when I was studying and talking to stand-up commedians and trying to make sense of what made a joke work really well or just pass the threshold of not bombing.

Whether the commedian is creating the setup for a punchline or delivering the punchline itself, being specific can really help sell the joke. When stand-up commedian Ron White makes a joke about a tough guy trying to endure a hurricane by tying himself to a tree, he says “it’s not that the wind is blowing. It’s what the wind is blowing. If you get hit by a Volvo, it doesn’t matter how many sit-ups you did this morning.” This joke paints a very specific picture. To most people I dare say that the joke wouldn’t have been as funny if he said “… hit by a car …”. Likewise, if the setup is someone playing a boardgame with their kids or having breakfast cereals, it’s usually more effective (i.e. funny) to name brands like Scrabbles or Cheerios instead of being general. Why is this the case?

I think one reason is that it creates a more vivid image in the minds of the audience. It will feel more like you’re actually there, which makes the audience engage more with what the commedian is telling them. It can also activate specific memories and therefore makes the scene more meaningful and alive. Something else to consider when we’re communicating with people who don’t know us personally is credibility. When someone writes a statement along the lines of “I made 100 000 dollars in a month” it usually seems like more of a made up thing or an exaggeration than a statement like “I made 97 500 dollars in 28 days.”. Specificity seems to appear more truthful than approximations to most people.

So, next time you’re creating your message, ask yourself if you could be more specific.

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