Episode 10: Overkill
“Pounding away until the point is crushed under the weight of redundancy.”
Welcome to the Uncomfortable Truth, today we’re talking about overkill.
You ever hear anyone say that someone else is belaboring the point? A woman was trying to explain a bill to me the other day and I understood what she was saying and I said, “Okay, that’s good.” Yet she kept telling me and I said, “I’ve got it, I’ll pay it.”, and she said, “No, let me tell you what.” She had to explain it her way, it didn’t matter what the other party thought. It was overkill. Marshall McLuhan, the rather brilliant guy who talked about the medium as the message and hot and cool media, said once that the price of eternal vigilance is indifference. And that is, if you’re constantly on guard, pretty soon you lose your focus. This is why TSA at the airports is so problematic. How long can you look at a screen, even if you’re relieved regularly, and still pay rapt attention? I know I couldn’t. I cannot even sit in a meeting.
You know when we were kids, our parents, usually our mother would say, “Don’t run with a stick in your hand, you’ll poke your eye out.” Yet I’ve never seen a neighborhood with one-eyed kids, even though they were running with sticks. “Don’t play in the street.” Yet it was the only place we had to play and nobody was hit by cars. “Don’t talk while you’re in line.”, they told us in grammar school. I never understood that. Why couldn’t we talk?
There was actually a category called deportment on your report cards. I didn’t do so well, yet I speak for a living. We hear the same thing today though as adults. “Buckle it or ticket.” That’s nice rhyming, right? Buckle your seatbelt or get a ticket. It sounds like if the glove doesn’t fit – I quit. If you drink, don’t drive. Well, you can drink a little and drive. If you see something, say something. Yes, but how much? To whom? Why don’t we just chicken little?
But also on a more serious note, today we hear things like, “You’re a racist.”, “You’re antisemitic.”, “It’s white privilege.”, “Black lives matter.”, “Occupy and you fill in the blank.”, the war on women, the war on terror. We hear these things over and over and most of them don’t really mean anything. We tend to try to get even with people or undermine them by calling them a name or hurling an epithet like “racist”. Even though what they’re saying is not racist.
I don’t think that overkill is a good thing. I think that it kills attention and it kills interest and it doesn’t endorse causes, it diminishes causes. You can overkill anything. If you keep harping on it until people become numb. Until they become callused. Until they become almost anesthetized to what other people are screaming about. And that’s not so difficult. What about the pseudo-journalist today? People like Chris Mathews, people like Megyn Kelly, who simply shout over their interview subjects.
They really just want to make speeches in the guise of asking someone else questions and they do it through volume. And after a while, the volume is just staggeringly boring. It’s hard to listen to what they say because they’re so loud. Overkill impresses by trying to repeat and repeat and repeat and instead, it just makes us numb and the mantra loses its power. Think about if you’re engaged in overkill even with a good cause. When I was managing an office in San Francisco, a representative of the local chamber of commerce came in and he said, “We’d like you to join the chamber.” and I said, “That sounds like a good idea for us.How much is it?”, he said, “It’s $400 a year, let me tell you about your benefits.”, and I said, “I don’t care about the benefits, I’m sold.”, he said, “Well let me tell you who some of the other members are.”, I said, “I don’t care who the members are, I think we should join see my secretary she’ll draw you a check.”, he said, “Let me go through this brochure on the events we sponsor.”, he couldn’t stop his spiel. It was overkill and there was nothing that was going to stop him.
I asked my tree guy about a tree that appears to have a dead branch and I hear the history of the deciduous tree. I don’t care. Can you cut off the dead branch or will it come back to life? That’s really all I want to know.
Somebody from a local charity called me and started going through the script. And I said, “I’ll tell you what, you can send someone over here like you’re talking about and I’ll give that person $500 or I’ll commit to $1,000 right now but don’t send anyone.” They had a hard time figuring that one out.
Everyone is out in the streets today with protests. But does anything really change the next day? A million person march? When everybody goes home, does anything really change? There’s an old proverb that says, “When the singing stops, the revolution is over.” Most people are aware and are influenced because they’re angry, but they’re influenced by the traffic delays and angry at the marchers. They’re influenced by the inconvenience and angry at the cause. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good. It doesn’t muster support. Constantly over killing and berating people with your message, no matter how lofty the goal, does not help. So whether it’s the pledge of
Constantly overkilling and berating people with your message, no matter how lofty the goal, does not help. So whether it’s the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s prayer on a daily basis, does it resonate if it’s merely written and routine? In grammar school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day and most people had no idea what the words meant.We said the Lord’s prayer every day and most people had no idea what the words meant.
It’s like when you were young, at least in my case, and I heard that some people who lived in a house, because I lived in an apartment, had a finished basement. I thought it was a basement made in Finland. I thought it was some kind of Scandinavian design. Of course, the word was “finished”, but I thought it was “Finnish”. But it was routine, it was written that’s what I heard every day. I thought Jingle Bells was about a one horse soap and sleigh. Why the soap was in there I didn’t understand but it’s a one horse open sleigh. And I know I’m just educated so I’m with you right there.
Do you pay attention to Facebook ads? I don’t except to look at how stupid they are. I mean would you invest in a firm that simply puts an ad over and over again like Fisher Investments on Facebook with their ridiculous claims?
When you go to vote because people outside the voting area have signs for a candidate, do you change your mind about for whom you will vote? It’s all overkill and it doesn’t matter anymore. Do you really buy from infomercials? I know what you’re saying right now, you’re probably thinking yes, but they wouldn’t be on if enough people weren’t buying something. Sort of like spam, somebody is buying it. I don’t know, I think a lot of people go broke doing that. Are you persuaded by automated phone calls that you get once a day or 20 times a week? The latest one is, “Hi everybody, I’m Barack Obama.”, and I hang up. I don’t care what he’s pitching, what he’s selling, what he’s talking about, he’s interrupting me and he’s interfering with my life and he ought to be ashamed of himself. As should the people who put him up to it and distribute it.
If you really want to influence and in change behaviour, if that’s really your goal, ask these questions: What is in it for the viewer or the listener? That is what’s in it for the other person? If there’s an appeal to my self-interest, now you’re talking. But just continually yammering at me, isn’t gonna change a thing. I don’t know if some of you recall but Miller beer once had a very expensive and frequent ubiquitous commercial. “It’s Miller time!”, and they would show these guys sitting around together, having a beer because it was “Miller time.” Whatever time of day that was. But out in the real world what I observed was people said, “It’s Miller time, let’s have a Bud.”, what good is that? A second question: “Is there a dramatic example, that will get me to pay attention and change my mind?”, is there something compelling enough to cause me to give it some thought and change my mind? Or is it just another empty kind of vision?
The worst I can think of are these Lincoln commercials for Lincoln cars with what’s his name? McConaughey? Who’s a distinguished actor, I like his work, but there’s this metaphysical, ethereal kind of thing that they fill with him and his Lincoln as though Lincoln is the second coming. And he falls into pools and he dreams and he’s sitting in this car and he looks like he’s orgasmic. It’s ridiculous, it’s laughable and I laugh at him for doing it, I don’t care what they paid him and I laugh at Lincoln for thinking it has any power but they play it over and over again. My third question is, “Are you really informing or just inconveniencing?”, are you really trying to tell me something or you’re just inconveniencing me? Some of these drug commercials on TV are trying to inform you. They’ll tell you what it will do for your blood pressure or for your cholesterol or for your diabetes or for your cancer treatments. And they’ll tell you how the drug can ameliorate and mitigate certain symptoms and certain outcomes.
Of course, this is undercut by the required disclaimers that say, “Taking this drug may cause you to drive off a cliff, have suicidal thoughts, remove your left arm or try to commit treason.”, and so somehow you say, “Wait a minute, what’s the probability of all that?” And so my final point, on really trying to influence people is are we talking about quality or quantity? If you want to impress somebody, a qualitative approach is better than a quantity approach. Remember that seminal distinguished Apple ad at one of the very early Superbowls, where someone ran into the theater and threw a hammer at the screen of big brother, which was supposed to be I guess IBM or Microsoft? And that put Apple on the map. They only showed it that time in the Superbowl, but it had a lasting impact.
I remember an advertising firm that started up here, some guys left a larger firm, they started their own firm and in the Providence Business News, the weekly business newspaper here, they took the entire back page. And the copy on the page showed them in their offices and it said, “This ad on this page took 33% of all of our working capital.We are investing it because we feel so strongly about the quality we provide.”, now I thought that was brilliant. I called them and said, “Hey, kudos to you, I cannot use you but man I will refer people to you.”, I thought they were wonderful. Quality is the key, not quantity.
Overkill doesn’t work. After a certain amount of repetition people just begin rolling their eyes back, no matter what you call them, what you insinuate, what you claim. My question to you is do you want them glazed or fixed and attentive? That’s up to you.
Do you want to learn more? Read my new book, written with Marshall Goldsmith, Lifestorming. You can get it at AlanWeiss.com/Lifestorming or on Amazon or Barnes&Noble or CEO 800 Reads and so forth.
Thanks for being with me on the Uncomfortable Truth, I’ll talk to you next time.