Why fair words butter no parsnips – and what it means for your copy

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One Christmas I got a book of phrases as a present. Not everyone’s idea of a great gift admittedly but, being a wordsmith, I was delighted and spent most of the day with my nose buried in it. One phrase from that book that has stuck in my mind ever since – ‘fair words butter no parsnips’ – meaning flowery language doesn’t actually get anything done.

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This phrase often pops into my head when I’m reviewing copy and read statements that talk about a company’s ‘first-class customer service’, or ‘state of the art equipment’, or how they are ‘highly regarded by our clients’. This sort of copy litters websites, adverts, direct mail and brochures. And it’s useless. It’s useless because it doesn’t really say anything and, because everybody else is saying the same thing, the readers eyes just glaze over. They have read these boasts all before – they mean nothing.

However, the sad truth is that there’s normally facts behind these boasts. Let me give you an example – I bought something recently from a big company who spoke about ‘first-class customer service’ on their website. I had a problem with the product so sent them an email asking for help. Within a few hours I received a call from a very helpful person in their customer care team, who quickly sorted out the problem for me (I wasn’t pressing the right button, if you must know). When I remarked how impressed I was by the speed of response, I was told they respond to all complaints with 24 hours.
Now that really is first-class customer service and I was suitably impressed. Now imagine how much more impressive their website would be if they said ‘we respond to all complaints with 24 hours’.
Similarly, if you really do have ‘state of the art equipment’, then tell people why it’s so good and how they are going to be better off because of it.

If you really are ‘highly regarded by our clients’ then add some testimonials so people can actually read what your clients say about you.

In short, if you’re about to write some copy for your business then do something simple – tell the customer specifically why you are good and what you can do for them. Don’t rely on fair words – they won’t put any butter on your parsnips, and they won’t win you any customers either.

Author: Martin Sayers

Martin Sayers is a UK copywriter and owner of copywriting agency MSCopy. You can get free marketing advice from Martin direct to your inbox by signing up to the MSCopy monthly marketing tips.