The Cavalcade of Commas

by Andy Edelstein on October 13, 2011

Go to almost any law firm website and you’re bound to encounter sentences like this:

The group regularly handles complex transactions, including mergers and acquisition, public and private securities offerings, private equity and venture capital, securitizations, privatizations, equity securities, secured and unsecured debt securities, and a broad range of transactions involving public finance, project finance, structured finance, investment management and derivatives.

Look familiar? Chances are there are similar sentences on your own firm’s website right now—sentences that, for sheer excitement, are right up there with insurance contracts and medical dictionaries.

Call it the Cavalcade of Commas. Almost every practice description contains at least one. While practice descriptions are intended to attract new business to the firm, it’s hard to imagine prospective clients responding to such banalities. More likely they’ll get to the fourth or fifth comma and simply stop reading—not the sort of consumer behavior most marketers have in mind.

The commas themselves are a disguise—what you’re really seeing is a list masquerading as a sentence.

From a marketing standpoint, these lists couldn’t be less differentiating. Almost any firm with the same sort of practice group can tick off a nearly identical menu of services. Differentiation, if any, remains safely hidden in a dense thicket of generic offerings. Furthermore, by listing every service the firm could possibly offer, there is a strong implication that the list is final—that no other matters need apply. So instead of conveying your firm’s possibilities, you end up merely underscoring its limitations.

Wouldn’t it be better to say less, thereby implying more? Brevity, the so-called soul of wit, can also be thought of as the soul of effective communication. Surely a less detailed, more general statement of your firm’s sweet spots will better convey the full scope of its capabilities. And in the process, you might just retain something of even greater value: your reader’s attention.

If you must include a list—and there may, admittedly, be good reasons to do so—why not make it a real list? Why not give each listed item the bullet point it begs for, then relegate all such bullet points to the bottom of the page? This leaves the top of the page free to show rather than tell, to describe rather than list, to entice your readers rather than lose them among the commas.

Andy Edelstein is a copywriter specializing in law firm advertising and marketing communications. Reach him at andrew.edelstein@verizon.net.

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