A few weeks ago, a couple HubSpotters and I were talking about something people do all the time, but shouldn’t. You'll be in a meeting with your team, and suddenly it comes time for you offer up your opinion.
“I could be wrong, but I think …” or
“I just want to say …” or
“I actually think …” or
“This is probably a stupid question, but …” or
“I’m not sure, but …”
It’s called couching. You’re trying to make other people feel comfortable and not come across too strong. In certain situations, it’s a great tactic. But in other situations, it can make you seem weak and wishy-washy.
Often this happens when you speak, but if you're trying to write like you speak (because that's how you should be writing) phrases like these will creep into your blog posts, ebooks, emails, infographics, social posts, and pretty much any other marketing material you write.
But why do we even couch in the first place? Should you ever intentionally couch? How do you strike the balance in your writing between being helpful and pushy? What other things can you do in your writing instead of couching?
To get to the bottom of this, a group of HubSpotters got together and asked ourselves questions like these. Below are some of the solutions we found -- test to see which ones feel natural in your writing style.
Why We Couch
Tone and voice are incredibly important elements of your writing. Couching phrases have the biggest effect on these two writing elements -- and not always in a good way. Three common scenarios in which writers might couch are:
When we’re not sure we’re right.
When we don’t want to come across as arrogant.
When we want people to like us.
When we're concerned about how people perceive us, couching is much more likely to creep in. When you're writing, this is even more likely to happen -- you're worried from the moment you start writing about how your audience will perceive the piece, leaving natural room to couch. Most times, it's counterproductive, making your arguments sound weak.
Other times, it can actually be beneficial.
When We Should Couch
Depending on the situation, adding couching phrases could be beneficial. The key is to ensure you're actively choosing to couch your writing -- not letting it happen accidentally.
Determining whether couching is appropriate for the situation all depends on what you're trying to get out of your writing. Are you arguing with a high-profile commenter over a point in a blog post? Couching might be appropriate. Are you trying to communicate a point to an executive? Leave the couching behind.
Every situation is different, so you'll need to make the judgment call. As long as we’re aware that we’re couching and we know that it’s helping us maintain a relationship or get a positive response, it can be a helpful tool.
How to Get Rid of Couching in Your Writing
There are lots of solutions here, but we all need to find one that works best for our personality and writing style. Here are a few that we came up with:
1) Actively Search for and Remove Couching Phrases
Know what couching phrase you write all the time that you shouldn’t? Before you hit publish, find and delete it in the post (type Control + F on a PC or Command + F on a Mac).
If you really want to be aggressive about removing couching statements from your writing, penalize yourself for it. Maybe you set up a jar that you throw a dollar in anytime you catch the phrase in your writing. At the end of a month, you'll likely have some decent change that you could donate or put to a team outing. Your teammates will appreciate your higher quality writing (and the cupcakes you bring in) from this tactic.
2) Be Empathetic, Then Direct
Address your audience's fears and feelings before you unapologetically offer advice. Explaining how your readers feel shows that you understand them. Then, be very direct about why you disagree or believe something else.
For example, you can say something like, “I know you often struggle to make time in the day for social media. It can feel distracting and silly compared to other marketing problems on your plate. That being said, it's a crucial component of a successful inbound marketing strategy. You're losing out on customers by not devoting time to it."
3) Use Data and Logic
Instead of attacking your readers head-on with the "You're wrong, I'm right, deal with it" approach, try using logic and/or data to frame your argument. Relying on facts makes it less likely that you'll default to, "I could be wrong, but ..."
“After running an A/B test on our site, we found that CTAs with a blue button perform better than one with an orange button.”
“I know your company goals are to focus on increasing your visit-to-lead conversion rate, so X project would be most effective to reach that goal because of Y.”
Keeping emotion out of the equation makes your writing much more persuasive and strong.
4) Gut Check With Peers
Not sure if you sound too aggressive ... or not assertive enough? Run your writing by peers who’ll give you honest feedback before you hit “send” or “publish.” Plus, they can give you a heads up if there are any glaring typos or grammatical mistakes.
5) Ask Rhetorical Questions
I know we're often told that rhetorical questions weaken writing, but they can actually help you remove your couching phrases in a conversational way. You'd write something like “Why do you spend so much time on Pinterest? With your B2B audience, you should look at ways to get ramped up on LinkedIn" instead of "I just think you should try out LinkedIn. I heard it could help your audience." The former is strong, yet still conversational.
Finding your personal writing solution to couching can be tough -- I still have problems with couching in my writing despite compiling these tips from my coworkers into this post. With a little more awareness and some anti-couching solutions we can try ASAP, we all can take our writing to the next level in no time.
Originally published Mar 31, 2014 8:00:00 AM, updated November 22 2017