Exaggeration Weakens Your Argument, Unless You Exaggerate With Gusto

When we feel strongly about something or we’re deeply invested in getting someone’s attention, many of us fall into the exaggeration trap: we overstate our case. We use absolutes like “always” or “never.” We reach for superlatives like “best” or “worst.”

When we do this, we weaken our argument. For discerning listeners, these melodramatic words are like neon signs that say, “I’m using imprecise language, so think twice before believing this information.”

Note the difference between these two statements:

  1. Everyone thinks this toothpaste is the best ever. Thanks to this product, I never get cavities and my teeth are the whitest ever.
  2. In a survey of 500 dentists, 495 chose this toothpaste because of it ability to reduce cavities and whiten teeth.

See what I mean? Sentence #2 wins. Specific language that speaks directly to the benefits of your product or service is far more effective than over-the-top claims. It might be that your toothpaste really is the best ever, but that argument is hard to verify. I find that advertisements, blogs, and op-eds that use credible language and appeal to my sense of reason as well as my emotions tend to sway my opinions.

The age of the Internet has supported the promulgation of hyperbole, as people have less and less time to grab the attention of prospective customers. I understand the temptation to say, “OMG! This is the best ever!” But it probably won’t work as you hope.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for hyperbole. It’s ineffective when you’re trying to make a serious argument and you overdo it, but if you’re using it for the delightfully crazy or funny effect it can have, it can be brilliant. Ben Huberman wrote a GREAT piece on having fun with hyperbole in 2014. Colorful, well-designed exaggerations can grab attention and illustrate points beautifully. As Huberman writes, you can also mix and match understatement with hyperbole to great effect, like JFK did when addressing a room full of Nobel laureates at the White House. He said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

If you exaggerate, go big! Go for effect. Otherwise, craft a compelling argument without absolutes or superlatives.