How folksy is too folksy? Frequent Questions

Q: How can I tell if I’ve gotten too folksy?
A: Folks will stop laughin’—and stop listening, too.

Here’s the full Q from our correspondent this week:

I’m a straight-shooter, tell-it-like-it-is kind of person. Sometimes I think that comes on too strong, so I use folksy language to soften the edges. But how can I tell if I’ve gone too far? How folksy is “too folksy”?

First, let me just acknowledge what we’re all thinking. Okay, maybe you’re not thinking it because you didn’t just have to type it, like, five times in a row. But “folksy” is one strange word. Say it out loud. Now say it again. Don’t you want to shout, “Buy another vowel, dude!”

Is that what you mean by “folksy”?

  • the gratuitous Valley Girl “like”
  • the pop culture reference (the TV game show Wheel of Fortune runs the world’s only known vowel marketplace)
  • the hipster pronoun “dude”

Any one of these might cause my starchier friends in academia to toss their mortarboards at me. (By the way, that’s not folksy; it’s a lively, descriptive sentence.) And while I think the paragraph is perfectly fine—no surprise, since I wrote it—I wouldn’t subject readers to such a high concentration of slang unless I were writing satire.

be folksy, but not too folksyBe folksy but focused

So where’s the line between compelling prose and folksiness?

Imagine you’re telling a story about something that happened to you. Would you tell it to your parents any differently than you’d tell it to your long-time best friend? How about a business colleague? Our internal filters automatically adapt the language and tone for each of these audiences.

You want to invite the reader or listener in, but you also want to keep the focus on your message. Too much slang or informal language can become a distraction. Warren Buffett, who’s earned a reputation as a kind of populist storyteller—the Will Rogers of billionaires—miscalculated his folksiness in a recent interview.

At the beginning of her Huffington Post article about the incident, Emily Peck acknowledged,

“…the Berkshire Hathaway CEO has cultivated a folksy manner and it’s kind of refreshing when a CEO isn’t a jargon-spewing automaton.”

It is refreshing. Part of Warren’s appeal as a communicator is that he uses analogies and stories to convey sophisticated ideas. But one challenge with relying on folksy stories—especially old folksy stories—is you’ve got to keep them fresh. And you’ve got to be aware of cultural shifts.

The story that provoked laughter 20 years ago may provoke anger today. And that’s what happened when Warren trotted out an old story that used women as the object of the joke. In another era, most people probably heard it as a humorous observation about the challenges of romance. Today’s audiences hear it as making light of date rape.

Big difference there.

What changed? Well, in “another era,” women’s voices were not so amplified in the media. The top three Google hits on this story—from HuffPo, Mashable, and Business Insider, all carry women’s by-lines. And society has evolved in its understanding of date rape, even if the justice system hasn’t always kept pace.

Raise your hands, though, if you remember what Warren had been talking about, what action he was trying to explain with his ill-fated folksy story? You can’t. Exactly. The folksiness distracted from his message.

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