The Power of Not Saying.

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Liam Biesty muses on breaking the big idea and solving the brief.

You look across the office and see a cake being served. Delicious. Hopefully there’s a slice up for grabs.

You’ve got two main options:

  1. Approach the cake and blurt, “Slice me a piece of cake!” like a socially inept muppet.
  2. Casually say something like, “Yaaaas, that looks tasty as.” (You might be bold enough to say it looks ‘moist’. But don’t. Because no one wants to hear the word ‘moist’. Particularly HR.)

So let’s break down those persuasive strategies.

Option 1 is explicit. You want cake. You literally demand cake.

Option 2 is implicit. You want cake. But aren’t so brazen as to actually ask for it out loud. You hope the implication of what you said will be understood from the context, not just the words you uttered. After all, you were complimenting the cake while standing directly next to it.

Such are the subtleties of communicative life on our moist, soggy-bottomed little island.

Herbert Paul Grice, a 20th century philosopher of language, studied the details of these day-to-day interactions in depth. He concluded that our use of pragmatic implicatures – using the context in which we say things as an important component of meaning – forms an essential part of effective, socially acceptable communication.

And for good reason. There are many benefits of using implicit messages. For one, it’s almost always more polite to imply than demand. Which means it’s more persuasive; people are more likely to share cake with you if you’re nice. Funny that.

It’s also more succinct to imply stuff. For instance, in the pub, asking “Same again?” is much less faff than: “Do you fancy another drink, and if so would you like me to buy you Snozzcumber IPA again?” (Of course, there are exceptions. Like in a fire. Do, quite literally, shout “fire!”)

Implicit messaging is very often, and usefully, tied to emotion – a truly persuasive tool. This includes everything from asking for cake via a feel-good compliment, to distilling rage down into a passive aggressive piece of genius about stolen butter plastered onto the work fridge.

Given the powerful benefits, it’s no surprise some of the most successful, memorable, brand-building advertising of all time relies on implicit messaging.

Perhaps it’s more empowering to push people to ‘just do it’ than drone on about how the stitching, material and sole of trainers are designed to help support athletic performance.

Maybe a world singing in perfect harmony implies there’s a soft drink so ridiculously refreshing that, despite all our differences, it’s the one thing everyone can agree on?

And imagine if ‘good things come to those who wait’, Neptune’s horses and all, had literally just been some bloke going: ‘It takes ages to pour it at the bar compared to other pints, but it tastes good when it’s finally settled.’


Why, then, does so much modern advertising ram explicit proof points down people’s throats in wall-to-wall voiceovers that belong on a 90s shopping channel? Messaging should be more than an isolated check list of mandatories. Good work requires more flexible, lateral thinking space than that: it must imply meaning through referencing the real world context in which it appears.

If we want to shape behaviour through advertising – be that stop smoking, stop carrying knives, or start scoffing biscuits – it’s infinitely more persuasive to say less and imply more. So our audiences can think, feel, join the dots and make the desired decisions for themselves.

Getting such effective advertising out of the boardrooms and onto our screens should be a piece of cake.

But I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Liam Biesty, Copywriter at the Union Advertising Agency.