Words can heal. They can hurt. They can also cost you money.
In Business to Consumer (B2C) writing, the phrase “state-of-the-art” appears fairly often. Grab a copy of a Sunday paper or a magazine like, The New Yorker. Cars will be breathlessly proclaimed to have state-of-the-art suspension. The latest architectural marvel will be said to have magnificent views made possible by state-of-the-art design. Hotels will promote their state-of-the-art service. Look around, and you’ll even see those four single-syllable words cropping up in health care copy.
The problem is, it feels like marketing-speak. What exactly does it mean?
The Standard Preamble
Before digging in, let’s state the obvious. I’m not a lawyer. I do not play one on TV. I wasn’t even one in a high school play. This isn’t intended as legal advice. It is, however, intended to make you pause before you use the phrase again.
I’m a health care writer and words matter to me. With that on the table, let’s dig in.
Nevada-based MountainView Hospital is a 340-bed trauma center, serving its community since 1996. Here’s how they describe themselves:
MountainView Hospital is a state-of-the-art, full-service medical facility located in the heart of Northwest Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing areas in the valley.
I’ve never stepped foot in the place, but from the website, it looks like a fine facility. It is part of HCA, rolling up to their Far West Division, which has oversight for facilities in California and Nevada. As reported on MountainView Hospital's website, they have a record of quality to be proud of. They’re not the only health care provider to use the phrase (see here, here, and here). They are, however, the first one that my search engine reported who used the phrase in the last month.
What’s bugging me about MountainView Hospital's description is that phrase state-of-the-art. What exactly are they trying to say?
State-of-the-Art by the Book
There’s a slight — but important — disagreement when it comes to defining state-of-the-art. As shown below, the Oxford Dictionary team emphasize recency:
(T)he most recent stage in the development of a product, incorporating the newest ideas and the most up-to-date features.
When it comes usage, the folks at Grammerist have a different take, one that targets rankings:
The advertising buzz phrase state of the art began as a noun phrase referring to the current highest level of development in a field, but today it’s also often used as a phrasal adjective meaning at the highest level of development. In the latter use, state of the art is usually hyphenated.
There’s a world of difference between the two. Recency simply means new. There is no attempt to qualify whether whatever is state-of-the-art is an improvement over its predecessor. Grammerist, in using the phrase “highest level of development,” implies some sort of classification. They are arguing that in modern usage, the phrase suggests that like items are compared, using an unknown scale.
When it comes to MountainView Hospital, do you think they were implying recency or rankings? Perhaps more relevant, what do you think their customer base internalized when they read the description?
Defining State-of-the-Art for the Rest of Us
The real test is how your community defines the term. All of us have an annoying habit of making leaps of logic (or at least small jumps). We’re more prone to this effect in moments of stress or when we are looking for a response that will support our desired outcome.
We Hear what We Want to Hear
It's a safe bet that either you have been or know someone who has been impacted by cancer. A Stage IV NSCLC (Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer) patient may be placed on chemo plus a targeted drug like ramucirumab (Cyramza). In discussing treatment, the oncologist will describe life expectancy within a range. Odds are, the patient (and loved ones in the room) will only remember the far end of the range.
We hear what we want to hear. The same goes for what we remember.
It is All a Matter of Interpretation
So, when it comes to customers, let’s look at some possible ways the phrase state-of-the-art can be interpreted.
- THEY’RE THE BEST. PERIOD. Nobody else can measure up.
- IT’S AN INDICATOR OF QUALITY OUTCOMES. My care here will be better than anywhere else.
- THEY’RE THE CUTTING EDGE. They have technology that nobody else has.
- THEY WILL BE ABLE TO HEAL ME. They have the tools and resources to make me as good as new.
While any of these could potentially be true, it is probably not what's intended when by the phrase state-of-the-art. From a legal perspective, implying a performance guarantee or outcome can be dangerous to a provider’s financial health.
State-of-the-art is like adding rice or breadcrumbs to meatloaf. It’s filler. Unless explicitly spelled out in later text, it has no clear meaning.
What You Need to Do
Here are four steps to take today:
STEP 1: PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE BY UPDATING YOUR STYLE GUIDE
Every organization needs a style guide for their brand. If your style guide consists of Post-it Notes and random pages in a folder serving as a swipe file, it's time to create the real thing. A style guide sets the standards for text (style and organization-specific text conventions), visual design ("look and feel"), and voice (ethics, viewpoint). Documenting everything from logo usage to word choice, style guides promote consistency while helping you avoid legal quagmires.
If you have a style guide in place, it is time to add state-of-the-art to the list of phrases to retire. By the way, whenever you edit lists of preferred word choices or boilerplate text, it's best practice to have it reviewed by your legal team.
STEP 2: DIG DEEP TO UNDERSTAND THE SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
It's time to audit your website and print materials. With your style guide in hand, search for instances where words to avoid appear "out in the wild." Every organization has its own list. On top of that, here are four additional descriptors you should take a second look at before using:
- QUALIFIED. Would you ever hire someone who is unqualified?
- BEST IN CLASS. You better be prepared to prove it.
- WORLD CLASS. Like state-of-the-art, what does it mean?
- CUTTING EDGE. Be careful when it comes to words that can be a double entendre.
STEP 3: GO BACK TO BASICS BEFORE YOU WRITE
If you know the answer to these two magic questions, you know what to write.
QUESTION 1: Who is My Audience?
Before putting pen to paper, know who you are trying to influence. Just like playing darts, it’s easier when you can see the target.
QUESTION 2: What do I Want them to Walk Away with?
That’s a different question from, “Why am I writing this?” This is about how your reader’s world view and the behaviors you are trying to change.
Pro Tip: Keep your answers to both questions within view as you write. It’s your compass to ensure you stay on the right path.
STEP 4: WRITE WHAT YOU REALLY WANT TO SAY
State-of-the-art is shorthand for what you are really trying to say. Over the course of a couple of drafts, your voice will be clear. For example:
THE FIRST DRAFT: Jepson Valley Hospital features state-of-the-art technology to determine if you have an artery blockage.
GETTING BETTER: Jepson Valley Hospital’s CT scanning technology provides accurate evaluation of heart and whether it has an artery blockage.
THIS IS THE ONE: Jepson Valley Hospital uses the newest Computer Tomography (CT) technology to diagnose your condition in just 15-20 minutes. It's safer, faster, cheaper, and just as accurate as invasive procedures like catheter angiography.
When it comes to updating content, don't go it alone. Steve can help when you need targeted, consumer-friendly copy that drives a response. Click Contact to start the conversation.