Potty Talk or How Urinals Will Save Humanity
Increasingly, environmentally-active organizations are replacing traditional urinals and toilets with new versions from companies like Waterless, Kohler, Falcon Waterfree Technologies and Duravit that claim to manage water more efficiently, thus reducing the amount of water used or, if you prefer, wasted.
The other big difference between these new toilets and the porcelain Gods of yore is that they come with stories – as they should. After all, approaching a bone-dry urinal usually means it’s out of order, not protecting Mother Earth. Naturally, as I stand there with the urinal of tomorrow’s raison d’être at eye-level, the language researcher in me starts reading and, of course, analyzing.
As a rule, the stories are written to make you feel good (beyond the obvious benefits of relieving yourself) about your actions, about the company or building that bought the toilet, and about the toilet manufacturer because using this new one is better, cheaper, and cleaner than before.
What amazes me, aside from your indulgence so far, is the range of competing words and phrases people use to communicate this message. In fact, the words that end up telling these eco-friendly stories are perfect examples of the opportunities we have to clearly, credibly, and compellingly communicate.
Think about it. Would you rather have a toilet that “uses less” water or “saves more” water? Though it may be linguistic hair-splitting, these are different ideas. Put another way, think about using less money vs. saving more money. Or using less paper vs. saving more paper. You get the same result, but the feeling is likely different. In each case, the former is about the discipline of limiting your consumption while the latter is about the responsibility of saving some of what might otherwise be consumed.
How about a “zero water consumption” toilet, a “waterless” toilet, or a “water-efficient” toilet? Again, different language framing the same issue. Sure, water-efficient sounds nice. But what’s more efficient than zero? And while some may like the idea of a waterless toilet, to others that could conjure images of outhouses or an unsightly hole at a campsite. Either way, there is something stronger, cleaner, and more definitive about “zero water consumption.”
In addition to specific phrasing to make your point, there’s also the issue of proof points—the nuggets of information used to lend credence and weight to what you’re saying. The facts below all communicate the water savings from these urinals, but notice which one sounds and feels the most significant:
- “A waterless urinal that replaces a standard one-gallon per flush urinal can save 40,000 gallons of water annually.”
- “One waterless urinal saves the amount of water that two people consume in a year.
- “One waterless urinal saves the equivalent of 3 large, home swimming pools in a year.”
- “The Rose Bowl boasts 259 waterless urinals that save 130,000 gallons of water on game day alone. That’s the same amount of water that is consumed by six average Americans in a year.”
If you guessed the third one, congratulations. I can’t tell how many times we’ve tested similar ideas in research where people have overwhelmingly chosen the option most similar to that one.
Yes, 40,000 gallons of water sounds like a lot, but who knows what that really means? You can’t picture it. Making the savings about the amount of water two people consume in a year is fine if you’re talking to people who consciously consume lots of water, but if they don’t, you’ve just wasted your breath. Even then, I highly doubt the most hydrated among us have a clue how much water they drink on an annual basis.
But everyone, and I mean everyone, can envision how much water is in three large, home swimming pools. And I guarantee you they’ll say it’s a lot.
Now, I don’t spend more time in the bathroom than the next guy, but I have spent more time talking about toilets than a stable person should.
What matters is that whether you’re talking about toilets or tax cuts, lavatories or legislation, port-a-potties or politicians (I know, the two are easily confused), you should always choose your language—down to the very words and phrases—with careful consideration and an effective language strategy in mind.