New Hampshire has found the key to winning over Amazon: weasel words and passive voice
it seems as if every community in North America is now vying to host Amazon’s second headquarters. These municipal pitch documents, located as they are at the intersection of politics, business, and fantasy, are solidly built on a ratio of one part statistics to five parts bullshit. I took a close look at the pitch from the state of New Hampshire to see how its authors use rhetorical inflation as a persuasive tool.
To be clear, I have no reason to believe that New Hampshire’s pitch is any more artificially puffed up than pitches from any other community, but the proposed site in Londonderry, New Hampshire is 60 miles from where I’m currently sitting. It would be amusing to see Amazon attempt to locate so close by and then spend one of every four years from now until the end of forever hosting dozens of political candidates grandstanding for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
As the Boston Globe’s Nestor Ramos has pointed out, the pitch is amusing in its two-faced approach to the region. It attempts at the same time to paint Boston and Massachusetts as a congested, high-tax, overpriced hellscape . . . and then to talk about how close southern New Hampshire is to Massachusetts institutions like MIT, Harvard, theaters, and museums. New Hampshire: bringing you all the benefits of being sort of close to Massachusetts without the taxes or services.
Let’s take a look at what New Hampshire’s pitch is made of.
In a passive-voice world, anything is possible.
Why is there so much passive voice in pitches like this? Because it allows the government and economic development staff of the state to imply that things will happen without worrying about who will actually take responsibility. Here are some excerpts with passive verbs in bold:
The site is serviced directly by Interstate 93 that is completing approximately $835 million dollars of infrastructure improvements . . . [“Serviced by” — now there’s a word with some unfortunate connotations.]
Phase I of the Woodmont Commons site is zoned and permitted for modern residential living . . . At the same time, Phase II will be reviewed and approved at the local level within two to four months from the completed plans. [We really don’t really want you to think about the local selectmen reviewing and approving — or not — your billion-dollar investment.]
The Business Profits Tax rate is scheduled to decrease from 8.5% to 7.5% and the Business Enterprise Tax rate is scheduled to decrease from .75% to .50%. [Not strictly passive, but raises interesting questions about who scheduled it, and can they change it later.]
Weasel words are the connective tissue of any pitch.
Why choose New Hampshire? Because it’s the greatest, of course. Weasel words — vague intensifiers and qualifiers — can stand in for statements of fact when you’re going for an emotional connection. Here’s how the pitch starts, for example (I’ve put weasel words in bold):
By locating its new headquarters in southern New Hampshire, Amazon will establish a presence in one of the most vibrant and favorable economies in the country. As part of the regional metro-Boston area, southern New Hampshire offers all the benefits typically associated with major metro areas yet maintains the advantages of being in a truly enterprise-friendly state.
New Hampshire’s principal advantages over the rest of the country have consistently given it an upper hand in attracting businesses, families, and investments. Whether you are looking at our superior tax structure, streamlined regulatory environment, or access and transparency in government, New Hampshire’s fundamental enterprise benefits are superior to any competition. By embracing a joint venture with the State of New Hampshire, Amazon stands to gain a partner that believes the customer comes first.
Sounds truly superior.
Here are a few more weaselly nuggets:
In the past two years, New Hampshire has seen a multitude of tech companies flocking to the southern region to gain access to a workforce abundant in talent that extends from Manchester to Boston. . . . With more than 50 world-class, post-secondary academic institutions within a 1-hour radius, the talent pipeline is highly qualified, easily accessible, and always full. [I checked the list. I’m not sure if Bunker Hill Community College, Eastern Nazarene College, or Lakes Region Community College (Laconia) qualify as world-class.]
With the proposed shovel-ready site located on an interstate highway with an approved site-specific exit, the HQ2 site in southern New Hampshire is a mere 40 miles from downtown Boston. Though just over the state line, the site represents a far superior business environment without the cumbersome commute times, taxes, and affordability challenges that plague Boston businesses and their employees.
New Hampshire is consistently ranked as one of the best overall states to live in. Our quality of life has become the gold standard to which others aspire.
MHT [airport] has a strong general aviation presence anchored by global fixed base operator, Signature Flight Support. MHT also has a very large cargo presence . . .
If Amazon landed in New Hampshire, the state could aggressively accelerate the timeframe in activating passenger rail on this established line.
Commuting into downtown Boston has become a congestion nightmare. It has grown beyond capacity to the point where Boston actually had to withdraw from Olympic consideration because of the citizen’s fury over current untenable traffic congestion.
You can’t sell a state without platitudes.
There’s nothing like a cliche to win over corporate planners. Why? Because everyone agrees with them. Samples:
Attracting a viable workforce is the number one issue facing any growing business. Whether you have 50 employees or 50,000, New Hampshire understands that you are only as good as your people.
Our residents and employers enjoy something few states can offer: access to variety within proximity.
The combination of the endless activities, culture and history, with the access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure, gives you the best place to live, work, play, and raise a family.
New Hampshire’s public universities and community colleges are full partners with our industry to develop tailored programs and partnerships. [Partnering for partnerships . . . cool!]
Excellent programs and collaborations . . . have helped many students turn their entrepreneurial dreams into realities.
The popularity of farmers markets has increased over the past several years, as has the farm-to-table movement.
New Hampshire’s [presidential] primary is an integral part of the economic and cultural fabric of our state, generating enthusiasm, optimism and community spirit among its workforce.
Stats are great. But are they relevant?
There are lots of numbers in this pitch. See if you can pick out their flaws — including dubious sourcing, questionable accuracy, or feeble relevance:
In fact, there are approximately 860,000 21-34 year-olds within a 1-hour commute of the Amazon New Hampshire site.
[A]ll major state education and workforce stakeholder actively engaged in accelerating our workforce and its quality by reaching a goal of having 65% of our workforce have at least an undergraduate degree by 2025.
The Manchester airport existing cargo area consists of approximately 32 acres with the ability to expand to another 46 acres. The additional ramp areas could accommodate up to twelve Boeing 767 cargo aircraft. [Translation: There’s empty space here. What could possibly get in the way of using it?]
In recent years, there has been a rise in the number of New Hampshire breweries (70+) and wineries (20+), as well as a deep embrace of locally sourced food.
Pitches are biased. Just watch for the signs.
Here’s my advice to the planners at Amazon and anyone reading pitches: Look for the signs of bullshit. Bias, passive voice, exaggerations, empty promises, and meaningless statistics are inevitable. Cross them out and evaluate your choice based on what’s left.
And don’t fool yourself. It’s a long Waze to get between New Hampshire and Boston. Ask anyone who’s commuting right now.
And why didn’t this pitch mention the cheap liquor stores on the New Hampshire side of the border? Now there’s a selling point!