Every word matters

June 13th, 2011
Filed under: Blogging,Social Media — joel @ 12:35 pm

Every word matters. Whether you’re writing to persuade, to inform, or entertain, nearly every word choice affects the meaning of your message. This is especially important in today’s foreshortened communications environments like Twitter, Web banners, SMS, and advertising taglines.

A couple years ago I wrote a competitive response for internal use by a client. The first version began, “You’ve probably heard about company X’s campaign…”. I changed it instead to “Many of you might have heard about company X’s campaign…” The change was subtle but intentional. The first version implies that Company X’s campaign was so successful that everyone had of course heard of it. The second version softens its impact to imply that awareness of the campaign was spotty (the message we meant to convey.)

I like to look for examples everywhere of how seemingly small choices of words influence the effectiveness of a message. (For this and other reasons it can be annoying to be around me as I critique every written message I encounter.) For example:

eBay Listing: We didn’t get to be number #1 by deserving poor feedback!! By structuring the sentence this way, the seller recognizes customer feedback is an outcome of the way he does business, not a passive customer activity over which he has no control. Typically, a seller would boast, “look at our positive feedback,” which is passive, and not as powerful as taking ownership of responsibility for customer satisfaction, as this seller has. By tweaking the wording, the meaning has undergone radical change.

Radio Spot: You’ll enjoy the convenient monthly payments! I actually heard that on the radio. Really? I can’t ever recall enjoying payments of any kind unless they were payments made to me.

Lettering on Truck: Delivering Fresh Foodservice Solutions

Why not just “Food”? I see what Ledyard is trying to do with this. It’s clever, but unless you’re a food service insider, it’s potentially redundant and doesn’t make good use of language. Let’s look at each of the four words.

Delivering: This is a double entendre. The company “delivers” products and services by creating and packaging them and the truck physically delivers them to customers. Every food company does these things, so the word tells people little.

Fresh: This is my favorite word here. Delivering stale food is probably a flawed business model, so this is also potentially redundant, but a nice thing about which to remind customers. (Also a double entendre as applied to solutions, implying the company looks at its business in a fresh way.)

Foodservice: Don’t try to use this word in Scrabble. It’s invented.

Solutions: The worst. “Solutions” is a worn out business cliché. And who says a business that needs food delivered has a problem? I like to think of my business as one that is thriving and needs suppliers of goods and services. Why must people insist they are solving my problems?

Airline Tagline: Delta Will Get You There This is a classic from the 1980s. What kind of promise is that? Delta won’t crash? Other airlines won’t get you there? It’s kind of weird.

Taglines are the ultimate in refined word choice. The very best use two or three words to tell a complex brand story. An article last year in Forbes looked at some of the best advertising taglines, and commended BMW (The Ultimate Driving Machine), Nike (Just Do It), and Verizon (Can You Hear Me Now?). Also mentioned is Apple’s “Think Different,” which Grammar Girl says may be grammatically incorrect depending on what you think the slogan means.

Do you have any favorite examples of the power of words, good, bad or ugly? Please leave a comment below!

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