On more than one occasion I’ve gone through my company’s marketing material and completely eliminated particular words in favour of others: “flexible” is so bendy and wishy-washy, but “versatile” suggests something that can be put to use in many different and varied situations; “customizable” conjures nightmares about professional services bills, but “configurable” makes things sound like a few buttons need to be pressed or a couple of options need to be selected.
Sometimes, I fear my focus on precise words is a bit weird; I mean, I’m appalled at how sloppily words are tossed about, making the meaning of entire sentences and paragraphs ambiguous. I’m certain people are a bit apprehensive when they receive my reply after having asked me to review something, and they must wonder why I’m so damned particular about the words that go into our marketing material. But they keep asking, and I keep replying.
What can I say? I’m a combination of an engineer’s precision and a communicator’s appreciation for the power of language.
Well, it turns out that there’s at least one person in the world as particular as I am. In Words that Work, Frank Luntz stresses how choosing the right words is often the difference between success and failure, be it in business, politics, or life. It’s the type of stuff I love.
Towards the end of the book, Luntz devotes an entire chapter to introducing and explaining twenty-one words and phrases for the twenty-first century. Read on to see my five favourites, and the reasoning behind my picks.
Rule #8 of the ten rules of effective language is to visualize, and “there is one word in the English language that automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention. Whether it’s the car of your dreams or the candidate of your choice, the word ‘imagine’ is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool because it allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds. “ (Words that Work – p21)
Are you selling a big data solution? Ask your prospects to “Imagine knowing” and they’ll think of all the wonderful ways they could use your product.
Lotto 6/49 uses the tagline “Imagine the freedom” to tap into personal dreams.
You can increase attentiveness by starting your next speech with an instruction to your audience to “imagine” something related to your topic.
As Luntz says, “The word ‘imagine’ is an open, nonrestrictive command – almost an invitation. Its power is derived from the simple fact that it can conjure up anything in the mind of the one doing the imagining. What can be imagined is therefore endlessly personal and targeted in a way that no canned marketing campaign could ever hope to be.” (Words that Work – p241)
But watch out, because “When an advertisement asks the audience to ‘imagine’, it’s inviting them to take ownership of the product or service being sold – to make it their own. But if the ad says too much or shows too much, it undermines the process of imagination that the advertiser is trying to stoke.” (Words that Work – p242)
So get them thinking, but don’t tell them what to think.
Do you like hassles? Of course not.
If your company or product can deliver a truly hassle-free experience, then you’re sitting on a goldmine! Consumers are willing to pay to avoid hassles, and the words you use in your communication should tap into our desire for a smooth experience. Making your life easier, while the meaning of “hassle-free” is consistent, the visual manifestation is very personal; like “imagine”, “hassle-free” targets your communication with individual precision.
I was skeptical when I read this in Luntz’ list; I used it in some messaging yesterday.
I have mixed feelings about the word “innovation”: while I love truly innovative things, the word itself pops up all over the place, often to describe the mundane. Like “revolutionary”, I fear that the meaning has been completely diluted. Remember when an exclamation mark meant something? Well now I see 100 of those a day. “Innovation” is heading in the same direction.
When used sparingly and correctly, though, and supported by documentation, I still believe it can work. It’s just that all those jerks slapping the word “innovation” or its derivative “innovative” on every incremental change are making life hard for those of us who respect the meaning. But I digress.
Luntz is a bit more bullish: “‘Innovation’ immediately calls to mind pictures of the future. It’s the corporate technology version of ‘imagine’, evoking different, individual definitions. ‘Innovation’ leads to products that are smaller or faster or lighter or cheaper…or bigger, more resilient, stronger, longer lasting. It’s the road that leads to a laptop battery that will last for twenty-four hours – without causing your keyboard to melt of the fan to whirr so loudly that it distracts you from your work. ‘Innovation’ means tourist flights that escape the Earth’s orbit and nanotechnology marvels so small that they strain the ability of our comprehension.” (Words that Work – p249-250)
So there’s that.
“Efficient” and “Efficiency”
To most people, “efficiency” means getting more for less: more distance for less fuel, more clothes washed for less money spent on electricity; a warmer house but using less natural gas; more performance in a smaller package, etc.
Being “efficient” is environmentally friendly. “Efficiency” means less waste. We can feel good about being efficient.
Importantly, “efficient” and “efficiency” mean these things without suggesting austerity or compromise; people hear about “conservation” and they visualize giving something up.
Closely related, in my opinion, is the concept of value. To me, value is the ratio of “what you get” to “what you gave up”. Others have a slightly different perspective: Warren Buffett says that “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” But regardless of the precise meaning, in a world in which businesses evaluate “total cost of ownership” and copycats claim feature parity, if you can convince your prospects that your product offers the best value, then you’ll be able to justify a premium price.
Of course, in marketing you have to be careful using “value”, because it could be heard as synonymous with “cheap”. If I used “value” in my communications, I would qualify with a statement that explains what the customer gets in relation to what they give up and draws a comparison with their alternatives.
I liked how Luntz described this one, so I’ll just repeat: “President Clinton came up with one of the most important linguistic innovations of the 1990s when he began to use the word ‘investment’ instead of ‘spending’. ‘Spending’ suggests waste. ‘Investment’ suggests the responsible handling of resources. A dollar ‘spent’ is a dollar you’ll never see again. A dollar ‘invested’ is a dollar that comes back to you many times over. ‘Spending’ is morally neutral – it could be good or bad, responsible or wasteful. ‘Investment’ is by definition reasonable and responsible. ‘Investment’ s also forward-looking, whereas ‘spending’ implies instant gratification.” (Words that Work – p255)
If you can make your prospects believe that they are investing in your product, or a relationship with your company, then they’ll see each dollar they hand over very differently than if they’re simply spending on your services.