Book Report: Microstyle

microstyle-coverSo, how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t. That’s the first lesson of microstyle. A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination…Keeping this in mind makes you think about how your message fits into a larger picture and points to ideas without expressing them directly. The interaction of message, mind, and context makes meaning happen.” (Microstyle)

Title: Microstyle – The Art of Writing Little

Author: Christopher Johnson

Publisher: Norton

Publication Date: 2011

Origin/Intention: Working in marketing, and doing a great deal of communications in general, I often have to write catchy titles, taglines, headlines, subject lines, booth messaging, and other short (or ‘micro’) content; I’ve also done more than my share of product, feature, and technology naming, which makes use of some of the same techniques. By reading Microstyle, I hoped to pick up a few additional tips and tricks that I can put to use in my career.

Summary: In Micrystyle, Johnson teaches us how to construct attention-grabbing micromessages that quickly communicate something valuable. In Johnson’s words, “The function of microstyle is to get messages noticed, remembered, and passed along.” (p8)

To increase the odds of our messages being noticed, remembered, and passed along, Johnson explains a number of tools and characteristics that make messages more palatable.

Microstyle is divided into four main sections and each chapter within exposits a particular tool or technique that helps micromessages to “grab attention, communicate instantly, stick in the mind, and roll off the tongue” (p28).

The first section, Meaning, tells us to: Be ClearChoose the Right WordPaint a PicturePush ButtonsEvoke Specific SituationsZoom In on Telling DetailsTap into MetaphorUse Ambiguity for Good, Not Evil; and Say the Wrong Thing.

While considering meaning, we need to understand the role our micromessage plays: “A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination.” (p34)

The next section, Sound, gets into the auditory characteristics and flow of the language we use in our messages, and starts by reminding us to Keep it Simple. Next, we learn to Give it Rhythm and we’re encouraged to Play with Poetic Patterns, before we Make the Sound Fit. p121 tells us that, “While meaning is the essence of a message, sound, whether real or imagined, is how a message presents itself.”

In Structure, we examine how the message is constructed, and are told to: Break the RulesCoin a New WordMake a Play on WordsCombine Words ArtfullyUse Grammar ExpressivelyRepeat Structures, and to Teach an Old Cliché New Tricks.

Johnson advises us that, “Good microstyle doesn’t require rule breaking, but it does require a playful attitude. Give yourself permission not to care so much about being correct. Focus on what works and what sounds good to you. And when you have a good reason, go ahead and break the rules.” (p154)

The final section, Social Context, encourages us to Evoke Conversation, to Establish a Relationship, and to Create a Microvoice.

My Take: For me – and I’m trying not to sound like an ass – Microstyle largely provided formal explanations and examinations of things I’ve already observed, learned, or figured out on my own.

He’s preaching to the choir when he says on p224 that, “A tweet, or even an email subject line, can always be improved by an apt metaphor, a vivid image, or a poetic sound.” In fact, going way back in this blog, I talked about similar concepts in Why it’s good to be a tease.

That’s not to say I didn’t get anything from the book, or that I didn’t enjoy it; I’ve just done an awful lot of messaging in my day, and I’m a pretty voracious student of these topics.

Johnson really has done a great job capturing a wide range of techniques and distilling them into short chapters and meaningful sections; plus, he introduced me to all sorts of grammatical and linguistic terms that I hadn’t before encountered.

He also succeeded in making the Microstyle instructive and entertaining; his examples – both of successes and failures – showcase his points and provide readers with handy references that illustrate the lessons.

As an interesting aside, I learned from his Twitter that the author now works at Amazon, on the Alexa product – he’s changed his handle from “The Name Inspector” to “The Language Engineer”.

Read This Book If: …Either you want a crash course in what makes effective ‘micro’ content, or you want to put fancy names to tricks and heuristics you’ve already figured out.

Notes and Quotes

Introduction

Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two – micromessages – lean heavily on every word and live or die by the tiniest stylistic choices.

  • p1 explains why microstyle is needed: “Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two – micromessages – lean heavily on every word and live or die by the tiniest stylistic choices. Micromessages depend not on the elements of style but on the atoms of style. They require microstyle.”
  • p3: “Some aspects of style in longer writing are intended to maintain cohesiveness and hold a reader’s sustained attention. Microstyle is about grabbing that attention for a moment and communicating something quickly. Economy of expression is all-important. Many micromessages, such as brand names are sound bites, are also designed to be remembered and repeated verbatim.”
  • Hey, I like tools. p4: “The ‘rules’ discussed in this book are not limited to any particular kind of message or context; they’re linguistic techniques that can be used in all kinds of miniature messages. We’ll see that effective messages rely on the same techniques again and again. Think of them as tools, not rules.”
  • p8, against a backdrop of mass media exposure: “The function of microstyle is to get messages noticed, remembered, and passed along. Brevity is just a minimal requirement.”
  • This passage from p24 called to mind this xkcd, Writing Skills (don’t forget the mouse-over!): “The ongoing changes in our reading habits are hugely important and interesting phenomena, but there may be an even bigger story: the way we write has changed just as much. In fact, writing has probably changed more, because it has gone from being a specialist’s activity to being a normal daily activity for regular people.”
  • I’ve gotta say, I’ve never been impressed by Seth Godin (nothing against him personally, I’ve just never seen any interesting or noteworthy content from him to justify or explain his fame/reputation), and this passage just reinforces that feeling (confirmation bias at work!): “Some marketing experts, such as Seth Godin, maintain that a name for a new company should be a unique word or phrase that yields no results whatsoever in Google, so that when someone searches for the name, only relevant results will appear. Hence the name of his company: Squidoo.” I’ll note that I’d never heard of Squidoo, and never would’ve been exposed to it through Googling.
  • I’m not sure I’ve seen this term, expressive economy, before, but I like it and like to think that I practice it; p28 (in what is really a very long introduction): “Microstyle is all about expressive economy in language: getting a lot of idea out of a little message.”

Meaning

A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination.

  • p34: “So, how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t. That’s the first lesson of microstyle. A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination.”
  • p34: “Keeping this in mind makes you think about how your message fits into a larger picture and points to ideas without expressing them directly. The interaction of message, mind, and context makes meaning happen.”
  • Many times over the years, I’ve worked with people on their messaging and I’ve emphasized clarity, so this little bit from p51 rang true for me: “Lack of clarity is an aesthetic offense as well as a communicative one.”

“Lack of clarity is an aesthetic offense as well as a communicative one.”

  • p51: “Clarity becomes less important when messages serve the mysterious aims of what we call branding. Names and slogans are often not intended to be informative. Rather, they’re supposed to evoke ideas and feelings. To achieve this, they often communicate indirectly. A name can be informative but need not be.”
  • p51: “The main function of a brand name…is to add conceptual and emotional depth to people’s ideas about a product, company, or service.”
  • p52 continues: “A brand name need not communicate unambiguously. In fact, multiple meanings and fuzzy ideas are highly desirable, as long as they’re appropriate.”
  • p52: “Clarity serves different purposes, and even a lack of clarity, done in the right way, can add expressive power to a micromessage.”
  • p58, on framing: “Frames can also imply different judgments about the same phenomenon. The words thrifty and stingy both describe people who don’t spend much money, but thrifty treats that quality as a virtue, while stingy treats it as a flaw.”
  • p58 continues, quite reminiscent of Words That Work: “Fiscal conservatives engage in clever framing when they talk about ‘tax relief’ as opposed to ‘tax cuts.’ The word cuts sounds destructive and negative. The word relief, on the other hand, implies that taxes are some kind of burden or malady, and that reducing taxes returns people to a normal healthy state. That’s framing at work.”
  • p61: “Naming, as previously mentioned, is a special exercise in relevance creation. When you encounter a name for a new company or product, even if the name seems ‘arbitrary,’ your mind subconsciously finds the network of ideas that connects the name to the company or product. That network is one of the most important aspects of a brand.”

When you encounter a name for a new company or product, even if the name seems ‘arbitrary,’ your mind subconsciously finds the network of ideas that connects the name to the company or product. That network is one of the most important aspects of a brand.

  • WTF? p63: “Marc Hershon, who worked as a namer at Lexicon Branding, created the name BlackBerry for the now ubiquitous mobile email device made by Research in Motion. During the first creative session, he looked at the little prototype device the client had brought in, which was black and covered with tiny keys, and said, ‘It looks like an electronic blackberry.’ The client, who was from Canada, had never heard the word blackberry before – to him they’re loganberries. He was delighted by the fanciful idea of a berry that’s black, and the name survived through several rounds of creative words to emerge as the winner.” I say again, WTF? a) How have I not heard this creation story before? and b) WTF? How had someone not heard of blackberries?
  • p72: “Effective micromessages often push our emotional buttons. Making people feel things can be manipulation, art, or (more likely) something in between. At their worst, emotional appeals stir hatred and other negative emotions and take advantage of our weaknesses and insecurities. At their best, emotional appeals urge us to do good and to understand ourselves and others. Honest but less dramatic emotional appeals show us why something should matter to us.”
  • This line from p73 reminded me of something that Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis might’ve written: “I heard a radio interview in which a thorough city-planning expert was called ‘a belt-and-suspenders guy.'”
  • I always wondered about the reasoning behind this name…p74: “The name Monster acknowledges that the search for a job can be overwhelmingly scary.”
  • p74, it’s like an uncanny valley: “Emotional appeals are risky. To succeed they either have to be subtle enough to be convincing (like DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT), or they have to shoot the moon and be clearly hyperbolic (like THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS). In between lies dangerous territory where we encounter trite sentimentality, false intimacy, and other perils.”
  • p75, on using language, imagery, or references that hold specific appeal to your target market: “There’s a certain ingenuity to this ploy – using a convention that’s popular with the target demographic…to circumvent linguistic and editorial taboos.”

“One of the best ways to make a message engaging is to make your reader live it, not just think it. And we don’t live ideas, we live situations. So, insert your reader into a situation.”

  • p82: “One of the best ways to make a message engaging is to make your reader live it, not just think it. And we don’t live ideas, we live situations. So, insert your reader into a situation.”
  • p83, reminiscent of another thing I’ve tried to coach into people over the years: “You can never tell the whole story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a hundred-thousand-page novel or a ten-word tweet. Telling a story, even just communicating a message, always involves deciding what to leave out. Reading a story or understanding a message always requires connecting some dots.”

“You can never tell the whole story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a hundred-thousand-page novel or a ten-word tweet. Telling a story, even just communicating a message, always involves deciding what to leave out. Reading a story or understanding a message always requires connecting some dots.”

  • p87, repeating what I’ve encountered in psych books: “stories are more believable when they include some very specific details.”
  • p89: “Well-chosen details can help you get your message across without spelling it out. They’re an invaluable tool of microstyle.”
  • p97: “Metaphor is a staple of microstyle because it packs a lot of idea into a little message. It also adds vividness to otherwise drab messages.”
  • p99: “A good metaphor leads people to make the inferences you want them to make.”
  • p99: “So what’s a bad metaphor? One that either leads to undesirable inferences, or fails to illuminate the target.”
  • The title of Chapter 8, Use Ambiguity for Good, Not Evil, reminded me of a convo I had with a friend in which I talked about “moral marketing”
  • p105: “If you manage to craft a message that delivers two equally natural and appropriate meanings simultaneously, it’s as if the language itself supports the truth and wisdom that you’re saying. Clever ambiguity involves meanings that are clearly distinct, equally natural with the same pronunciation, and equally appropriate to the situation.” An example cited in the text is the famous LABOUR ISN’T WORKING campaign from English politics.
  • Here’s a good quote from p111, by Icelandic politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir, to illustrate having a nugget of wisdom in a contradiction: “The good thing about being new in Parliament is not knowing the traditions.”

Sound

While meaning is the essence of a message, sound, whether real or imagined, is how a message presents itself. And like it or not, people are superficial: beautiful words often seem truer than ugly ones.”

  • p121: “While meaning is the essence of a message, sound, whether real or imagined, is how a message presents itself. And like it or not, people are superficial: beautiful words often seem truer than ugly ones.”
  • It always astounds me when companies choose names that are difficult to pronounce, or that have ambiguous pronunciation…so this snippet from p123 rings true for me: “When people talk, they don’t want to make more of an effort that necessary. If you’re creating a message to be repeated, it’s best to embrace people’s naturally lazy tendencies.”
  • p126 references 30 Rock’s “The Rural Juror” which is a running gag in my household
  • p134: “One quality that makes things aesthetically pleasing is effortlessness. People like it when they don’t have to work too hard. When speaking, effort means having to reconfigure your vocal tract a lot, quickly.”
  • p134: “People like repetition, and that penchant is partly explained by a desire to avoid extra effort. Poetic language, language that ‘rolls off the tongue,’ is filled with repetition. Harmony is the sunny side of laziness.”
  • So, don’t force it…p137: “The best examples use words that sound natural and that just happen to create a pattern. When word choice is driven by the desire to create a rhyme or other pattern, the result can be clunky and corny sounding.”

Structure

Other bad blends fail to preserve the patterns of syllable emphasis of their component words. I like to call this phenomenon awkwordplay.

  • p154: “Good microstyle doesn’t require rule breaking, but it does require a playful attitude. Give yourself permission not to care so much about being correct. Focus on what works and what sounds good to you. And when you have a good reason, go ahead and break the rules.”
  • p164: “In a well-constructed portmanteau, two component words blend together seamlessly through a phonetic overlap or similarity.” BOOM, SandScript! *drops mic*
  • p165…I love this term: “Other bad blends fail to preserve the patterns of syllable emphasis of their component words. I like to call this phenomenon awkwordplay, a blend of awkward and wordplay, because that name actually demonstrates the phenomenon.”

As an appeal to women, this slogan said, ‘Scotch, like sex, is one of the forbidden pleasures to which you are entitled.’ As an appeal to men, it said, ‘Liberated single girls will drink our scotch and have sex with you.’ But, you know, in a classy, discreet way.

  • Hehe, describing a J&B Scotch ad on p182: “An old J&B Scotch ad used the slogan SCOTCH AND THE SINGLE GIRL, an obvious reference to the 1962 novel Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown, who later became editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. The slogan appeared over an image of three women: one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead (a straight-white-male fantasy vision of diversity, circa 1971). Without using the word sex, J&B Scotch managed to imply that its product might have something to do with both ‘single girls’ and sex. As an appeal to women, this slogan said, ‘Scotch, like sex, is one of the forbidden pleasures to which you are entitled.’ As an appeal to men, it said, ‘Liberated single girls will drink our scotch and have sex with you.’ But, you know, in a classy, discreet way.”
  • p190 refers to the late William Safire’s rules for writers

Epilogue

  • p224: “A tweet, or even an email subject line, can always be improved by an apt metaphor, a vivid image, or a poetic sound.”

Lee Brooks is a freelance technology marketer based in the high-tech hub of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Advertising, Books, Everything, Marketing

What do *you* think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address and get posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Archives
%d bloggers like this: