Emphasizing the Right Word


I’m not sure why this sign struck me as funny. Maybe it was because I had just walked 10 city blocks and had 10 more to go that I needed a rest and some comic relief. Maybe it was because I read it wrong… or then again, maybe I had read it right. With the phrasing “Lunch with Wine,” I envisioned the prospective customer rushing in, highly stressed and in need of a drink, with some food tossed in on the side. That would have made wine the primary dish.

That got me thinking about the way we pair words. “Bacon and eggs,” “spaghetti and meatballs,” “peanut butter and jelly” all get equal billing. But with an ever-so-slight shift in the word arrangement, an entirely different meaning can be conveyed.

“Heidi, along with her dog Tofu, stolled down the center of Main Street, oblivious to the possibility of a passing car.” Here Heidi is the main character. “Tofu, a floppy-eared mutt, went bounding down the center of Main Street, with Heidi in close pursuit.” Here the main character is the dog.

“With Tofu on a long leash, Heidi and her dog explored the width of Main Street, she pulling to the right to peer into a candy store, the dog pulling to the left to sniff around the butcher shop.” Here Heidi is leading the action but by creating parallel outcomes, there is some equity in the pairing.

“Before Heidi headed to town, she tied Tofu to the porch, ignoring his doggie whine as she kicked up the dust.” Here Heidi is the primary character, taking the secondary character (her dog) out of the action by “setting him aside.” As a writer, you have multiple choices: let Heidi continue on her way, or create a simultaneously scene.

In the first scenario, the dogless Heidi can embark on her own adventure. “By time she got to the General Store, her braids had come undone. It wasn’t until Mr. Herbert asked if she wanted some lemonade did she realize how parched she was.”

In the second scenario, we intentionally lose sight of Heidi so the author can construct a parallel plot: “Tofu, who had blatantly failed Obedience Class, immediately began tugging at the rope, circling the porch pillar counter-clockwise until the rope relaxed. With a strategically placed paw and a good pair of canines, he pulled once more and created a gap that allowed him to escape.”

While quite apparent in narrative writing, we should remind ourselves of this technique when business writing. Ask: What is the primary selling point or objective, what is the point you intend to “throw away” as not to confuse?

If product is most important — you could say, “Let me tell you about the blue and green widget that will help you complete this task because it has fixtures that can be added as you need them.” Perhaps more direct would be, “Announcing the new widget with auto-fit fixtures to help you solve XYZ task. Blue and green available.” Here, the colors are secondary, and fixtures are an integral part of it.

If colors are critical — you could address the demand for color selection by switching the emphasis:  “Now in fresh blue and green colors for spring, the new add-a-fixture widget can be ordered online or with a quick phone call to 000-000-0000.” With a subtle change in content, the call-to-action replaces the feature benefit.

If the priority is direct response — rather than education — flip the order of things further to create urgency: “Order your new blue-green widget now. Don’t be the last to know the secret of how to solve this problem.” Or on a more positive note: “Be the first to know how to solve this problem by using the new auto-fix widget.” Colors are not important.

This poses an interesting challenge when working with a client team with different agendas. The engineering rep may want to emphasize product because he/she is proud of the technology.  The designer may choose to emphasize color because it was chosen with deep psychological analysis.  The Sales Manager will likely favor the call-to-action because that’s the fastest path to a commission.

While the differences are subtle, a good writer must fight for the phrasing that’s most effective and appropriate for the assignment. All words are not created equal.

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