Emphasizing the Right Word

lunch-with-wine-c-2013-wordsonthefly

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.

A Week Without Words

Darn these words! They’re so inadequate. What do you write when 20 children die? When teachers are killed in the line of duty? When parents and siblings grieve together?

As news from Connecticut unfolds, we’re numb. One tearful woman summed it up for others: “I’m speechless. I’m speechless. I just can’t speak.”

peace-backlit-cwordsonthefly-2012-sm

For those of us who write and casually turn a phrase, this is a rude awakening. Like many, we grasp at verbal straws. Feeling inept, we grow still… our hearts ache. We try to unravel the events as we would a plot, but we are left with too many loose ends.

The characters aren’t clear. They wear many hats, serve many roles. They’re people we’ve never met, and yet they are familiar.

We try to articulate the groundswell of emotion, but can’t possibly express the magnitude.

The best I could do was Tweet an observation: “Sadness falls this season instead of snow…” and thankfully, someone Retweeted my post which seemed to dilute the sorrow by sharing the pain.

Living miles away, the impact is lessened, but it’s all too easy to replace those innocent faces with children we know, children we love, children who have had a chance to grow and experience life as they should. What if…

Darn these words! They’re useless!  They can’t resurrect the dead, can barely comfort the living… and yet we search desperately for the right ones.

“Understanding” hardly expresses the gut-wrenching nausea we feel. “Empathy” seems like an empty offer. We sit glued to television, tablet, and computer screens as details surface, asking how this could happen and why.

Tears spill. We hug our children tighter. Candles in Newtowns all over the country pay tribute to those lost and kindle a spark of hope for humanity.

Perhaps this is a week best left without words. Perhaps this is a Silent Night.

The Man in the Mill

I’ve run into people who appreciate words. I’ve met them at bookstores, classrooms, podiums, and theaters.

Maybe that’s why I was so surprised to meet a word enthusiast in such an unlikely setting – an 83 year-old gristmill, off a quiet country road, on a random Saturday morning.

gristmill-wayside-inn-c2012-wordsonthefly
You see, this man was a guide at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, MA. The Inn dates back to Colonial Times (built in 1716) and was later (1863) immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his “Tales of a Wayside Inn.”

In 1923, Henry Ford bought the building and surrounding 3,000 acres of land in hopes of turning  the Wayside Inn into a living museum of Americana. During the years that followed, he imported a one-room school house, built a fully functional gristmill (1929) and constructed the Martha-Mary Chapel (1940).

Although there were only five of us inside the mill that day (including a Mom and two smart, earthy children), the miller/educator gave us an in-depth presentation, focusing not on the mechanics of the mill (as others have done in the past), but on the origins of the words related to milling.

Quite the entertainer, he shot questions out to the kids, challenged them to be smarter than “us adults,” and took divergent twists and turns in his thinking.
First, he pointed out the differences in the colors of wheat product …brown whole wheat vs white wheat flour. He dispelled the myth of bleaching, and showed instead by sifting, how removal of the bran would leave the finer flour white.

gristmill-jars-wayside-inn-c2012-wordsonthefly

He posed a trick question and asked what part of the wheat was most nutritious, delighting in the fact that most people got it wrong by saying the bran. Hah! Bran is cellulose and non-digestible, he explained, so while it was “good for you” in terms of providing fiber, there was no nutrition in it at all.

(And so we’re reminded about the power of Marketing)

Much like a teacher (though he claimed he wasn’t), the miller asked if we knew the difference between “flour” and “meal.” We all came up with reasoning relating to the grind. Nope. He explained that “meal” was a Franco-German derivative that simply meant “grain” – as not to be confused by the term “Indian Corn” that was neither Native American or corn, per se. He explained that “corn” used in this context, also drew from Germanic roots, and also meant “grain.”

Here are more wheat-related terms for those interested.

I learned a lot that morning, not only about the by-products of milling, but about how words can convey a passion – and breathe life into something that could have been mundane. This experience offered a bridge to the past. There was a connection and energy in the conversation. Something bigger than the items at hand. Simple household goods like bread and cereal suddenly possessed historic importance. The humble work of milling rose to the stature of science.  Through this man’s story-telling expertise, it became clear that bread sustained life – in more than a few ways.

As I moved out into the light, my mind was heightened with word-awareness. I kept thinking about the importance of precision in writing and about wheat (or the metaphor of it) in much grander terms:

Up from the earth, the wheat sprung. Absorbed sun, rain, and blue skies. Grew sweet, plump and yellow until the heavy heads drooped. Enter mankind… with nimble fingers, blades, and threshers. Usher in industry, silos, and conveyor belts. Add one small grain to another to sustain a society. Granaries.  Groceries. Bakeries. Worn kitchen tables with striped bowls and the smell of yeast rising… wooden cutting boards and checkered cloths. Melted butter, spilling over crispy crust.

Ah, bread, “The Staff of Life.” … and words, the crux of communication.

“Great” Ain’t So Great. Put a Macro Lens on Your Language.

Playing with a macro lens the other day, I was reminded that cabbage isn’t necessarily a dull green ball.  macro-red-cabbage-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly1 In fact, it can
be violet
, royal, laced with intricate, sensual patterns in white, a labyrinth of curves and crevasses. It’s certainly more than coleslaw and the makings for “Holiskhes.”

The same is true about words. Take the word “Great,” for instance. I’m so tired of hearing it, and yet I’m as bad as the next guy in using it:   “Great to see you!” “What a great idea!” “Isn’t that great news?” But what has “great” told us? Absolutely nothing, other than to convey a sense of elation.

“Great” is one of the biggest wastes of space when you’re counting words. Why use up a Tweet character or air time on a mundane word when there are so many others that add substance. “Great” is convenient but lazy.

Think about business writing, when you have to convey a message fast. Say you have the prospect’s attention for 5 seconds and you opt for a headline that reads, “Greatest widget around.” Well, woopdedoo! You’ve offered no concrete information. Put that phrase under a macro lens and look at it closer.

Consider: “New, portable widget” or “Blue widget at half price” or “The last widget you’ll ever need because it’s so durable.” Now you’re saying something.
Examine the widget further.

How does it feel?  Taste? Smell? What emotion does it evoke? Confidence? Delight? Nostalgia?

“Rugged widget for the serious outdoorsman,” “Widget just like Grandma used to make,” “Succulent widget with a hint of saffron.” You see, it doesn’t matter what the widget is, but as a writer, you must make it unique. “Great” just doesn’t cut it.

macro-cut-carrots-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly

Now think about carrots. Gorgeous color. Refreshing crunch. Healthy, too.  Much like cabbage, when seen through a macro lens, there’s much more than meets the eye. There’s form and structure, rings of growth, a tuft of green at the top, and a root with incomprehensible persistence.

Now look at your widget as you looked at those carrots. “Widgets grown from the warm earth,” “Laser cut widgets for precision,” “Collectible widgets etched with the maker’s mark.”

Align your widget with a purpose to suggest value. “Widgets for the busy professional,” “Widgets to relax the mind and restore the spirit,” “Widgets that can be worn with red party pumps or beach sandals.”

macro-cabbage-carrots-200-px-c-2012-wordsonthefly
Now mix it up. See what happens when you combine bright purple cabbage, bold orange carrots, and a few sweet dried cranberries for fun.  This is so much better than “great.” Under the lens it is a “canvas of color,” “a burst of unexpected flavor,” “a landscape of texture and taste.” So back to your widget.  Maybe it offers an “effervescent splash of citrus,” “an aura of mystery,” or “a playful combination of polka dots against crisp white cotton.”

So set aside your old widget and give it a word makeover. Look at it with fresh eyes. Turn it upside down, inside out.  Describe it as if your audience has never seen a widget before. Surprisingly, your widget will no longer be just plain “great.”

Words Gone Wild: Gamification, Brinerate, Cyborgization

words-gone-wild-illustration

I thought things were bad when “impact” became a verb. I cringed when I first heard “incentive” turn into “incentivize,” or even worse, “incent.” I’m not sure when nouns lost their clout, but here they are, getting verby all over the place.

Add to that the influence of technology, and we have a whole new language. Where were we without “Google?” And how could we have possibly conveyed humor without “LOL?”

This past week I was hit with an onslaught of new linguistic configurations. A colleague told me she was leaving her job to join a company that specialized in “gamification.”  (Looking that up, I see it relates to marketing around a rewards principle; I think we used to call that “promotion.”)

Leafing through the grilling issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine , I noticed that a person can marinate with brine, thus the term “brinerate.”

In Timothy Leary’s esoteric Design for Dying, he uses “cyborgization” to describe the replacement of body parts. I’m not sure which is scarier — the concept or the word.

Yup, words have gone bad, and we careless, linguistically lax individuals are making the situation worse. We go to business meetings and come back with buzz words that make us feel smart. So we use them a lot. Soon they migrate from boardroom to water cooler. Folks start talking about “forward and backward leaning media,” “long and short tail experiences.”

Actually, the staff at Miriam Webster adds dozens of words to the dictionary each year.  It’s interesting to see what now falls into the common lexicon. Terms that used to be reserved for scientists and mathematicians, for example, are commonplace. If “giga” is too small, we simply invent “ginormous.”

Yup – my Spell Check is lighting up like a Christmas tree! Clichés and coined terms seem to be easily accepted but the newer selections are still unapproved. I can type “WYSIWYG” without getting a red underline because Microsoft Word obviously knows that What You See Is What You Get, but does it recognize “Activia” (i.e. yogurt with a marketing spin)? Nope.

Remember “Farfenuggen?” (OK, I can’t spell that either) That was an ad agency-contrived word designed to convey the “Germanness” of Volkswagen. (See, I can invent words, too) I thought it ironic that a house guest who happened to speak German failed to see the humor.

I know I’m not alone in observing the language shift.  At a recent Media Innovation Day sponsored by the Boston Ad Club, speakers from Droga5 — a highly innovative ad agency — talked about their reality-plus-media-mix partnerhsip campaign for Microsoft’s bing, Random House, and Jay Z.  In alluding to their competitor, Google,  one  posed the same question I ask: “How do you fight against a verb?

But maybe the verbization of nouns and blatant word creation aren’t so bad after all. I mean, why sit on the couch with your uncreative cookie and dog when you can “couchify” a Snickerdoodle with your Labradoodle. Couch + cookie + dog = boring. Oodles of doodles enjoyed on animated furniture are much more fun.