Words work

By Jason MacKenzie FCIPR FCIM, 

Managing Partner, Corporate Communications 

Politics aside*, ‘Vote Leave, Take Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ are winning slogans. They encapsulate strong messages in simple, powerful, memorable phrases. Through consistent repetition they became drummed into our collective and individual consciousness.

They’re bold examples of active, rather than passive, voice. Both are verb-driven: challenging the listener or reader to respond. They embody more than a call to action – they’re calls for participation.

Linguistically, they have rhythm, they have cadence, and they feel more like poetry than prose. They lodge in our ears and stick in our minds.

Part of their potency lies in positioning you, the audience, as the hero. Yes, you. Quite unlike Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ snap election strapline which focused on her leadership, these clarion calls are reminiscent of Lord Kitchener’s ‘Your Country Needs You’. Their appeal is empowering, populist, and personal – and it instills a sense of national pride. Vote Leave was about sovereignty and Trump’s campaign refrain inspired hope: the reformation of a nation and the restoration of a bygone era.

In contrast, do you remember the Remain campaign slogan? Hillary’s? Me neither.

So what?

But how is this relevant? The chances are you don’t craft campaign messages. But you do write, and speak. These are the main tools we use to influence and persuade others. Whether you’re drafting an email, asking a favour, raising sponsorship, or making a speech: the specific words you use, and the order in which you use them, matter profoundly. They make the difference between communicating effectively and confusing your audience.

Great writing carries the reader along, and powerful speeches appeal to both hearts and minds. But turgid texts are a turn off, and stodgy speeches are stultifying. Better to write nothing than torpedo your brand with your own language, in an act of rhetorical self-harm.

Words carry power. The way in which a question is phrased in a survey will influence responses. Polling shows that the majority of British voters don’t want a ‘leave v remain’ re-run, but they do want a so-called ‘people’s vote’. To be clear, these propositions are exactly the same, merely cloaked in different language. Yet they provoke diametrically opposite reactions. It’s the same the world over. Here’s a transatlantic parallel: Americans are consistently opposed to ‘drilling for oil’ but invariably in favour of ‘energy exploration’. The words we choose really do matter.

Five principles for better writing

  1. Keep it simple. Don’t use vocabulary like a preening peacock. Avoid overcomplication at all costs (unless it adds something distinctive, such as shock factor for grabbing the reader’s attention). Verbosity is linguistic Onanism**.
  2. Keep it short. Solid, functional Anglo-Saxon words, fashioned into punchy sentences and tight paragraphs. Our attention span is brief. Entice the reader to read, and the listener to listen.
  3. Keep it sweet. Tell stories. Narrative carries us along more compellingly than a barrage of stats and facts. If your writing paints a picture and captures the imagination, you’re heading in the right direction.
  4. Keep it in the frame. Draw the conversation into your own territory, and give yourself a better chance of exerting influence. The battle for ideas is won subtly and subliminally. Use language that spans the gap between you and your audience: give them the chance to cross over. Put yourself into their (metaphorical) shoes. I’m thinking about you right now. Am I helping you? Am I communicating effectively with you? Are you thinking of ways you can apply this to your writing? If so, we’re both winning.
  5. Keep the spotlight on your reader, your listener. What can you do for them? What do you have to offer? How are you helping them to be better at whatever-it-is-they-do?

The last word (or three)

Aristotle was persuaded that all great communication requires ethos, logos and pathos. They’re profound principles, yet understanding and applying them is easier than it sounds.

Ethos is about authority. Do you have the credentials to communicate on the issue you’re writing about? If not, you won’t be taken seriously. Best find another topic.

Logos is the use of logic: reason, facts and figures. Building from substance adds credibility, from which your story or speech should soar.

Pathos refers to emotional appeal. Great communication always moves hearts, as well as minds.

Blend authority, logic and emotional appeal – and your communications will be both credible and compelling. And remember: Lord Kitchener, Vote Leave and President Trump have one thing in common: they know that words can work. Adhere to these principles, and words will work for you, too.

*As if

**Yes, this is both deliberate and ironic.





Picture credit: Etsy

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