Do you use words that work?

In Faust I, a masterpiece of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “Words are mere sound and smoke.” But is this really the case?

Hardly. Words carry meaning and ideas, and choosing the right words is vital to winning people over, be it in politics, advertising or your personal life. Anytime we talk to our colleagues, our boss, our children or friends, we have to weigh our words carefully in order to get our message across.

But how can we find words that convey our message as intended? In the book, Words That Work, author Frank I. Luntz explains exactly how people will understand your words and why their interpretations might differ from what you actually mean.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your words were totally misinterpreted? Have you thought you were saying one thing only to find the other person heard something entirely different?

If this has happened to you, there are likely some flaws in how you communicate; that is to say, your words have failed you. But you’re not alone. In fact, flawed language habits are so widespread that we encounter misunderstandings in everything from politics to business to everyday life.

This is the case because everyone has a different understanding of words. As such, two different words that technically denote the same thing can elicit entirely different reactions.

For instance, “welfare” and “assistance to the poor” essentially mean the same thing. But if you ask Americans, only 23 percent will say that the country is spending too little on welfare, while 68 percent think there is too little “assistance to the poor.”

Clearly, different ways of communicating the same idea hold contrasting connotations. So, while “welfare” conjures up images of “welfare queens” and wasteful government spending, “assistance to the poor” reminds people of charity and Christian compassion.

Effective communication isn’t about your message or what your words objectively mean, but rather how people understand them. It’s essential to consider your audience’s preconceptions, especially their beliefs and fears.

Take the English novelist George Orwell, who knew this well and whose famous book 1984 played on the deep personal fears of his readers.

For instance, one passage describes “Room 101” as a place where one is confronted with her greatest fears. Since the fears of every reader are different, Room 101 became associated with the personal nightmares of any given reader.

How often do you pick up a dictionary and look up a word you don’t know? For many people, the answer would be seldom – or not at all. And that’s fine! After all, if you get used to using words so sophisticated that they are barely understood, your message is unlikely to be received. Thus, it’s often best to stick with clear and direct wording.

Effective language is easy to understand. But how can you make yours as effective as possible?

First of all, it’s important to use simple words and brief sentences; the more simply you present ideas, the more likely they are to be received. In the end, shorter words always have a bigger impact. Just take Apple’s Mac computer, which was originally named Macintosh.

Shorter sentences are also more easily remembered. For instance, many Americans remember Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign slogan “I like Ike,” which used the then-presidential candidate’s nickname.

By the same token, ignoring the rule of simplicity can mean big trouble. One reason John Kerry lost the 2004 presidential election was because the average American could hardly understand him. He tended to use overly complicated words and sentences that were far too long.

For example, he spoke of his preference for a “progressive internationalism” over the “too often belligerent and myopic unilateralism of the Bush Administration.” In the end, many Americans had no clue what he was talking about.

But it’s also important to carefully explain the relevance of your message, which means giving context. This is easy to do by arranging your message in the right order.

For instance, if you want to offer a solution, your audience first needs to know why there’s a problem; without the initial context, your message is worthless.

Take 1920 presidential candidate Warren G. Harding’s famous “Back to normalcy” campaign. His effort was successful because he began by explaining how the political climate of the post-World War I United States was one of chaos and disorientation.

Once he had given this context he offered the solution that could restore stability: himself.

It might not seem like it, but language is extraordinarily powerful. Just think about how putting together certain words, like a giraffe on a bike, can paint a vivid mental image in the minds of your audience. Such a powerful mental picture forms because people struggle to resist imagining a long-necked creature, helplessly pedaling on a bicycle that’s far too small for it.

In fact, the strength of the human imagination makes appealing to your audience’s imaginative senses a powerful tool for conveying your message. To do so, it’s essential to create a strong image in your audience’s mind – in other words, to sensualize.

For example, good advertising slogans often employ language that grabs your imagination and senses. Just take M&M’s famous slogan, “melts in your mouth. . .” When you hear it, you can practically feel the chocolate on your tongue.

And there’s an easy way to trigger this sensualization with one simple word: “imagine.” When you ask someone to imagine something, you’re asking them to generate their own personalized vision based on their deepest emotions and desires. Naturally, this makes for a powerful image and also explains why John Lennon’s song Imagine is among his most beloved and famous.

Alongside its visual components, the sonic quality of language also plays a central role. As such, you can achieve even greater success by utilizing the musical qualities of words. For instance, you can use words that sound similar together to make them more memorable. Returning to M&M’s famous slogan, the repetition of the letter M in “Melts in your Mouth. . .” makes the slogan stick, and the same goes for “Intel Inside.”

Another sonic strategy is to use words that sound like what you’re describing. For instance, when you hear “Snap, Crackle and Pop,” the slogan of Kellog’s Rice Krispies, you get a perfect sense of what it sounds like to be eating the cereal. Know of any other catchy slogans?

Check out my related post: Do you have the long view?

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