“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….
The Gettysburg Address
Thankfully, Abraham Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: “Four score and seven.”
Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost right word – and, the RIGHT word. A distinction defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as…”the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” With this thought in mind, in today’s post I offer a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your copy and make your writing more engaging, memorable and effective.
Let’s start by looking at a line from the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch. In a story a few years back, the reporter described Dick Vitale’s reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame. Vitale, explained the writer, “admitted he ‘cried like a baby’ upon learning he was induced.”
Maybe Vitale’s use of the word baby clouded the writer’s thinking. Because induced is so NOT the right word. (And yes, in all fairness maybe it was simply a typo. Either way, the end result is the same: poor communication.)
Which leads us to today’s big (but hardly revolutionary) idea: For more effective word choice think harder about the words you choose.
For example, although it’s obvious that the reporter made the wrong choice, what about the writers who penned these lines?
- This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
- More CIOs are disinterested in Linux
- And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.
How many of these people made the wrong word choice? Actually, that’s a trick question. Because they all did. Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way – even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or by the soon-to-be leader of the free world. But that doesn’t mean the word was used correctly. (See my earlier post, Get It Right When You Write (Or Speak): 3 Commonly Misused Words, for more examples like the above.)
As to why the above words are – in Mark Twain’s manner of speaking, lightning bugs – I’ll go over one of them: enormity.
The first two definitions listed in my Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) are -
- Great wickedness, the enormity of this crime.
- A serious crime, these enormities.
In all fairness, the OAD lists “enormous size, hugeness” as its third definition. But it follows this listing with a usage note that reads: “Careful writers do not use this word in the last meaning. They use enormousness.” I don’t know about you, but I expect presidential speechwriters to fall into the careful writers group.
Now for two specific word choice tips:
- Choose small, simple words –
The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:
Instead of writing “utilize,” “peruse,” “ascertain,” write “use,” “read,” “find out.”
Now am I advising you to never use big words? No, of course not. But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better. And here’s one reason why:
“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is – and therefore the more credible it will be.”
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – By Dr. Frank Luntz
My second word choice tip is this:
- Use mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous, active-voice words
Strunk and White in their classic book, The Elements of Style, put it this way:
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs….It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character.”
As to the active voice, legendary copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his “Active/Passive Rule.”
“Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.”
- Instead of writing: “Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.”
- Write: When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.
Notice the difference the active voice makes? Notice also how the active voice makes the writing more “you-centric.” Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.
For example, I seldom use the word “allows” because it’s a passive, “permission granting” word. I prefer enables or makes it possible. Unlike “allows,” enables and makes it possible are active and empowering. As a result, these words are more likely to keep your reader involved with your copy.
- Instead of writing “Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….” write “Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….”
- Instead of writing “SmartList To Go allows you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.” write “SmartList To Go makes it possible for you to create, view and manage databases on your handheld.”
Words are powerful business tools. And the good news is that no matter who you are – Bill Gates or Bill Bailey – you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else
So, to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page or a screen and gaining the response you seek, remember today’s big idea and two tips:
For more effective word choice, think harder about the word you choose.
- Choose small, simple words.
- Choose mainly nouns and verbs and vigorous active-voice words.
Follow these recommendations and while your words might not make history…they will be duly noted, better remembered – and, most importantly, more effective.
Recommendations for additional reading:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, By Ronald C. White Jr.
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, By Dr. Frank Luntz
On the Art of Writing Copy, Third Edition, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
It is a crisp, clear autumn afternoon. About 1:30. A full sun hangs in a bright blue sky. A large crowd mills about.
The date: November 19th. The year: 1863. The place: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are there. You jostle for position. You strain your neck to get a glimpse. You cup your hand behind your ear…as the 16th President of the United States steps to the center of the platform and begins his “few appropriate remarks.”
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Thus begins one of the most memorable pieces of American prose ever written. Pick any adjective of praise to describe The Gettysburg Address and it’s probably appropriate. Elegant. Eloquent. Evocative. Profound. Poetic. Poignant.
Small Words, Big Impact
Study Lincoln’s words though and you may be surprised to discover that most of them are just one syllable. To be exact, two hundred and twenty out of two hundred and seventy one. Yet there is not another speech in American history that more movingly communicates its message. If ever there was a case to be made for small words being more effective tools of communication, The Gettysburg Address makes it. As writers, marketers and communicators that’s not the only lesson Lincoln’s masterpiece teaches us.
In the balance of today’s post, I’d like to point out a few more.
The Central Idea of the Occasion
The day after the Gettysburg dedication ceremonies Lincoln received a letter at the White House. It was from Edward Everett. Everett was the most renowned orator of his generation and it was he, not Lincoln, who had been the featured speaker at Gettysburg. By all accounts, Everett had delivered a stirring 2-hour oratory replete with a virtuoso verbal re-enactment of the battle itself. And yet, his letter to Lincoln read in part:
“Dear Mr. President,
“I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
Everett’s correspondence highlights a key point. The Gettysburg Address communicates so effectively because it captures, encapsulates, and illuminates a monumental moment in American history. It does so with clarity and brevity while at the same time informing us and fully engaging our emotions. (Clarity, brevity, informing the target audience while fully engaging their emotions. What marketing professional wouldn’t kill for copy like this?) A good example of this clarity and brevity can be found in the opening lines of Lincoln’s conclusion wherein he says:
“But in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
With these two eloquent lines Lincoln simply, effectively and beautifully articulates “the central idea of the occasion.” And, offers a moving and prayerful tribute to those who struggled there.
A Great Writer At Work
In a February, 1991 Life Magazine essay, Garry Wills wrote: “Abraham Lincoln is our only Chief Executive who became a great president because he was a great writer.” To study The Gettysburg Address is to witness a great writer at work. A writer in full command of his talent who skillfully uses such rhetorical devices as parallelism, antithesis, alliteration and repetition. But befitting a man we love and cherish for the warmth, wit and humanity his life and words communicate…in the Gettysburg address Lincoln the writer shows an attentive heart and keen ear for just the right word, just the right phrase.
A few examples:
“conceived in liberty,” “engaged in a great civil war,” “a final resting place,” “who here gave their lives that that nation might live,” “the last full measure of devotion,” “a new birth of freedom.”
In studying the Gettysburg Address we gain an acute awareness of all the power and all the beauty that great prose can possess. Meant to dedicate a graveyard its rich rhetoric reverberates with the rhythm and imagery of life. This rhythm and imagery, Lincoln’s immense technical skills as a writer and his ever attentive heart and keen ear for the right words – these are key reasons why Lincoln’s words live on, as vibrant, as real, as meaningful to us today as they were that November day in Gettysburg, seven score and 6 years ago. Indeed, they speak to, they connect with, they touch “the better angels of our nature.”
As marketing professionals, business owners and salespeople, our livelihood and well-being depend in large part on our ability to communicate. And as we prepare for our next marketing campaign, marcom project, sales presentation or public speaking opportunity we would do well to call to mind the lessons to be learned from Lincoln’s masterpiece.
We should, for example:
- Use a predominance of small, easily understood words
- Focus on the “central idea of the occasion”
- Write with clarity and brevity, with an attentive heart and keen ear for the right words
- Infuse our communications with rhythm, imagery and life.
If we consistently do so, while it’s doubtful we’ll make history, it’s a good bet that our campaigns, projects and communications will be duly noted and well received.
© 2010 Ernest Nicastro
Recommendations for additional reading: