David Meyer

Words Get On Your Nerves (whether you like it or not)

For a company whose primary business is dependent upon communication, it seems obvious that being able to write compelling copy for print ads, brochures, TV and radio ads is a basic requirement. Yet, crafting a compelling message can be challenging. Why?

Because how we use words can make a huge difference in how audiences react to what we are attempting to communicate. At Spoke we take great pride in crafting messages that elicit emotional responses from target prospects and customers. “Emotional?” you may ask. Well yes. Because we understand that the words we use can directly affect the nervous system. If that sounds clinical, it is. And it’s a fact.

The concept of General Semantics was initially conceived by the Polish-American originator Alfred Korzybski in 1933 with the publication of Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Starting around 1940, university English professor S. I. Hayakawa (1906–1992), speech professor Wendell Johnson, speech professor Irving J. Lee, and others incorporated elements of general semantics into mainstream communications curricula. The basic idea behind General Semantics is that the words we use in everyday conversations can help promote or detract from effective and meaningful communications. And there are some basic principles that go along with practicing General Semantics.

Let’s look at this example. “Let’s Make America Great Again.” It’s a political slogan that found significant appeal among certain constituents. In the slogan is an underlying assumption that plays to a perception that somehow America isn’t great now. But that implies there was a time when America was great. Great in what respect? Powerful? Successful? World Leader? Is the United States no longer great? Do those same adjectives no longer apply? By whose definition? Was America great during Prohibition? How about the Great Depression in the 30s? In the second world war, America became a very powerful war machine and was unified by a common cause. But do we need to have a war to become that way again? What about the rights of Blacks before the Civil Rights movement? What about the unrest and expense caused during the Vietnam War? The point is this: just because someone says something, doesn’t make it so. As for America being great again, it’s a matter of what people consider great, and what isn’t so great…compared to when.

Words and phrases that convey permanence, black and white only choices, and label stereotyping can create false realities that some people may choose to believe or deny. That fact that the universe we live in is always changing belies the concept of permanence. Yet people use words to convey just the opposite. Have you ever heard someone say, “All I know is….”  “All people of a particular religion or color are….”  “Either you do this, or I’m going to…”  “So and so is a complete idiot.”? Phrases such as these over simplify and force false options and create dangerous labels. This language of Allness is the language of dictators.  Create a label and cause for all the evils in the world, and you’ve made it easy for people to stop thinking and simplify their world. And yes, some people want simplicity in their lives because it is convenient and helps them frame their world without question.

Effective conversations require attentive listening from both parties. If a person you are speaking with says something that makes you formulate a response before understanding his/her point, the conversation has already fallen apart. So the key is not to let bad language habits interfere with the purpose of the discussion.

And what has all this to do with marketing communications?  Well, it requires us to thoroughly understand our audience. What are their key emotional chords, and how do we address these in compelling and thoughtful ways? Ultimately, we are trying to begin a conversation with our audience. Although it is one way (our message to them), by incorporating salient features and benefits and presenting them in a believable and an arresting fashion, we are opening the lines of communication. We need to demonstrate a firm understanding of audience’s vernacular and avoid using statements and descriptions that oversimplify their problems and opportunities and make them tune us out.

A key factor in developing effective ad copy is to stay away from including expressions that either speaks down to the audience or implies a competitive advantage when there isn’t one. Think how many times you’ve heard the advertising phrase “Why pay more?” Well as a start there could be many reasons people want to pay more for something. It could be for peace of mind, or for higher quality or for better service. The expression “No one knows banking, leasing, etc. better than we do” is an interesting statement. Although it seems to convey a competitive advantage, it really is nothing more than a parity statement. It simply is saying the advertiser is just as good as anyone else.

The myth that people don’t read copy heavy print ads stems from a perception that no one wants to expend the effort it takes to read the entire ad. The fact is, some of the most powerful ads have been all copy with little to no visual support. Why? Because the subject matter arrested the attention of the target audience. If the information provided is useful and written in a compelling style that touches your target’s emotional chords, it will get read. It’s just as important how you say something, not just what you say.

Our job at Spoke is write copy that informs and excites. We need to extend our clients’ brand promise by creating a personality that prospects and customers want to interact with in a positive manner. We need to carefully choose our words that enhance our chances of being read (heard) and being believed. If we can’t get our audience to feel good about us, then we’re going to have a tough time getting them to buy us.

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David Meyer


There are a lot of great story-tellers, but there aren’t enough story-understanders. When clients have trouble explaining a new value proposition, David can name that tune in fewer words than they imagined possible. When prospects come to us with a symptom, David asks the (sometimes hard) questions that get to the root of the problem. Then he solves it. After decades in account management and creative roles, David is able to bridge the gap between creatives and clients (and back). Oh, and he can tell stories, too.

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