Just the right word


Oct 13, 2015 • Laura Boyd • Blog

Thought Leadership

Yes, I’m a word nerd. I look at words everywhere I go. Specific words themselves and the strategies behind the words. I can’t help myself. I run with a crowd who often shares this affliction.

People like me edit menus ... assess signage ... and look into descriptions to see the inner messaging. While this condition has its challenges, I vastly prefer it to being a carpet expert, where everywhere I went I would look straight down and say something like, “Wow... Will ya’ take a look at that 22-pound, double-tuft weave, poly/wool blend!”

I owe a lot of this to John Bremner, one of my very favorite professors at The University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Today, the Bremner Editing Center serves as an ever-present reminder of his passion for helping others develop their own writing and editing skills.

From John Bremner’s book, HTK (Head To Come - a study in news headlines), I gained immense appreciation for the utmost importance of individual word selection to convey specific information and tone.

However, we all know that all good things can be taken to an extreme. I once had a boss who used to edit my drafts and tell me, “Here’s a ‘happy’ to ‘glad’ change.” They were never material changes. He just felt it was important to put his fingerprints on it.

C’mon, now. If “happy” works, let it be. Change for change’s sake is unproductive. But additional word specificity is golden.

Knowing what words to change - and what to leave alone - is often the key question.

For example, determining whether or not a person was “involved” in the incident or “aware” of the incident drastically changes the entire meaning.

Word specificity comes into play when we define that ubiquitous word, “brand.” We focus on the strategy and the words. Sure, “look and feel” matter a lot, but they’re not the closers. For nearly five years, early in my career, I served as manager of public information at Hallmark Cards. (Hallmark Cards is still a client today on the B2B side, and an amazing company filled with terrific, bright people.) I learned – from a gazillion dollars of consumer research – that all of us pick up a card because of how it looks, and either buy it or put it back because of what it says.

It’s all about the exact, specific words; precise and purposeful.

Be specific, precise, particular and intentional with your word choice. Every. Single. Time.

Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter.” In today’s world, I’m sure he would have included blog posts, emails and reports.

Back in 2010, Thomas Friedman, award-winning author and The New York Times foreign affairs op-ed columnist, wrote a piece called, “Global Weirding is Here.” He states, “I prefer the term ‘global weirding,’ because that is what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. The weather gets weird. The hots are expected to get hotter, the wets wetter, the dries drier and the most violent storms more numerous.” This is a very inclusive way to talk about how weather has gotten more out the ordinary without touching too deeply on the controversy that surrounds the topic of global warming. It resonates with the people he is trying to reach—everyday readers.

All writing is not created equal. Focus on just the right words, and you’ll move people to the change in behavior or attitude that you seek.

Onward and upward.

*Photo of John Bremner courtesy of The University of Kansas William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications website