Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
A few months ago, on a whim, I re-read George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ There really is no downside to doing this. If it’s been a while since you last picked up this book, allow me to give you a friendly nudge in its direction.
Orwell’s novel is always teetering on the edge of becoming that most dreaded of things: a National Treasure – a toothless ‘masterpiece,’ respectable, tamed and read by no-one except wave after wave of grudging A-level students.
In fact, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is highly volatile and strange – much more so than I remembered. Paranoid, vicious, kinky, and (of course) prophetic. As a copywriter, I was particularly struck by what it had to say about language, specifically Newspeak.
If you’ve read the book, you probably remember Newspeak: the state-mandated language in which, for example, nothing is ‘bad’ but rather ‘ungood’ (or ‘doubleplusungood’ in extreme cases).
What I had forgotten, though, was that the stated purpose of Newspeak is to shrink the size of the English vocabulary and deliberately make the language less expressive. As words vanish, goes the theory, so does the public’s capacity to think. “Don’t you know, Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?” crows one of its champions, a smooth talker called Syme.
This got me thinking about the language used by companies, charities and other organisations when they are trying to speak to me. The homogeneity, the jargon, the shrinking range of possible word choices, and hence, of ideas.
In the Newspeak of 2015, companies are forever ‘Providing solutions.’ They’re ‘Passionate about X’ or ‘Inspired by Y.’ They’re ‘Committed to quality’ or ‘Driven by excellence.’ And charities are all about ‘Changing lives’ or ‘Making a difference.’ They assure us they are ‘Having an impact’ and that this is ‘all thanks to the kind support of people like you.’
For us as readers, these phrases (and hundreds of others like them) have become so common as to be meaningless. They lie there on the page or screen and our eye slides right off them. They’re empty verbal calories, communicating nothing.
I recently worked with Blackwood on some recommendations for a hospice charity. As I looked through the charity’s website and fundraising materials, I could see they did amazing work, but the way they talked about it was abstract and sanitised. Care for the dying is a highly emotive topic, and yet here was this sea of safe, almost clinical word choices.
I urged them to warm up their language, to make more arresting or unusual or concrete word choices. Don’t talk about ‘life-limiting illness,’ talk about dying. Don’t talk about ‘enhanced quality of life,’ talk about holding people’s hands, talk about flowers, talk about pillows. Don’t tell me you ‘offer support to families and loved ones,’ make me see what that looks like. Make me feel what it feels like.
What I was asking them to do was the same thing I always try to do in the copy I write – to make use of Weird Words.
Never underestimate the power of a well placed Weird Word. In the first few paragraphs of this very post I used words like ‘whim,’ ‘nudge,’ ‘toothless,’ ‘kinky.’ I did this on purpose, knowing they would give those all-important kickoff paragraphs a pleasing, eyecatching texture. Now of course context is all, and words that are appropriate here in this relatively informal blog post might not suit a more high-profile piece of business communication.
But then again, they might.
I will never forget a writing exercise I foisted on my fellow copywriters at my last agency during an informal Copy Chat in a café around the corner from our Brighton office. I hope you’ll humour me if I foist it on you now, and encourage you to give it a try.
1) Gather as many of your staff as you can around a table.
2) Begin by each making a list of your favourite words. Not your favourite concepts (‘love,’ ‘happiness,’ etc.) but your actual words. The ones that are fun to say. The ones that have what our friends in the food industry call ‘mouthfeel.’ Words like ‘truculent’, ‘pizzazz,’ ‘plonk’ or ‘archangel.’
3) Choose one from your list and write it, along with a short definition, at the top of a new sheet of paper.
4) Pass this paper to the person on your right, and take the one from the person on your left.
5) Using this word and definition as a first sentence, write a piece of communication – a sales letter, a radio ad, a job posting – for your business.
This fifth step is the kicker. The one that gets people scratching their heads. But push through that. Just start writing and see where you end up. You’ve started with a Weird Word. You’re breaking out of Newspeak. Chances are that much of what you write is going to be a little bonkers, but you may be pleasantly surprised.
I still remember some of the passages my fellow writers ended up composing that day. One memorably used the word ‘petrichor’ (the smell of rain on hot ground) as a springboard into a great descriptive piece about life in a drought-stricken country. The Weird Word gave her this totally surprising but tangible way in. It snapped her out of her usual pattern of writing, and me out of my pattern of reading.
Find ways to do this. If you hold language at arm’s length, as if with a pair of tweezers, then your readers will feel that distance and they’ll hold you at arm’s length too.
If you can find surprising and engaging ways to hook them, they’ll gratefully keep reading what you have to say. Creativity: it’s Big Brother’s worst nightmare.