Cognitive Daily posted some research a couple of days ago about how patients interpret doctors’ statements.

Specifically, that when a doctor says you may possibly develop a condition, the more severe the condition the more you will assume the doctor thinks this condition will develop.

There are, of course, direct implications for medical professionals who want to communicate information, but it’s also a reminder to copywriters and anyone else tasked with communicating information. People process and filter information based on many factors: their own experiences, the context of the communication, their expectations, their opinions and biases about the communicator (or company), etc.

A thorough copywriter will make sure he/she understands who he is communicating to and factor in what kind of filtering of the message is likely to happen.

The research explicitly suggests that qualitative statements are likely to be misinterpreted and that specific numerical statements may therefore be more effective. Yet one more reason to be specific in your marketing message.


Happy Halloween.

Today’s trick-or-treating reminded me of an encounter I had not too long ago with a writer friend of mine. And 1 simple trick that is very helpful to most writers.

My friend had just transitioned from a journalism job to one in PR. I saw her one morning after dropping off my son at preschool.

She told me she was really stressed out about something she had to write. She said she couldn’t come up with something good. She said the piece needed a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and she just wasn’t into it.

She said that the owner of the company who was really enthusiastic would be able to do it…but it was her job.

Here’s the simple trick I promised:

I said, you need to imagine that you are the company president. You need to feel his emotion and channel his energy and perspective. Be him as you write. Then afterwards use your writing and editing skills to polish it up.

A couple of weeks later I bumped into her.

It worked.

Good fiction writers are adept at writing from different perspectives, at adopting a persona that isn’t necessarily themselves. But not all writers are.

Copywriters should feel comfortable writing with different voices and from different perspectives. It goes with the territory. After all, brands are like people with distinct voices, so you’ve got to be a bit of a ventriloquist to be successful

If you’re not used to this, a good exercise is to find an ad (or a web page) that you like but think you might have a hard time writing yourself. Use this as an exact model for something you want to write.

Don’t copy it word for word, obviously, but let this other work inform your sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and sales strategy. You may simply need to internalize  the writing itself, or you might try to imagine  the person who wrote it (or the persona of the copy if it has a strong voice) and try to inhabit that personality.

And remember, putting on the “masks” of other writers/copywriters should be more than a once-a-year event. That is, if you want your writing to treat you well and not trick you into thinking you can’t be effective with all kinds of projects.

Good luck. And Happy Halloween.

Whenever I leave the gym near work, I hurry to my car by cutting across the grass to the right of the exit.

I am not alone.

The evidence? A path worn into the grass.

Every morning I enter my office building I avoid the oddly inefficient switchback entryway and cut across the grass.

There’s also a well-worn path there.

As I was browsing Your Daily Awesome today, I learned the term for these paths: desire paths.

Beautiful, isn’t it.

Not only are the words beautiful, but the concept is as well. How people’s desires are etched into the world.

It’s also an instructive example for marketers and web developers and copywriters, et al.

When you don’t build a product or a web site that satisfies the desires of real people, they’ll go somewhere else.

It also illustrates the importance of testing.

Your Creative Director or UI specialist may have had valid aesthetic or theoretical reasons why they used certain website graphics or developed a particular site navigation scheme, but if you watch how real people use your site (ideally before you launch a new version), you’ll learn pretty quickly where your site isn’t meeting their needs.

Watch people. Listen to them. The desires you see and hear can be the shortest path to success.

Not one, but two serious looks at the role of profanity were published lately.

First, eminent linguist Stephen Pinker wrote What the F***?, a lengthy examination of profanity in the New Republic.

I found fascinating the neurological explanation for the involuntary power and emotional nature of cursing, especially the demonstration of how hard it is to say the color of each word when a series of expletives is written in different colors.

My only quibble was when he supported Geoffrey Nunberg’s assertion that

while you can imagine the dialogue How brilliant was it? Very, you would never hear the dialogue How brilliant was it? Fucking.”

While I haven’t said that myself, I know for sure that I’ve heard it.

A second study in the Leadership and Organizational Development Journal concluded

“Regular swearing at work can help boost team spirit among staff, allowing them to express better their feelings as well as develop social relationships.”

As a manager I am very careful, but I have definitely observed that phenomenon in the workplace. And it make sense. Your willingness to be yourself around others and break a taboo signals your closeness to them and that you trust them.

Read more at Yahoo News.

Language Log tipped me off to the current state of slogans for the Democrats and Republicans running for president.

And I agreed with the assessment: “a pretty feeble collection.”

I found it interesting that only 2 Democrats (none of the frontrunners) had any slogan, compared with 7 Republicans (all the frontrunners).

I’m curious how much to read into it or not? And wondering whether or not this reflects a conscious “marketing” decision that has party-line divisions?

The GOP is, after all, the party most associated with “traditional values” and political slogans are a tradition, just as taglines are a tradition for corporate branding and marketing.

But in the post-media, post-marketing, user-driven world we are entering, old forms of promotion are losing their luster.

The slogan and tagline are the ultimate sales-speak. At their worst, they are impenetrable or cryptic. They are often broad enough to be almost meaningless and too similar to other tags to offer any real positioning and differentiation.

Sure, when there’s a great match between tag and company, or the line captures something real and desirable and authentic, great things can happen. But more and more it’s really hard to hear them as anything but inauthentic.

So maybe the Democrats are getting real, shunning an outdated marketing technique? Then again, maybe they simply haven’t finished focus-grouping their entries enough yet.

Things I was surprised about:

  • That McCain had the longest slogan with 3 adjectives. Figured he’d be the man of action, not words. Think it’s a sign of desperation.
  • Only one example of alliteration: Mike Huckabee’s “Faith. Family. Freedom.”
  • Only 1 candidate invoked the “Future.” (Mitt Romney)
  • Only 1 candidate invoked “Change.” (Bill Richardson only; probably because no other major Dems had slogans)
  • Only 1 candidate invoked “Family.” (Mike Huckabee)

Things I was not surprised by:

  • The leading concept was Security/Strength, followed by Leadership/Experience.
  • Giuliani’s slogan was the most CEO-like: “Strong Leadership. Proven Results.”
  • Nothing really stood out, lots of similar “noise”

If I had to pick one (not as a great slogan, but as standing out in this list), it would be Kucinich’s “Strength through Peace”. Peace jumps out as a concept, not just because it’s unmentioned elsewhere, but because you know it is a real, tangible thing in 2008. It doesn’t represent only a concept, but something real: the end of the Iraq war. And I think he’s probably smart to frame Peace as leading to Strength (even if he doesn’t stand a chance).

There were two interesting papers published in the scientific journal Nature yesterday. They both looked at different aspects of how words change over time.

The first examined the evolution 200 basic words across different Indo-European languages. The conclusion: the more common, frequently used words evolved at a slower rate than lesser-used words. So you were more likely to see similar-sounding common words in different languages. Evidently use frequency explains 50% of the variability from language to language.

The second study intrigued me more. Probably because it dealt with irregular verbs (which I’ve been trying to explain to my daughter) and there’s a nifty equation thrown in (which makes it sound like the real deal).

The past tense for 97% of all verbs in English is formed by adding –ed to the present tense. But the 10 most common verbs (and helpers) all have irregular past tenses that don’t follow the –ed rule.

Be, have, do, go, say, can, will, see, take, and get do NOT become beed, haved, doed, goed, sayed, caned, willed, seed, taked, and getted no matter how many children protest to this irregularity.

The theory is that because these verbs are so frequently used, the irregularity is easy to remember and therefore they are more resistant to evolving into conformity with the established rule.

The most common verb to change from an irregular past tense is help: its past tense used to be holp but is now the regularly formed helped.

Here’s the fun part: the equation.

“The half-life of irregular verbs is proportional to the square root of their frequency.”

So, if one irregular verb is used 100x less frequently, it will evolve to become regularized 10x faster.

And my daughter’s just going to have to get over it and learn to say went instead of goed. Because we’re likely stuck with that one for a very long time.

Read more at Nature News or listen to the podcast.

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Empty Words, Lazy Editing

October 8, 2007

On my way to work this morning, I heard this report about hackers on NPR:

“Hackers are finding new ways to deliver spam, steal data and introduce computer viruses. New research suggests that online media players could be their next weapon.”

While it’s mostly a prediction of a coming trend, it starts by mentioning that we all know to delete suspicious emails without opening them and it does lead to a mention of recent threats on YouTube.

In closing (“bottom line…”) it sounds like we are going to get some specific, actionable advice.

Perhaps to keep our media players up to date with the latest security patches? Or to avoid certain websites? Or certain kinds of files? Something.

No. We are only cutely advised “viewer discretion.”

Which means what? What are we supposed to do (or not do) with that advice?

Nothing. They are empty words.

It is sloppy reporting and lazy editing. It’s journalism that favors style over substance, the cute over the real.

It may also mean NPR is not taking the online world quite as seriously as the “real” world.
In any case, it was the sort of “story” that I expect James Michaels (the demanding editor of Forbes for 37 years who died last week) would have sent back for a rewrite, penning something like this on the draft:

“This is a real snoozer, lacking in specifics. Why not just send them a nice lacy valentine and forget the prose.”

I expect better from NPR.