Words are the stuff that content is made of. Word choice, whether you’re writing a blog or preparing a presentation you’ll be delivering to your morning business networking group, matters, a lot. Precise selection of the key words you use – nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs – determine the impact you have on your audience.
Your choice of words can make – or break – your business presence and brand. Your words make your blog or presentation engaging and motivating, or mediocre and dull. Readers or listeners shouldn’t have to dissect your sentences to get their meaning or get hung up on your words. The goal of business writing and presentations is to make your content flow smoothly. To make sense, you need to be precise in your choice of word to avoid confusing your audience or lead them down an unintended pathway about your business.
So, let’s say you write a blog that makes perfect sense to you. It even makes the audience laugh, or at least chuckle. Or so you think. But what comes back is: What do you mean? Awkward. Vague. You forgot to ask yourself the four key questions before posting or presenting: Is this really what I mean? Will readers understand it? Does it sound positive? Is it useful?
Developing content has two sides to it. On one hand is your idea, message or story. On the other hand are the words you string together to build sentences and, with those sentences, to build the paragraphs that will give meaning to your idea, message or story. Choosing words is not just a matter of using precise, rich and colorful language that communicates your message in a functional way.
In today’s hyper-media environment, in which your audience is constantly being bombarded with messages and “see me” stories and “urgent” news, your words have to connect your message with the reader and motivate him/her to action. It’s not a matter of choosing words that will impress your audience. You need to use everyday words well to provide information in a way that “shows” your audience how your idea or story is relevant to their life, so that s/he will be moved to a new vision of ideas, or at least to click Like or, better yet, share with others in their social media network.
Follow these basic tips so you can make your word choice work for you instead of against you.
Audience Is King
So you need to create content that resonates with the specific audience you’re addressing (See my previous article to learn more: Is Your Marketing Content Meh? Spice it up with a creative spark!). What of words will best resonate with that audience? TIP: Be careful with how you use phrases that are commonly used in business that might confuse and even more careful about using slang or jargon. Also keep in mind that certain words can be culturally charged. For example, the word “crazy” may be a widely-used word, but it doesn’t mean it’s OK to use it. It not only makes reference to mental illness as something to be taken lightly; when used in reference to women, it becomes sexist and dismissive of women. Just keep in mind that some words have associations you may not intend but that your audience may read in just that unintended way.
Master the Parts of Speech
Seek clarity in your writing by utilizing the different parts of speech. Learn how to use them for the purposes of your content. Focus on choosing the right words, in other words, those that capture the essence of your message or idea. You can make your words matter by keeping in mind three basic language functions:
1) Verbs are the very fuel of content. They are used to “show” or mean action and give your message power and direction. Use the strongest, most direct form of the verb possible to help your audience visualize more easily what you’re saying; it will increase the “memorability” of your content. For example, “the company lost market share quickly” will be more memorable as “the company’s market share tanked in just 3 months”.
TIP: Avoid hidden verbs (verbs turned into nouns). They make your content less effective and forces you to use more words than you need. For example, instead of “the production of a YouTube video is …” say “producing a YouTube video is …”.
2) Using strong nouns fortifies your content. Choose nouns that are specific, descriptive and concrete. For example, “two-door sedan” is more precise than “car”, and “collie” is more specific than “dog”.
TIP: Make sure your nouns don’t lead to the following questions: What is it? Who is s/he or they? Avoid strings of nouns by turning nouns into verbs. For example, turn “we specialize in the analysis, development and implementation of market segmentation strategies” into “we analyze, develop and implement market segmentation strategies”.
3) Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly and selectively. Adjectives quantify or express the quality of any person or object. Adverbs modify verbs. The rule of thumb is that if you can replace an adjective and a noun for a better noun and an adverb and a verb with a better verb, then do it. It’ll improve the clarity and impact of your content. And if you do use them, make sure they are good and strong ones. Don’t choose a word because it sounds “fancy”; choose your words wisely, in a way that reminds your audience of the value of the information you’re presenting.
Descriptive language should add details and enhance your target audience’s understanding, so use similes or metaphors instead of tired adjectives, and avoid well-known clichés. Words like “good”, “bad”, “ugly” or “beautiful” are terribly vague and are almost meaningless. For example, “she sprinted” or “she dashed” makes for a clearer picture than “she ran quickly”. A “tyrant” is stronger than “an oppressive person”, and “a dazzling web page” is better than “a beautiful web page”. Connotations of words can also be positive, neutral or negative, depending on your specific audience.
Use a thesaurus to dig deeper and find a more dynamic synonym. For example, “alluring” or “exquisite” can provide a stronger description than “beautiful”. Just a word of caution: make sure you know and are comfortable with the definition of the substitute word.
Good word choice can literally move people to action. Of course, it requires choosing specific, vibrant words, such as metaphors, similes and analogies, that articulate, enhance and enliven your content. The objective should be to enlighten the reader or listener so s/he “walks” away feeling better, more informed and more energized. Evocative words are better than powerless or feeble ones. Prettier words are better than plain ones. For example, an “electrifying” video is much more energizing than a “great” video; an “edifying” article is much more interesting than an “informative” one.
Words matter for creating effective content. Just make sure that when choosing specific words or phrases, you do so with your audience in mind. Experts, nonprofessionals, managers, technicians, and hybrids (decision makers with expert knowledge) all require different word choices. Influencers, brand advocates and customer advocates are all different kinds of audiences. A friendly audience requires different word choices than apathetic ones; an uninformed audience will react to your choice of words differently than a hostile one.
Every single word you choose is a vital building block for your getting your idea, message or story across in a way that will engage your audience. A wrong word can send your reader or listener in an unintended direction and bring your entire content tumbling down. So be aware of who your specific audience is, and be purposeful when you choose your words. The key to engaging and memorable content is to choose words that convey your idea, message or story in a way that is clear, easily understood and convincing for your audience. So be mindful when it comes to the words you choose to use when developing your content. They may be free, but depending on how you choose them and use them, they can make mincemeat of your business.