Do words still matter?

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This article originally appeared in Transform Magazine.

Used well, words can change the world. They’re the reason speeches inspire, persuasion happens and websites sell. They paint pictures in your mind and when arranged in just the right order with just the right context they make us smile, laugh and reduce grown men to tears.

In this particular year, it’s tempting to speculate what Shakespeare – a man who knew how to turn a phrase – would have produced had he lived today. He’d probably be working in Hollywood. But I prefer to picture him inventing new ways to use language. He’d probably blog a bit. Tweet some. Provoke a lot. Maybe even rap a little. Heaven-forbid he’d have to earn his crust in advertising.

What’s for sure is that his contribution from 400 years ago has proved so essential not only to the development of drama and literature, but to thoughts, ideas and language. His mastery of the written and spoken word set the template for almost everything, from how we profess our love to each other to how we express our grief. His influence pervades so much of our lives today because his work has become so timeless in its ability to touch upon human nature and reflect how it is constantly changing.

That’s the thing. Language isn’t static. It’s alive. And those that forecast the death of language with the triumph of the image could not be more wrong. Language is more important than ever. Look how we communicate with each other. Look how we consume stuff. Look how we discover and uncover data on things like Trip Advisor and other comparison sites. Amazing but true, 74% of internet users have written an online review. Of consumers, 92% percent say the best source of product information is word of mouth. While 77% of purchasers read a blog before committing to buy. Words matter. Words sell.

Words persuade. We live in an age where we have no time for lengthy missives and news is delivered in 140 characters called a tweet. Where our children are constantly texting, messaging and using words in imaginative ways. Making up new words with fun abbreviations. Some reactionaries say it’s abhorrent and protest, ‘what are they doing to our language!’ But they’re being creative, contemporary and interesting, thx v much you OBHF. We can all smile at David Cameron’s confusion over whether LOL was lots of love or laugh out loud.

These succinct new words are how language moves forwards. And shorter isn’t worse, it’s better. Being challenged to stick to a certain number of characters forces focus and serves simplicity. Brevity has always marked out good writing. The ability to get inside someone’s head at speed, that’s remarkable. When Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a short story in as few words as possible, he needed only six, and three full stops. ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’ Brilliant. Packed with more exposition of the human condition than a library of verbose Archers.

Look at Spritz and how it is reimagining how we consume words. It enables you to read without moving your eyes because you simply look at the centre of a screen and each word individually appears to be replaced by the next. It’s amazing. You can read 500 words per minute. Meaning, you could read Harry Potter in 72 minutes or War and Peace in a day. Or every word of the 150,000 published every day in the London Times in 1.5 hours, which incidentally is twice the number of words in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Imagine the possibilities.

Words are under-used by brands. In almost any sector, you’ll find an enormous lack of distinction between brands. They all use the same words in the same way. There are so few original voices. Supermarkets are always fresh. Law firms always your partner. Cars go on about performance. Banks say trust and relationship. Washing-up liquid is bright. And so on. Partly this is driven by search engine optimization obsession, that’s true, but if brave, words help you stand out rather than make you blend in. And the opportunity to differentiate and distinguish a brand through use of words is enormous. A little imagination can triumph over dull repetition. Look how Starbucks customer’s now text *$ to indicate where to meet. Sweet.

When communications between brands and consumers is only going one way, and it’s increasingly on small screens, held in hand, emitting a message, you’d better use only really well chosen words.

Clearly, concisely, simply and with style. It’s the ultimate test of the power of character. Words, they’re essential.

Philip Davies is president, EMEA of Siegel+Gale.

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