You Think Language Isn’t Important? Microstyle Begs to Differ

One fantastic book I read this summer was Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little. I picked up this snappy writing guide at my local library because as a writer I think it’s important to read books about composition. I definitely hit the jack-pot with this volume, a book about successfully communicating in small spaces.

In today’s world, how do you capture a person’s attention in slogans, company names, advertising jingles, social media, and bullet points of blog-land? By carefully crafting your message and playing with linguistic patterns, says Johnson, a Berkeley-trained linguist, who has worked as a verbal branding consultant for Lexicon Branding, the naming firm that developed the names for Pentium, Blackberry, Swiffer, Febreze, and others.

An extremely successful linguist, Johnson PLAY WITH LANGUAGE FOR A JOB. I’ve always said that linguists have the most fun (and Johnson delivers with this satisfying read). And it IS fun, not uptight like that grammar Nazi friend of yours. Johnson writes, “Linguists are, quite simply, specialists who take a scientific interest in language. They want to know how language works, and they’re not interested in judging you. Prescriptive rules are among the least interesting things about language” (12). Oh Christopher, I couldn’t agree with you more! I despise when people find out that I have a job teaching English and inevitably remark: “I better watch my grammar.”

Johnson smirks at this reaction: “Prescriptivists are language poison sniffers. They pay little attention to what makes language delicious… I believe that people could genuinely love language more if they shifted their focus from judgment and insecurity to curiosity and appreciation. We do interesting things when we use language, whether or not we’re being “correct,” and we should all be able to relish and discuss those things without fear of embarrassment” (12). Grammar isn’t playful or poetical, but language is.

And we respond to it subconsciously, which means that if you’re using language AT ALL in your job as a business owner or working in marketing, some of Johnson’s insights may prove beneficial to you. He talks about why some brand names work better than others. Why some ad campaigns bring business and why others fall flat. In the book, he explains why “Apple” works as a business name, and why it is that we say “dry land” and “solid ground” but not “dry ground” and “solid land.” And, amazingly, WHY THIS MATTERS for writers and business owners.

A sampling of Johnson’s artistic writing tips:

When writing in small spaces, be clear, especially if you’re promoting a product.

Consider these ad slogans:

LISTERINE FIGHTS BAD BREATH

MILTON BRADLEY MAKES THE BEST GAMES IN THE WORLD

I JUST SAVED A BUNCH OF MONEY ON MY CAR INSURANCE (Geico)

It’s pretty clear what service is being offered. But not every business gets it right. For example, Johnson grumps about Twitter’s new description of itself on its homepage: “Twitter is a rich source of instant information. Stay updated. Keep others updated. It’s a whole thing.” Johnson quotes Steve Spillman from Slate magazine, “‘Seriously, Twitter, ‘It’s a whole thing’? That’s the way I describe Twitter, but I’m a 20-something New York hipster, or something close to it. And I’m usually not trying to get millions of people to sign up, or whatever you are trying to do with this. This doesn’t say anything about how Twitter works’” (49). While it’s sometimes okay to play with ambiguity, Twitter ultimately fails in its homepage description.

Another campaign slogan Johnson deconstructs is Google’s old Droid slogan: A BARE-KNUCKLED BUCKET OF DOES, whose failures include but are not limited to the verb “do” becoming the noun “does,” but possibly being scanned as the third-person singular of “do,” or even the plural of doe, as in the female deer, in which case, what is it doing in a bucket, which metaphorically refers to the phone, we presume, which is also “bare-knuckled” (?) A tragic case of mixed metaphor, to say the least. In small spaces, one can’t afford to be unclear.

When writing in small spaces, choose the right word.

Since microstyle depends on briefness, it is highly important to be choosy. Consider the company Reebok, who named one women’s shoe style the Incubus, which Johnson defines as “a demon from medieval folklore that rapes women in their sleep.” He concludes, “If you aren’t absolutely certain what a word means, at least look it up in the dictionary” (55). Truly, when it comes to writing in spaces as small as A SINGLE WORD, choosing the right word is critical!

When writing in small spaces, push buttons.

Writers effectively appeal to emotions to achieve desired effects. When Maytag employed the slogan OUR REPAIRMAN ARE THE LONELIEST GUYS IN TOWN, “they knew that we’d sympathize with those poor repairmen even though we knew they were fictitious, and that we’d remember their plight (73). For emotional appeals to work, they either need to be very subtle or especially over-the-top. However, some fall in between these two extremes, resulting in, well, unappealing appeals. (I simply loved all the moments when Johnson points out how writers sometimes just plain miss it.) Johnson complains, “CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Proctor & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE. Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?” (74). With emotional appeals, either go big, or go home.

Besides noting the intensity of the appeals, one might also be aware of the varying types of emotional appeals: self-actualization (US Army: BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE, Apple: THE POWER TO BE YOUR BEST), generational rebellion (THIS IS NOT YOUR FATHER’S OLDSMOBILE), and spicy (Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science). Johnson deconstructs that last one: “The… title connects eco(yawn)nomics to the titillating topic of nudity” (76). A title from the latter category that I’ve discovered on my own: Naked Anabaptist: the Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith. Hmmm yes, I notice this appeal to sensuality. Apparently the idea of reading about Anabaptist theology is so mind-numbingly boring that the writers figured that the only way to get people to buy their book is to make it sound SEXY. (Seriously now. Aren’t you A LITTLE curious about these naked Mennonites?)

When writing in small spaces, zoom in on telling details.

Johnson opens this section by citing Ernest Hemingway’s six-word novel: “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Talk about telling details. (Sniff.) In small spaces, you can’t tell the whole story, so you’re going to have to decide which parts to leave out and let the readers “connect the dots.” The problem lies in deciding what to leave out and in using metaphor inappropriately in the included details. Johnson includes one painful example: “Choosing the wrong way to indirectly evoke an idea can result in bad framing… In 2010, I saw a billboard for 7-Eleven with the following slogan: ‘Stuff your face with value.’ Pictured on the billboard were two pale, unappealing lumps that I believe were microwaveable burritos. That was the ‘value’ you were supposed to stuff in your face. This ad might appeal to people who enjoy taking their meals at 7-Eleven, but it certainly doesn’t appeal to me. Part of the reason stems from its peculiar use of metonymy. The word value refers to the food items that can be had at 7-Eleven. Tangible food is represented by the concept of the economic value you enjoy when you purchase it. But value, while desirable, lacks both specific sensory associations and emotional appeal” (88). Therefore, the details you include must be the ripest, freshest ones you’ve laid eyes on. You’re appealing to emotions, are you not?

When writing in small spaces, use ambiguity for good, not evil.

A sampling of newspaper headlines, which may have got it wrong:

GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE

PROSTITUTE APPEALS TO POPE

IRAQI HEAD SEEKS ARMS

RED TAPE HOLDS UP NEW BRIDGE

YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF

MCDONALD’S FRIES THE HOLY GRAIL FOR POTATO FARMERS

This reminder of the possibilities of ambiguity had me giggling over here like:

When writing in small spaces, say the wrong thing.

Sometimes, saying the wrong thing will appeal to your target audience. And even if it sounds wrong, the implication can still be positive. Volkswagen did this with its THINK SMALL campaign. (I mean, we’re supposed to THINK BIG, right? Nope. Volkswagen is reminding us that sometimes compactness is more environmentally friendly.) The company continued this marketing trend with its UGLY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP campaign and WHILE IN EUROPE, PICK UP AN UGLY EUROPEAN (113). Here’s a smirk-inducing campaign: “Avis Rent  A Car System used to boast, ‘We’re number two. We try harder.’” (Hertz had run a campaign about being number one. Avis. Those little devils.)

When writing in small spaces, keep it simple (in relation to sound).

For the love of Pete, make it easy to pronounce. Johnson describes the problem of hard-to-pronounce names: “Stephen Merritt…decided not to keep it simple when naming the albums for one of his side project bands called the 6ths (itself a real mouthful). The band’s two albums are called Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles. This tongue-twisting names are a sort of a practical joke—a radio DJ’s nightmare. Just imagine having to announce one of these albums on air… Think of pronunciation as driving. Vowels are like cruising down the open road. Consonants are like city driving, with all its stops, perilous lane changes, and unexpected turns. Saying ‘hyacinths and thistles’ is like having to cross three lanes of busy traffic to exit the freeway, only to find yourself heading east instead of west” (125).

Indeed, I have found there’s a good many people who cannot pronounce “sixth.” It invariably comes out as “sikth” (INCORRECT) versus “sikSth.” (Please let’s include the “s” in there, shall we?) But due to the amount of consonants there (four total!), it’s hard to pronounce. And even Ed Sheeran can’t do it, using the incorrect pronunciation “sikth” in his chart-topping song “Photograph.” No wonder my students can’t pronounce the word. Nor can they correctly pronounce “especially.” Half of them insert an anomalous “k” sound at the beginning, articulating “EK-specially.” Poor dears. It’s “ES-specially.” From where do they get this “k”? They create more work for themselves by adding sounds that aren’t even there. This also happens in the word “escape.” For my students, it becomes “eK-scape” for some unknown reason. And they’re just stumbling over TWO consonants!

But we should take Johnson to heart. Too many consonants are problematic. (OH FRIENDS. My own domain name features multiplicities of consonants of which I am now very insecure. More than one acquaintance has given me a hairy eyeball when I suggested they check out my blog “Shshchtashtshsffphoaugh.” Announcement: blog name change coming soon.)

When writing in small spaces, break the rules (in relation to structure).

I’ve always said that good writers know the rules, but if they have a reason to break them, they do so confidently. Certain misspellings can be used to create a brand. (We’re not thinking KOA Kampgrounds or anything, but more clever uses like that of “Clay Shirky, the NYU professor, author, and social media commentator, [who] used the following bio on his Twitter profile: ‘Bald, Unreliable, Easily distracte’” (155). This sort of clever rule-breaking extends one’s message. There the misspelling augments Shirky’s message about his quirky personality. Indeed, the misspelling is not some far-flung pun attempt, like that of Ephrata’s local “Compleat Restoration.” The company’s logo features the curiously spelled “compleat” atop two houses and a cozy flame. (Google the image.) When I saw the logo, I assumed the company installed new heating systems (complete… compleat… heat). However, the company’s website indicates that it is a disaster restoration service, specializing in fixing fire and flood damage and that “compleat” is an Old English spelling of “complete,” chosen in order to “set the company apart.” Yeah, sure, as a company that doesn’t know how to spell! What do Old English, large houses, and cozy flames have to do with cleaning up after catastrophic infernos? If I were a consultant, I might suggest that the spelling is arbitrary, unhelpful, and (like in my case) just plain confusing. There’s too much explaining that has to be done on the company website with that one. And in small spaces like company names, customers shouldn’t have to do that much work.  The odd misspelling, in my opinion, doesn’t work like Shirky’s does.

And this is where Johnson’s work shows how a firm grasp of the language of microstyle connects to our society. His showing us where the rubber meets the road reminds us what we have always known but we’ve been scared to bring up about grammar: sometimes we focus on things which students will never apply, and we skip teaching the art of applied language.

When writing in small spaces, combine words artfully (in relation to structure).

Having a knowledge of word associations and figuring out how to combine these associations unusually is a sure-fire way to make your wording stand out. A Seattle web design firm named their company Blue Flavor. A pretty fetch name if you ask me. Johnson explains why: “Colors don’t literally have flavor, but there are certain canonical color-flavor associations. Makers of jelly beans, slushy drinks, and other artificially colored foods use these all the time. Yellow for lemon. Purple for grape. Red for cherry or strawberry. Orange for orange, of course. Green for lime or mine or maybe green apple. But missing from this list is blue… Blue Flavor names a mythical taste that doesn’t exist. Something you’ve never experienced before. It’s a great idea for a web design studio to evoke, and it shows the power of putting words—even just two of them—together” (175). Contrast Blue Flavor’s naming win with LiftPort, the name for a company building an elevator to outer space. Johnson bemoans the moniker: “Lifting is carrying, porting is carrying, a lift is a kind of conveyance, a port is a place of departure. Combining these words hits the same overly general and uninspiring meanings again and again, neglecting more interesting ideas like outer space, science fiction, and doing the impossible” (176). Too true! An elevator to space and “LiftPort” is the best you can do? Combining words is a delicious task unless you’re using old alphabet soup.

Finally, word combination has its limits. Don’t decorate a title which doesn’t need decorating. Be up front. Johnson jokes about “pre-owned” cars (they’re “USED” for Pete’s sake!) and other words and prefixes frequently used to ornament common things. Like the prefix “pre-.” “The most ridiculous euphemism I’ve encountered lately is pre-reclined, used by Spirit Airlines to describe the nonadjustable seats in its new Airbus A320s,” Johnson explains. “Just imagine a flight attendant dealing with a confused customer asking how to make his seat go down: ‘Sir, our seats are pre-reclined, which means you’re already comfortable!’” (178). Ah, language. I love it more than most people.

This is only a sampling of the best bits of Microstyle. If you’re in business, in marketing, or interested in personal branding, you’ll love this book. It uncovers some subtleties of language and makes suggestions for the kind of writing that many of us do everyday but for which we were never trained—writing in the small spaces of social media, personal branding, and advertising.

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