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Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Powerful Simplicity of a Single Word

Obfuscation. Don’t you love that word? Even if you can’t define it, you have a sense of its meaning simply by sounding it out. It sounds like obstruction, with some fussing in the middle. Obfuscation means “something obscure.”

The word Google also talks to your ears and eyes. It sounds like something gooey and uncertain, and like eyes wandering independently of each other, as in googly-eyed over a girl or guy. And the double “o”s could be zeros. Reportedly, Google got its name from the mathematical term for the number one followed by 100 zeros. And, of course, ones and zeros are the basic language of computers. For gazillions of us, Google means answers.

A word can be fun, but too many words can be unfortunate. Sometimes we as wordsmiths (another fun word) and change-agents over-write, over-talk (I plead guilty), and over-PowerPoint, thinking that people won’t “get it’ unless we explain “it” in detail. More words, we wrongly assume, gives our point -- and ourselves -- more importance. We can’t even say “daily” or “regularly” anymore. Instead, we puff up and say “on a daily basis,” or “on a regular basis.”

Think about the amazing power of one word used by a man with a Harvard lexicon to build an amazingly successful Presidential campaign. Change. That word inspired, mobilized, focused, and integrated an extensive social network that now, post-election, wants to own and participate in that change.

A single word can energize a company or client’s strategic, marketing, and employee messages. I did this:

  • for a tradeshow/museum exhibits client. I used strong employee images in an advertising program that revolved around the word “attitude,” as in the”whatever-it-takes ATTITUDE.” To refresh the campaign a year later, we switched to the word “more” and linked it to the “attitude” campaign. See MORE case study here.

  • for elearning client KnowledgePlanet. To tag the client’s business, leverage its name, and highlight the competitive edge of smart employees, I created a flagship marketing booklet and other materials around the word “know.” See a case study here.

  • and for a client company facing tough economic challenges. I recommended introducing “MORE/less” as a rallying point for managers and other employees to creatively do more (for example, sell) with less (for example, cost).

Of course, we have to be on the watch for problematic words. A lawyer once asked me to review a news release regarding the integration of an acquired business into one of the parent company’s divisions. The short, officious release provided few facts and said the business was being “dissolved.” The lawyer’s word was accurate: the legal structure was being dissolved. However, employees and others were likely to interpret “dissolve” quite differently – as in shutting down the business and eliminating their jobs. See the case study here.

So, here are some suggestions about words:

  1. Use one word where many words will only obfuscate.
  2. Avoid the word boilerplate whenever you can.
  3. Insert one word at the beginning of your communication to create a common ground with readers.
  4. Press your management or client to come up with one word that describes or focuses a particular issue.
  5. Work hard at applying the word imagination.