Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice


Today’s guest post comes from Ernest Nicastro, a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and lead-generation specialist who heads up Positive Response, an award-winning marketing firm based in Dublin, Ohio. We’re members of the same mastermind group. When I asked if anyone wanted to be a guest author, I was delighted to hear Ernest say “Yes!”

Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice
“Eighty-seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation….”
The Gettysburg Address

Chances are your reaction to the above “quote” is something along the lines of, “No, no, no! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong!”

And, of course, you would be right.

Because Lincoln was not only a great leader, he was a great writer. So instead of beginning his Gettysburg Address with a cold, lifeless number, he opens on a prayerful note with a turn of phrase adapted from the 90th Psalm of the King James Bible: “Four score and seven.”

Clearly, Lincoln knew the difference between the almost right word – and, the RIGHT word.

A distinction famously defined by Mark Twain some 25 years later as…”the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” With that thought in mind, I’m going to offer you a few choice words on word choice to help you get more of the right words into your communications. And, make your writing more effective.

Let’s start by looking at a miscue that appeared in the sports section of my local daily, The Columbus Dispatch. A story by AP reporter Tim Reynolds describes Dick Vitale’s reaction to being voted into the Basketball Hall-of-Fame.

Vitale, writes Reynolds, “admitted he ‘cried like a baby’ upon learning he was induced.”

Now maybe Vitale’s use of the word baby clouded the writer’s thinking. Because induced is so NOT the right word choice is it? (And yes, in all fairness maybe it was simply a typo. Either way, the end result is the same.)
Which leads us to today’s big idea:

For more effective word choice think harder about the words you choose.

For example, while it’s obvious that Mr. Reynolds made the wrong choice, what about the people who penned these lines?
• This is literally the equivalent of Microsoft coming to your house and locking a CD in your car CD player.
• More CIOs are disinterested in Linux
• And I know you didn’t do this just to win an election. And I know you didn’t do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.
• WasteWise has collected the following environmental factoids to help you understand the impacts of waste prevention and recycling. (From the web site of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency)

How many of these writers made the right choice?

Actually, that’s a trick question.

Because in each instance the highlighted word is used incorrectly. Yes, you may have read or heard a word used a certain way – even in a prestigious publication, by a noted expert or on a federal government agency web site or by the leader of the free world. But that doesn’t mean the word was used correctly.

As to why the above words are – in Mark Twain’s manner of speaking, lightning bugs – I’ll go over one of them: factoid.

According to Webster’s a factoid is –
“something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact, devised especially to gain publicity and accepted because of constant repetition.”

Therefore WasteWise is actually telling us they have fictitious or unsubstantiated information to help us “understand the impacts of waste prevention and recycling.” The writer could have prevented this mistake with a little more thought and a quick trip to an online dictionary. That’s what I trust you’ll do if it’s unclear to you why the other examples are incorrect.

Now for a couple of specific word choice tips:

1. Choose small, simple words
The Gettysburg Address is 271 words long. Two hundred and twenty of them, 81%, are just one syllable. My advice? For more effective word choice think like Lincoln. Think small:
Utilize Use
Peruse Read
Ascertain Find out

Now am I advising you to never use big words? No, of course not. But in most cases small words will serve your purposes better.

And here’s why:
“The more simply and plainly an idea is presented, the more understandable it is – and therefore the more credible it will be.” Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear – By Dr. Frank Luntz

My second word choice tip is this:
2. Use mainly nouns and verbs and active-voice words
Strunk and White in their classic book, The Elements of Style, put it this way:
“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs….It is nouns and verbs that give to good writing its toughness and character.”

As to the active voice, legendary copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis lays down the law in his “Active/Passive Rule.” “Unless you specifically want to avoid reader involvement in your message, always write in the active voice.”

For instance:
Instead of writing . . . Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated immediately and an e-mail confirmation will be sent automatically to you.
Write. .
When you click the button, we immediately generate your order and automatically send you an e-mail confirmation.

Notice the difference the active voice makes?

Notice also how the active voice makes the writing more “you-centric.” Simply put, active verbs keep your reader involved and improve credibility and response rates.

For example, I seldom use the word “allows” because it’s a passive, “permission granting” type of word. I prefer enables or makes it possible. Unlike “allows,” these words communicate action and empowerment.

For example:
Instead of writing . . . Study Software allows you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….
Write . . .
Study Software enables you to learn faster by organizing exam notes as concept maps….

Words are powerful tools.

And regardless of who you are – Bill Gates or Bill Bailey – you have the same access to these powerful tools as anybody else. Words, properly used, can help you grow your business exponentially. Conversely, used without proper thought and skill, words are about as helpful to you as, well, lightning bugs.

So, to greatly improve your odds of catching lightning on a page (or a screen) and gaining your desired response, remember today’s big idea and two tips:
For more effective word choice, think harder about the words you choose.
1. Choose small, simple words, and
2. Choose mainly nouns and verbs and active-voice words.
Keep the above idea and tips in mind when you write and while your words might not make history, they will be duly noted, better remembered – and most importantly, more effective.

Ernest Nicastro, a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and lead-generation specialist, heads up Positive Response, an award-winning marketing firm based in Dublin, Ohio. For more information visit http://www.positiveresponse.com. Contact Ernie directly at ENicastro@positiveresponse.com or by phone at 614.747.2256.

Recommendations for additional reading:
The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, By Ronald C. White Jr.
Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, By Dr. Frank Luntz
On the Art of Writing Copy, Third Edition, by Herschell Gordon Lewis
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White

Your Turn: What recommendations do you have for toning writing?

Image: Mark Twain from http://free-stock-photos.com


About Barbara Rozgonyi

Barbara Rozgonyi publishes WiredPRWorks.com and directs CoryWest Media, an integrated social media marketing and PR firm. As Social Media Club (SMC) Chicago’s founder, Barbara is a recognized spokesperson for brands, bloggers and the social media marketing PR industry. Barbara invites you to join the Wired PR Works community on Facebook or to contact her regarding interviews, partner promotions or speaking engagements at 630.207.7530.


2 thoughts on “Lincoln, Mark Twain & Lightning: Choice Words On Word Choice

Comments are closed.