A few months ago, I re-read George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ It’s a highly volatile and strange book – much more so than I remembered. Paranoid, vicious, kinky, and (of course) prophetic. As a copywriter, I was particularly struck by what it had to say about language, specifically Newspeak.
In this state-mandated language nothing is ‘bad’ but rather ‘ungood’. What I had forgotten, though, was that the purpose of Newspeak is to shrink the size of the English vocabulary and deliberately make the language less expressive. As words vanish, goes the theory, so does the public’s capacity to think.
Beware of the bland
This got me thinking about the language used by companies, charities and other organisations when they are trying to speak to me. In today’s Newspeak, companies are forever ‘providing solutions.’ They’re ‘passionate about X’ or ‘inspired by Y.’ They’re ‘committed to quality’ or ‘driven by excellence’, and they want to ‘make a difference.’ For us as readers, phrases like these have become so common as to be meaningless. They lie there on the page or screen and our eye slides right off them.
At Blackwood we recently worked on some recommendations for a hospice charity. As I looked through the charity’s website and fundraising materials, I could see they did amazing work, but the way they talked about it was abstract and sanitised. Care for the dying is a highly emotive topic, and yet here was this sea of safe, almost clinical word choices.
I urged them to warm up their language, to make more arresting, unusual or concrete word choices. Don’t talk about ‘life-limiting illness,’ talk about dying. Don’t tell me you ‘offer support to families and loved ones,’ talk about how you hold hands and wipe away tears. Make me feel what it feels like. What I was asking them to do was the same thing I always try to do in the copy I write – to make use of Weird Words.
Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.
Get a little weird
Never underestimate the power of a well placed Weird Word. In the first few paragraphs of this very post I used words like ‘whim,’ ‘nudge,’ ‘toothless,’ ‘kinky.’ I did this on purpose, knowing they would give those all-important kickoff paragraphs a pleasing, eyecatching texture.
Here’s a little writing exercise to try.
- Gather as many of your team as you can around a table.
- Each person should make a list of their favourite words – not favourite concepts (‘love,’ ‘happiness,’ etc.) – but actual words: those that are fun to say, like ‘truculent’, ‘pizzazz,’ ‘plonk’ or ‘archangel.’
- Choose one from your list and write it, along with a short definition, at the top of a new sheet of paper.
- Pass this paper to the person on your right, and take the one from the person on your left.
Using your neighbour’s word and definition as a first sentence, write a communication – a sales letter, a radio ad, a job posting – for your business.
Yes it will feel odd, but do it anyway – just start writing and see where you end up. Probably much of what you write is going to be a little bonkers, but it’s snapped you out of your usual pattern of writing. It’s snapped you out of Newspeak.
Remember, if you hold language at arm’s length, then your readers will feel that distance and hold you at arm’s length too. If you can find surprising ways to hook them, they’ll keep reading what you have to say. Creativity: it’s Big Brother’s worst nightmare.