1. Alliteration attracts attention. Before sending your message off to thousands of people, ask yourself if there are smarter word choices using similar prefixes. For example, your thought might be, “Saving ideas for tomorrow is like throwing them away in the garbage.” Good. Next, let’s see if we can make that thought more concise and more alliterated: “Tomorrow is a trashcan.” See the subtraction? Much better. Just don’t overdo it. Too much alliteration makes readers feel frustrated, frazzled, frightened and freaked out. Plus it makes you look like an amateur. On what basis do you claim your reader’s attention?
2. Always brainstorm on paper. Or a whiteboard. Or a flip chart. Whatever. The secret is to help yourself experience the symmetry, visual rhythm and shape of your message that would go otherwise unnoticed if you just spoke it. This helps if you’re composing a message with a group. Posting the words on paper allows your idea to meet each individual where they are in the most democratic way possible. What’s more, sometimes all you need is to just look at your idea on paper for few minutes. Like a Magic Eye posted, you never know what message might come out. How are you leveraging visual tools to see your message differently?
3. Avoid adverbial garbage. Let your words speak. Don’t tell people what they’re supposed to see in your art. Don’t make your readers do your job for you. If you have to tell them, you haven’t done a good enough job with the writing itself. For example, the man you met on the bus wasn’t “extremely attractive.” He was handsome. Or chiseled. Or had a smile like Denzel Washington. And the movie you saw last night wasn’t “amazingly dull.” It was laborious. Or uninspiring. Or made you want to gouge your eyes out with a spork. See the difference? Adverbs are for amateurs. And the more you use them, the more your writing resembles a studio audience with one of those big, glowing sign that reads, “Laughter!” or “Applause.” Is your writing doing too much work?
4. Be more musical. In George Carlin’s On Comedy album, he discussed the power of rhythm in delivering messages. “If you sing while you’re speaking, they’ll hang on your every word,” he suggested. Lesson learned: If you can put your words to music, you’ve got yourself a message. Practice reciting them out loud. Snap your fingers or tap your foot as you edit. You might even turn some music on while you’re writing to keep the beat. The bottom line is: Musical is memorable. Is your message is singable, playable and foot-tap-able?
5. Be specific or don’t use it. Unspecified attribution is the hallmark of dishonest communication. It’s also my biggest pet peeve. Seriously, next time I read a book that says, “Studies show…” I’m going to tear the page out and slowly paper cut each of my genitals until the living room rug is completely stained in red. If your writing contains any of the following phrases, you are lying to your readers: Research proves. Scientists say. Psychologists report. Experts believe. They say. There’s an old story that says. I’ve heard. Most people agree. It is said that. Critics say. Statistics show. Somebody once said. The reviews say. No, they don’t. They never did, never have and never will. Honesty comes from specificity. If you can’t back it up, shut up. Is your attribution specified?
6. Be symmetrical. Verbal similarity is easy on the eyes, easy on the brain and easy on the tongue. Notice the geometric beauty of the following messages: “No labels, no limits,” “Ideas are free, execution is priceless,” “Get noticed, get remembered and get business,” and “Nobody notices normal, nobody buys boring.” Your challenge is to start looking for the mathematical attributes of words, sentences, phrases and ideas. You can do this anytime, anywhere, just for fun. Soon, you’ll develop an internal filter that changes thoughts into messages instantly by simply asking yourself, “How could this be more symmetrical?” People’s brains will thank you. Are you willing to become a mathematical linguist?
7. Befriend simplicity. Simplicity is currency – we live in hyperspeed, A.D.D., instant gratification culture. Simplicity is approachability – complexity creates conflict, which creates avoidance. And simplicity is eloquence – it’s more listenable, more readable and more digestible. The challenge is that simplicity is hard. It requires more energy, more brainpower and more courage that complexity. My suggestion: Stop getting fancy. Trying to appeal to everyone inevitably fails. Simplicity, on the other hand, is a fashion that never goes out of style. Fight for every inch of it. Next, stop making things bigger than they need to be. Be courageous enough to go with something simple and focused. Your message will have the best chance of getting through (and sticking TO) people. And finally, stop complicating your message. It’s like admitting to your customers that you haven’t reflected upon or extended concern for them. Simplicity, on the other hand, helps customers feel in control. Remember: You have their attention for an instant. And people will not use up their valuable time trying to figure out what you mean. Are you creating riddles that take too long for impatient customers to solve?
8. Break your writing down into speakable units. Compactness is a virtue. Scannability is a talent. And the kind of writing readers love the MOST is flowing, breathable and easy to speak. That’s why it’s always helpful to read your work aloud during editing, sculpting and incubation periods. It’s amazing how many sentences – that look great on paper – are unspeakable when articulated orally. So, this process helps you try out, switch up and rework your sentences into a more rhythmic, melodious and musical style. “You have to sing your words to your audience,” suggested George Carlin during a 2007 interview with Jon Stewart. How speakable is your writing?
9. Combine playful and professional. The term “thought leader” has reached the end of its product life cycle. As such, when I write and speak about the topic, I preach the message of becoming a Smokin’ Hot Piece of Brain Candy. Much more fun. Much more creative. Much more memorable. And yet, it still drives home the value of thought leadership without being too cliché or too cute. How many messages have you silenced because you weren’t willing to have a little fun?
10. Dance with language. This makes your message more inviting to look at. Here are a few examples: First, intentionally spell words wrong to prove your point: “Don’t be a know it all. Dare to be dumm.” Second, intentionally overuse periods. “This. Slow. Readers. Down.” Third, use single hyphens and extra vowels for some authentic sounding dialogue. “Mary, that steak was dee-licious!” And finally, make words up: “Getting called back is a function of being call-back-able.” Remember: Your English teacher isn’t around. Ask language to cut the rug with you. What linguistic rules are you willing to break?
11. Elephantitus of the sentence is deadly. Concise comes from the Latin concisus, which means, “Cut off.” And the definition of the word concise is, “Removal of all that is superfluous.” Lesson learned: Compress the most words in the smallest ideas. Here’s how. First, keep a running list of words to delete, i.e., “some,” “should,” “that” and “very.” Second, constantly ask yourself questions. “How can I make this sentence shorter?” or “Is there a quicker way of saying this?” Third, give your sentences word quotas. Fourth, use Twitter to practicing trimming your ideas down to bite-sized chunks. Fifth, become a brilliant boiler. Practice extracting the essence of ideas into compact form. And sixth, silence your passive voice. Remove “-ing” from your verbs. Now, one caveat on this example: Don’t make the idea so short that it fails to convey the message. People are lazy and busy. The last thing you want is to make your readers, listeners and audience members do your job for you. Too concise isn’t nice. For anybody. Be pithy and be sticky. Compactness is a virtue. What do you need to remove from your thought to make it a message?
12. Find a testing ground. As a writer and speaker, turning thoughts into messages is my job. It’s what I do all day. And test them out – in real time – on Twitter, Facebook and my blog every day. This is the perfect strategy for soliciting feedback, inviting new dimensions and gauging response. For example, if I post a dozen tweets in an hour, I look to see which ones get retweeted the most. This validates which messages have the strongest legs. After all, your success is determined by how far your ideas travel. And what people remember about you is what your message is. Do your ideas get retweeted or deleted?
13. Hit people in the wallet quicker. The smartest marketing move I made – from a messaging standpoint – was to connect my books and speeches to the bottom line immediately. This increased my bookability by a factor of ten. For example, instead of just saying, “This book is about the power of approachability,” I started messaging, “This book teaches you how to convert approachability into profitability.” Instead of saying, “Everybody needs to know your name,” I started messaging, “Anonymity is bankruptcy.” Instead of saying, “You’re nobody until somebody hates you,” I started messaging, “If you’re not polarizing, you’re not monetizing.” And instead of saying, “Leaders need to be approachable,” I started messaging, “How much money is being unapproachable costing you?” Remember: Money gets attention. How long does it take for your message to connect to monetize?
14. Meaningful concrete immediacy. Timely. Relevant. Practical. The “How.” Stuff people can use TODAY. That’s what your clients want. That’s what the media wants. That’s what your audiences want. When they’re listening to your words, they need to be thinking to themselves, “I believe it, I can do it and I’d like to try it.” Here’s how: First, make sure your message appeals to the aforementioned self-interest of the audience (meaningful). That means no talking about you. That means no telling stories. Second, give people the meat (concrete). That means no sixty-second dissertations. And finally, be actionable (immediacy). That means reach through the page, screen or airwaves, grab them by the lapel, and tell them exactly what you want them to do. How much MCI do your message contain?
15. Never insult your audience’s intelligence. The amount of corporate drivel that passes as internal communication is astounding. I’m amazed that more employees don’t take offense to language like: Outside the box. Empower. Synergy. Paradigm shift. Integrated solution. Commoditize. Take it to the next level. Deliverables. Break through the clutter. At the end of the day. Get on the same page. Core competency. Benchmark. The big picture. Client-focused. Customer-driven. Emerging technologies. Put that one to bed. Service offerings. Vision statement. Really? Seriously? Do you WANT to make your employees tune you out? Those words are instant eye rollers. If your internal communications contain any of them, it’s not a message – it’s a mess. And nobody is going to listen to it. Whose intelligence are you insulting with the trite language of your message?
16. Notice things and give them names. Everyone has heard everything before. And if there is nothing new under the sun, what do you say? Here’s your first clue: Create names, designations, acronyms and titles for the things you notice. Make them original, creative and consistent with the branding of your philosophy. These names are your content, your products, your branding, your expertise, your marketing, your technology, your philosophies and your differentiators. As messenger Seth Godin says, “Part of the challenge in breaking through is finding a niche you can overwhelm.” Remember: When you name something, you can do something about that something. You can begin exploration and working with that something. You can help people talk about that something. You can change people’s thinking about that something. What are you naming?
17. Oddly or ironically juxtapose words. “Nametags are alarm clocks.” Those two words don’t belong together at all. And that’s one of the messages I share with my audiences when I teach them about pattern breaking in the marketing process. Interestingly, they always remember it. Another example is, “Monopolize the listening.” This comes from my program about becoming an approachable leader. And although it seems counterintuitive, people remember it. Better yet, they practice it. Are you willing to upset the natural flow of your sentence to attract attention?
18. Online tools are nudges. First, use the dictionary for official definitions for better understanding of your concepts. Second, research the etymology of words to pinpoint their linguistic and cultural history. Third, befriend the thesaurus to locate stronger, more muscular words to substitute for poor word choices. Finally, check out my latest discovery (the very awesome) Word By Letter. It’s your source for alliteration, rhyming and other language-dancing applications. What online tools are you willing to help your thoughts become messages?
19. Package truth as nuggets. Thanks to the evil overlords at CNN & USA Today, we live in a sound bite society. And people are dying for someone to cut out the crap and just give them the meat. They’re too busy, too self-involved and too inundated with information to remember anything beyond eight words. Lesson learned: Don’t waste people’s time. Just give them all keepers, no fluff. Practice thinking and speaking in nuggets. People won’t change the channel on you. Is the packaging of your words reflecting the cultural reality of the world?
20. Run the Bodily Reaction Test. One way to gauge if your idea is a thought or message is to listen to your body. It will never lie to you. For example, when my friend Dixie recently told me, “Money isn’t the target – money is what you get for hitting the target,” my stomach dropped. Her message sliced right into me. So, when you’re trying out your potential message on friends, customers or coworkers – don’t watch for opinions, watch for reactions. If they laugh, squirm, drop their jaw or nod their head, it’s a message. If they stare at you motionless like you’re speaking Cantonese, it’s just a thought. Remember: Emotion is the final arbiter of the effectiveness of your message. Are you watching for it?
21. Seek self-containment. Unarguable. Self-evident. No further explanation needed. That’s the secret of a digestible, memorable and repeatable message. I learned this a few years ago on the Las Vegas Strip. Coolest t-shirt of all time. A teenager was wearing it. The front was emblazoned with the New York Yankees logo. Right below it in big, bold letters, it said: Do the math. Friggin Yankees. Even if you don’t like them, you have to respect them. Not to mention their marketing department. Nice message, boys. Are you self-evident?
22. Take the chotchkie test. Make sure your message is mug, bumper sticker, keychain or t-shirt worthy. That’s the acid test. Not only to see if your message would fit on such a small surface – but also to imagine whether or not people would actually keep one in their office and show it to their friends. For example, my office is filled with trinkets I’ve collected from my travels as an international speaker. And any time a client or mentee stops, I make it a point to share those items. Who’s doing that for your message?
23. Use stopper words. Certain words almost always command people’s eyeballs, demand people’s eardrums and backhand people’s cheeks. They almost vibrate on the page. And it all depends on context, content, and whom your message is directed to. The secret is to think to yourself, “What unexpected word could I insert here that would make people stop what they’re doing and pay attention?” For example, a few formulas I’ve found to have amazing stopping power are, “…for losers,” “…for amateurs” and “…is overrated.” I wonder what you could do to make your message stoppable?
REMEMBER: If nothing seems to get through to people, don’t blame them.