Sharp Nails in our Memories

The words you choose make a difference, so pick them wisely to connect, convince and compel your audience.Words matter, and well-chosen words are remembered.

Or, as French philosopher Denis Diderot put it, "Pithy sentences are like sharp nails that force truth upon our memories."

Despite irrefutable evidence that chiseled phrases stick in people's brains, many communicators are casual or careless with the words they choose. They write as if the words on their pages will have little effect, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Word selection demands attention to detail. Here are some of the details that require your attention:

Make your point memorably in a few words

Abraham Lincoln famously captured the essence of American democracy in his short phrase at the end of the Gettysburg Address "of the people, by the people, for the people." This is a great example of using a familiar form — a series of three — with a meaningful twist of three prepositions. He said a lot and conveyed a whole lot more in nine words. BMW's legendary tagline, "The Ultimate Driving Machine," is another example of saying a lot in a few words. Lincoln and the BMW advertising team didn't just stumble onto those memorable lines. They invested time and went through the tiresome process of trial error to shape a phrase capable of claiming, in the words of marketers Al Ries and Jack Trout, "a piece of real estate in our brains."

Learn to turn a clever phrase

Mark Twain was a walking aphorism. "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." "Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please." So was Will Rogers. "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for." "I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts." Both used a high dosage of irony to make their points about the foibles and follies of mankind and especially politicians. While both men were creative and well-spoken, these gems just didn't slip off their tongues. They crafted their lines and perfected their delivery so they seemed effortless and natural. Because they did, their lines are still quoted today in speeches, op-eds and blogs like this one.

Make the complex seem simple

The right word, when used as a metaphor, can inject deeper meaning into what you say. The metaphorical phrase "life in the fast lane" connotes much more than the simple meaning of those five words. "Fast lane" attaches to the meaning we have in the motoring age of going faster, sometimes too fast, down a highway. Connecting that concept with a life conveys a sense of recklessness or driving ambition. Similarly the phrase "Education is the gateway to success" evinces images of learning leading to life success. Metaphors are like a small story packed into a word or short phrase. Through visual references, metaphors tap our memories, which shower our words with enhanced meaning.

Frame it to stand apart

A key to expressing your point of view — or changing the conversational track of an issue — is framing it in a convincing, compelling way. Anne Miller in her book, Metaphorically Selling, cites the example of the first Chrysler bailout when Lee Iacocca asked Congress for a $1.2 billion "safety net" to avoid bankruptcy for the struggling car company. Critics called it a bailout. The irrepressible Iacocca invested his "frame" with promises to remake Chrysler through new thinking and new models, such as the still popular minivan. It worked. Framing your issue is a must if you want to be remembered — and to win.