The fine art of writing small

Poets, advertisers, comics and speechwriters all know how important it is to be concise. Branding consultant Christopher Johnson gives his expert guide to ‘microstyle’

Wednesday 21 September 2011 08:21

“Think different.” Apple

“We're number two. We try harder.” Avis Car Rental

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Oscar Wilde

“If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?” Groucho Marx

You might recognise these four expressions. From Apple’s two-word slogan, to Groucho Marx’s and Oscar Wilde’s wit, all four are examples of microstyle, the art of creating short verbal messages that grab attention, communicate instantly, stick in the mind, and roll off the tongue.

We all need microstyle in the age of social media. Twitter, Facebook, and other communication platforms and tools provide an unprecedented opportunity to incorporate writing into everyday life. Because so many people take advantage of that opportunity, our everyday verbal environment is cluttered and competitive in the extreme. Readers have too much to contend with, and capturing their attention is a challenge. Knowing how to craft short, powerful messages to cut through the clutter is likely to be one of the most important writing skills of the 21st century.

We can learn a lot about microstyle from poets, ad copywriters, political speechwriters, and others who have wrestled with the problem of being heard in a competitive environment. Here are some techniques for crafting short verbal messages that get noticed.

Help people find meaning

There’s no single right way to say anything. We always make choices about how to get meaning across. We decide which details to include and what to leave out. We use metaphors, analogies, and other indirect communication strategies. We evoke contexts and background knowledge subtly through our word choices.

The meanings of words aren’t discreet entities, like dictionary definitions. They’re concepts, and they’re embedded in rich networks of background knowledge and assumptions that linguist Charles Fillmore refers to as “frames”. Communicating well is largely a matter of successful framing – that is, using frames to set messages in just the right conceptual contexts.

Consider the slogan that Seattle entrepreneur Ksenia Oustiougova used for her company Lilipip, which made educational software for children: “Feeding curiosity daily.” Oustiougova chose to avoid the word education, because it evokes a dry |institutional context. The word curiosity, on the other hand, names a powerful human drive that fuels passionate pursuits. It made the software seem like something people would want to use, rather than something they should use. That is an example of great framing.

One of the most powerful tools of framing is metaphor. It can make complex and abstract meanings immediately accessible. Consider the way the name Twitter, for example, uses the simple idea of birds chattering to instantly give a sense of what this new multi-vocal communication platform is all about.

Some metaphors are based on correlations that we experience frequently starting in infancy, and run so deep they can be hard to recognise as metaphors. For example, the first goals we experience in childhood are often objects that we intentionally move toward. It’s no coincidence that we think

and talk about goal-directed behavior in adulthood using a metaphor of movement through space. For example, if you haven’t quite achieved a goal you intended to, you might say: “I’m not quite there yet.” Another deep-seated metaphor is the one that treats intimacy as physical closeness and contact. The AT&T slogan, “Reach out and touch someone”, taps into that metaphor and achieves a special emotional resonance as a result.

Make it sing

People remember short messages (even written ones) by their pronunciations. The artful repetition of sounds in a message can give it an appealing musical quality and make it easier to remember. Poets know this, of course, as do copywriters and politicians. Names, slogans, and even common expressions make liberal use of rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. The classic Hallmark slogan, “When you care enough to send the very best”, employs the same rhythm found in iambic pentameter verse. Rhyme brightens slogans, such as “Must-see TV”, and names such as 7-Eleven. Alliteration pops up in expressions such as “road rage” and “fashion faux-pas”, movie titles such as Dawn of the Dead, and slogans such as Mitsubishi’s “Better built, better backed”.

Specific sounds can evoke concepts that support or complement the meanings of messages. The online craft retailer Etsy has a diminutive sound appropriate for goods made in small quantities by small producers. Makers of beauty products, such as Chanel, Avon, and L’Oréal, often have names with “soft” pronunciations characterised by an absence of abrupt interruptions. Makers of rugged goods, such as the toolmakers Black & |Decker, Ridgid, and Snap-on, often have names with forceful rhythms and “hard” consonants. By paying careful attention to the concepts suggested by sounds, it’s possible to evoke extra meaning with tiny messages.

Get it together

When constructing new messages, it’s important to make sure the pieces fit together well. This is especially true with newly coined words, whether they are proper or common nouns. Biznik, the name of a social networking site for independent business people, uses its Yiddish-derived suffix -nik in a perfectly natural way. The name Foodportunity, on the other hand, for a food journalists’ networking event, crams the word food into a space previously occupied by a single vowel, and the result is unwieldy. Vegangelical is a clever portmanteau of vegan and evangelical. Marketrepreneur, on the other hand, is an attempt to combine the words |marketer and entrepreneur that fails by squeezing too many unemphasised syllables together.

Even highly original verbal messages use recognisable patterns. Sometimes, in fact, a message derives its power from the way it toys with the old and familiar. After the financial crisis of 2008/09, a US credit union called BECU used the slogan: “We are turning the financial world right side up.” This slogan reversed the cliché “to turn something upside down”, subtly casting the financial crisis as a natural result of a business culture with an unhealthy focus on being “disruptive”. Twitter user @secretsquirrel twisted the cliché, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, to create the absurd comedic gem: “Revenge is a dish best served à la mode.”

Just be yourself, or someone else

Every message implies a social relationship and potentially initiates a conversation. It’s important to strike the right tone for each occasion. We use different kinds of words and phrases when we speak informally to friends than we do in business meetings and on other more formal occasions. Even the tiniest messages can show this contrast. The name Yahoo, for example, presents a company as a peer ready to have some fun. The name Microsoft makes a more formal overture, being conventionally constructed on the classical Greek-derived, combining form, micro. I created the name Zulily for a client company that specialises in products for moms and kids. While the name was originally inspired by the words zoo and lily (which evoke child-friendly images), its unusual spelling and sound give it the quality of a playful and exotic made-up word, like something from the lexicon of Dr Seuss, and that makes it especially fitting for kid’s products.

Company tag lines, once derided as stiff and vacuous, have become loose and irreverent. For example, Biznik uses the slogan “Business networking that doesn’t suck”, and San Francisco cured meat purveyor Boccalone offers up: “Tasty salted pig parts.”

When we use social media, normal social context is often lacking and words are sometimes the only tools we have to make an impression. In that situation it’s important to create a writing voice in a miniature form – a microvoice. Creating a voice means using words to construct an appealing and consistent persona for readers to interact with. If you don’t create your own voice, somebody else might try to do it for you. Many of us have had the experience using our Twitter or Facebook accounts to sign up for a new third-party application, only to find that a message has been posted to all our friends saying “I just signed up for _______!” The same technology that makes it so easy for all of us to share our thoughts also makes it easy for others to put words into our mouths. Taking control of our own voices online isn’t merely good personal branding – it’s also an assertion of freedom.

“Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little” |by Christopher Johnson is published by Norton on Friday (£14.99). To order a |copy for the special price of £13.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct |on 08430 600 030, or visit

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments