Writing Skills

Communicate Your Message Faster When You Change Just One Word

Can changing just one word of your message get that message across faster? I think so…

I used to drive a stretch of freeway with a most annoying sign off to the west that irked me every time I passed it. The sign was a huge banner for a tree maintenance company and it read, “Are your trees safe?” I suspect the purpose of the sign was to generate business, but I don’t think their word choice was the best for doing so.

Here’s a perfect example of the power of changing just one word: Most people driving down the freeway at 65 miles per hour are going to see that sign and mentally think to themselves, “Yep, they are.” Because we humans assume all is well and good in our world until someone tells us otherwise.

What if the banner read “Are your trees dangerous?” instead? That would get people to stop and think. I don’t mean literally stop while driving down the road, but to mentally stop and ask themselves, “Are my trees dangerous? Let me think about that. There’s the one fir tree that’s leaning precariously over the garage. Hmmmmm…. Maybe I should call that tree place.”

The word you change depends on the result you want
In that case, the word change is from positive to negative. But the other way works too. My friend Mavis tells the story of a convenience store with a sign at the entrance that read, “Don’t forget the ice.” Ice sales were cold, pardon the pun, so the wording was changed to, “Remember the ice,” …and ice sales heated right up. In that case, changing the word from negative to positive made the difference. Rather than telling someone not to do something, the sign is telling them to do something. It’s a mental hook just like raising doubt in someone’s mind by switching safe and dangerous.

A billboard in my town provides my last example: Advertising a hair salon, the billboard read, “Never be out of style.” It would probably be more effective as, “Always be in style.” And for the same reasons that people buy more ice when you tell them to remember rather than don’t forget. Wouldn’t you rather “always be in style” than “never be out of style”? The former sounds positive and the latter sounds negative. Positive works better in this case, to bring about the change we want.

Why one word can matter so much
We are all moving so fast, and we now have attention spans shorter than a goldfish, so it’s no surprise that changing just one word (or two) can have a dramatic impact on your ability to communicate your message. And you’re writing for a reason, which is to communicate, so make your message more likely to be clearly understood by the person on the receiving end by re-reading what you wrote to see if you can change just one word…and ultimately the result.

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