(Originally published April 2017) Can changing just one word of your message get that message across faster when writing at work? I think so. Here’s why…
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. However, that sign gives me an example to share with you to make the point about the power of word choice.
Is it safe? Or is it dangerous?!
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. My trees are safe.” Because we humans assume all is well and good in our world until someone tells us otherwise.
But, 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 freeway, 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.”
Changing the word leads to doubt in the reader’s mind and they therefore pay more attention to the sign–and the potential implications.
The word you change depends on the result you want
In the case of the tree sign, the word change is from positive to negative. However, 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.
It’s a mental hook just like raising doubt in someone’s mind by switching safe and dangerous.
Do you like ice cream, or do you love it?
And I have more examples of the power of changing one word. Once on a visit to Coldstone Creamery, I saw on the board that the portion choices weren’t small, medium and large. No, they were “I like it,” “I love it,” and “I gotta have it.”
Not only is that clever, I bet it influenced the consumer’s choice too. Imagine ordering the “like it” size, could you? Doesn’t that seem so sad to be ordering ice cream and say simply “I like it”? If you only like it, why are you even ordering it? I bet there are people that bump up their portion to a “love it” purely because of this subconscious feeling that they should be ordering something they love, not like.
Doesn’t that seem so sad to be ordering ice cream and say simply “I like it”?
Did it cost Cold Stone any more to use different words on their portion signs? Nope. But they probably made more money because of that subtle use of words.
Grandmas killing bobcats
My next example happened when I saw an Internet headline that read “Georgia Grandmother Kills Rabid Bobcat with Bare Hands.” Of course I clicked on the link! Who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t want to learn more about a grandma like that? Because what did I picture? A grandma like my own mother, someone frail with gray hair, wrestling with a bobcat.
In reality, the “grandma” in this story was 46 years young—younger than me. But would the headline be as compelling if it read “Georgia Woman Kills Rabid Bobcat with Bare Hands?” Of course not. That is the power of changing just one word.
And the last example of the power of one word
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” 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–but it also causes doubt like the word “dangerous” because the reader wonders if they are in fact in style or not.
Compare the impact of these statements with the one word changed:
- Never stop networking.
- Always be networking.
- Never dismiss anyone you meet as unimportant.
- Remember everyone you meet is important.
- Don’t forget to check Related Searches at the bottom of the results pages.
- Remember to check Related Searches at the bottom of the results pages.
- Don’t forget to add these to your spreadsheet.
- Remember to add these to your spreadsheet.
Do you see how different each statement is depending on the first word, even though the meaning is essentially the same?
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 can have a dramatic impact on your ability to communicate your message when writing at work. And changing the words doesn’t have to mean change it to its opposite as in my examples above (safe/dangerous, don’t forget/remember, never/always). Changing a general word to a specific one usually strengthens your writing at work too.
Changing just one word can have a dramatic impact on your ability to communicate your message.
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 you get.