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November 2008

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MBC Director’s Memo – 11.17.08

When my twin sons were twelve-years-old, one of them forwarded me an email. It included the following paragraph:
It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid!
Not only does the mind of the average reader decipher this “coded” message, but it likely completes or otherwise decodes complicated underlying messages in copy or conversations instantly – often unconsciously. For instance, career counselors advise against using the phrase “Jack of all trades” in cover letters or interviews. The logic stems from the other half of the truism that has been left unsaid, “master of none.” Anyone who has heard the whole saying can potentially associate the unused portion with the prospective employee.
A few years ago, I heard Dr. Bruce Lincoln speak about how political speechwriters often infuse phrases from biblical or social texts, such as the Declaration of Independence. Writers do this to subliminally invoke the feelings people have been socialized to associate with the original texts. Not only can these phrases conjure a sense of patriotism and bonding with the core audience they wish to reach, but since the messages are essentially “coded” just for that group, those unfamiliar with our culture are completely unaware.
The opposite edge of this persuasive technique, however, should also be weighed. Consider the lesson of Alfred Hitchcock’s trademark moviemaking style that leaves the graphic depictions out, allowing the individual viewer’s mind to fill the blanks with his or her own worst fears. This same risk can be associated with strategic use of emotionally charged phrases in communications material. The writer risks stirring responses that may not align with the purpose of the piece.
So, next time you find yourself up a creek or pledging allegiance, consider what the mind adds impulsively. If your effort relates to marketing, consider getting some help in developing messages that either leverage the right codes, or better yet, create unique new analogies that drive home your message without the clutter of imagery often packed into common phrases.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
MCP