In fact, many linguists (from Chomsky to Pinker) have argued that capacity for language is an innately human characteristic. In other words, we’re hardcoded for language. The language we speak is central to our self-identity and the shared cultural experience of our tribe. There are few things so potent and self-defining as the language we speak. This is why language is one of the most prominent features of any distinct subculture.
A shared language, with its unique slang, figures of speech, and in-group terminology, unites people whose cultural experiences find a common voice.
Conversely, failure to speak the language of the group is an immediate tell that you do not belong. Every culture has their “Shibboleth”—unique linguistic features that easily distinguish those within the group from outsiders.
And this is where most companies fail at marketing. They do not speak the language of their audience.
Most companies have no idea how to decode the secret language of their audience. In fact, they are typically so blinded by internal politics and confirmation bias that they have no idea that their audience doesn’t speak their language at all.
Most marketing copy is written by company-insiders… who are audience-outsiders.
Your audience immediately disengages because your content betrays you as an outsider. It’s in all the subtleties of syntax, valence, and word choice. Your message is, strictly speaking, comprehensible… but it is not engaging. Why? Because it’s written in a foreign tongue.
Example: Theater vs. Theatre
You can observe this massive linguistic gulf for yourself. Consider the words “theater” and “theatre.” Merriam-Webster merely suggests “theatre” as a spelling variant. Many dictionaries specify “theater” as the preferred spelling in American-English.
Seems simple enough, right? Wrong.
Language is rarely that simple.
What the dictionary doesn’t even mention is that people who practice the art of theatre are religiously devoted to that spelling. A theater, they will tell you, is a building. Theatre is an artform.
The thing is, this isn’t in the dictionary because it isn’t, strictly speaking, a fact of English. Rather, it’s a linguistic artifact unique to the secret language of a very specific subculture.
To a person outside the group, the two spellings mean the same thing.
To a person within the group, one spelling denotes a sacred art, while the other is almost blasphemously pedestrian. It is an insult, an affront to the craft. Getting that linguistic cue wrong immediately and irrevocably betrays you as an outsider. Until you have experienced the passion and fury this simple spelling variation evokes, you may find it hard to imagine. Get it wrong in conversation with a musical theatre devotee and you will find yourself taking a crash course in linguistic valence.
It’s a simple idea: words have different meanings to different audiences. They don’t literally mean something different in a dictionary sense… they evoke different emotions and conjure up different associations. This visceral reaction colors our interpretation of words. This variable emotional affinity is what we call “valence.”
Valence tells us how an audience will feel about a given word or phrase.
Valence tells us whether a word registers as “us” or “them” to our target audience. Valence tells us whether the word soothes or excites, provokes fear or hope, takes away control or empowers the reader. All these affinities are subtle, and they vary from group to group, person to person. This technique is only possible to master if you know your audience well.
To speak like your audience, you need to know them intimately. You need to know how they think and feel, what they hope for and fear most. You need to know who they see as enemies, what ideas they see as threats, and which words trigger–almost subconsciously–these discriminating distinctions.
In other words, to write like your audience,
you need to infiltrate your audience.
Become one with them.
What Secret Language Looks Like
To anyone reading it, the most precisely tailored, data-directed language will look… well, boring.
It will seem like nothing remarkable. It isn’t poetic. It doesn’t say what you’ve always wanted to say in some new, creative way. In fact, it’s more like the lowest common denominator of everything you’ve tried to say in the past.
It produces language that feels real–because it is real. It’s the inside language of your audience’s family, friends, and coworkers. It’s not artistic, not awe-inspiring, not the kind of prose that pierces your heart and makes you look at the world in a new light—it’s just real. And to your audience, that’s all that matters.
But here’s a key point:
Don’t try to pretend to be something or someone you’re not.
And don’t try to be some romanticized, idealized version of your audience. Don’t speak like your audience… but with Ph.Ds.
Don’t speak like your audience… but with a 20 point IQ boost. Don’t speak like your audience… but with Victorian sensibilities.
Don’t speak like your audience… but with fragile egos. If your audience calls themselves “people with disabilities,” don’t insult their intelligence and scorn the algorithm by trying to call them “differently abled persons.”
In any company or organization, there’s always at least one person (a “subject matter expert”) who sees it as their mission to cram as much jargon and insider verbiage into your work as possible. There’s also usually someone who sees every Facebook ad and corporate blog as their chance to dethrone Shakespeare.
But how many people are reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy at a Trump rally? Your goal isn’t to sound good or smart or even inspiring.
None of that matters.
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