I often think about the power that language has over us. The words in our lexicon shape our thoughts and beliefs, which shape our actions, which shape our world. The fewer words your mind can come up with, the shallower the thoughts it can entertain. But don’t get your hackles up because you think I called Uncle Earl stupid. So what if he’s an idiot. I would never suggest we take away his right to vote because he knows only three phrases: “gimme a beer,” “I’ll have the chili,” and “fuckin’ liberal media.”
That’s not even close to what I wanted to talk about today. I’m interested in something very primal in what shapes our beliefs, the truths we hold be self-evident. And what I think is that people will readily accept as true anything that can be spoken with a catchy rhythm and/or rhyme. In other words, simple poetry.
Let’s look at a few “old sayings,” for example.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Most people don’t even know what this means until they’re at least 30. It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have a precisely repeated rhythm pattern, emphasis on “hand” and “bush.” It ends on an emphatic syllable. It sounds clear and magically true. But is it? Is it better to have one thing than merely the potential of having two? It says, “be happy with what you have. Don’t dream.” But we don’t question its wisdom because it sounds good.
“A stitch in time saves nine.” A pleasant rhyme, a little pause after “time,” and two emphatic syllables at the end. Who wouldn’t believe what this says, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” (no rhyme but solid rhythm and great opposition of “ounce” and “pound” that appeals to the supposed virtue of frugality.
“Hell no, we won’t go.” If it’s the sixties, and you’re in an anti Vietnam war march, you need a catchy slogan to chant as you march. After all, wars have them, why not anti-wars, right? It’s a cadence. Its rhyme and five all-emphasized syllables are powerful and good for shouting. “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Another rhyming Vietnam era marching chant. You can almost dance to it.
“A penny saved is a penny earned.” It doesn’t rhyme, but it does have repeated meter and repeats “penny,” as well as having the strong syllables at the end of each half of the equation. Aha, and it is an equation isn’t it? It has perfect balance. Does the effort of saving a penny really equate to having earned it? I don’t know. What if you found the penny, put in a drawer and just forgot to spend it? Did you earn it?
Political campaigners know that catchy slogans are at least as much about sound than they are about sense — maybe more. A few famous ones are:
A Chicken in Every Pot. A car in every garage. — 1928 Republican presidential campaign slogan of Herbert Hoover.
All the way with LBJ —1964 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Lyndon Johnson.
Drill, baby, Drill! – 2008 US presidential campaign slogan of John McCain, used by his Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. This phrase was often chanted as a call for America to consume domestic oil reserves. The phrase was originally coined by Michael Steele at the 2008 Republican National Convention.
I like Ike – 1952 U.S presidential campaign slogan of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Yes We Can – Barack Obama, 2008.
Read my lips: no new taxes – George H. W. Bush during the 1988 U.S. presidential election.
George Orwell published his novel 1984 in 1948. The Party, the ruling entity in the world the novel creates, knows that language controls thought, so when they want to make an idea disappear, they simply make the words disappear. And they have a marvelous slogan to justify a never-ending, fabricated war with a different geopolitical entity: “War is Peace.” Aha! A Slogan with a paradox. What could be better? I won’t go into Orwell’s point here at length. He’s making more than one. The main idea, though, is that The Party knows it’s possible to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time – and believe both. People are that easily manipulated. Put that in a slogan with three one-syllable words, and you’ve got mind control magic.
Advertising is, of course, no stranger to the power of language. One of my favorite little numbers was in an ad campaign by the U.S. Army. “Be All You Can Be.” Nice! It’s got the same existential word front and back, all one-syllable words, “you” right in the middle (ego), and the comprehensiveness of “all.” Who wouldn’t want to be all they can be? It has a nice appeal to low self-esteem, too. I haven’t heard of any medical schools using this slogan.
I’ve spent a lot of time on the what of this issue, but none on the why. Why do rhyme, cadence, repetition, and other elements of language that one might think were just the clothes ideas are dressed in have such an impact? Is it because the nursery rhymes most small children hear cause certain neural pathways to be created in the brain or cause the release of endorphins, the residual memory of which we somehow retain as adults? Hell, I don’t have a clue. I never got to be all I can be and with luck never will. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cheat you out of an answer. But I promise to spend more time researching this someday.
I just want to say that whenever you hear a phrase that you think makes great sense, ask yourself if it’s because of what it really says or because it “sounds” good.
While not about how sound affects beliefs, read Orwell’s 1984 anyway. If you have already read it, read it again.
And also read about the the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, Which is the basic premise behind what Orwell wrote.
What do you think?
Lawyers, as we all know, are trained as babies to be trusting, transparent, and tender. I added that last one only because I needed a “t” word. OK, so they’re not trained to be any of that; they are trained instead to be wary, careful, even cynical. Trust 401 is not a recommended course for lawyers. Trusting means letting your guard down, opening yourself up to an unexpected sucker punch. This attitude probably serves well in the courtroom or in difficult negotiations. These are situations where everyone in the room has their own clients’ interests at heart, and they’re going to protect those interests at all costs. Good. That’s why these guys get the big bucks.
But back in the office, there’s another client they need to take care of. Lawyers and law firms all have a client whom they rarely treat like one, and that’s themselves. If they’re going to grow their business, they need to pay attention to, nurture, and care for their practice – and their firm’s. They hire marketers and business development pros to help them do this, but the defensive posture taken to protect clients is sometimes taken toward the very people they have hired to do the important business of marketing and business development. The phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind.
I once worked at a firm that, because of this defensive approach, simply would not let its marketers do their job. Whenever the executive director would remind me to lock my door or turn documents face-down on my desk, I would politely remind him that my office held no secrets. The job of marketing is to communicate to the world, not to make sure nothing leaks out. I’d tell him that all the secrets were in his office, not mine.
While many firms make it mandatory that their marketing and business development folks become intimately familiar with who their clients are, their revenue from each, and plans to grow that revenue using the many tools and programs that the marketing and biz dev pros can recommend and help implement, this firm put a wall around that information. They’re afraid that it will get into the wrong hands. Not only do they withhold the critical information that marketing needs to do its job, they often keep it from the attorneys themselves.
True, marketers – and lawyers, too – come and go. They leave firms and go to other firms, just as people do in any business. But if you don’t trust them when you have them, you tie their hands. How can a marketer recommend a top client appreciation program, for example, if he or she doesn’t know who the top clients are, and all the other information marketing depends on? How can he or she help you deflect potential negative PR if you keep secret the fact that there’s a potential issue? If you assume everyone is somehow going to find a way to use your information to do you harm someday, you also prevent them from doing you good today.
Clearly, I’m talking above about a fairly extreme case. How unusual it is I really don’t know. But when law firm marketers find themselves in such a situation, they have two choices: they can simply give up (hard to swallow) or try to engender change. I’m not talking about the age-old issue of convincing managing partners and executive committees that they’re not wasting their money on marketing. There are metrics that can be quite convincing. I’m not even talking about getting the proverbial “seat at the table.” It’s much more basic. I’m talking about simple trust – trusting us to view the family jewels and then return them safely to the family jewel box, giving us access to the information we need to help them.
In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost wrote: “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.” If walling in information results in walling out clients, maybe a little more trust – even if it’s a bit counter-intuitive for some lawyers – might go a long way.
To use a phrase I find extremely curious, “I’m just sayin’.”
All thoughts and dialogue on this are most welcome! What do you think? Any similar experiences?
One of the most frequent edits I find myself making when editing other people’s writing is moving the modifier “only” to its rightful spot close to the word or phrase it modifies. What does this sentence mean: “I only drive to work and back”? Does it mean that’s the only place to which you drive your car, or does it mean you never take the bus to work? It’s hard to tell what you intend. Move the “only” to just before the word “to,”and it’s clear that you mean that you don’t drive the car anyplace else. Leave it where it is, and it really means you don’t use any other form of transport to work. If the latter is what you mean, a less potentially confusing choice would be to say, “I drive my car to work because the bus is always late.”
Just something to think about when your fingers are flying across the keys.
Recently, I was thinking about a tag line for a client. The more I thought about the good tag lines I’ve seen and heard, and that others cite as some of the best, the more I realized that nearly all of them were business-to-consumer (B2C). Businesses whose products/services are marketed to other businesses (B2B) have a harder time coming up with effective tag lines. The fact is that most of them out there are just plain boring and pointless.
OK, let’s go straight to law firms. Let’s say you’re a high-end firm (not looking for 18-wheeler wreck personal injury claims, traffic tickets, or divorce work), and your target audience is General Counsel at mid-size to large corporations. What are you going to say in a tag line that will make this fact-driven, no-form-of advertising-has-any effect-on-me, audience of attorneys sit up and take notice and even believe your law firm may be different from the dozens of other firms that pitch them for business all the time?
Yes, you can take the good advice of those who tell us to test, test, test those tag lines. But really, you can try stuff out only on your best clients – the ones who like you well enough to respond to an inquiry or participate in a study. But they already know something about you and probably like you, making them less than the ideal participants in a study. Any mass query of GCs who don’t know you will get very little response.
There’s a list of 100 law firm tag line HERE.
They’re nearly all meaningless junk.
Consider a few of the shining stars:
- Leadership. Creativity. Results
- Counsel to market leaders
- Legal counsel to great companies
- The advantage of focus
Here’s a great one. “Experience Innovation.” What on earth does that mean? These lawyers do things in ways that other lawyers don’t know about and have never tried? Really?
I’m sorry, I dozed off for a minute. Give me a break! What law firm couldn’t or wouldn’t say the same things? Guys, get the 25-lawyer committee together and try again. Just kidding, don’t bother. Your marketing guy has a delete key – allow him to use it.
What I really suspect is that an all-purpose tag line for this audience is a waste of time. Don’t bother putting this stuff on your web site unless you just have space to fill and nothing interesting to fill it with. Don’t put it on your letterhead, your invoices, or anywhere else. But if you’re doing something like developing a campaign targeting a very a specific market — say architectural firms for example — then it should be very possible to develop an effective branding tagline for that market for use in that campaign.
Just some thoughts for today – inspired by a post on LinkedIn’s CMO Network.
All thoughts on B2B taglines are welcome.
I know of a law firm marketing director who’s firm allowed her to entitle herself as “Director of Mischief.” While she might disagree, this may be the most forward-thinking law firm – when it comes to marketing and business development – in existence. Personally, I like the phrase “monkey business.” I like to answer the question, “What business are you in?” with “monkey business.” Yes, of course it’s one of my favorite Marx Brothers movies. To me it means stirring things up. It means playing. It means trying new things and not being afraid to make a little mess (emphasis on “little”).
Most of the law firms I have worked with have been self-admittedly very conservative. They don’t want to do anything that will make them stand out, in the belief that their successes in the court room or at the negotiating table will magically do that for them. No question, those successes help. But they are like having a drivers license: all they do is get you onto the road. The people who hire lawyers for high-dollar commercial matters are nearly always lawyers themselves. They’re logical, analytical people (emphasis on “people.”) But they are not immune to things like humor, the effects of color, a well-written phrase. Law school did not, in fact, suck all the fun out of most of them. So if a firm and its lawyers have the credentials to play in their chosen arena, they need to think about what will turn the crowd’s eyes toward them.
I’m not talking about abandoning professionalism – not in the least. What I’m talking about is considering the audience first, and thinking of them as people. If a firm wants a company to hire it for legal work, it makes its pitch to people, not the company’s legal issues, but rather to a group of people who need to have a positive impression of the firm and its people beyond the record of its success. That impression is created by lots of different inputs, and one thing is certain, going out of your way not to stand out will have precisely the intended effect.
My point is simply this: lawyers and other professional service providers who want to grow their businesses and cause people to want to hire them need to engage in a bit o’ the monkey business. They should listen to the monkeys they hired to determine exactly what that means. Oh, and if the monkeys have been around too long and are starting to look and sound too much like their captors, it’s time to get some fresh monkeys who are willing to mash a little banana on the conference room table.
That’s what this monkey thinks.
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