Saturday, October 2, 2010

Enough Said: How Twenty-Five-Cent Words and Two-Bit Word Choice Don’t Add Up

Can you guess which popular ad campaign of the twentieth century I have destroyed with unneeded elaboration and fancy, “twenty-five-cent” words?

Think moustaches on super models – milk moustaches.

Yes, it was the stunningly popular and often parodied “got milk?” campaign.

Can you imagine driving by this billboard, trying to read (and understand) all of the words? Plus, where would we fit the supermodel and her milk moustache?

Clearly, the “got milk?” phrase was effective because of its colloquial brevity.

When you need to grab a reader who may have either limited time or attention, you need to use as few words as possible and make your point clear.

Good web writing, for example, is brief, because a web audience is on the hunt for something specific. The best web pages know this and make it easy for web users to find the information they need quickly – helped in large part by the page descriptions that come up on search engines.

Web writing technique is easily applied to good ol‘ fashion print. If you’re writing a sales proposal or a marketing brochure, don’t waste your reader’s time by using all the words you know. In your effort to over-inform, you risk losing the reader’s attention, resulting in the reader retaining none of the information you were trying to share.

And the reader might think you (and your brand) are boring.

One caveat, I love descriptive narrative, the kind that you find in rich novels, with evocative language, sonorous rhythm. All that. In this post, I’m focusing on writing for the ADHD or customer crowd. You don’t have as much time to get your message to these audiences.

Think caffeinated monkeys.

When I edit sales proposals, I notice a tendency for my coworkers to try to “fancify” their language. They probably think it will lend them more credibility with potential customers, because (they think) they’ll sound smart.

“Smart” to me is being efficient with language and with your audience’s time.

One of the most common twenty-five-cent words those smart coworkers use is “utilize”.

Utilize is a fancy way to say use. “Use”, itself, seems bland, although efficient. Also, “use” may have a tarnished reputation thanks to drug “users” or other selfish people who “use” other people. We’re taking it back.

For one thing, “utilize” is a seven-letter word. "Use" is three. By more than doubling the letters, do we gain any more information by reading “utilize” versus “use”?

Consider the following three examples, including one efficient sentence that “nails it”:

Twenty-five cent: The carpenter utilized a hammer to pound the nails that connected the two-by-fours to the beams.

Better: The carpenter used a hammer to pound the nails that connected the two-by-fours to the beams.

Efficient: The carpenter nailed the two-by-fours to the beams.

Trying to find ways to reduce words and to emphasize key ideas is not just surgery (simply lopping off words). It’s more about “puzzling”, assembling the pieces so that your “picture” is clear.

I am hopeful that you are capable of utilizing the conceptions that I have posted within this blog post to your advantage.

Or, in the smart version:

Hope this helps.


  1. Actually, "utilize" doesn't even mean "to use". It means "to make useful". The hammer is already useful. But the iron (or whatever) was utilized in its manufacture. It's often hot air, but sometimes it's just the right word-- nails it, so to speak.

  2. Reg, good point! Unfortunately, it is a fine point in the sense that in our evolving English, the distinction you draw is now occluded in the fog of dictionary usage notes. Merriam Webster, for example, claims that "utilize" is synonomous with "use". The coworkers to whom I refered aren't aware of this distinction and are, in effect, just plain trying to sound smart with more syllables.