Words Create Pictures in Our Minds

It pains me as a word slinger, but it’s images that populate our craniums not words per se. Words are merely the “raw materials of thought,” as David Schwartz puts it in The Magic of Thinking Big. He’s right: we do think through images. Yet words are magical nonetheless, for they conjure up the all powerful images that fill our heads and establish how we feel about something. As such, they have to be handled with care.

“When spoken or read, that amazing instrument, the mind, automatically converts words and phrases into mind pictures,” Schwartz writes in the book first published in 1957. “Each word, each phrase, creates a slightly different mind picture. … The mind pictures we see are modified by the kinds of words we use to name things and describe things.”

When you tell people that a project has failed, the words create images of defeat, disappointment, frustration, anger, and grief. To encourage people to try again, Schwartz suggests you say instead: “Here’s a new approach that I think will work.”

“Suppose you say, “We face a problem.” You have created a picture in the minds of others of something difficult, unpleasant to solve. Instead, he writes, you should say, ‘We face a challenge,’ and you create a mind picture of fun, sport, something pleasant to do.”

Schwartz encourages us to turn resolutely away from pettiness and negativity, and to be “big thinkers” who transmit optimistic pictures in their own minds and in the minds of others. Be careful what words you use, spoken or not. Schwartz’s message resonates because it rings true. His book hasn’t sold more than four million copies for nothing.

Talking Big and Thinking Big

Big words, small words, little gray words and florid ones too: I love them all. Not necessarily equally, but each has its place and time.

The common thinking goes, however, that only pretentious or insecure individuals would use what used to be called five dollar words (back when that was a lot, not a latte). I disagree. Golly, what’s wrong with an evocative term like “palimpsest” or “gimlet-eyed” when they are just the right ingredient? (For that matter, what’s wrong with “evocative”?) Instead of rolling his eyes, shouldn’t the reader turn his gaze to a dictionary?

The point of communication is to connect with others, absolutely. The point is not to talk down from your lofty pile of words. Here’s a point of view from an author I greatly respect:

“The person who says “adamantine” when in plain talk he means “immovable” or says “coquette” when we would understand him better if he said “flirt” may have a big vocabulary,” writes David Schwartz in his great book The Magic of Thinking Big. “But does he have a big thinker’s vocabulary? Probably not. People who use difficult, high-sounding words and phrases that most folks have to strain themselves to understand are inclined to be overbearing and stuffed shirts. And stuffed shirts are usually small thinkers.”

Ouch. It’s true that what matters in communication is the effect words have on others, not the size of the vocabulary … but still can’t we luxuriate in the richness of the language? Once in a while, just a little? Broccoli benefits from a little béchamel now and again, right? (Béchamel? Happy to oblige: http://bit.ly/bechamelsauce.)

Know Thy Customers (Rule #1: Don’t Use “Thy” When Talking to Them)

Successful companies build relationships with their customers, and to do that effectively they have to speak like their customers. Social media is no different. Given the jocular and pithy nature of the space, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube messaging that tracks informal and humorous tends to work best. That’s who the customers are, or want to be.

So Old Spice is hailed for its multi-platform integration of the Big Three (Twitter, Facebook and YouTube) in its naked guy advertising campaign. Gillette too got kudos (and lots more “followers” and “friends”) with the humorous “manscaping” theme to sell razors.

The jocular tone could benefit other firms. “Many companies need to learn how to be, well, friendlier in a social space,” Sam Ford, director of Digital Strategy at Peppercom Communications, told Portfolio.com. http://bit.ly/smtalktips

An obvious key to effective communication is listening – and in marketing, listening to the customer. This is a lesson still to be learned by most in the social media space. The Old Spice guy showed the way as he tweeted followers in real time, directly addressing their comments. A collective gasp escaped the blogosphere: “Genius!” (That’s what 13 million YouTube page views and 43,000 Twitter followers in 48 hours sounds like.) The commercials also scored points with marketing experts by not hawking the brand too hard, but simply tucking the cologne into the towel of the topless dude, letting it speak for itself.

Of course you can’t just mimic someone else’s campaign and get the same effect. The novelty is gone. So the lesson is determining who your customer is, how they like to see themselves and how they talk amongst themselves. The lesson is not trying to sell your Chevy with a buff model dressed only in a towel.

Don’t Say Anything!

Foot-in-mouth syndrome is a curious ailment. It goes viral very quickly, but its effect on others is usually mirth with the occasional side effect of moderately painful wincing. It seems so widespread sometimes you’d reasonably conclude it’s contagious — but it infects others with an entirely different sickness, schadenfreude.

The dreaded FiMS serves as a cautionary lesson. You’re safe from its ravages if you take precautions like pausing before you speak, or at least asking if you’re being recorded. Think of it as using a condom for your tongue.

Whether or not you actually mean the regrettable things you say, it’s never been easy to regain your balance once you’ve done so. And heaven forbid too, for the billings of the crisis management industry. But it used to be people worried more about what they put in writing and less about spoken indiscretions. “The old way of thinking was that speech evaporates, while the written word was lasting,” Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute was quoted by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal. “What has emerged is a culture in which the written word can be revised [online], while on YouTube speech lives on.” [http://bit.ly/a2u54t]

Clumsy phrasing may lie behind some gaffes, such as Carl-Henric Svanberg’s “we care about the small people” remark. The BP chairman is from Sweden after all. Deeply held (and usually politely sublimated) beliefs may drive others, for instance Mel Gibson’s rants about minorities, Jews, and women that spew out when he’s sauced. [To see how entertaining people find mellifluous Mel’s recent phone meltdown with his erstwhile girlfriend, see this round-up of re-mixes and mash-ups: http://bit.ly/melmashups.]

In the humiliation-as-entertainment culture of TMZ and rapidly partisan politics, compassion for our fellow fools is understandably on the decline. A recent University of Michigan study (cited by the Journal) found that college students’ empathy has plunged 40% in the last 20 years. The villain of the piece may ironically be the same technology that seeks to bind us together, for “social” media reduces the need empathy-building face-to-face transactions.

You may be fortunate enough not to have your private affairs shared in public, but make no mistake: no one is immune in the Internet age. All politics may be local as the saying goes, but stupidity is increasingly global.

Ever innovative, the Internet is also busy offering solutions. For instance, the website Wouldhavesaid.com gives users a forum to apologize for things they’ve said to people no longer around to hear it directly.

But perhaps the best advice remains that of 1950s humorist Sam Levenson: “It’s so simple to be wise. Just think of something stupid to say and then don’t say it.”

Internet vs. Books

The Internet makes so much information available so quickly and to so many that it feels like a fount of endless and everlasting knowledge. It’s not.

To know is to learn. The Internet feeds conversationalists, but can’t compete with books for forming students’ minds.

But, wouldn’t you know it, there are two schools of thought on the matter. One, exemplified by Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows,” thinks the Internet is a flashy, link-happy distraction the erodes the ability to think deeply.

Backing that up, researchers recently found that the disadvantaged students who read books (of their own choosing) over the summer had significantly higher reading scores than similar students who didn’t. Another report on 27 countries found that kids who grow up in a home with at least 500 books stay in school longer and do better. Meanwhile, a recent Duke study of a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access coincided with major declines in math and reading scores.

Another group maintains the Internet benefits education because playing computer games and conducting online search heightens attention and the ability to process information.

New York Times columnist Richard Brooks recently adjudicated this debate and shared the interesting observation that it’s not the mere presence of books in a child’s private life but the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as a distinct group called “readers.” [http://nyti.ms/booksforlearning]

The book reader begins as a novice and builds his knowledge brick by brick, layer by layer. The egalitarian and youth-oriented Internet scoffs at such hierarchy and at the book learner’s respect for the authority of masters. These different cultures foster different types of learning, as Brooks points out.

The Internet is great at keeping you “with it” on current events, figures, and trends. But literary culture – with its requirement that you defer to greater minds and respect the authority of the teacher – is better at cultivating the mind. It ranks the greater over the lesser, the important over the unimportant.