I just finished reading Microstyle, The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson.
Dividing the book into four sections: Meaning, Sound, Structure and Social Context, Johnson delivers examples of writing small in short chapters with titles such as “Paint a Picture,” Say the Wrong Thing,” Give It Rhythm,” Make the Sound Fit,” Break the Rules,” Coin a New Word,” and “Create a Microvoice.”
“In This age of the Incredible Shrinking Message,” Johnson writes that “Messages of just a word, a phrase, or a short sentence or two……” require microstyle. I liked his statement in the introduction that “Microstyle is really about language at play – even when it’s used at work.”
The author knows what he is talking about. He has a PhD in linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. More impressive to me is that he created and analyzed product and company names for more than a decade at Lexicon Branding, a top naming firm that developed the names Pentium, PowerBook, BlackBerry, Swiffer, Febreze and others.
Sometimes the linguistic terms and explanations slowed me down, but the examples added spice to what otherwise could have been dull reading. He gave examples of how words, basically meaning the same thing, can result in a huge difference in the number of results in Google searches.
He explained why Apple turned out to be a good fit for a new computer company because of the associations it brought to mind. “Nothing is more familiar, more accessible, or less intimidating than an apple.” He also gives examples of names that missed.
“Effective micromessages often push our emotional buttons.” Some appeal to our sense of self-worth: “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s) “Because I’m Worth it” (L’Oreal). Some try to inspire infectious enthusiasm “Leggo My Eggo,” “Nobody Better lay a finger on my Butterfinger” and “M’M! M’M! Good” (Campbell Soup).Some give a certain mystique: “Does she or doesn’t she?” (Clairol), “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?” and some a generational rebellion “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
Also micro messages can use our relationships: “When you care enough to send the very best” (Hallmark), “Reach out and touch someone” (AT&T) and the desire to do right “No more tears” (Johnson’s Baby Shampoo) or “Doesn’t your dog deserve Alpo?”
Johnson writes that we should zoom in on telling details. A good example is from a talk by Simon Dumeno at the Ad Age Digital Conference in 2010, “I’ve seen the future and it’s covered in greasy fingerprints.”
He recommends playing with rhythm and poetic patterns, breaking the rules and coining new words. Johnson uses examples of business names, movies books, ads, and twitter that use microstyle.
Maybe I shouldn’t quote so much from the book, but I did enjoy the way he wrote and using one of his examples of metaphor, Nissan’s “Life is a journey. Enjoy the Ride.”
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