Robert Sprague is co-founder and owner of PCI—a provider of marketing and creative production strategies and solutions. Bob has guided Fortune 500 corporate leaders, not-for-profit organizations, and government organizations in marketing, public relations, and organizational communications.
He has more than 25 years of experience as a business expert, strategist, communications practitioner, video producer, and musician. A trained pianist and composer, he's created film scores and composed ad music for brands such as McDonalds, Subaru, the United Way, and the American Red Cross.
I invited Bob to Marketing Smarts to talk about a passion of his: the power of "little words" (e.g. "a," "and," "you," and "me") in marketing.
Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:
Little words like "I," "we," "a," and "the" account for more than half the words we use (05:10): "You can divide words into two big types: content words and function words. The content words...have meaning in and of themselves. Nouns, verbs and adjectives. They're things that would describe something—tree or passion or throw or integrate or green.... The function words...are the ones that don't have any inherent meaning. They are the pronouns, the articles, the prepositions...things like that. Pronouns like I, she, we, or it, articles like a, an, or the...they don't have any meaning by themselves. They only work to connect and put together the content words. The interesting thing is, whereas an English speaker might have 100,000 or so content words that she would know, there are only about 450 function words in the English language, and yet function words account for about 55% of the words we use in English.... They're little words. They're short, they don't have any meaning in and of themselves, but we use them much more than we use the content words that are longer and have more inherent meaning."
Little words can reveal a lot about the writer (07:51): "By running samples of writing or tweets or conversations or Web pages...through a computer program that actually counts the different kinds of words that we're using, we can get a really good idea of what words we do use a lot, which ones we don't use too much. This turns out to be a very, very revealing about the speaker or the writer."
Men and women use "little words" very differently. (10:42) "There's a very statistically significant difference between the way that men and women use function words. It's not always what you would think. You might think that men were likely to use 'I,' and 'me,' and 'mine'...more often than women, who you would think would use 'we,' 'us,' and 'our' a lot, and that is not true. The different sexes use 'we,' 'us,' and 'our' about the same, and women use a lot more 'I,' 'me' and 'mine' words.
"There are other differences. Men use more articles ('an' and 'the'). Women use more cognitive words, things like 'think' and 'reason' and 'believe,' and social words like 'they.' They can actually take samples of writing, feed them into a program, and get pretty accurate at telling which one was written by a man or which one was written by a woman."
Use little words to determine whether your brand is emotionally connecting with your audience (15:44): "We make a lot of our decisions, if not all of our decisions, on the basis of emotion. We have a 'gut feeling,' and that is really what makes us decide to buy, or decide to change our behavior, or join a group...and then we got back and rationalize that decision and we come up with all the facts and figures and reasons that we have made the correct decision to either convince other people or to convince ourselves.
"Part of the whole point of this study of little words...is that the content words—and this is something that we as marketers forget—are the rational words. They're the reasons, the benefits. They're the reasons that we should do something. The little words are a lot more indicative of our emotional state. If we as marketers are not connecting with our audience on the basis of the way we use these little, unimportant, meaningless words, we may be risking not connecting with them on an emotional level....
"If you're not connecting with your audience, it might be really good to take what they write—say comments on your Facebook page or tweets in your direction...and break that down and say 'oh my gosh, when these people talk about our product, they're using...pronouns like 'it' and 'they.' We would really rather they use words like 'my' and 'our' and 'us.'"
Bob and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!
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Special thanks to production company Candidio, an efficient, affordable video production platform allowing marketers and communicators to collaborate and curate video content, with help from a team of professional, on-demand video editors for the finishing touches. Check them out!
Show opener music credit: Noam Weinstein.