By John Otterbein
By John Otterbein
A pervasive misunderstanding roves the countryside, terrorizing talented writers and storytellers, evading detection like Bigfoot behind a shaky camera lens.
The misunderstanding I speak of is the difference between flavorful writing and fluffy writing.
Flavor is essential for paving a two-way street of trust and communication between you and your readers, while fluff closes down that same street for construction.
But why is that? Why does fluff-laden language fall short?
The reason is hardwired into ouhr brains, literally.
It’s extremely difficult (and unnatural) to form lasting memories around fluffy writing because it’s inherently abstract. Writing that’s encrypted with flat and flavorless language won’t activate your mind’s eye.
You remember a meager sliver of the message because you were only able to create visual corollaries for a small slice of what you read.
In the words of Anne Miller, author of The Tall Lady With the Iceberg: The Power of Metaphors to Sell, Persuade & Explain Anything to Anyone, “We are image junkies. Our brains are wired to respond to imagery. We notice images. We remember images. We have emotional reactions to images. We make decisions based on images. We talk in images. For centuries, mankind’s communications have reflected this primal reach for images to communicate.”
Fluff can infiltrate your writing quicker than ants on a crumby counter. Writing abstractly may be easier and take less time than locating compelling metaphors, pertinent anecdotes, or stimulating visual language, but it’s also less potent.
The good news is that eradicating a pesky infestation of fluff isn’t all that difficult. In fact, if you consistently practice a handful of essential writing techniques, your words will begin to illuminate the minds of your readers as suddenly as switching on the bathroom light in the dead of night.
Before we get to specific techniques, let’s draw a line in the page between flavor and fluff once and for all.
Let’s look at some examples to drive this tent-stake into the ground. See if you can place your pointer finger on the flavorful (and concrete) sentence and the fluffy (and abstract) sentence below:
What do you think?
Precisely, the first sentence is buried in a pillowcase full of fluff. What does “leveraging existing market share” look and feel like? If you had to read an entire report written in this fashion, how much of it would you actually retain five minutes later? Thirty minutes? Three days?
The first example may be accurate, but it’s accurate to the degree that it excludes any chance of being enticing, inspiring, or memorable.
All too often, this type of writing becomes the de facto style in corporate environments because it’s seen as the safe bet; it doesn’t take a firm stylistic stance, feels cold and distant, and thus deflects anticipated criticism.
On the flip side, the second sentence provides a visually-rich idea to chew on. It conveys an identical sentiment as the first example, but with a burst of flavor and real-world context. It even compares brand awareness to an epidemic, a word jam-packed with potency and a web of incumbent associations.
The goal of any piece of writing should be to assist the reader in conjuring vivid images in their mind’s eye. This allows the reader to take the message and plug it into their own vast database of mental images and associations.
In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath introduce the idea of the Pomelo Schema to illustrate the importance of drawing on pre-existing mental associations to assist in understanding and retaining a new piece of communication.
A schema is defined as the web of established associations and general properties of a concept or category that you started building the second your brain came online.
A pomelo is a large and obscure citrus fruit.
So, Chip and Dan’s solution to defining this outlandish fruit was to compare it to the schema of a grapefruit. Explanation 1 below describes a polemo without the assistance of a schema while explanation 2 relies on the schema of a grapefruit. Both explanations have been excerpted from Made to Stick:
“Explanation 1: A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink finish and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.”
– Versus –
“Explanation 2: A pomelo is basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”
The point here? Don’t reinvent the wheel when plenty of wheels are already rolling around in the minds of your audience. Rely on pre-existing mental associations to make your writing more readily understandable.
This brings us to one of our critical fluff-be-gone techniques, the metaphor.
For simplicity’s sake, I use metaphor as a stand-in term for metaphors, analogies, anecdotes, personal experiences, and stories.
If you want your piece of communication to brim with memorable zest, you’ll need to build up your own bank of metaphors and season your writing with them until it tastes just right (food metaphors are effective because our food schemas are well defined and constantly activated).
So how can you infuse metaphors into your communication?
Simple. Build your very own repository of them (I use an Evernote folder) and pull from it often.
You can also incorporate a “flavor test” into your editing process.
To do this, as you scan back through your articles, your presentations, and your emails, practice coming up with metaphors (in all the forms I listed above) that will walk your writing across the busy street from fluffy to flavorful. The more you make this a common practice, the more you’ll notice metaphor in your everyday life.
Seemingly unrelated topics will reveal tie-ins you couldn’t previously fathom. Your writing (and audience) will thank you profusely.
Although I strongly encourage you to include more metaphors in your writing, I want you to be wary of metaphors that have been overused, exhausted, and are now downright hackneyed.
Think “low hanging fruit,” “the ball is in your court,” “30,000 foot view,” “missing a piece of the puzzle,” “plant the seeds,” and, one we all love using on a daily basis, “I don’t have the bandwidth for that.”
At one point in time, these all-too-common metaphors conjured up vivid imagery and were effective communicative tools. But, because of their overuse, the images have faded away and have left us with trite phrases we all immediately snap to out of habit.
The 5-Second Rule means if you come up with a metaphor in less than five seconds, it most likely belongs on the most-wanted list above, and you should continue searching for a more original alternative.
My favorite of the fluff-be-gone techniques, stimulating the senses of your readers will emblazon your writing into their brains with the lasting effect of carved initials in a soft birch trunk.
Use words that sizzle on the pan, pop with surprise, drench the imagination, scorch the page, and pierce through the buzzing static of mediocrity. You get the point.
Covet your list of sensory words like a prized collection.
This is the groundwork necessary for flavorful communication.
And, to call Anne Miller back onto the stage for some closing remarks, “to get through to your client, you don’t want your words heard so much as you want them seen.”
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