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A Matter of Words

While reviewing a proposal with a potential client recently, he asked, "Do these words really mean anything? Or do you just use them because they sound good?" A little taken aback, I asked which words he meant. He reeled off "persuasive," "engaging," and "compelling." Given that we were proposing a client engagement system for his business, the choice of words seemed appropriate, and I explained the rationale behind the words.

Later, I thought more about that conversation, becoming progressively more preoccupied with his question. First, my word choices are intentional and carefully - often obsessively - thought out. Second, he was asking us to create the visual and verbal reasons for clients to initially and continually engage with his product. If we didn't make a compelling argument for doing so, they'd abandon it and he would lose a sale. We had to be persuasive. We had to create sustained engagement. Then again...

Typewriter keys - words matter

According to Webster, the definition of compel is 1) to drive or urge forcefully or irresistibly, and 2) to cause to do or occur by overwhelming pressure. Okay, then perhaps compel was a bit extreme. Then, as quickly as I read the word's definition and considered that we might have been a bit overzealous in its use, a thought rushed into my head, "But that kind of language is everywhere! How else will we describe our belief that the system we're creating will do what he wants it to do?" I envisioned describing our solution as "nice," "friendly," and "a warm invitation." And promptly losing the business to a competing firm who created a more urgent argument.

It finally occurred to me to ask this potential client what he was reacting to in those words. "Well," he said, "it seems kind of over the top. I mean, this isn't rocket science. It's about building a relationship with someone and keeping it because you decide to trust each other. I think it's more about choosing than being persuaded or compelled."

Words matter. They matter and we're bombarded with them every day. Thousands of them. Maybe millions. According to this article in Forbes, we see between 4,000 and 10,000 ads a day. Word-packed ads aimed at urging, persuading, convincing us to eat, try, drive, read, use, subscribe, buy. Colorful and loud and, dare I say it, compelling. Does it work? Do mere words make us do something we wouldn't otherwise? Or do the words simply become a construct for what we already wanted to do anyway? No doubt there are dozens of answers to those questions, likely conflicting answers. All I know is that we'll pay even more attention to the words we use, just to be sure.

As for the proposal, we got the business and are working hard on the client's project. It's important to point out, however, that we didn't get the job because of the stirring rhetoric in our proposal. We didn't get it because we convinced the client that we could compel his clients to do anything. We got the business because he likes the way we approach building a relationship. Because we do what we say we will. We earned his business because of trust.

And that's a word that matters.

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