Of Lightning and Lightning Bugs


Mark Twain wrote “the difference between choosing the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Precision in words is one of the most important decisions a writer makes.

Think, for example, of the images evoked in the listener or reader’s mind by the word “vehicle.” The word is non-specific and no two receivers are likely to envision the same one in exactly the same way. Say “Mercedes,” though, and the image in the mind starts to narrow and align. A building more precisely could be a funeral home or a gym. There is a big difference, and the words tap directly into the experiences of the reader or listener in a specific way, either individually or collectively.

The jargon and buzzwords of everyday life, and the corporate habit of speaking internally in insider language and tribal code, creep into our speech, our emails, our tweets, and too often create distance for our intended audience. Inside the tribe we speak in acronyms and fanciful professional words. The trouble in connecting with the audience comes when we carry those words outside the tribe.

Recently, working with an ad agency on a marketing campaign for a hospital, a billboard was designed to connect with consumers who might need “gastrointestinal specialists.” ┬áThe physicians who reviewed it loved it. Of course, the gastroenterology tribe connected immediately. But, the consumer better knows its need as “stomach trouble” or “digestive issues” or some other simpler and more meaningful descriptor.

Lightning. Lightning bug. Words should be carefully chosen to instantly connect, truly communicate and promote understanding with the intended audience.