Laura Petrolino

How to Improve Your Word Choice (And Why Every Communicator Should)

By: Laura Petrolino | January 28, 2019 | 
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How to Improve Your Word Choice (And Why Every Communicator Should)Last week I discussed a few of the MANY reasons Martin Luther King, Jr was one of the best communicators of our time (and someone every human in our field can learn from).

One of the things he was best at was the use of targeted, strategic, and powerful word choice.

This week I wanted to dive into this further because word choice is something that’s incredibly important but often overlooked by communicators.

Word Choice Matters (Even More Than You Think)

When most of us hear word choices is important, we automatically agree. Of course, word choice is important, duh!?

But the fact is, it’s probably even more important than you think. Otherwise, you’d spend more time focused on it. 

So let’s start there. Here are a few of the reasons effective (or ineffective) word choice doesn’t just make content sound good, it’s a game changer for the success of your message, content, conversion goals, and overall communications strategy.

Word Choice Resonates

I hate using the word resonates here, because it’s so overused (talk about poor word choice), but this is really the correct use of it. When you choose a word that hits an emotional chord with your target audience, you win.

I could say the exact same sentence and transmit the exact same message, but the use of one verb makes it more effective for one audience and another verb more effective for another one.

You need to know your target audience well enough to understand which words are their “heart sounds.”

(That sounds sooo crunchy granola I hate to even say it out loud, but this is how I think of it and it helps my word choice process.)

Word Choice Eliminates Redundancy

When you say the right words, you don’t need to say as many of them.

That’s a fact.

And when you say fewer words you keep people focused on the ones that matter.

Proper word choice allows you to write in a powerful and concise manner.

It allows you to tighten up your sentences and avoid unneeded repetition, but still feel like you are getting your point across in a clear and powerful way.

A good way to do this is to use Stephen King’s 10 percent rule. Write something and then go through and eliminate 10 percent of the words. If you feel like you can’t eliminate words and still get your point across, then that means you aren’t using the most effective word choice. 

And in this instance, do what I say and not what I do, because if you read my blogs regularly you know I’m a chronic overwriter. But I’m working on it. You all should see my first drafts.

In a world of ever decreasing attention spans reducing redundancy through proper word choice is extremely important.

Word Choice Connects Communities

There was a blog post I wrote a few years ago and I said something super smart about word choice and communities. But I can’t find it. If you know which post I’m referring to, please let me know.

I’m going to try to replicate my insight again here. But you are never as smart the second time. So take what I’m saying here, imagine it five times more insightful, and go with that.

Ok, here goes…

Word choice is an important way to signal to a community that you belong. That you are an insider and not an outsider.

Think about any community you are part of on social media. Maybe it’s parenting or one that revolves around your sport or hobby. When you speak to others in that community you use language people outside of it might not understand.

I love to use my sport, bodybuilding, as a great example of this. Because frankly, if I talked to people outside the bodybuilding community, in the same way, I do inside it, I’d probably be slapped.

Do you know how often I tell men and women alike how much I admire their glutes?

A lot.

I talk about peoples glutes often. This is normally not ok in most places. You can’t just go around commenting on people’s backsides. But in the bodybuilding community, you can.

Likewise here are some phrases or words used often, but that people outside the sport won’t fully understand:

  • Taper
  • X-frame
  • Proportions
  • Tie-in
  • Width (normal people don’t like when you talk about how wide they are, bodybuilders LOVE it).
  • Vascularity
  • Natty

I could go on.

The point is EVERY community has words or phrases they use within themselves. It’s sort of like the linguistic secret handshake that lets people know you belong.

How to Improve Your Word Choice

Now the question is: how do you improve your word choice?

Awareness and practice are the two first steps.

This sounds simple, but really it’s what a lot of it comes down to.

You need to stop rushing through creating sentences that matter. Write fewer words and spend more time being strategic with the ones you use.

Obviously, you don’t need to do this with every single sentence you write.

(And goodness knows I write a lot of sentences that are absolutely worthless. I like to call it my “writing style,” but really it’s because I write like I talk and I talk a lot about nothing. But hey, it worked for Seinfeld, right? )

But when it comes to messaging, conversion copy, or just sentences you really want to pack a punch.

Follow this rule:

  • Stop, drop, thesaurus.

Really think about the depth you want the word to convey. Try different things and feel them out.

Pay attention to how different word choice changes the following in a sentence:

  • Sound
  • Tempo
  • Sensory effect
  • Emotion
  • Tone
  • Nuance

How do different words just slightly change the meaning or intent of the message?

I promise once you start taking the time to do this you’ll become absolutely obsessed with the power of language and the different ways one word can redirect a message.

Word Choice Training Guide: Language Workout

Your brain is a muscle and you need to train it consistently with a variety of stimuli to get it at its peak. There are two types of  workouts I suggest for word choice:

  • Language focused
  • Literature focused.

Let’s start with language.

  • Use the thesaurus ALL.THE.TIME. If you aren’t logging on to thesearus.com at least once a week you are being lazy with word choice. Get in the habit of using a thesaurus liberally.
  • Subscribe to a word of the day email. In order to have a better selection of words to choose from.
  • Learn a new language. Or if you don’t want to fully commit to a new language, study how other languages describe certain emotions and the different words they use. Love is a good one to look into. Most languages have many different ways to express the concept of love linguistically. Study the different ways they do this and how it changes the meaning or intent. 

Word Choice Training Guide: Literature Workout

And here is your workout to pump up your word choice muscle through literature training.

  • Read books and poetry from great authors. John Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri are some of my favorites here. And really take time to read them and think about the symbolism of the phrases vs. blunt storyline. I also recommend you take notes as you go along. I was almost a comparative literature major and the process of deconstructing words, ideas, and intent in this way has helped me so much in my career as a communicator.
  • Write poetry. Good poetry is powerful because it forces the author to focus excruciatingly on word choice in order to maximize meaning in a shorter content format. Read it, write it. Make poetry part of your life. Also make sure you try out poetry in stricter formats: haiku, iambic pentameter. This is a good test for your brain and forces you to chose words that fit your meaning, but also the medium. As a side note, I write poetry weekly. No one sees it but me, and I find it incredibly therapeutic. In a world that is often very outward facing, there is something very comforting about writing something beautiful and vast, but having it be yours alone. So try it, it might help your career and your life.  

Your Word Choice Tips

And now the floor is yours. What tips should be added here to help communicators improve their word choice?

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.