Words are not here to create sentences but experiences

What’s your favorite color? Everyone has one, or maybe few. But, what if I told you that the language you speak determines how you perceive colors? Before you dismiss this as another “the Earth is flat” theory, give it a second.

Let’s see (literally). How many words for the color blue can you recall? Keep in mind that it depends on your mother tongue. For example, if you are a native English speaker, the first association will be a single word – blue. But if you are a Russian speaker, you won’t recall one word, but two: “goluboy” (light blue) and “siniy” (dark blue).

As a result of this linguistic difference, native Russian speakers can distinguish the shades of blue more accurately and quickly than people whose first language is English.

Language influences the way we perceive, not only colors, but the world itself. In fact, it has a defining role in the ways we think. For instance, we are not able to think about the things that don’t have a definition in language. In other words, everything we think about must be defined by the language(s) we speak. If it’s not, our mind simply doesn’t have the tool to process it.

So, next time someone asks you about your favorite color, maybe check in which language they see colors.

Words create experiences.

Ways in which we speak say a lot about what’s going on inside our minds. You’ve probably heard about the Freudian slip, a mistake in pronouncing or writing certain words, which is driven from an unconscious part of our mind.

It doesn’t mean that every mistake or typo we make has some hidden meaning (most of them don’t), but when you tell someone “Fetch me my slips” instead of “Fetch me my slippers”, there might be something more behind it.

Revealing parts of our unconscious is just one dimension of the power of words. Here’s another one. Do you know what fans of the San Francisco 49ers say when their club conquers another team? “We won!” And what do they say when the other team beats the 49ers? “They lost.”

Two words that create a radically different experience.

“We won” signifies that the fans identify with the team. Through words, they want to express that they are part of the experience of winning. That they somehow contributed. On the other hand, “they lost” signifies the distance from the 49ers. It’s their fault. It’s not us. It’s them.

Two words with a radical difference. So if two simple words such as these can create a sense of belonging or distance, what kind of experience can be evoked by thousands of words that corporations use in all nonmarketing touchpoints?

You can’t control Freudian slips. But can you control words that can paint an entire picture of experience?

Before answering this, here are a few fascinating things about how words shape our experiences.

Words have shapes

You’ve read that correctly. If I say “bouba”, you will associate it more easily with something with round edges than sharp edges. If I say “kiki”, it will have an opposite effect – it is easy to imagine “kiki” as something sharp. This phenomenon is also known as the as the bouba/kiki effect.

Why is that?

Because naming objects isn’t arbitrary, as it used to be assumed. Our mouth makes a more rounded shape while pronouncing the word ”bouba”, while saying ”kiki” requires a more angular mouth shape. Further research of this effect showed that such soundshaping influences auditory (listening) and visual (seeing) part of the brain.

So just like words can be sharp, they can also be cold or warm. Energetic or lowenergy. Mellow or kaboom! While in this case the meaning is entirely in sync with the tone, sometimes this is not the case and we need to be aware of it.

Our unconscious is synesthetic by default; we just usually don’t give it enough conscious attention. Until now. 🙂

How can you apply this to you writing? By using words that provoke a person’s mind to see and feel them, not only to read them. For example, instead of saying “I had a bad day”, you can say “I had a rough day”. The word “rough” makes us imagine something uneven, with sharp texture, unfriendly and hard.

Another example is, when informing a customer about their account balance, to say “Your account balance is skyrocketing this month!” instead of “Your account balance is higher than the previous month.”

Words evoke memories and feelings.

Another powerful way in which words are connected to our thoughts (and vice versa) is their link to our memory. If I say the word “sunset”, you probably won’t imagine some generic sunset or make it up. You might remember a specific sunset you once enjoyed or the one which you can’t recall, but which might be from a painting or movie you’ve seen.

The same way you can feel nostalgia while listening to a song which used to be your favorite as a teenager, or sadness when you hear the one you listened to while crying your eyes out after a messy breakup, words – especially sentences – always trigger our minds.

This largely depends on the context: if I say “a boat”, you might think of a random boat. But if I say “a boat in Venice”, if you’ve ever been there, you will automatically recall that experience.

While talking or writing to your customers, it’s good to know that words can evoke their memories and, consequently, feelings. The most common mistakes made while using this fact can be found in marketing: all those happy, carefree women on their periods. We don’t need research to know it’s fake – if you’re a woman, you know the truth; if you’re not, just ask one.

If you want to do this evoking of memories/emotions thing right, be careful about what you want to associate your brand or product with. People will know if you’re faking it.

Context matters.

Remember the question about your favorite color? Now, imagine your answer was red. That could mean that you’d like your car to be red or your nails done in this color. Maybe you own a lot of red clothes or some red pieces of furniture.

But it doesn’t mean that you will use only this color. That you'll paint all your walls in it or that your envelopes and notebooks will all be in this color. Sure, some people might be into this, but the vast majority wouldn’t. They would find it heavy and tiring.

That’s because our brain cares a lot about context. Actually, there’s an entire brain region which heavily depends on context: hippocampus. It regulates learning and memory, both under a great influence of – context.

Words can have different meanings in different contexts. Just like saying “Thank you” when a person passes you salt over dinner isn’t the same as when you say it to someone who’s made a nasty remark to you. In the first case, you really mean it and in the second one you say it in a passiveaggressive way. Same words, but completely different meaning.

When you’re writing to a dissatisfied customer, saying things like “Thank you for your patience” or “We hope you’ll keep using our services” is a perfect example of disregarding the context. Sure, it would be great if they could be patient and still use you as their service provider. However, when they are angry or worried, by writing general expressions such as these, you deny the context and, thus, their feelings. It’s not helpful; in fact, it can be rude.

Therefore, instead of these inappropriate generic messages, go with something like this: “I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. Give me some time to check what happened, and we’ll sort it out.”

Words belong to tribes.

Have you seen Donnie Brasco? A movie in which Johnny Deep plays an undercover agent. To penetrate the mob tribe, he starts mimicking words they use and the way they do it.

That’s because some words clearly help us identify tribes. In the development of civilization, tribes of educated people such as legal, medical, technical, economic and other professionals created their own unique terms and thus distanced themselves from the tribe of regular “Joes and Janes”. That is the original sin of language – a departure from the mass.

The repercussion is that today, in most industries, customers are flooded with terms that they cannot understand. They clearly don’t belong to their everyday lingo. And with that comes distance and mistrust towards corporations.

So the most selfless act is to go Donnie Brasco. Reduce industry-specific wordings and replace them with words of everyday experience.

Use words that will activate a sense of belonging with the reader, not a sense of disconnection.

So, how can you speak the language of the tribe you don’t belong to? How can you go full Donnie Brasco if you are not familiar with the way a mob speaks? Well, if you are speaking or writing to your customers, it’s not hard to determine how to talk to them.

The general rule is to address them in accordance with the “tribe” they belong to. Are they teenagers? Millennials? Retired? Stayathome moms? Dancers? Construction workers?

If all of them could be your customers, the general rule is to speak with them as you would with an acquaintance you are happy to encounter (and occasionally hang out with). If you’re late for drinks with them, you wouldn’t say “Sorry for this inconvenience. Thank you for understanding”, but “Sorry, I’m a bit late. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.” Instead of using empty words and generic phrases, be straightforward and honest. Instead of “We appreciate your feedback”, you can say “How do you feel about our services?” It’s more direct, natural and human.

Tone of thoughts.

We are trained to write in a certain way. It starts in the first years of education and progresses from there. A person needs to be creative to become an advertiser. Cautious to become a lawyer. Vague to become a politician. We need to unlearn that. Because the only way we should write is in the tone of thoughts.

So what is the tone of thoughts?

It’s the way we create sentences in our head. The way we think about something – a natural way in which a regular person thinks, not the learned way of a professional in their professional role.

For example, when we think about a financial transaction, this is our train of thoughts: “I need to send money to Mom, she is concerned about when it’ll be transferred, so I’d better send 500 dollars now so she gets it today until 5 p.m.”

However, the process of sending money via mobile banking apps usually doesn’t follow this narrative of the tone of thoughts. It often involves some technical expression that is an emotional impediment such as “transactions” and “enter IBAN” and “model of paying” and after a series of these labels, the confirmation goes something like “The transaction has been executed successfully.”

A better alternative would be if the confirmation was followed by a message such as “Your mom will be able to draw these 500 $ from her account today after 3 p.m.”

Write how people think and they will like you. This way, they will perceive you as a friendly, living human being, rather than a cold, distant, robotic system of automated messages that doesn’t care about them at all. When you talk to them in a way they can instantly understand, you make it easier for them to know what to do and what comes next. By doing so, you lessen the cognitive effort required to understand the message, thus making an entire process quicker.

Corporate “l'art pour l'art”.

This description couldn't be further from what is needed in the business world, where everything we do should be designed with customers in mind. In customer communication, every word should be married to some specific customerrelated function.

What's ironic is the fact that the business world is filled with such l'art-pour-l'-art-isms. This is because it's easier to copy and paste some generic phrase into an email message for an unsatisfied customer than to take our time and come up with an answer that will truly address their situation and accompanying feelings. It takes time, effort, skill and, most importantly, willingness to hear and respond accordingly.

That means that the process to shift your communication towards customers doesn’t consist of one decision you make and then expect everything to magically change overnight. On the contrary, it's about an entire mindset and its adopting is a process. The first step of that process is to understand that customers are people, just like you and me, and don't care about your “Thank you for understanding” replies. They care for an authentic and customized response.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

This quote from a Spiderman movie (also known as the Peter Parker principle) is a helpful reminder on how to use words. On the one hand, now that you know how important and powerful words are, use them wisely. On the other hand, your company and, thus, your brand, also (can) hold significant power over people’s lives. From banking to local market industry, brands influence people, and without responsibility, there’s no real connection to the people upon whom your business entirely relies.

By using proper words, carefully crafting your messages and showing them that you care about their experience, you are building this relationship – step by step, word by word and experience by experience.

So this is our invitation and a dare for you to remove the shackles of corporate communication regression and focus on speaking to customers acknowledging the experiences your words could evoke for them. Because that will affect the way they see you: either as someone who only wants to sell them something and doesn’t really care about them, or as their partner in excellent customer experience.

Ultimately, words are not there to fill sentences; they are there to fill hearts or nudge actions. Words affect how we experience things they represent and because of that, skills such as copywriting should be seen as tools for customer experience, across all touchpoints. If you have something to say to your customers, remember that your communication should be the same as with any other human being in your life, so act accordingly.