Language is weird and wonderful. I’m reminded of this every day I’m with my grandsons.
My 4-year-old grandson blows me away with his verbal ability. He’s fascinated with words, and he must pick up a few new ones each day. He wants to know what new words mean, he wants to know the exact names of things, and he wants to tell you—constantly.
The 2-year-old joyfully chatters and babbles. One day, I watched, amused, as he hosted an imaginary tea party for a dozen stuffed animals (coffee, soup, pretzels and juice were on the menu). Over the course of an hour, he narrated the entire affair, seemingly oblivious to my presence. He knew exactly what he was saying, even if I didn’t.
The wonder of language
It’s amazing how we learn language. First there is the thing, the object. An infant gets to know that rattle (or piece of dirt) with his or her senses: smell, taste, texture, shape, color, and so on. There are judgments and associations: pleasant or unpleasant, attractive or repellent, comforting or scary. Then comes the sound of the word voiced by mom or dad. The word labels the thing, but it also plants a fence around it and says, “This (and not that) is blue. This (not that) is a blanket.”
Next comes reading. At first, kids look at the pictures and see the words—their shapes, the juxtapositions of letters, like the skylines of cities or the crowns of trees. Night after night, they see the shapes and hear the sounds and begin to link them. One day, they begin reading. The process flips. The word is the thing, a symbol, a door that opens up onto concepts. They hear “blanket,” and may see blue, or feel the touch of the satiny border, or be comforted by the memory of how their blanket warded off imaginary monsters.
As adults, we forget the wonder of learning language. We can return to this childlike appreciation by reading to kids.
The word is not the thing
We can also appreciate the limitations of language. Reading about a lemon is not the eye-squinting cringe of biting into bitter citrus. Reading John Wesley Powell is not rafting the Colorado River. Reading Cheryl Strayed is not walking the Pacific Coast Trail. The map is not the territory.
Words are mere symbols, collections of letters. You know this if you’ve ever had the experience of looking at a word you’ve seen thousands of times and suddenly finding that, isolated, it looks odd and foreign, like an old friend who’s had a facelift. You see the letters but you don’t get the gestalt of the whole word.
Words can fail us. Like clumsy teenagers at a dance, they can trip over their feet. They can be crooked arrows, missing their marks. Or poison darts, dipped in vitriol. They can get in the way like gnats at a summer barbecue. Sometimes, it’s better to shut up. Zen teachers acknowledge that, for all the books written about meditation, in the end the student must just sit silently and finally get to a place that is beyond language. Mum’s the word.
Tell me a story
And yet, aren’t words wonderful? That such little things can say so much? And that, strung together like beads, they make meaning through sentences, which make paragraphs, which make essays or screenplays or songs or novels? Despite their limitations, when words make stories, humans experience these stories with such empathy that they feel real. Our brains light up as if we’re there.
If you’re a marketer, how can you tap into this wonder? What is one word that captures your brand while exciting the imagination of your customer? Kaiser-Permanente does this well with its long-running “Thrive” campaign. HP tried it with “Invent.” In both cases, the companies chose active verbs that spoke to the aspirations of their audiences. They told stories.
There’s a reason why marketers should tell stories. My grandsons show me that every time I read to them.