Imagine walking through the woods on a foggy day.
The world around you is grey. Dark grey. Light grey. Grey-ish grey.
And all you hear is the soft sound of water drops falling down. You’ve brought a Braeburn apple with you, and take a bite. You wonder … Does an apple taste blander when it’s foggy?
Now, imagine entering an open area in the woods. The fog has lifted. The sun warms your face. The autumn leaves glisten in the light.
You feel you’ve entered a new world in full color. And even your apple seems to taste better. Juicier. Crispier. More refreshing.
Most writing is like a foggy walk
When writing is bland, it fails to connect. Your message doesn’t stand out and is utterly forgettable.
Vivid writing, in contrast, is meaningful and powerful.
Readers remember a vivid message because they can picture it and feel inspired. Take, for instance, the difference between an abstract weight loss target versus a vivid goal. As Chip and Dan Heath write in their latest book “The Power of Moments:”
(…) the ultimate destination should not be “losing 20 pounds,” it should be something intrinsically motivating, such as “Fitting into my sexy black pants without gastrointestinal distress.”
What is more inspiring—the 20 pounds or the sexy black pants?
That’s the difference between an abstract number and a vivid goal.
Vivid language is memorable
The brothers Chip and Dan Heath are probably my favorite non-fiction writers.
Their writing sketches clear pictures in my mind, and their business books are unputdownable (my favorite is “Made to Stick”). I read their latest book “The Power of Moments” over the weekend. It engages from the first page, starting with a short story:
Chris Barbic and Donald Kamentz were sitting at a pub in Houston, recuperating from another 14-hour day running their start-up charter school. They were drinking beer. Watching ESPN. And sharing a Tombstone pizza, the bar’s only food offering. They had no idea, on that night in October 2000, that they were moments away from an epiphany that would affect thousands of lives.
This is a powerful opening. Why? In just a few sentences, the Heath brothers sketch a vivid scene. We can imagine Barbic and Kamentz sitting in a pub. We almost feel their tiredness after a 14-hour day. We picture the two relaxing with a cold beer, a pizza, and watching ESPN.
In only 38 words, we, as readers, can picture the scene, and then comes the cliffhanger: “They had no idea, on that night in October 2000, that they were moments away from an epiphany that would affect thousands of lives.”
That makes you want to read on, right?
“The Power of Moments” examines which moments are memorable and meaningful, and how businesses can create such defining moments for their customers.
Chip and Dan Heath describe how an average looking hotel complex—“The lobby is vaguely reminiscent of an auto service shop waiting area”—gets raving reviews because of the magical moments they create:
Let’s start with the cherry-red phone mounted to a wall near the pool. You pick it up and someone answers, “Hello, Popsicle Hotline.” You place an order, and minutes later, a staffer wearing white gloves delivers your cherry, orange, or grape Popsicles to you at poolside. On a silver tray. For free.
Can you picture the scene?
That’s because of the specific, vivid details: the cherry-red phone mounted to a wall near the pool, the staffer wearing white gloves, delivering cherry, orange, or grape Popsicles on a silver tray.
Vivid language energizes your writing
Of course, there’s more than vivid stories in Chip and Dan Heath’s book. They also include research results to underpin their claims about the importance of defining moments. For instance:
A study of hotel reviews on TripAdvisor found that, when guests reported experiencing a “delightful surprise,” an astonishing 94% of them expresses an unconditional willingness to recommend the hotel, compared with only 60% of guests who were “very satisfied.” And “very satisfied” is a high bar!
And they summarize their key message in more abstract language:
We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection. These extraordinary minutes and hours and days—they are what make life meaningful. And they are ours to create.
But the abstract language and research results form only a small part of the book. As a rough guess, at least 80% of the total word count is dedicated to vivid stories showing us the impact of defining moments and how to create them.
Here’s one more example:
The fitness-tracking bracelet Fitbit presents users with awards such as the 747 Badge, given for climbing 4,0000 lifetime flights of stairs (which rises roughly to the altitude that 747s fly), and the Monarch Migration Badge, which is described as follows: “Every year the monarch butterfly migrates 2,500 miles to warmer climates. With the same lifetime miles in your pocket, you’re giving those butterflies some hot competition!”
How smart is that?
What could have been yet another flight of stairs or another mile of running, is transformed into a memorable moment with vivid imagery. Imagine climbing as high as a Boeing 747 flies. Picture that Monarch butterfly migrating from the UK to Africa. How exciting is that?
How to make your business writing unputdownable, too
In any of the books by Chip and Dan Heath, you see the same “formula” in action:
- Have a strong message to share
- Share a few research results for credibility
- Tell stories to keep readers engaged and to illustrate your messages
- Keep those stories short, yet vivid
So, when you write your next blog post or work on a book, think about this: What is the key message you want readers to remember? Which story or stories illustrate this key message best?
Your stories can be about yourself, about clients, or stories you’ve read elsewhere (be sure to give credit in this case). Or sometimes, you can even make up your stories.
Enchant your readers with vivid language
How often do we read business content that surprises and delights?
How often are we really inspired by a blog post?
Life is too short for grey voices. Life is too short for abstract content and wishy-washy writing.
It’s time to have fun, and dazzle your readers with vivid stories.
Come on. Don’t let readers wade through the fog.
Delight them with a shiny, crispy apple.
PS Thank you to Kathy Keats (and Chip and Dan Heath!) for inspiring this blog post.
Recommended reading on vivid writing:
How to describe a smell: 3 nose-tickling examples
The ladder of abstract vs concrete words
How to paint vivid pictures with your words
You may also like:
29 ways to improve your writing skills (the essential list)
Leave a comment and join the conversation