The More the Words, the Less the Meaning

Image courtesy of publicdomainimage.com
Image courtesy of publicdomainimage.com

You’ve seen the commercials. Pharmaceutical ads show an attractive person who tells us exactly what to say to get our doctors to prescribe their product. “I told my doctor that I’d tried diet and lifestyle changes, but that didn’t help. Then I asked if Giant Pill was right for me.” Short and direct.

The commercial goes on to show the patient living happily ever after, confidently socializing and walking a dog. The voiceover goes something like this:

Do not take Giant Pill if you are allergic to it or to any of the ingredients in it. Giant Pill has been known to increase the likelihood of developing new or worsening heart failure, sometimes fatal, in adults and children. Ask your doctor before taking Giant Pill if you have a heart condition. Side effects may include headache, muscle ache, and dizziness. Stand up slowly to lessen the likelihood of dizziness upon standing. Giant Pill does not cause dehydration, but you may become dehydrated while taking Giant Pill if you do not drink water. Dehydration may intensify dizziness, so be sure to drink water while taking Giant Pill, especially in hot weather, or if you feel thirsty.

Then back to the patient, now playing golf with his buddies, thanks to the miracle drug of Giant Pill.

Pharmaceutical companies are required to list side effects when touting their products, so they minimize the impact by using dull narrators, passive language, burying the worst side effects in between things that don’t sound so bad, and using as many words as possible. Sometimes the side effect warning takes up half of the commercial or more! Advertisers bury the key point that they are required to share in a barrage of words, knowing that the more words they use, the more we consumers will tune it out. You probably even skimmed over that voiceover paragraph.

The Bible tells us, “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” (Ecclesiastes 6:11)

It profits the pharmaceutical company by camouflaging the worst of the side effects, but does not help the individual thinking about taking Giant Pill. Can you imagine if commercials used less words and more direct language?

Giant Pill might kill you.

Who would ask their doctor for that?

Short and direct, this pharmaceutical ad ran in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1916. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Short and direct, this pharmaceutical ad ran in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1916. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To communicate effectively, use this knowledge to your advantage. When editing your work, pay attention to the main point of each sentence or paragraph. What are you really trying to say? Don’t hide it between buffers. You can intensify the impact of any thought by placing it at the beginning or the end of a sentence, and by keeping it short. For example, instead of:

Ms. Scarlet made her way through the mansion and into the library, where she hoped to find something interesting to read. What she saw proved to be more excitement than she wanted. In the red velvet chair that was pulled up next to the blazing fireplace, the dead body of Michael Mustard, the strong military colonel that she met earlier that same evening, slumped to one side.

Increase the impact by using less words. Like this:

Ms. Scarlet made her way through the mansion and into the library, where she hoped to find something interesting to read. She stopped. Next to the blazing fireplace, in the red velvet chair, slumped Colonel Mustard. He was dead.

Notice that I moved the reader into the library, then to the fireplace, to the chair, then to the body, narrowing the focus. Placing the shocking realization at the end of the paragraph, and letting it stand alone, rather than hiding it between descriptive details, gives it more impact. Short sentences (She stopped. He was dead.) convey the shock of finding a dead body.

Check back on Mondays for more line editing techniques. In the meantime, what are some ridiculously long sentences that you’ve heard, on pharmaceutical ads or elsewhere, and how would you boil them down to their key points?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s