To understate or overstate? A matter of life and death

You’re waiting for a bus on a frosty morning. You notice that “the traffic’s not too bad”.

Now that’s an understatement. You’re using double negatives to express a positive.

If the traffic’s not too bad, it’s good. If you’re not unaware, you know. And if you’re not as young as you use to be, you’re getting on.

Maybe you even want to show off a bit. In which case the literary device is called litotes.

Back to the morning commute. The bus is still nowhere to be seen. You huddle into your coat and think “I’m freezing!”

Bit of an overstatement. You’re exaggerating for the sake of emphasis.

When you claim to be freezing, you’re just feeling the cold. When you say that your bag weighs a ton, you mean that it’s heavy. And if you have a million and one things to do, you’re just busy – and possibly feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

Should you want to show off a tad more, you’re using hyperbole.

"I can smell fear too, I just don't go on about it." Exaggeration is all about understatement and overstatement.

Both terms have their roots in Ancient Greek. And as literary devices they are just as long-established. The poet Homer was using them back in 8th Century BC.

The current tendency to overuse litotes and hyperbole means that the full effect of the exaggeration has gradually been lost. Just think, no one is remotely surprised, or indeed concerned, if you say you’re so hungry you could eat a horse.

Homer, on the other hand, gives us hyperbole at its finest.

On a windless day, the hero Achilles finds himself unable to light the funeral pyre of his friend, Patroclus. So, naturally, he prays to the winds for assistance. His prayer is answered: “the two winds rose with a cry that rent the air and swept the clouds before them”.

Crying, renting, sweeping winds. What a vivid picture!

Emulate Homer, the world’s most influential writer: use litotes and hyperbole and avoid the humdrum and the obvious.

A word of warning though. Be sparing in your use. Understatement and overstatement are exaggeration and constant exaggeration is boring.

And the last thing you want to do is bore your reader to, er, death. If you see what I mean.

Life of words

In the beginning

New words are conceived when existing words join to create a new meaning. For instance, you might have found yourself ‘hangry’, ‘unfriending’ someone or even accused of ‘manspreading’.

Registering the birth

New words are entered into dictionaries. But inclusion in a dictionary is little more than a rite of passage. At least ⅕ of the Oxford English Dictionary’s 231,000 entries are obsolete (Why words die (and how to stop a few of them from keeling over) The Economist 4th-10th March 2017).

New words also have their births announced in the media. This is usually accompanied by debate as to their parentage and, ultimately, as to their future.

The best way to spread the news of a word’s birth is, of course, by word of mouth. After all, “a word needs to be used to live” (ibid. The Economist).

Infancy

Young words go through a trying period. That is to say a period in which they are tried out. For some such as ‘hangry’ and ‘adorkable’ it’s just a phase, and one they grow out of as they are popularised.

Others are not so fortunate. For example, do you multislack at work? Probably, without even realising it.

If you use work-related windows to cover non-work-related ones open on your computer then yes, you multislack.

The American Dialect Society shortlisted multislacking for its 1998 Words of the Year vote. For almost twenty years we’ve been doing it. And yet we still don’t use the specific word that describes it. Multislacking has yet to advance beyond infancy.

Growing up

Once words have been popularised, they mature. Take ‘decimate.’ As a young word in Latin it meant ‘to kill one in ten’. Similarly, ‘μυριάς’ – Ancient Greek for 10,000 – has grown to become the less specific ‘myriad’.

C. S. Lewis uses the example of ‘gentleman’ (The Death of Words, 1944). In its infancy ‘gentleman’ defined a social and heraldic fact, but its meaning has decayed with age. Now, ‘gentleman’ requires what Lewis calls “adjectival parasites” – crutches such as ‘true,’ ‘honest’ and ‘real’ – to survive.

Cartoon illustrating how words are used particularly in essays

Employment

Words start work as soon as they are born. They are the raw materials for the manufacture of language, which is distributed and used for communication.

This communication is written, spoken, read and heard. But these are not distinct categories: speakers listen, writers read. And vice versa.

So the business of communication is the exchange of information. It is only profitable when it is understood.

For a word to succeed in its job, it needs careful deployment. As shareholders in the business of communication, that is our responsibility.

Reaching the end

Words find that retirement is followed by a quick death. Conversely to their widely-announced birth, a word’s death receives little or no acknowledgement. The fortunate few will have their passing mourned by the likes of The Spectator, the London Review of Books and The Literary Review. Recently, the Guardian published an obituary – ‘Golly’, ‘cassette’ and ‘croquet’: the words we no longer use (15th March 2017).

The circle of life

The ashes of the dead fertilise the soil and so it is with words: see ‘Brexit’.

Stop monkeying around

Do you communicate with your customers on a regular basis? Do you use MailChimp? If not, why not?

Small or medium businesses, understandably, don’t usually have dedicated technology teams to track communications and drill down into the detail of the data.

Sound familiar? If so, it’s not a problem because mass email platforms like MailChimp claim to be able to perform this tracking for you.

More than a billion emails are sent using MailChimp every day, including back-in-stock messages, newsletters and other email campaigns.

Here at Immediate Network, we use MailChimp on a number of our client communications projects, and are well versed in all the features and functions it has to offer.

Using MailChimp is generally pretty straightforward for most business requirements. Should you need it, however, there is comprehensive support documentation available.

MailChimp blog cartoon

One of MailChimp’s greatest strengths lies in its analytics. You can monitor your audience’s web activity – and purchases – to produce revenue reports and help you tailor your online campaigns.

The logistics of a small business can make data hard to wrangle, and MailChimp knows this. Ben Chestnut, the company’s co-founder and CEO, has this to say about data: “We’re watching it, collecting it, and making sure it’s paying off.”

Many of MailChimp’s services are free. If you have a database with 2,000 or fewer names on it, you can send up to 12,000 emails per month at no charge. If you have more than 2,000 recipients, the costs increase as your mailing list grows.

MailChimp provides a number of other useful features. The abandoned cart tool reminds shoppers of forgotten purchases when they reach checkout. MailChimp says that this boosts profits by an average of $610 a month, whilst the product-recommendation feature purportedly increases revenues by an average of 31%.

For 2017, MailChimp is looking at how data science might be used to improve other methods of communication such as social media and snail mail.

Good business practice, like sustainable growth, relies on good quality content. It also relies on reliable distribution of that content. If you have yet to try out MailChimp, what have you got to lose?

Read this to debunk some outsource myths

Need quality content for your newsletters, websites and other communications? You have two options: create it in-house or commission a specialist agency.

The answer to this, and many other business questions, can sometimes be found in ancient Greek mythology. For proof, just consider the Iliad, Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan war, featuring Ajax, Achilles and other great warriors.

So who are the real heroes? Not the warriors but the deities, also known as outsource agencies.

Cartoon illustrating outsource content from the godsFor example Chryses, a Trojan priest, called upon Apollo for help to rescue his daughter from the Greeks. Apollo, the agency chosen to perform the task, did so with complete success. Job done and for a reasonable retainer: ongoing piety.

If you assume that outsourced content creation is expensive, you are almost certainly mistaken. In-house content creation always costs more because you need staff whom you have to train, feed and water – plus you have to pay tax to keep them on the payroll.

Agencies are a more efficient way to use resources. You can switch them on, or off, at will. They provide what you need, when you need it.

Or how about Perseus, another example? His team task was to kill Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon with a petrifying gaze. He needed professional outside help which arrived from the experts on Mount Olympus. A mirrored bronze shield from wise Athena, winged sandals from Hermes the messenger and a helmet of invisibility from Hades, ruler of the Underworld landed by his side. Next thing he knew, the project was complete.

There are those who fear that no content agency can ever have the deep and detailed knowledge required to craft quality work. In fact it is far better that an agency approaches your project with an open mind and then extracts the required information from your staff. That’s the secret of good content: impartial journalistic skills.

A reputable outsource agency communicates with you to understand what you expect from it. Although it might not be expert in your field, it is in its specialist subjects: research, collation, writing and editing to best effect.

Impartiality, distance and perspective are the benefits which outsourcing brings to your content. A good agency cuts through jargon, says what you want to say clearly and in a manner that your customers, prospects and staff will understand.

Don’t die in the communications battle: outsource the creation of your quality content to protect your Achilles heel.