microstyle book cover artI love finding out that there is history, etymology, background to the parts of writing that appear quite obvious and natural. For instance, did you know the science behind the choosing of the name L’Oreal? Or Black & Decker? Did you know there are people whose job it is to know the sounds and styles that best fit with names and slogans?

And there’s a whole vocab about these things: iambs, trochees, rhythmic contrast, framing, morphology, etc. Books like Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle are like an abbreviated linguistics course. Tons of great takeaways and nuggets, many of which translate so well to online content and marketing.

that book

Microstyle: The Art of Writing Little by Christopher Johnson

The following are excerpts taken from Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle. Bold and italics and notes are mine. Everything else is Christopher’s.


 Ignite talks — The Ignite format allows speakers five minutes each to teach the audience something. The pitch-perfect slogan for Ignite is “enlighten us, but make it quick.”

Smith Magazine has popularized the six-word story in recent years by soliciting and publishing “six-word memoirs.”

I still write analyses of names—mostly company names—on my blog The Name Inspector.

So, how do you pack a lot of meaning into a little message? You don’t.

That’s the first lesson of microstyle.

A message isn’t a treasure chest full of meaning. It’s more like a key that opens doors. A message starts a mental journey, and meaning is the destination.

A traditional way to think about meaning, heavily influenced by the philosopher Gottlob Frege, divides it into denotation and connotation.

  • The denotation of a word is its informational content—not unlike a dictionary definition.
  • Connotation is all that fuzzy stuff that a word makes us think about that goes beyond the explicit informational content.

Consider the following headlines, collected by journalist Larry D. Larsen for Poynter Online in the feature “1,000 Headlines in 460 Days

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan sums up his advice about healthy eating with a simple maxim:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Now, some entrepreneurs are encouraged to develop an “escalator pitch.”

A pitch that lasts as long as an escalator ride, right? No. A pitch short enough to make when you’re on the up escalator and your funding prospect is on the down escalator, passing by.

If you think an escalator pitch sounds challenging, consider what some investment-seeking entrepreneurs reach for: a high-concept pitch. This is a microgenre taken from Hollywood.

A Hollywood high-concept pitch is an extremely short phrase that encapsulates a movie, often by comparing it to another movie. The classic sci-fi thriller Alien, for example, has been described as “Jaws in space.”

Fiscal conservatives engage in clever framing when they talk about “tax relief” as opposed to “tax cuts.” The word cuts sounds destructive and negative. The word relief, on the other hand, implies that taxes are some kind of burden or malady, and that reducing taxes returns people to a normal healthy state. That’s framing at work.

If a novel is like a painting, and a scientific paper like a technical illustration, then a micromessage is like a bold graphic. It uses simple elements to maximum effect, can be noticed in a cluttered environment, and communicates in an instant.

Emotional appeals are risky. To succeed they either have to be subtle enough to be convincing (like DON’T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT ITt), or they have to shoot the moon and be clearly hyperbolic (like THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS).

In between lies dangerous territory where we encounter trite sentimentality, false intimacy, and other perils. CELEBRATE THE MOMENTS OF YOUR LIFE, the General Foods slogan for International Coffees, rings hollow with its bland coziness. Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer products company, claims to be TOUCHING LIVES, IMPROVING LIFE . Really? How are you touching my life, P&G? With a Swiffer?

A metaphor is when you say one thing is another thing, and a simile is when you say one thing is like another thing.

A very basic rhythmic contrast is the one between two different types of metrical units:

  • iambs, which consist of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (dee DUM)
  • trochees, which consist of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one (DUM dee)

Iambs tend to sound lighter and softer, and trochees tend to sound heavier and harder.

This is true even in messages as short as brand names. “Feminine” brand names, like Chanel, are often iambs; “masculine” ones, like Black & Decker, tend to be trochees. Most people “feel” this difference even if they find it hard to pinpoint.

We perceive sounds with high sonority (that is, with a lack of obstruction or interruption in their pronunciation) as softer and rounder than sounds with low sonority, and those tangible properties in turn suggest a number of more abstract ones: gentle, “feminine,” etc.

Brand names regularly make use of the symbolic properties of sonority. Consider the strong tendency for beauty products to have high-sonority brand names: Chanel, L’Oréal, Revlon, Avon, etc.

For the sake of contrast, consider brand names for power tools, which tend to have lower-sonority sounds: Black & Decker, Craftsman, Ridgid, etc.

The letters t, d, s, l, r, and n, which are produced lightly with the tongue behind the top front teeth, tend to suggest smallness and lightness. Consider how well the expressions itty-bitty and eensy-weensy fit their meanings, and how strange it would seem to use the expression oomby-boomby.

morphology (rules for creating complex words) and syntax (rules for creating sentences)

To think of how many prepositions could accumulate at the end of a sentence, Fillmore came up with the following:

What did you bring that book that I didn’t want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?

Here are seven common ways to build a new word:

  1. Reuse an existing word (Apple, spam)
  2. Create a new compound word by sticking two words together (YouTube, website)
  3. Create a blend by combining part of a word with another word or word part (Technorati, Defeatocrat)
  4. Attach a prefix or a suffix to a word (Uncola, Feedster)
  5. Make something up out of arbitrary syllables (Bebo)
  6. Make an analogy or play on words (Farecast, podcast)
  7. Create an acronym (GUBA, scuba)

One of the best respelling techniques eliminates letters that aren’t necessary for pronunciation. This approach achieves spelling economy, a desirable quality in a name.

Perhaps the easiest way to create a new word is to simply stick two existing words together to make a compound. Political appellations that use this pattern include wingnuts (extreme right wingers), moonbats (extreme lefties), and Islamofascists (which uses the classical compound-forming o to connect its two parts).

Zeugma is the technique, recognized and named by the ancient Greeks, of using a word (usually a verb) with two phrases—such as two direct objects—that require different interpretations of the word in question.


You can buy this book here. :)

microstyle book cover art

Posted by:Kevan Lee

VP of marketing currently living in Boise, Idaho. I work with the lovely folks at Buffer. You can join my email list to get an inside look at marketing and branding and team-building in tech.