Steps to More Effective Writing and Storytelling
Courtesy of George Orwell
While George Orwell’s lasting impressions on the modern world are his novels Animal Farm and 1984, he was also a brilliant essayist, and his practical linguistic and political philosophies are relevant to this day. “Politics and the English Language,” a favorite of high school English teachers, presents a precise analysis of ineffective language and offers helpful suggestions on how to make written communication more meaningful. These tips are especially pertinent to brand language, and ensuring that your brand’s message is strong and authentic.
According to Orwell,
Language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.” He then optimistically notes, “if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly.”
The key notion here is that language is not only a tool for conveying our thoughts, but actually forms and shapes how we think. By developing effective messaging unique to your brand, you can more successfully convey your strengths, specialties, and culture to your audience.
Orwell condenses the major issues of language into two components: “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision.” He suggests following these six tips to implement transparent, precise, and fresh language—essential elements for creating an authentic brand voice to tell your unique story.
1. “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”
Orwell’s chief concern with figurative language is that it is “dying;” i.e. people overuse and misuse metaphors to the point that they lose all evocative power and become stale and meaningless. By inventing your own metaphors, or simply using concrete comparisons, your messaging becomes your own without becoming lost in clichés and preconceived associations. For example, using “Achilles’ heel” is superfluous and vague, whereas “flaw” or “weakness” is more straightforward and easier to conceptualize.
2. “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
One of the most common misconceptions in communication is assuming that longer, fancier words will elevate the speaker’s and the content’s sophistication. Listeners often interpret pretentious diction as stilted, artificial, and most of all, meaningless. Expressing a complex or original idea in simple terms so that anyone can understand and connect with the message is what creates a truly compelling story.
3. “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Editors and writing teachers are constantly “tightening” prose; writing is clearer and more effective when concise and straightforward. Wordiness leads to confusion and vagueness, and ultimately a disconnected audience.
4. “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the passive tense is hated by all English professors. This statement, while probably accurate, is more precise when I write it in the active voice: English professors truly hate the passive voice. The passive voice causes subject confusion and creates unnecessary verbosity. Speaking in the active voice allows for a more confident, frank tone without appearing elusive or imprecise.
5. “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
For example, saying “fin de siècle” instead of “turn of the century” can cause confusion and can come off as forced. Using plain English prevents misunderstanding and can reach a wider audience in a friendlier way. The exception to this rule would be using necessary terminology in specific industries, in which case your audience will understand the jargon.
6. “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Orwell’s guidelines are flexible. He breaks his own rules in this very essay, as I have broken them in this blog post. Sometimes an intentional cliché is effective, or at times the passive voice is inevitable. The key takeaway here is that speaking naturally is the best way to tell your story and connect meaningfully with your audience.