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Mix It up and Refine

This lesson is a part of an audio course Sizzling Sound Bites by Marcia Yudkin

Now it's time to start making connections between separate ideas in your notebook and to polish passable possibilities into nuggets that gleam.

Combine. Try combining words that appear in separate spots in your notebook. Sometimes this alone sparks winners: "Fencing the city's frontiers" or "Let us be your boundary keepers." When any idea feels promising but not quite right, write it down anyway so you can fiddle with it later.

Repeat letters. Go back through your notebook and find or create alliteration – combinations of words beginning with the same letter or same initial sound. Unless the effect is silly, which sometimes happens, alliteration gives your message panache and makes it more memorable. For instance, the alliterative tagline for Amazon Drygoods, an Iowa company that sells Victorian-era clothing and patterns, gives it an authoritative ring: Purveyors of the Past.

Rhyme. Similarly, try out rhymes and near-rhymes for your keywords. After looking for rhymes, a tourism TV channel might select as its slogan The Vacation Station. A Vermont-based chocolate company, Lake Champlain Chocolates, came up with "a treat from first sight to very last bite."

Juxtapose. Reach for a paradox, a combination of two ideas that nearly contradict each other, but not quite. Construct a paradox by linking two concepts that could be considered opposites. For instance, an Italian pastry shop could boast of "the most heavenly cannolis on earth." Look back through words and phrases you've previously jotted down and ponder their contraries. Apple promoted its iPad with the paradoxical contrast "Massive power. In a minimal form."

Repeat words or patterns. If an English teacher ever told you to avoid repetition, toss away that advice. In a concise grouping of words, repetition pleases. Consider FDR's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" or Jaguar's "Don't dream it, drive it." Entrepreneur Rachel Rodgers says, "We teach you how to delete, delete, delete, and free up 10+ hours per week."

Coin a word. Want to be immortal? Coining words is an achievement often mentioned in obituaries, as for Grace Hooper, who made up the word "bug" for software glitches, Bill Cardoso, who coined the phrase "gonzo" for a type of journalism pioneered by his friend Hunter Thompson or Harry N. Allen, who invented the now-common word "taxicab." Renowned adman David Ogilvy made up the adjective "Schweppervescence" to describe the bubbly pleasure of Schweppes tonic water. The most common ways of making up appealing new terms are by adding suffixes, as with Buyology, a book by Martin Lindstrom, or by combining words, as in "geekbiz," which could figure in a tagline or slogan in the technology field. Find wordplay candidates in your notebook and fool around with them. You can also twist a well-known word by substituting a different letter at the start, such as "The Canadian Careline" (an airline that cares).

Punch it up. In 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher commented before a game with the Giants, "The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place." As in the children's game of Telephone, over time, this got transmuted into the pithier version we've all heard, "Nice guys finish last." I imagine that halfway through the process, it was "Nice guys finish seventh."

When you're trying to create something quotable, always try making the thought more definite, grander, stronger, and more absolute. Change "War is a hellish enterprise" to simply "War is hell." Edit "In the multitude of counselors there is safety," the original saying, to "There's safety in numbers." In testifying before Congress, General Motors President Charles E. Wilson said, "For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa," but it makes a far better sound bite as "What's good for General Motors is good for the country," which he did not actually say.

Note that the versions of these quotes we know have all the extra words pared away. Eliminate the weak or unnecessary words in your sound bite candidates, also.

Eliminate mixed metaphors. Don't worry, you won't be quizzed on the differences between similes, metaphors, and analogies! All you need to do here is to take all of the words in your sound bite literally and visualize them. If you then see something distracting, clashing, disgusting, or inappropriate, change one of the verbal elements to prevent the absurdity.

For example, "His ever-hungry stomach was his Achilles' heel" doesn't work because it invites the listener to connect two parts of the human body when one of these is irrelevant to the point. Likewise, it wouldn't work for a politician to accuse an opponent of being "awash in dirty money," because the words "wash" and "dirty" call up incompatible pictures. CoSchedule has tried "It's about short-circuiting the path to jaw-dropping growth." Ouch! That mishmash of electronics and bodily anatomy does not work at all.

Show, don't tell. This favorite saying of writing teachers means to make your point through details, specifics, and facts instead of generalities or abstract statements. Instead of "the economy is worsening, and Congress is holding up the stimulus bill," you'd be more quotable to say, "580,000 more Americans lost their jobs last month. How many more families need to have their economic lifeline cut before Congress acts?" The M&M's ad slogan for its chocolate-covered candy, "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands," is a great example of "show, don't tell."

Rearrange for rhythm and impact. Play around with the order of words and the punctuation until you have something that's really strong. The right rhythm creates memorability and impact. Consider Harley Davidson's slogan "American by Birth. Rebel by Choice." Or Meow Mix's "Tastes so good cats ask for it by name," which scans just like a classic line of poetry. Notice how much cleaner and cooler that sounds than "Cats ask for it by name. It tastes so good."

In fact, rhythm is so important that we're going to spend the whole next lesson on it.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin