Two Ways to Say More With Fewer Words

Focus Words

Attention spans have never been shorter it seems.

But what can you do? In order for people to value your content, they’ve got to extract the value that’s there in the first place.

The problem is, no one’s going to wait around for you to explain at length. You’ve got to get the point across as quickly as possible.

Luckily, there’s a solution. All you have to do is say more with fewer words.

Here are two communication strategies that allow you to present an entire idea in 10 words or less.

Tapping Into the Mental Schema

A mental schema is a concept firmly rooted in the brains of your target audience. You can use these schemas to pack an entire story into a few words.

Let me explain.

Remember the movie Speed? Back when the Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock action flick was being pitched to producers, it was described as Die Hard on a bus. You instantly get the premise if you’ve seen Die Hard.

When YouTube launched, people called it “Flickr for video.” Since Flickr was a free service that allowed people to upload and share photos, YouTube must be all of that… for videos. Common sense, right?

But here is a question many of you may be thinking. Do you always need to use a popular movie or a brand name as a schema? Absolutely not.

What comes to mind when I say “library?” You think about books, lots of them. You think this because “library” is a schema too.

Now what if I were to say Wine Library? You would think about lots of wines and maybe Gary Vaynerchuk’s business. And, you would be right. Gary does have a ton of wine, and you get that instantly.

Just remember that a schema takes advantage of what your audience already knows to tell a complete story in fewer words. You use analogies, archtypes, established worldviews, and popular culture to create instant understanding.

As you might have guessed, these schematic comparisons are great in persuasive writing. Just take a look at 10 persuasive writing methods for practical examples you can use today.

Word Association

Legendary direct marketer Joseph Sugarman said “Every word has an emotion attached to it.” Beyond emotional trigger words, this means that even ordinary, everyday words carry an emotional association for the recipient. And as with mental schema, choosing correctly from among these simple words helps you quickly create a complete story.

For example, let’s take a look at the word “subscribe.” By definition, subscribe implies sending or receiving payments. Similarly, here are some emotions associated with this word:

  • You subscribe to communication mediums (phone, internet)
  • You subscribe to media (magazines, video games, newspapers)

What’s the association? A commitment to pay recurring fees.

So, when you use the word “subscribe,” you tell a story about a product that requires you to continuously pay for continuous service or use. Now let’s look at another word.

Think of the word “get.”

What pops into your mind? Getting money, getting links, and getting traffic. Or in other words, getting something you want.

But there’s also another association. When you “get” something, you often keep it — without continuous payment (unlike subscribe). This is a subtle difference and here are two examples:

  • You get a phone. You subscribe to phone service.
  • You get a newspaper. You subscribe to newspaper updates.

You see how that works? Well, Willy Franzen understood this subtle difference when he increased his subscriber count by 254%.

He simply changed his call to action from “Subscribe by RSS” to “Get Updates via RSS” and his subscriptions went way up. This worked because he altered the association from “continuously pay” to “get for free.”

So now you see how even everyday words have emotions attached to them. And when you want to write short, informative messages, you can carefully build a story around each word in your message.

What about you? Do you know of any other ways to communicate more information in fewer words?

About the Author: Derek Halpern discusses new media communication at his blog Prevential.

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Reader Comments (50)

  1. says

    Well, it looks like I’m off to change my subscription verbiage. This was one of those little common sense tips that never occurred to me but now I won’t forget. Thanks!

  2. says

    Sean, it also depends on your niche. I use “subscribe” here because bloggers and online marketers know it’s free in this context. But more mainstream audiences seem to be still confused.

    It’s all about understanding your audience when it comes to using mental schema and word association to your advantage.

  3. says

    I believe I have read an article about this here before. With the whole subscription word, I think you just have to make sure that people know that subscribing is free. I think making a headline saying subscribe for free updates would work perfectly.

  4. says

    I loved the post. I am just starting out with my new Blog in this does give me some ideas on what to focus on. I’m not sure that I am going towards getting people to subscribe but I’m just trying to get some traffic.

    To Brian Clark, subscribed here it does make people think it’s free? People coming to my new Blog would just think that would be something you have to pay for. Maybe it’s different for every type of Blog though.

  5. says

    Great post. It also talks about the importance of tapping into schemas in the book “Made to Stick.” It’s amazing how little you have to say when you use the right schema. However, it takes a really clear understanding on your part as to the message or connection you are trying to make in order to use schemas effectively.

  6. Derek says

    @franklin. There was an article about this before ok copyblogger. It was by Willy Franzen. I wanted to show that there is a bigger picture behind his discovery by talking about how people react to words

    @eh schemas really are great. They work in writing, persuasion, pitching and really every other firm of communication you can imagine.

  7. Diane says

    Lands’ End did a fantastic job with that mental-schema thing in its copy for its moisture-wicking activewear: “Feels like air-conditioning.” Here I was going on and on about special fabric technology wicks sweat away from your skin so you feel cooler and drier…and Lands’ End said the same thing in three words (four if you break up the hyphenated one).

  8. says

    Brian: Exactly. At Writer Dad, I carry a significant percentage of readers that are not bloggers, don’t read blogs themselves and are unfamiliar with the lexicon. This is a tremendous thing I think for future growth, but it took me a while to realize that this was the case. I’m now using that knowledge to change both the writing and direction of the site for the better. Mental schema like “subscribe” being a perfect example. It’s the perfect truism: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE.

  9. says

    Writer Dad makes a good point that I need to remember. I follow a number of professional bloggers, so I’ve gotten to know much of the jargon. But my blog focuses on providing strategic communications advice to nonprofits and small business lacking in-house communications expertise. They frequently have little understanding of even the basics of social media, don’t use RSS feeds, have primitive web 1.0 websites, etc. If my language isn’t clear, I’m just adding to their problems.

  10. says

    Short attention spans -> Choose words to provoke desired result.

    My clients are creating blogs -> I’ll be very tuned to the subtleties.

    Love this post, Derek. Thank you.

  11. says

    Your article makes complete sense. Thank you. Now if I can just figure out how the change the name on my RSS button from subscribe to get.

    Can anyone explain just exactly what “share” means to blogs and social networking sites? It seems to take on different meanings as used in various circumstances: Used in place of subscribe? Used to share your message with everyone or can you direct it? I know, I’m confused!! Help.

  12. says

    Derek, you hit the nail on the head with this one. I have been called a wordnerd more than once, and not always with favorable intentions, either. But,I know that it is this attention to detail about the subtleties of a word’s meaning that can be the difference between creating a successful pitch and one that doesn’t get out of the gate.

    I spend countless hours mentoring some of the less-experienced in my office as they develop simple PR pieces for local activities. This blog entry will be a must-read for them, I assure you.

  13. says

    Thanks for this Derek, and thanks for keeping it simple.

    Sometimes using words/phrases out of the ordinary context can have the desired result as well… but one must really know their market quite well.

    Great point on being informed. ‘Nuff said.

  14. says

    I like the idea of a mental short-cut to explain a new service using familiar metaphors.

    I’m stilll working on a tag line for my own business – it’s going to be something like

    “steroids for your website”

    except I don’t like the undertones of cheating or taking drugs.

  15. says

    I’m not convinced by the get updates / subscribe example, as I subscribe to lots of things which are free (especially email lists!).

    I’d guess that the reason changing the wording worked is that, as John Hyde says above, “get” beats “subscribe” for other reason. Also “get updates” immediately presents the benefits to me in a way that “subscribe” doesn’t.

  16. says

    I just updated my subscribe option from “Free Updates” to “Get Your Free Updates”. Hopefully this will increase my subscriber rate and get the comments flowing!

  17. says

    Thanks for a thought-provoking, insightful post!

    My blog is not technically-oriented and neither are its readers. I have struggled to gain RSS subscribers, and I think it’s because they don’t understand that you can subscribe to something and it be free.

    I had changed my subscribe text to “Subscribe Free by RSS” and it helped some. I just changed it to “Get Updates Free by RSS” and will wait and see if subscriptions increase.

    Incidentally, I was able to do this in less than a minute because I use the great Thesis theme by Chris Pearson. Yet another reason for you to take a look at it!

  18. says

    Excellent information. Thanks for sharing.

    I postulate that staying with the word “subscribe” may be advantageous as long as it’s made clear that the subscription is free.

    To get a free subscription sounds more value packed and like more of a valuable giveaway than merely “getting updates.”

    It’s more enticing.

  19. says

    Nice and clear post with subtle but glaring ideas. Thumbs up derek and brian.
    Straight on to my blog to change my feed title from “suscribe via email” to “get free updates to your inbox” so i could “grab” (my suscibers in wagons to my new blog.

    Hopefully, i would be having 10,001 emal suscribers by morning with the Thanks authors! We need more of this coming. Much love from

  20. says

    Thanks for 2 great ideas!
    Just changed my subscribe to “get” and will from now on spend some time thinking of schema to add.

    Do you think it is necessary/good/silly to come up with schema that relates to your blog/niche or does broad strokes schema work just as well?


  21. says

    I think the important thing you have highlighted here is to keep thinking about the meaning you are giving instead of defaulting to the same old phrase. But you will admit that “Get updates” is not always better than “Subscribe”. Depends on your audience. I note that you inspired one of your commenters to change the RSS “Subscribe” button to “free advice”. Is this really better? If someone is looking to get RSS feeds from his site, will they look for the words “free advice”? Don’t think so, which suggests they are the wrong words! It’s great to keep thinking and keep pushing at the words you use to make them as dynamic and meaningful as possible – but this doesn’t mean change for the sake of it. As always, think about your audience!

  22. says


    Great advice. Any time I see Sugarman name-dropped, I know I’m in good hands.

    As has already been noted, the “subscribe” example is really, really interesting, and shows how we can sometimes miss out on the little things so easily.

  23. says

    Writer Dad makes a good point that I need to remember. I follow a number of professional bloggers, so I’ve gotten to know much of the jargon. But my blog focuses on providing strategic communications advice to nonprofits and small business lacking in-house communications expertise.

  24. says

    Well that’s interesting. I’ve never had someone steal one of my comments before (see my comment on April 27). What exactly does medyum (or robot medyum) accomplish by doing so?

    Would you folks mind deleting medyum’s July 17 comment?

  25. says

    Great advice. Any time I see Sugarman name-dropped, I know I’m in good hands.

    As has already been noted, the “subscribe” example is really, really interesting, and shows how we can sometimes miss out on the little things so easily.

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